Between Pesach and Shavuot: Six Israel-Defining Days while Counting the Omer
TBS members are of course familiar with the major Jewish holidays. Indeed, as you read this you will have recently celebrated Pesach while anticipating the next major holiday of Shavuot commemorating G-d’s giving of the Torah to Moses and the Jewish people. The Counting of the Omer begins on the second night of Pesach, but during the six weeks from the end of Pesach until Shavuot there are six major observances that are by turns secular and religious, happy and sad, that characterize Israeli life while making a powerful impression on anyone who happens to be visiting the country. If you really want to feel part of the Israeli experience, these six weeks are hard to beat.
Immediately following the end of Pesach (the last day of which was April 23 this year), the Moroccan Jewish festival of Mimouna begins. Traditionally, Moroccan Jews celebrate the end of Pesach by opening their homes to visitors and serving traditional cakes and pastries. What happens the next day, however, has been adopted nationwide as a time to fire up the mangel (Hebrew for barbecue) and grill al ha’esh (literally on the fire). This is one of several occasions where Israelis seem like they are about to burn the place down, as mangelim pop up seemingly everywhere from parks to backyards to neighborhood block parties. The meats on offer are of course Middle Eastern in style, featuring shashlik (skewers), kababs, thin steaks, lamb chops and lamb burgers, chicken, and hot dogs (naknikiyot) for the kids. There are also concerts featuring Moroccan Jewish music (often in 6/8 rhythm – Ya ta ta Ta ta ta Ya ta ta Ta ta ta) and dancing to go along with many impromptu parties with the same soundtrack.
The joy of Mimouna dissipates quickly, however, with the arrival of Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Memorial Day. This annual observance sets aside time to recall and reflect upon this greatest of all tragedies inflicted upon the Jewish people. The observance officially begins with a siren heard nationwide at sundown (this year April 27), with a second siren blast the next morning. During the siren, Israelis stop whatever they are doing for two minutes of silent devotion. When we say stop everything, we mean everything: cars driving on the highway pull over to the side of the road and passengers stand at attention with their heads bowed. There is also a strong educational component to Yom Hashoah with special TV and radio programs throughout the day that commemorate the Holocaust while focusing on its implications for Jewish and Israeli life and broadly for the whole world.
One week later (this year May 3-4), the siren again sounds announcing the start of Yom Hazikaron, Israeli Remembrance Day. This day is set aside to remember and honor all of Israel’s fallen soldiers from the War of Independence through the present as well as fallen members of the Israel Police, the Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel’s foreign and domestic security agencies), and the victims of terror attacks. Following the evening siren, a state ceremony is held at the Western Wall in Jerusalem with the Prime Minister and the IDFs Chief of Staff in attendance. This gives way to gatherings and services nationwide. The next day, the siren sounds at 11 AM and demands that everyone stop to observe two minutes of silence no matter what they are doing. There are services and memorial ceremonies across the country, people visit the graves of the fallen, and the names of Israel’s fallen are read.
In a stunning transformation from sorrow to joy, the conclusion of Yom Hazikaron flows directly into the start of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (May 4-5 this year). The symbolism is impossible to miss: Israeli independence would not be possible were it not for the sacrifices made by those remembered on Yom Hazikaron. The official government ceremony kicks off on Mount Herzl and includes the lighting of twelve torches representing the twelve tribes of Israel. The evening of Yom Ha’atzmaut is a nationwide party. People celebrate with song and dance in the streets and at large concerts all over the country. A uniquely Israeli tradition consists of boinking complete strangers on the head with a plastic squeaky hammer. The following day is a national holiday with Israelis flocking to national parks, the beaches, concerts, and of course, taking out the mangel for more meat al ha’esh!
The month of May is Israel’s nicest month weather-wise as the rains have ended, the flowers are in full bloom, but the full heat of summer has yet to come, so it sounds like a good time to keep the party going. And, that’s exactly what comes next. The Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer (the 33rd day in the counting of the Omer — the Hebrew letter ל has a numerical value of 30 while the letter ג has a numerical value of 3) falls on May 18-19 this year. Lag Baomer is associated with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (known as the Rashbi and a disciple of Rabbi Akiva), and celebrates the revelation of the Zohar, the primary source for the practice of Kabbalah. In Israel, however, this holiday might as well be known as LOG Baomer as it is celebrated with the lighting of large bonfires all over the country. Seeing these is somewhat reminiscent of the bonfire-lighting scene from The Lord of the Rings, as there really are bonfires burning all across the country, within cities and towns as well as in the countryside. And of course, Israelis see Lag Baomer as yet another opportunity to fire up the mangel!
There is one more holiday before Shavuot, and that is Yom Yerushalayim, or – you guessed it – Jerusalem Day (this year falling on May 28-29). This holiday celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem following the Six Day War. It is customary for schoolchildren to march with flags through the streets of Jerusalem before ending with a gathering at the Western Wall. On a more somber note, a ceremony for Ethiopian Jews who perished en route to Israel is also held at the memorial site for Ethiopian Jewry at Mount Herzl.
There you have it – six unique weeks in Israel. The Counting of the Omer is nearly finished, and Shavuot beckons. Hag Sameach from Israel Matters!
Eating Like An Israeli – Maqlub
Maqluba means “upside down” in Arabic. It describes a traditional Bedouin casserole that, after cooking, is literally flipped onto a serving dish and served upside down. Maqluba is pretty popular in Israel and can be found in restaurants around the country or prepared at home. The recipe shared below, courtesy of Israel’s Consulate General, uses ground beef as its main ingredient, but one could substitute lamb (ground or cubed) or chicken pieces instead, or even create a vegetarian version by doubling the amount of eggplant in the recipe, or adding a layer of potato. Enjoy!
• Olive oil — 1/4 cup
• Eggplant, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds — 1
• Onion, minced — 1
• Ground beef — 1 pound
• Allspice — 1 teaspoon
• Cinnamon — 1/2 teaspoon
• Nutmeg — big pinch
• Salt and pepper — to taste
• Tomato, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds — 1
• Water or stock, well-seasoned with salt — 2 cups
• Rice, soaked 1/2 hour in water to cover — 1 1/2 cups
1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the eggplant slices on each side to lightly brown. Remove to a plate.
2. Add more oil to the skillet if needed and sauté the onions until translucent. Add the ground beef, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper and sauté, breaking up the meat, until cooked through. Season with salt and pepper and drain off excess oil.
3. Grease a 3-quart heavy bottomed saucepan well with olive oil. Drain the rice. Lay the tomato slices to cover the bottom of the saucepan. Sprinkle about 1/2 cup of the rice over the tomatoes. Spoon the meat mixture over the rice. Lay the eggplant slices to cover the meat and press down well to compact all the ingredients. Add the rest of the rice and the seasoned water or stock.
4. Bring to a boil over medium-high flame, then quickly reduce heat to low, cover tightly and simmer for 45-50 minutes. Toward the end of the cooking time, check to see if more water needs to be added.
5. Remove from heat and let rest for 15 minutes. Remove lid and invert a serving platter over the saucepan. Turn upside-down and carefully slip the saucepan off the rice. Serve hot.