Barbecued chicken wings for Lag B’Omer

Youth in Israel prepare for a Lag B'Omer bonfire.  Photo by Yehuda Boltschauser, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Youth in Israel prepare for a Lag B’Omer bonfire. Photo by Yehuda Boltschauser, via Flickr Creative Commons.

In Israel, Sunday is a regular workday. The “weekend” is the Sabbath; it starts at noon or mid-afternoon on Friday and lasts through Saturday. If you live in Israel and follow the traditions for the Sabbath and holy days, your weekend is spent preparing for the Sabbath or observing the Sabbath, which means no driving, cooking, or using money (and that includes credit cards).

Kids in Israel play with bows and rubber-tipped arrows on Lag B'Omer. Photo by Edann and Yuval via Flickr Creative Commons.

Kids in Israel play with bows and rubber-tipped arrows on Lag B’Omer. Photo by Edann and Yuval via Flickr Creative Commons.

So in Israel, minor holidays like Lag B’Omer – which this year falls on Sunday, May 18  –  are important. They’re a day off, but they carry none of the restrictions prohibiting work, travel or other everyday activities. Lag B’Omer is a weird holiday because no one really knows where it came from or what it means. The first mention of it is in a 13th century text, where a scholar mentions that on this day a plague that killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva – one of the great sages in Jewish history – stopped. Another tradition says that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a great sage of the second century, revealed the secrets of the Kabbalah, Jewish mystical teaching, just before he died on Lag B’Omer.

The name refers to the date of the holiday. An “omer” is a sheaf of barley. In Leviticus (23:15-16), the Israelites are told to make an offering of an omer on the second day of Passover and then to count 50 days until Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. The period is known as the Omer. On the second night of Passover, we begin “counting the Omer.” Every day at evening services, we say “Today is Day Six (or whatever) in the Omer.” In the ancient Hebrew system, letters were used for numbers; the letter signifying 30 sounds like “L” and the letter for 3 sounds like “G,”  and together they sound like “lag”.” So the 33rd day of the Omer became known as Lag B’Omer.

A break in a period of semi-mourning

Other than counting, not much happens during the period of the Omer, except it’s traditionally a period of semi-mourning. No weddings or other joyous events are scheduled during this time, and many men don’t shave or cut their hair. Lag B’Omer marks a break in that depressing stretch of time.

In the Middle Ages Lag B’Omer became a holiday for rabbinic students, when they engaged in outdoor sports. Today it’s a great day for holding picnics, barbecues and sporting events. And because it’s the only day during the 50-day Omer period when weddings are permitted, it’s considered an auspicious day to start a marriage; in Israel, hundreds of weddings take place. On Lag B’Omer, people light bonfires in fields and open spaces to remember Rabbi Shimon and the light he brought to the world. Hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews gather at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon on Mount Meron in northern Israel for an enormous bonfire.

Israeli Scouts enjoy a Lag B'Omer outing. Photo by Maligarianai via Flickr Creative Commons.

Israeli Scouts enjoy a Lag B’Omer outing. Photo by Maligarianai via Flickr Creative Commons.

The other big Lag B’Omer custom is for children to play with bows and arrows (often rubber-tipped), though again no one knows why. Maybe the bow represents a rainbow, God’s sign that he would never again destroy the world with a flood. Jewish lore says the rainbow was not seen during Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime, because his merit was great enough to protect the world. After his death, we again needed the rainbow. An alternative explanation for the bows and arrows is that anti-Roman rebels led by Simon Bar Kochba achieved a minor victory on Lag B’Omer, before being utterly crushed by the Romans. Some say those 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva actually fell fighting the Romans.

Gadna, the Israel Defense Forces’ youth brigade, was founded on Lag B’Omer in 1941 and has a bow and arrow as its emblem.

I thought a barbecue recipe would be appropriate this week, in honor of Lag B’Omer and also because it’s finally getting warm enough in Michigan and other northern climes that we can hope we might once again be able to enjoy outdoor activities.

This recipe for Asian-style barbecued chicken wings is quite easy and makes a nice break from the traditional tomato-based barbecue sauces.

