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Reflections on Color the Omer

Four takes on one page.

 

When Color the Omer came out, we described it as “a tool for counting the Omer with mindfulness and beauty.” We invited folks to color each page while meditating on the text accompanying the image, and then to share a photo hashtagged #ColorTheOmer.

The first week of the Omer is the week of Chesed, lovingkindness. That was definitely our experience of this book’s release. We’ve been gratified and moved by the appreciation flowing our way in response to Color the Omer. So many people are reaching out to us to tell us that they love it and that it’s enlivening their Omer journey. Coloring is a co-creation process that starts with the pairing of words and illustrations and ends with whatever flows from the user’s mind and pen, and we love seeing the culmination of that creative flow.

The second week of the Omer is the week of Gevurah, boundaries, strength, and discernment. Shari remarked in week two that having these illustrations to color has invited new creativity — a perfect example of how gevurah helps creative flow flourish. A blank page reflects limitless possibility. That can be overwhelming. A page with lines to color between (or choose not to color between!) opens the door to a different kind of creative expression. 

The third week of the Omer is the week of Tiferet, harmony and balance. We’re finding harmony in the different ways people are using this book. Each approach to the book brings another note to the chord. 

We anticipated that everyone using the book would post their colored pages on social media. Some of you have been doing just that, and conversations are opening up on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Some are using the blank facing page as a space for journaling. Some are writing haiku. Some are experimenting with different artistic media for different weeks. Some are adding other texts to the colored-in page, either handwritten or digitally, before sharing. 

Many are drawing associations between each day’s image and the combination of sefirot that our mystics connect with each day. That’s been a surprise because we didn’t lay out the pages with those qualities in mind! Shari laid out the pages with numbered ones tied to their numbers (the crossing of the Sea of Reeds needed to be on the seventh day of Pesach, Lag Ba’Omer needed to be on the thirty-third day of the Omer) and then tried to “sprinkle” the Exodus ones, the swirly ones, the sparser ones, the nature ones, etc throughout the volume.

And — far more people have bought the book and have told us that they’re using it than are posting images on social media. It seems that a lot of people want to keep the contemplative creative Omer experience personal and private. That diversity of use and practice is another reflection of tiferet

We love that people are using Color the Omer differently than we expected. At Bayit we make a point of not holding too tightly to our imaginings of how people will use the tools we put out into the world. Holding that anticipation loosely means that we’re open to what people actually do and need, rather than what we imagined that people would do and need. 

Bayit’s work is rooted in design thinking. New ideas are brainstormed, prototyped, tested, and refined. We’re learning from how people actually use Color the Omer, and what we’re learning now will inform the next contemplative coloring book we release. (Yes, we already have ideas!)

What’s next? First up, the rest of this year’s Omer count — and we can’t wait to see what y’all will create with the remaining illustrations in the book. After that… we have visions of other contemplative coloring projects. We have other books (including a volume of divrei Torah illustrated by Steve Silbert, and an introduction to sketchnoting Jewishly). We can imagine new ways of using Color the Omer next year: book groups, Torah study groups, Hebrew school classrooms, Rosh Hodesh circles might choose to color together! For now, we’re delighted to be on this journey of color and creativity with all of you as we make our way again toward Sinai.

 

By R. Rachel Barenblat, Shari Berkowitz, and Steve Silbert.

#ColorTheOmer at ReformJudaism.org!

Jews customarily count the Omer during the seven weeks between the second day of Passover and the beginning of Shavuot, a process dating back to when ancient Israelites would offer an omer (an ancient Hebrew measure of grain) as a Temple sacrifice before consuming any of their crop. (Lev. 23:9-11, 15-16). After the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., Jews began reciting a blessing for each of these 49 nights instead, but for some Jews today, this process may seem outdated or cumbersome.

However, like every aspect of Judaism, there is an esoteric mystical component of counting the Omer that can deeply inspire Jews today. According to Rabbi Daniel Syme, Jewish mystics “[see] the period as joining the Jewish people’s physical (Pesach) and spiritual (Shavuot) redemption.” Shari Berkowitz and Steve Silbert embraced this mystical component by creating Color the Omer, a coloring book filled with illustrations and Jewish wisdom designed to engage Jews during this period with mindfulness and artistic expression.

