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 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 U.S., seeing a barley and beer connection, the college-age demographic and beyond have 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 and self-taught home brewer. Ourieff had tied beer recently to another Jewish holiday, Tu b’Shevat, by brewing a seven-species beer.
“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 will soon attend 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.
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 Sound Homebrew Supply in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood 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, of Culver City Home Brewing Supply Company near Los Angeles, after I 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.
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 Hanukkah,” Steinberg said. “It goes better with brisket and latkes than wine.”
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.