The Land Before L’Chaim

How did a Portland artisan turn an old toy dinosaur into the coolest Hanukkah menorah?

The Land Before L’Chaim
Oy story: In Lisa Pierce’s hands, plastic playthings find new life — and a cherished place in a 2,200-year-old tradition.
By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Irvin Serrano

A few years ago, an old plastic dinosaur in a discount-store dollar bin caught Lisa Pierce’s eye. “It needed a new life,” she remembers thinking. So she bought it, affixed candleholders, and gave the whole thing a coating of sparkly paint. “You can make menorahs out of almost anything,” she says.

That first menorah-meets-dinosaur was a gift for a friend who’d just converted to Judaism. “It was a ton of fun to make,” Pierce recalls. So much fun, she made a couple dozen more to see if she could sell them. “If I can just make my money back,” she thought, “I won’t be embarrassed.”

Since then, she’s sold a couple thousand menorahs — dinosaurs (Menorasaurus rex is most popular), but also turtles, elephants, and lobsters — for $85 a pop. They’re available at her synagogue, Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland, and at the Jewish Museum Shop in New York City, but most sales happen online, via Etsy. From her basement studio in Portland’s North Deering neighborhood, she’s shipped orders as far as Denmark, Israel, and Australia. “I don’t think there’s any way you could predict that,” she says, “but I’m feeling very fortunate.”

Pierce has always had a creative impulse — she majored in art history at Brown. And about ten years ago, when her family’s finished basement flooded, she and her husband decided to strip it down, paint the floor and walls a shade evocative of vanilla ice cream (hence her Etsy shop’s name: The Vanilla Studio), and reserve it as an art space for any eventual projects. She’d also started leading children’s arts-and-crafts projects at the Bet Ha’am religious school, always thinking about how to repurpose found objects: “I spend a lot of time wandering around going ‘Huh, I wonder if this could become something Jewish.’ ”

Pierce’s unorthodox menorahs aren’t necessarily for folks who want a traditional holiday observance. She likes the idea of “new ways of doing things that are accessible and fun.” The lobster menorah, for instance, “generated a little controversy,” she laughs — on account of kosher prohibitions against shellfish. “But I love the silliness of it, and my flip answer is that I don’t recommend you eat your menorah. . . . Dinosaurs probably aren’t kosher either.”

“I’m just doing this because I really like to play with toys,” she adds. “These pieces make me laugh every day, and I love the fact that other people find them fun too.”

For her own family’s Hanukkah celebration, she usually lights a few different menorahs: a traditional one that belonged to her grandmother, plus a couple of originals. “I made one this year with penguins,” she says, “and I’m not sure I’m going to sell it, because I really like it. I have a feeling it’s going to end up on my table.”