Apping the Omer

The "Sefiros" iPhone app

From the second day of Passover until the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, observant Jews perform a ritual called “counting the Omer.” Between those two dates, there are 49 days and, during evening prayers, one is commanded to say a few special phrases to mark each day (the “Omer” refers to a measure of barley offered as a sacrifice during Temple times).

There are Kabalistic connotations as well as historical/mythological ones: it’s said that a great plague that killed 24,000 followers of the first century CE luminary Rabbi Akiva abated on the 33rd day of the Omer. In Hebrew, it’s known as L’ag b’Omer, or more popularly in Israel, the “night of the bonfires” (ask any kid toting a rotted old bathroom door and you’ll quickly get the gist).

Counting the Omer is not terribly difficult in and of itself, but there’s a built in trick: if you miss counting for just a single day, you can’t say it with a blessing again for the remainder of the 49 days. For the frummer among us, that can be a big deal. It’s like Survivor or Big Brother, except the last one standing doesn’t win a million bucks, just the undying gratitude of a possible deity.

I can tell you that, when I was more religious myself, there wasn’t a single year that I got through until Shavuot intact. So I probably would have been delighted to have discovered a new iPhone app called “Sefiros” (that means “counting”) which is here to remind you to, well, count.

It’s really a very simple app: you set a timer and the app beeps to tell you it’s time to say the prayer. Sure you could do that with your regular iPhone calendar…but would you? A dedicated app with a repeating alarm that expires after 49 days is just that much easier.

To make it a bit more robust, the Sefiros app lets you add “action alerts” to your reminders; you can set them be with “with God,” “with others,” or “with yourself.” You can even reach out for a little social media feedback and post your success to Twitter. “Hey fellow frumsters, I made it to day #29. Nya, nya, nya.”

Not sure when sunset is? Never fear, Sefiros checks the time using GPS. The blessing you’re supposed to say is all there in punctuated prayer book Hebrew. And to beef it all up, the app includes a page of Kabalistic and personal growth insights for each day, written by Rabbi Yaakov Haber (his whole book is included in the app). Jerusalem-based AppStudio built the whole thing.

Can I recommend Sefiros? If you always lose the “did I remember to count” game like I once did, sure, why not? At $4.99, it’s not cheap, as far as apps go. But who’s counting anyway?

Pop Culture

Srugim co-creator tells all in Jerusalem lecture

Poster advertising Laizy Shapira's lecture this week

For its three season run, I was hooked on the Israeli TV drama Srugim. The program told the tale of four religious (and one formerly religious) young Israelis living in Jerusalem’s singles-centric Old Katamon neighborhood, affectionately known as the “swamp.”

The show won praise from both religious and secular society – the latter were captivated by its realistic portrayals of a “hidden” slice of an Israeli demographic they knew little about, while the former cringed but stayed glued to the tube for the way Srugim touched subjects often painfully close to home, much like thirtysomething did for Yuppie Americans in the late 1980s.

So it was quite a treat to hear the show’s co-creator Laizy Shapira speak about the show this week as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Ginot Ha’ir Community Council in Jerusalem. The lecture also coincided with the release of the third and final season of the show on DVD including English subtitles.

Shapira is a charmer – personable, energetic and transparent in the best Israeli way (i.e., open but not too aggressive). It’s not hard to understand how he sold an initially skeptical television network on a show that defied stereotypes and embraced modesty (there’s sex but it’s mostly off screen). Srugim went on to win the top awards for a television drama at Israel’s version of the Emmy’s.

For a die-hard fan like me, some of the best moments of the talk were the insights into character development that only one of the show’s creators could share (warning: if you haven’t finished the show yet, spoilers ahead).

Q: Why did Amir and Yifat have such a tough first year of marriage? A: If you want to see a good marriage, watch your own wedding videos (“hopefully,” Shapira added).

Q: Why did Hodaya and Avri have to get back together, break up, and then only acknowledge their true love in the last scene of show? A: The dramatic tension between the two was all about the religious-secular divide which vanished once Hodaya left religion herself. But the fans (and ultimately the writers) demanded a happy ending.

Q: Why did Ro’i, who struggled with his sexual identity all through season two, have to turn haredi (ultra-Orthodox)? A: That subplot was too tragic to sustain itself indefinitely. The show’s writers decided they needed to resolve it. He either could have come out of the closet entirely or repressed himself by going frum. The latter seemed to give him more peace.

And the most important question: Why is Shapira voluntarily calling it quits, seemingly at the height of the show’s popularity? A: Srugim was all about the journey. Now that many of the characters have found closure, Shapira says “there’s nothing interesting left to tell.”

