Meet the Artist Behind Miami’s Iconic Seashell Menorah
The 89-year-old Miami Beach resident meticulously repairs the menorah's 25,000 shells each year.
In some cities, the enduring image of the holidays is a giant Christmas tree bedazzled in lights. But in Miami Beach, the iconic sign of the holiday season is a 13-foot menorah with a distinctly 305 twist—it’s covered in seashells.
It’s an apt monument for this city, famous for its sandy beaches and Jewish heritage. And the creator of this somewhat-oddball holiday decoration is every bit as larger than life and quintessentially Miami as the object itself.
Roger Abramson, the 89-year-old who built both the menorah and its companion 11-foot spinning dreidel, first brought this new tradition to Lincoln Road more than 20 years ago and he still creates seashell sculptures in his spare time. The menorah has been his later-life labor of love and each year he repairs and replenishes the more than 25,000 seashells that cover his iconic sculpture. His legacy may ultimately be this 13-foot seasonal landmark, but his life has been just as unique and beautiful as the shells in his artwork.
Abramson is not a skilled artist and he wants to make that abundantly clear, he tells me as he guides me through his small Miami Beach apartment. The apartment borders on a beach art version of Hoarders, but he shows off his seashell creations with pride. Each room is adorned with seashell sculptures of everything from peace signs to the god Neptune.
“This is why I never have to worry about hurricanes coming through here,” he says as he points out the Roman god of the seas. “I think he’s appreciative.”
Beyond all the seashell-studded work, the walls of his apartment reveal the other piece of his fascinating story, where a thank you note from Robert F. Kennedy, numerous city proclamations, and awards from the NAACP subtly tell visitors about his work in Civil Rights. His office is similarly covered in black and white photos of musicians for whom he produced concerts during his decades working in the music industry. Everyone from Bob Marley to Kiss stares down from Abramson’s walls. Janis Joplin, he says, was at this daughter’s 13th birthday party.
“Here’s an event I threw for her,” he says as he shows off a picture of Elizabeth Taylor at a banquet table. Two seats away, a young Donald Trump is leaning over to talk to another guest. Abramson hadn’t realized until just now the 45th president was in the photo. “Is that him?” he asks. “Hm, I guess it could be. How ‘bout that.”
Also a jazz musician early in his career, Abramson looks every bit the aged rocker. He has bright, curly silver hair stretching down to his shoulders and wide, energetic eyes that seem like they could take over a stage. He wears multiple rings and slides around his apartment in a polo shirt, shorts, and loafers with the frenetic energy of a songwriter brainstorming his latest song.
His work with jazz musicians led him to deep involvement in the Civil Rights movement, heading John Lewis’ Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Midwest. Though he was never a Freedom Rider, his organization worked on the same voter registration initiatives. Of all the photos with celebrities Abramson showed off, the photo with Lewis was his proudest.
It seems that Abramson has lived several lifetimes in his nearly 90 years on the planet—a jazz musician, prominent Civil Rights activist, and now the creator of an iconic piece of the holiday season in Miami Beach.
Abramson eventually retired to Miami Beach and became involved in Chabad. Around 2001, Chabad’s Rabbi Zev Katz got permission to put a Hanukkah sculpture on Lincoln Road, so Abramson agreed to build the menorah.
Over four months, he worked on it a few hours a day, sculpting the menorah out of wood, concrete, and shells he collected off the beach. It debuted during Hanukkah 2001—and almost instantly, it was vandalized.
“I ran back down and put it back together,” he says. “Then the next night, same thing. The third night, same thing.”
Abramson reinforced the menorah after that, and aside from one graffiti incident in 2012 it’s remained relatively unharmed since. A few years later, the menorah got a companion when Abramson built an 11-foot spinning dreidel to join the Hanukkah display.
The process to build the sculptures was arduous, and maintaining them is equally labor-intensive. Abramson began with heavy, dense Styrofoam, then covered it with protective sealant. Next, each shell was painstakingly attached to the sculpture using a glue gun and liquid nails, the same that are used to build houses. Because the sculptures have to be moved from their storage space to Lincoln Road by forklift each year, dozens of shells break off. And each year Abramson replaces them with shells he collects off the beach.
Abramson says the menorah is important to him not for religious reasons, but because it represents peace and unity during the holiday season.
“The menorah represents something for everybody. Like the kids spin the dreidel, and I love to see that anybody can spin it, Jewish, or I don’t care what they are,” he says. “It gives me more of an inter-religious type feeling. I've had so many people take their picture in front of it. I've had Playboy bunnies. I have pictures of muslims praying in front of it. It’s something, to me, that I think is important for the city.”
After undertaking a massive menorah restoration this year—when it was inadvertently left outside for several months during the summer—Abramson is taking a step back. For 22 years he’s started every day during the holidays checking on the menorah and making sure all is as it should be. But once this season is over, he’s donating the sculpture to the city.
“My kids say I can’t climb on 13-foot ladders anymore,” the grandfather of nine and great-grandfather of three says. “So I decided the best way to keep it going would be giving it to the city. I’m fixing up everything that was broken, and it’s going to be perfect. And then I’m done.”
It’s early November, and he still has dirt under his fingernails from his day of working on the menorah. His dedication to the sculpture isn’t just something to do in retirement, it’s his gift to the people of Miami Beach and everyone who visits. Abramson mulls leaving Miami Beach, like so many longtime locals, to be closer to his family and escape the endless overbuilding. But for this year, at least, he’s still a fixture of the Miami Beach holidays.
“It’s a very cumbersome, awkward operation,” he says, looking at the work he has ahead of him. “But I guess all this must be better than shuffleboard, right?”