From Israel to your table: Salad, salad day and night

My husband and I recently returned from three weeks in Israel. This was not our first trip. I first went for a junior year abroad program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Joe went for a “gap year” living on a kibbutz near Nazareth before college. Years later, our children went on long-term programs in Israel during high school and college and so we had a good excuse to visit. Our eldest even planned to make Israel her home, but during her second year as an Israeli immigrant she met her future husband–who grew up around the corner from us in Michigan, but that’s another story. Though they lived in Washington, D.C. at the time they married, they wanted their wedding seven years ago to be in Israel, so that was our last trip before this one. We felt this year it was time to go back.

One thing I always appreciate about Israel is the plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables, many grown locally on kibbutzim  and moshavim. But it wasn’t love at first sight.

The view from the teachers' college in the Negev Desert where I attended a Hebrew language program in 1969.

The view from the teachers’ college in the Negev Desert where I attended a Hebrew language program in 1969.

On my first visit to Israel, in 1969, I was in a group of about 100 students, from colleges all over the U.S., who would be part of a much larger group studying at Hebrew University’s School for Overseas Students (now the Rothberg International School) for the year. Because our knowledge of Hebrew was minimal at best, our group would spend seven weeks in the summer doing an ulpan–an immersive language course–at a teachers’ college  in the Negev desert.

Salad for breakfast?

Talk about culture shock! The program organizers had prepared us for lots of things: Don’t do drugs or you’ll be deported, know that you’ll have your bags searched at building entrances, remember that you need to buy special tokens to use a pay phone. But they didn’t tell us that Israelis eat salad for breakfast.

If you’ve ever been to an Israeli hotel, you know that breakfast is a sumptuous buffet of gorgeous salads, fruits, cheeses, fish and pastries. That’s not what we got at the teachers’ college. I kept a journal that year. Here is my description of breakfast at the ulpan:

The dining hall is one huge rectangular room filled with long tables. I am with Joan and another roommate. A fat Israeli woman in a grease-stained white apron motions us to a table. There are only two places. Joan and I sit there and our friend goes to the next table. To do otherwise would be to bring a stream of angry Hebrew down on our heads from the chick in the greasy apron.

The table is piled high with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, hard-boiled eggs, bread and muddy coffee. Midway through the meal, the fat Israeli comes around with a big bowl filled with an Israeli concoction similar to yogurt. “Leben please?” she asks, and slops out a ladle-full to all who so desire. Every morning it is the same.

Our tablemates unfortunately include several of the sorority types [I was a pseudo-hippie snob in those days], still wearing gobs of makeup even out here in the middle of the desert.

“God,” one of them whines. “Salad again! I think I’m going to turn into a tomato!” She giggles at her joke. Another fingers the bread. “Stale!” she says in disgust, replacing the slice. “That’s not all,” answers the first. “Yesterday I found an ant in the bread basket!”

We eventually got used to it. At the end of our stay in the desert, we had a goodbye party where every ulpan class did a skit. My class set our skit in the dining hall. We sang a song, to the tune of, “Put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon…” More than 40 years later, I still remember it:

“Salad, salad, day and night, vegetables from green to white, make your stomach die of fright, that salad, salad, salad.”

At the end, the class clown came in dressed like the leben lady, in a greasy apron and black wig. One of the other students took the bowl of yogurt and dumped the contents on his head. It brought the house down.

Israeli Salad

Israeli Salad

Salad anytime!

Now I have a much healthier opinion of fresh vegetables for breakfast, or any time of day for that matter.

We often make “Israeli salad,” a very simple mixture of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. Here’s how you make it:

Take a couple of small, firm, ripe tomatoes and a small, edible-skinned cucumber (e.g., Persian or Armenian), and dice them all into small pieces; you want an equal amount of tomato and cuke. Dice half a small onion and mix all the vegetables together. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Optional: add chopped red or green pepper, chopped hard-boiled egg, kalamata olives, chopped white cheese (e.g. white cheddar or Muenster) or crumbled feta cheese.

Because that one is so simple–more a method than a recipe–I thought I’d give you another Israeli recipe as well, the kind of dish you might find at an Israeli hotel buffet. Once you peel the carrots, separate the parsley leaves from the stems and separate the pomegranate seeds from the pith, making this salad is a snap!

(Helpful hint: quarter the pomegranate—carefully, because the juice will stain everything it touches—and then put the pieces into a large bowl of water before breaking them apart. The seeds will sink to the bottom of the bowl and the pith will float to the top. Skim off the pith, and then drain the seeds in a strainer or colander.)