L’ag b’Omer is Saturday night. Or maybe not

The Jewish “bonfire” holiday of L’ag b’Omer is this Saturday night. Or maybe not.

L’ag b’Omer commemorates the day some 2,000 years ago that a plague that killing 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva ended. L’ag stands for lamed-gimel – in Hebrew the number 33. The Omer refers to a period of 49 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. So L’ag b’Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer.

There’s a bunch more symbolism – check out this Wikipedia entry – but in modern times, the holiday has been celebrated by building bonfires, toasting marshmallows and barbequing steaks (what Israeli holiday doesn’t involve the ubiquitous mangal?)

This year, the 33rd day of the Omer falls on Saturday night. But since kids tend to get started early, hauling their cache of wood to an open space and getting the fire going before sunset, there is a not unlikely chance of “Sabbath desecration” where prohibited activities might take place before Shabbat has officially ended.

Which led this week to Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef along with Israel’s chief rabbis issuing a ruling that the holiday should be put off until Sunday night.

All well and good. It’s a religious holiday after all and the rabbis know best. But the general population might not have gotten the message.

You see, L’ag b’Omer is school holiday too. Sunday is an official day off. Sunday night, it’s back to the books as the matriculation exam season races towards an unholy conclusion. Are all those kids – especially the ones who don’t give much of a hoot what the chief rabbis say – going to push off the burning a day? Will there be two L’ag b’Omer’s this day?

Another question lingers: what took them so long. The ruling about the delay of the holiday was only issued last week. Didn’t the rabbis know about this holiday, well, like a hundred years ago? The calendar is fixed these days – we no longer mark the start of the new month by burning torches on the tops of hilltops.

Delaying the holiday would be just fine for our family. We’ll be away this weekend at the Jacob’s Ladder music festival and won’t get back home until late Saturday night. But I have a feeling that we’ll be smelling a few roasted  marshmallows on the way home.


Is there a doctor in the House?

House star Lisa Edelstein at Wolfson Medican Center in Holon

House himself couldn’t make it, but members of the cast of the popular TV medical drama “House,” along with its creator and executive producer, were in Israel last week as part of a tour organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Foreign and Tourism ministries, and the America’s Voices in Israel group.

The press also highlighted the Holon hospital’s “Save a Child’s Heart” program, which brings youngsters from all over the world for heart surgeries. The photo of actor Lisa Edelstein, who plays Dr. Cuddie (always one of my favorites) on the show holding a baby from Tanzania certainly increased the PR value of the trip.

Show creator David Shore also got to visit with his family – his two brothers have made aliyah.

I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of the trip was: was it to help the actors and lead writer better understand the types of procedures they perform on the show – the crew visited the medical simulation ward in Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer as well as the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon – or was it a junket intended to make good press – the actors also swam in the Sea of Galilee, toured the tunnels under the Western Wall and visited Yad Vashem?

Probably a little of both. It certainly made the front page of the local Jerusalem Post over the weekend and was written up in most of the Jewish and Israeli press – Haaretz, Ynet, JTA, the Jewish Journal – as well as a host of House-related fan blogs (I did not know there was a site dedicated just to Dr. Cuddy).

Where the coverage didn’t appear: outside the Jewish press. Perhaps if lead actor Hugh Laurie had come, it would have been different. But Dr. House apparently had other commitments.


A post-Independence Day chuckle

Comedian Benji Lovitt on stage

Every year, local comedian Benji Lovitt publishes a list of the top things he loves about Israel. This year, in honor of Israel’s birthday, he’s up to 63 reasons, an achievement in itself given that there’s little duplication between this list and year’s past.

Some of his jokes fall flat: Adam Sandler kind of killed the humous joke for other funny-men forever. Others are more whimsical observations than laugh out funny (no one will bust you if you take out your tefillin on El Al; Shai Agassi of A Better Place is a really good guy).

But others still tickle the old blue and whites. Such as when the Schusterman Foundation paid for 700 children from Gaza-border communities to see Justin Bieber in concert, Lovitt cries “haven’t they suffered enough!” Or Lovitt’s discovery of a want ad reading, “experience in schwarma required.”

You can find Lovitt’s latest list (as well as past years) here on his blog. Read it for a few post-holiday chuckles.

Immigrant Moments,Israeliness

At my most Zionist

A Dry Bones aliyah cartoon from 1976 (more at

In our daughter’s 12th grade class yesterday, on the cusp between Memorial and Independence Days, her teacher asked something along the lines of “what was the most Zionist, nationalist moment, for you personally.” Merav was unsure how to answer. Many of her friends referred to their families’ aliyah.

