LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Sit back by the bonfire and pop open a brewski, it’s Lag b’Omer.
Since we have been counting the Omer — a biblical measure of barley that was brought as an offering to the Temple — each evening from the second night of Passover, what better way to mark the coming holiday than by downing a barley beverage, cold and carbonated?
What’s the occasion?
Lag b’Omer marks the ending of a plague during the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century CE. According to tradition, students and soldiers were dying and the plague ended on that day.
The one-day holiday, which this year begins on the night of April 27, is the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer — in Hebrew, the letters that spell “lag” represent the number 33.
In remembrance of those who died, the Omer season, which lasts 49 days and ends the night before Shavuot, is a period of partial mourning — no dancing, parties, weddings, not even haircuts. It is also a period of study and reflection.
Today to celebrate the reprieve, the holiday for many has turned into a day to cut loose. Festivals are held with rides for the kids and, especially in Israel, there are bonfires.
The bonfire flames are said to represent the light of the kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai, whose yahrzeit, also called Yom Hillula — day of festivity — is observed on Lag b’Omer. Thousands visit his tomb on Mount Meron, not far from Safed, to pay homage. There it is considered an honor to offer the visitors a Chai rotel — an ancient measurement of about 15 gallons of drink. The choices are non-alcoholic beverages and wine; why not beer?
In the United States, seeing a barley and beer connection, the college-age demographic and beyond has found other ways to brew up enthusiasm for this minor holiday. Beginning several years ago at college campus Hillels, such as at the universities of Wisconsin and Washington, the holiday was observed in part by the quaffing of beer at “Lager b’Omer” events.
Last year, three Boston synagogues brought in seasoned home brewer Aidan Acker for an evening of beer making and talking about the holiday called “Fermenting the Omer,” which made sense since most beer is made by fermenting a brew of malted barley, hops and yeast.
This year, I was planning a Lag b’Omer bonfire and get-together in my backyard. Wanting in on this new Jewish use of beer, I spoke with Alex Ourieff, a Jewish foodie from Southern California’s San Fernando Valley and a self-taught home brewer. Ourieff had tied beer recently to another Jewish holiday, Tu b’Shvat, by brewing a seven species beer at a local Moishe House — a home-based host of Jewish programming mostly for twentysomethings.
“For the seven species brew, I combined pomegranate molasses, barley, wheat, dried figs, green grapes, date sugar and olive leaf extract,” said Ourieff, 25, who is moving on to the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, Calif.
“I like layering flavors, it’s a mental exercise,” he added, providing a taste of his creativity.
I wondered if he was planning something special for Lag b’Omer.
Home brewing has grown as a hobby since President Jimmy Carter signed a bill in 1978 allowing up to 100 gallons per adult to be home brewed, tax free. Stores such as the Culver City Home Brewing Supply Company near Los Angeles have bubbled up to supply and educate the hobbyists.
“The Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi is about beer making, and the Code of Hammurabi includes laws about beer,” said Greg Beron, one of the store’s owners, after I had explained to him my Lag b’Omer mission of connecting with barley.
“In recent excavations near the Pyramids in Egypt near where the people who build them were housed, they have found bakery/breweries,” he added, trying to give me a historical connection.
In his shop, filled with more than 30 bins of barley varieties, as well as shelves stocked with the apparatus of home brewing — plastic tubing, thermometers, brushes, yeasts and enzymes, caps and bottles — I wondered if after a hard day in the brick pits of Egypt, our forefathers had enjoyed the brew.
A more recent fan of the brew was Michael Steinberg, a friend of Beron’s and prize-winning home brewer who had retired and moved to Las Vegas. Since he was given a beer-making kit in 1999, Steinberg estimates he has brewed hundred of gallons.
“I like beer at Chanukah,” Steinberg said. “It goes better with brisket and latkes than wine.”
“I never quite got the Omer,” he said of the rabbinic explanations he had heard, though Steinberg brightened considerably when I brought up the barley connection.
“Drinking the beer is secondary. It’s about the people you meet and doors that are opened,” he concluded.
As to a special Lag b’Omer brew? Ourieff, thinking about the holiday bonfires, suggested making a smoked beer by roasting the barley before brewing.
“It will have a dark, smoky flavor,” he said, suddenly making a columnist thirsty.
Since the days until Lag b’Omer were few — it takes about five weeks to make beer — Ourieff directed me to several craft breweries that made “smoked porters.”
Sitting by the fire with a smoky barley brew, we could raise our glasses to friendship, to Bar Yochai’s light and drink our Omer.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at [email protected].)