Shari, Steve, and editor Rabbi Rachel Barenblat spoke with us about their new release and what they hope readers can glean from it this season.

ReformJudaism.org: Where did the idea for this book come from?

Shari Berkowitz: When the pandemic started, I took an online mysticism class with my rabbi, David Markus, and learned about counting the Omer as a spiritual practice. It was hard to keep track of time, and I needed a way to settle my mind, so I printed a grid of Stars of David and started coloring one section a night. That’s where I got the idea for an Omer coloring book.

I brought the idea to Bayit and am grateful that they took on the project. Working together with Rabbi Barenblat and Steve to connect deep text and creative visuals has helped all of us to learn and innovate Judaically.

What can people expect from this book?

Berkowitz: The combination of a focused prompt and accompanying image that pushes creativity will help the colorer connect with the ideas around the Omer in ways that are meaningful to them. The book explains how to count and offers 49 visual and textual prompts, and some of the drawings have 49 elements, like the fish swimming in the Sea of Reeds.

We hope each colorer will find meaning and beauty as they co-create each illustrated page with us by bringing it to life.

What are the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of counting the Omer?

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat: Contemplative coloring is an increasingly popular mindfulness practice, with good reason. Bringing color to a page can focus the mind, calm the heart, and bring joy to the soul. We’ve paired each illustration with kavanot (intentions/questions/thoughts) so that the colorer reflects on a spiritual question that will enrich their Omer journey.

From your perspective, how do self-care and Judaism intersect as a whole?

Steve Silbert: Much like keeping Shabbat is a deep form of self-care, hiddur mitzvah (beautifying a mitzvah) is another. Through contemplative coloring, we hope to bring a taste of Shabbat-like calm to each day of the Omer, and through making each page beautiful, we can practice hiddur mitzvah every day. And if any colorer turns this into a self-care practice that extends beyond the Omer, we will be very happy indeed!

How can this book serve and empower people, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Silbert: Isolation is a real challenge during this second pandemic spring. We hope that Color the Omer helps bring stability and comfort to those feeling isolated by establishing an engaging framework for study, introspection, and creativity.

We invite users to share their colored-in pages on social media with #ColorTheOmer and comment on each other’s work in the hope that we can build and deepen connectivity with each other.

What else do you want readers to know?

Silbert: Shari and I would like to thank Rabbi Barenblat for her editorial skills, but more importantly, for being a great partner in forming and re-forming ideas and visuals. We’re very excited to share this labor of our love of Judaism out in the world! We have ideas for other multimodal projects to bring to life and are already refining them.

 

Reprinted from ReformJudaism.org.

How To #ColorTheOmer

So you’ve got a copy of Color the Omer, and you’re wondering whether there’s a “right” way to use it. Here’s an answer from illustrator Steve Silbert:

instructions

If you don’t yet have a copy of Color the Omer, grab one now! Available on Amazon for $13.*

 

 

*About that. We know that some are boycotting Amazon during the week of March 7-14. We support Amazon workers’ drive to unionize: they deserve fair labor practices and meaningful pay. (Here’s a link where you can send Jeff Bezos and the Amazon board a letter about that.) Kindle Direct Publishing (owned by Amazon) is our mechanism for getting this beautiful book out, and we want it to be in your hands by Pesach so you can use it for the full Omer journey. We wish that there were more and better options to allow small / indie publishers and authors to publish and distribute books worldwide, and, right now KDP is what we’ve got. We don’t have answers to this conundrum. If you’re boycotting Amazon this week, we hope you’ll buy the book as soon as the week is out, and it should still reach you in time for you to color all 49 days

Color the Omer is here!

Mazal tov to Bayit builders Dr. Shari Berkowitz and Steve Silbert, whose collaboration brought Color The Omer to life and into print this week.

Here’s an awesome piece about the book at Sketchnote Army.

And here’s a blog post about the behind-the-scenes of how the book came into being, from founding builder R. Rachel Barenblat: Labor of love.

Read more about the book, glimpse a few interior images, and order a copy for just $13 USD on Amazon and its global affiliates!

