A rabbi and a robot walk into a Hanukkah party...

Traditional Jewish symbolism gets a sci-fi twist as Isaac the robot helps light a San Francisco public menorah on the seventh night of Hanukkah.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
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Leslie Katz
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Among his many talents, Isaac the robot can apparently shoot lasers out of his eyes. Here, he poses with Rabbi Yosef Langer. (Click to enlarge.) Chabad of SF

Tuesday night, when Rabbi Yosef Langer lights a 22-foot menorah in San Francisco's Union Square, he'll get a helping hand -- an aluminum helping hand, that is -- from Issac the robot.

The 5.5-foot humanoid will be responsible for lighting the shamash (the helper flame used to kindle the candelabrum's other lights) on the 3-ton "Mama Menorah," a fixture at San Francisco's annual public Hanukkah candle lighting since 1975. In doing so, Issac, namesake of sci-fi author Isaac Asimov, will bring a decidedly geeky gild to the decades-old proceedings.

"As CP Snow observed, new ideas often emerge from the clash of cultures," said Ken Goldberg, an artist and UC Berkeley robotics professor who organized Isaac's Union Square Hanukkah appearance. "Menorahs represent the past and robots represent the future. Rabbi Langer and I have a hunch that a ritual that brings them together will generate some interesting new sparks."

One spark will come directly from Isaac's hand, which will be replaced with an 8-inch flame for kindling one of the menorah's nine branches (and turning Isaac into the first fire-spewing Hanukkah-celebrating robot we've ever seen). Created by David Calkins, a former robotics professor at San Francisco State University and current head of the Robotics Society of America, the bot runs on a Lego Mindstorm programmable robotics platform; maneuvers with the help of motors and sensors; and can deliver an audible "hello" and "thank you" thanks to a speaker in his back.

After warming up the crowd with some robot-style dancing and other antics, Isaac will be taken up a platform to the giant mahogany and steel menorah and lifted by Calkins to the right height for lighting the shamash. The menorah was funded by late rock impresario Bill Graham, and has become known as the "Mama Menorah" because of the many other public menorahs it's inspired around the globe (at least three such structures, in Salt Lake City, Munster, Ind., and Budapest, Hungary, were reportedly vandalized in the last few days).

The rabbi, the robot, and the giant menorah (pictures)

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Asked whether a robotic candle lighter conflicts with Jewish law in any way, Langer told CNET that "I think the coast is clear. I've cleared it with the rabbinical authorities and they say, 'Yeah, why not? Why not a robot?' Robots do wondrous, miraculous things in this world."

But Isaac won't be the only high-tech flourish at the Tuesday 5 p.m. event marking the seventh night of the eight-day Festival of Lights. An LED sculpture with 30-foot-tall glowing, bending tubes will sway like a 21st century techno version of the biblical burning bush. Local artist and mechanical engineer Mauricio Bustos reconfigured the sculpture, titled "seaGrass," from its days at Burning Man.

Every year at San Francisco's public menorah lighting, Langer asks who in the crowd needs a miracle or knows someone who does. Many raise their hands. This year, he's asking people to write down what they need. Local artist John Baden has created three large-scale "Miracle Vessels" to hold celebrants' miracle-seeking messages, which can be dropped off the old-fashioned, in-person way, or, not surprisingly, the digital way: via e-mail at miraclelightnow@gmail and tweet at @miraclelightnow.

Langer, director of Chabad of SF, plans to deliver all requests to Jerusalem's venerated Western Wall, where visitors regularly cram prayer messages into the crevices.

This isn't, of course, the first time in recent memory that age-old religious traditions have met technology. Earlier this year, a Web site called eScapegoating let those marking Yom Kippur, or the Jewish Day of Atonement, anonymously share their sins with the digital world. And who could forget when following the pope on Twitter could cut time in purgatory?

Hanukkah, which commemorates the rededication of an ancient temple in Jerusalem following a successful Jewish revolt in the 2nd century BCE, has come to embody themes of miracles and the triumph of light over darkness. While Tuesday evening's event may hold special appeal to those who like "Doctor Who" dreidels and "Star Trek" menorahs, its messages also have the potential to reach people of all backgrounds, according to Langer.

"We can ask for light, and we can also give light," he said. "Giving back is a way that each of us can bring down the light in our own community within the context of our own lives. "

Celebrate Hanukkah in geek style (pictures)

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