“But I was just a baby then,” she said, and indeed she had been only a year old as she crawled her way through the oversized immigration processing hall, built to handle 2-3 planeloads of Russians all making aliyah at once, at the old Ben Gurion Airport.

I began to think how I would answer the question. Aliyah seems the logical response too – and we were old enough to appreciate what we’d done (as well as all the subsequent bureaucracy). But there are other answers I could give.

Getting my Israeli driver’s license and taking strange pride in my ability to successfully navigate Israeli traffic has definitely made me feel one with the nation.

Starting a company in 1998 and walking around the shell of our new investor-backed offices, I felt more than just an entrepreneur’s dream come true; I would soon be contributing to the Zionist enterprise by employing a staff of 15 fellow immigrants who might stay in the country due to the sweat and vision that had gone into the making of that day.

Another defining moment of Israeliness came from the tragic side. When our cousin Marla Bennett was killed in the terrorist attack on the Hebrew University cafeteria in 2002, we were thrust into the pan-Israeli world of mourners, and every year when Yom HaZicharon comes around, I feel just that much closer to my brethren.

But that’s not it either – because the terror war that killed Marla and 1,000 other Israelis in those horrible years made me just as inclined to consider fleeing to the “safety” of the old country than to stick it out here as a brave soldier in civilian clothes (obviously I didn’t flee as I’m writing here from Jerusalem).

When I started becoming non-religious at the beginning of 2000, after 25 years in the Orthodox world, I had to re-jigger my entire value system about why I was living in Israel. I found, to my delight, that it wasn’t the kosher food and the synagogue options that were keeping me here, but a deep Zionism and appreciation of the rhythm of life, the Jewish calendar, and the community that we’d built, religious or otherwise.

Travel abroad often makes the heart grow fonder, especially with the third world destinations we’ve been to recently – India, Egypt, Africa and now Nepal. Upon each of our returns, Israel seems so much saner, organized; even genteel. That feeling of coming home to our own country, warts and all, applauding when the plane touches down at the airport, always fills me with a quiet nationalistic fervor.

But by far my most Zionist moments have been our family hikes throughout Israel. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to any regular readers of Israelity: I’ve chronicled all 12 tiyulim we did over the course of our youngest son’s bar mitzvah year.

To walk the land is, in many ways, to make it your “own,” with clear Biblical roots, going all the way back to Joshua and the Israelites (although they didn’t just walk). Modern day hiking bumps into numerous archaeological sites, which add visceral detail to the history of the Jewish people in the Holy Land.

And Israelis are inculcated with a love of hiking from a very young age. Beginning in first grade, all Israeli school children head out for their tiyul shnati – the “annual trip.” The youngest just go for the day, but by high school, overnight hikes can stretch up to a week.

So, when I want to feel most Israeli, most Zionist, most connected to this country; and to imagine I not only immigrated in my thirties, but grew up in this land, I hit the trails.

That’s my answer, and I’m sticking to it. How about you? This is a great opportunity to contribute to this discussion by leaving your comments. I’d be very happy to hear.

ISRAEL21c invited to prestigious global cancer fellowship

ISRAEL21c has been chosen by the American Cancer Society to represent Israel at its first ACS Global Journalist Fellowship in New York City.

Viva Sarah Press, associate editor at ISRAEL21c is one of 44 journalists and 78 cancer and tobacco control advocates, representing all the world regions, to be invited to take part in this unique workshop from June 18-22. Press will be the only journalist from Israel attending.

The ACS initiated the fellowship in order to generate awareness of the increasing burden of cancer around the world, in an effort to ensure that cancer is adequately included in the global health and UN agenda.

The journalist fellows will attend UN meetings, and meet with world leading experts about the latest developments in cancer and tobacco control.

Cancer is today a leading cause of mortality worldwide. In 2007, it accounted for 7.9 million deaths, around 13 percent of all deaths, according to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Despite the fact that about 30 percent of all cancer deaths can be prevented, the mortality rate is rising. Until now heart disease was the number one killer worldwide, but experts suggest cancer deaths will soon overtake this figure. By 2030, cancer will cause an estimated 12 million deaths a year worldwide, according to WHO.

Israel is one of the leading players in cancer research worldwide, and is recognized internationally for its major contributions to the field. Over the last 10 years ISRAEL21c has reported extensively on the many significant breakthroughs emerging from the country.

“I am honored to be chosen to take part in this important conference,” said Press, who served as a senior news editor at IBA News, Israel’s only English-language news broadcast, for seven years before joining ISRAEL21c in January. “Cancer is a major cause of death worldwide, and it’s vital that we continue to raise awareness about this deadly disease.”