 

Why Shabbes Matters… Especially Now

When we “went in” (started sheltering-in-place) for covid-19 in New York, I thought we were going in for a few weeks.  I’ve been more-in-than-out now for five months. 

I am a lay service leader for my congregation, and I typically co-lead one Kabbalat Shabbat each month.  Our little shul is a small but mighty group; a mixed mini-tude.  By March 13 (the first Shabbat of sheltering-in-place), we were ready — more or less — for Shabbat on zoom.  Our Rabbi led us that night, and the following week was my turn.  We have continued to pray Kabbalat Shabbat with Maariv on Zoom since then.  And like most communities, we’re preparing for Zoom-based high holidays now too. (By “we,” I mean our rabbi and rabbi emerita.)

It’s been quite an adjustment.  Although I have joked about buying a t-shirt that says, “you’re muted,” I have not done so yet.  We are working on making services as meaningful and uplifting as can be; we are working on looking into the camera while hitting the right chords on the ukulele; we are adjusting to hearing either one voice or a cacophony, never a harmony.  (By “we,” I mean me.)

As a group, we are finding we like seeing each other’s faces in our Brady Bunch array.  We visit before and after services.  A core group has started to do Havdalah every week, led mostly by me.  It’s a quick service but sometimes we watch a movie afterwards, or just talk. I wrote some new lyrics for a silly Shavua Tov song.  It’s to the tune of the Addams Family (snap, snap).

Associate professors work hard; we are the backbone of every university. In the pandemic, as we shifted to fully online instruction, I was working very hard.  Even without my commute, I felt the days were endless.  Sometimes I zoomed for too many hours in a row and the next day felt half dead.  My eyes hurt; my back hurt; my heart was breaking over and over. I was worried about so many things. The emails were endless and many of them were filled with bad news, confusing instructions, or repeated information.

So, I started a mini-observance of Shabbat.  I shut my work email just before we went into zoom for Kabbalat Shabbat and did not open it again until Sunday morning.  I closed it on my laptop and on my phone.  Just that one action, protecting myself from work for the duration of Shabbes, was a balm.  I took Saturday to relax.  Sometimes I went to Saturday morning Torah study; sometimes I took a walk; in July and August, I relaxed by the community pool, swam a little. I read, I napped. I rested.  

I did not go full-on shomer Shabbes in the classical sense.  I still used the internet and TV.  But after a few weeks, I found I did not want too much news or twitter on Shabbes either.  I did things that are officially on traditional halakha’s list of “work,” like writing.  But I did not make shopping lists, or to-do lists, or write letters to politicians.  I doodled.  I drew. I wrote songs.  I did things that fed me, even if they were officially not Shabbesdik.  They felt Shabbesdik to me.

Did I mention the professor part?  I did not mention the procrastination, though.  Suddenly, in August, I found myself up against a grading deadline.  I had to get the grades to a colleague by Sunday morning.  I could not let her down. As Friday sank into Friday night, I was not done.  I was not even close.  Waiting until after Havdalah would not be an option—there was too much to get through.  My all-nighter days are behind me.  I was looking at grading papers on Shabbat.  Well, I told myself, it’s not like I’m really a sabbath observer…I just have some sort of covid shabbes habit going on.  I’ve graded papers on Saturday before.  It’s not really a big deal.  Right?

It did feel like a big deal.  I was stuck in my chair all day, reading, checking, marking it down, trying to concentrate.  I got the grades done, and I did go to morning Torah class, but by the time Havdalah rolled around, I was realizing that I really missed out on my Shabbes rest. I really felt it.  By Tuesday, I was asking myself, when’s Shabbes already?  

That one weekend of needing to work on Saturday made me realize that my little Shabbat observance is a real thing. I turned off my email for Shabbes and it was the best click of the week.  It  turns out, I really need that rest every week.  Shabbes is a thing.  You should get some.  During the pandemic… and beyond.

 

 

Shari Salzhauer Berkowitz is an associate professor of Communication Disorders and a speech-language pathologist. She serves as a lay service leader and trustee at Temple Beth El of City Island, NY, also known as “your shul by the sea.”