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  • Yehoshua Paul

2019 - Part 1: Vacationing in the present

2019. Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jewish comedian is elected as president of Ukraine, Emperor Akihito of Japan abdicates his throne, King Vajiralongkorn of Thailand marries his personal bodyguard Suthida Tidjai, making her queen, the Eurovision song contest takes place in Tel Aviv, Theresa May resigns, Benjamin Netanyahu fails to form a coalition and triggers new elections, and on Friday, June 8 at 11:00 am, I finish writing the last paragraph of 1949, while my two year old daughter busies herself with destroying my wife's office.

This was an insane journey, and one I enjoyed immensely, even though the pressure of the last seven weeks was kind of intense. My biggest accomplishment? I succeeded in counting the Omer this year with a blessing, and managed to observe the Jewish custom of staying up all night on Shavuot - two things I would not have been able to do without this blog.

Sefer HaOmer is first and foremost an Omer blog. Its purpose for me was to take a routine commandment that is difficult to fully observe and breathe new meaning into by marrying it to one of my biggest passions - books - in a way that got me thinking about each and every day. During this journey, I got to explore the first half of the twentieth century, meet 49 authors (most for the first time) and read some amazing books and stories. These helped me better experience and enjoy the individual steps that are the journey from Passover to Shavuot. And when at 06:00 am I was listening in the synagogue to the ten commandments as they were being handed down to the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai, I was actually alert enough to pay attention and focus.

The books I added to my library for Sefer HaOmer. Each has its own story.

Shavuot was the culmination of this journey into the past. In many ways my personal journey writing this blog mirrors, the journey many of us experience trying to stay up all night, even as our minds and bodies clamor for sleep.

There are two things, that make Shavuot night difficult: the exhaustion at night, and the following day - especially as a parent with young children. The exhaustion, is something most of us are already familiar with on a daily basis, which is not surprising why those 6-8 hours of study followed by almost two hours of prayer seem to stretch into forever. However, just like the journey of the Omer is broken down into 49 days so can Shavuot night be broken down into individual bite size chunks: a half-hour class, a quarter hour of studying Fantasy and Judaism, followed by a Cola break and before you know it, it's 04:00 am class, and from here it's jumping distance to Ruth and the giving of the ten commandments. And when you think about those individual steps, and plan them, they can pass quickly and be a lot of fun.

Shavuot night, like Sefer HaOmer requires advance planning. In my case, it involved switching synagogues each time I started feeling tired to help break up the night. This enabled me to hear four and a half amazing classes, and also finish a third of Moshe Ratt's Fantasy & Judaism. Also like Sefer Haomer, Shavuot night requires support. In my case, it was from my wife, Tammy, who agreed to take the kids in the morning. She was also the one who designed the site and the Facebook page, reviewed much of my work, accompanied me the National Library of Israel, picked up my slack at home while I was busy writing these past seven weeks, and took the picture of me in my office below. Without her none of this would have happened, and even so it was close.

I started Sefer HaOmer towards the end of the High Holidays. A chance conversation with a close friend of mine, Avichai HaLevi, about his Omer projects from previous years got me thinking about doing one of my own. Another close friend, Ziv Wities, helped me refine my original very rough posts, until I was capable of continuing independently. The difference between my writing before Ziv's comments and after Ziv's comments is the difference between Peter Parker before he met Tony Stark and after he met Tony Stark, only Ziv is still here to see how it all turned out.

My original plan was to write eight posts a month (because I can read eight books a month on the train). I calculated that if I were to maintain that pace, I would easily finish a few weeks before Passover with plenty of time to create a Facebook page and get the word out. That's not what happened. Reading a book is a lot easier than writing about a book. Especially when part of the writing includes doing historical research on the year it was written in. By the time Passover arrived, I only had 40 posts written in English and 12 translated into Hebrew. I had seven weeks to finish nine posts, which based on my previous pace would have been more than doable, except that after Passover started, I already had a blog that required daily updating. And, I can hear many of you asking, what's the big deal? After all, I had already written the posts. The answer in brief is: links, media, and Hebrew. When I first came up with the idea for this journey, I had intended my posts to be on Facebook only. This meant that I would only need a single image for each post (the book cover), and no links because I had no intention of cluttering my FB posts with 20-30 links at the bottom of the post or in the comments. And then Tammy built me an amazing site using the Wix platform two weeks before Passover. Suddenly, I could put more than one image per post, and I could actually link to the sources I had read (mostly Wikipedia), but that meant actually doing that X40, and I still had nine posts to write, and a family, and a full time job and "aaah!"

I am so tempted!

The Hebrew was also a pretty big challenge. I am a much better writer in English than I am in Hebrew. Not only that, my close friends and family are all English speakers who don't really read Hebrew. However, most of the geeks I hang out with and interact with on social media are Hebrew speakers. Abandoning Hebrew, meant losing 90% of my followers. Abandoning English meant producing inferior content and the people I really cared about wouldn't get to experience what I wrote - so I did both.

Another thing, my initial plan was to only write the first paragraph of the post and link from there to the blog. I quickly learned that this wouldn't work for two reasons: 1. the Facebook algorithm hates links as it drives people away from the platform. 2. Hebrew. I wanted the Hebrew speakers to read my posts, and giving them a paragraph wouldn't have been enough. What did this result in? For the first 12 days, I spent every night adding links and media to posts in two languages (with an emphasis on trying to find separate links to Hebrew sources where possible). From day 13, I had to do links and media in one language, but also translate two thirds of each post into Hebrew for the Facebook page. On Fridays, I did double because of the weekend post, which needed to be posted immediately after Shabbat.

On top of all that, I had to find the time to write the last nine posts. Fortunately, I had physical copies of four of the last nine books so I was able to read them on Shabbat. Unfortunately, my house was a walking disaster zone as floors didn't get washed, dishes didn't cleaned and laundry didn't get done.

What's next and was all the effort worth it? The nice thing about having a Facebook page is that it allows me to see how many people are following me, and engaging with my posts.

However, this post has gone on way too long (for those of us with goldfish attention spans).

I am cutting here. Tomorrow, I will post "2019 - Part 2: And the winner is" - in which I reveal the books that were the most popular, the books that were my personal favorites and what I plan on doing next.

#seferhaomer

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