I’m not so sure about that. When I spoke with him after the presentation, Shapira noted that the writers scrutinized every word in the scripts, to make sure nothing came across as too far out. He then related a personal story.

Just before his own wedding a couple of years back, Shapira got hit in the eye by a hard candy hurled at him in synagogue, resulting in a huge shiner. He covered it up with make up (after all, he is in the business) but was concerned what people would say the next morning when he exited the bridal chamber with his face all black and blue!

That was a plot line that no one would have believed if it was in the show, Shapira joked; the kind of thing he was worried might creep into the scripts if the show edged past its proper expiration date. Maybe. But for 1,000+ members of the Srugim Facebook fan page, it would have been worth another season even full of bloopers like that.

But, hey, how about a spin off show? Look how well it worked for Joey from Friends…

When I’m 64

When I’m 64

As the transition from the somber mood of Remembrance Day makes way for the celebration of Independence Day, there’s a plethora of inspiring video clips to help us mark Israel’s 64th birthday.

We’ve already focused on ISRAEL21c’s great ‘What does Israel mean to you’ clip, (now augmented by the top 64 innvoations from Israel) and here’s a few others.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kaMd3SvcvY[/youtube]

Here’s a photographic appreciation of the natural beauty of the country by Efrat-based photographer Yehoshua Halevi, featuring the song “Desert Call” by Eden Mi Qedem.

No Independence Day would be complete without a tribute to our fighting forces that protect us day in and out. Here’s a well-done one created and filmed by Aviv Vana Post Production in collaboration with shooteast.com

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DU6HlpjK0co[/youtube]

Here’s a unique take on the country’s birthday – done in animation. According to the creators, it attempts to portray the complex reality that Israelis live in on a daily basis.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drUIWuMWw70[/youtube]

And how could we not include a message from Mr. Israel, our venerable president Shimon Peres, who gives his independence greeting in his inimitable English.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfLBRqsj41A[/youtube]

Go enjoy the next 24 hours, with the ubiquitous barbecue, outdoor singing and dancing, and fireworks. Happy birthday, Israel.

Made in Israel

Made in Israel

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-C3UYq-UxA[/youtube]

It’s getting to be that time of year again – where the national holidays come fast and furious. Holocaust Remembrance Day just passed and this week we have Memorial Day and Independence Day right on top of each other as Israel prepares to celebrate its 64th birthday.

While there’s no shortage of subjects to be worried, fearful, skeptical or angry about, I would say that overall, the country’s in pretty good shape. But if the Iranian threat, the political situation, the social welfare crisis and the glut of TV reality shows are getting you down, take a couple minutes and check out this clip that ISRAEL21c’s Nicky Blackburn and Viva Sara Press have put together.

In addition to providing some surprising information about just what Israel has achieved in the past 63 years, it will undoubtedly raise your morale and have you whistling a happy tune going into the coming eventful week. Happy Independence Day Israel! We’re proud of you.

Where to Find Good Levant Food Recipes

food blog recipes
I spend a lot of my time thinking about the environment and the things we can do to tread lighter on this planet. Home cooking is a big favorite of mine, because any items you can buy in bulk or without packaging like fruits and vegetables for instance, the lighter you tread on this earth. The health benefits are enormous. Processed and packaged foods are full of preservatives and chemicals to extend shelf life, and manufactured flavors to enhance taste. Keeping it real, by that I mean home cooking, the environment and your body will thank you.

If you know something about Israelis, one of the first things that will come to mind is their food. Israelis, unlike Jews you might meet in America, do not necessarily eat potato kugal or gefilte fish. In fact the first time I tried these things were not in the kitchens of native Israelis, but Americans who’d immigrated to Israel. The palate of the average Israeli is diverse. The question is if you love to cook where do you find good blog food recipes? With so many blogs out there, the choices are enormous.

My personal website Green Prophet provides a Middle Eastern inspired food recipes every week thanks to Miriam, and if you like fusion and the Israeli style of cooking another favorite cooking and food blog that I personally love is Food Bridge. It focuses on Israel as part of the Levant, and not separate from it.

On Food Bridge Sarah Melamed pens an incredibly local and current food blog on food from the land of Israel and beyond. She goes way beyond any type of Jewish stereotype you might find, embracing local cultures and traditions from nearby Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority. She writes about what foods are in season, where to get them, and pictures them so wonderfully that you might even be inspired to start a food blog yourself. The blog is great for Americans, because as an American Sarah is one of the few I know who lets her past go and really celebrates the food diversity in the Levant region, without politics, without religion. Give her blog a taste.