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November 24, 2010 By:
Handy, and You Don’t Need a Match to Light Up
It’s the electric menorah of the Facebook generation — more than two-dozen applications that smartphone users can download to do just about anything Chanukah related short of eating latkes.
Itching to play dreidel?
There’s an app for that.
Can’t remember whether mom likes milk- or dark-chocolate gelt?
There’s an app for that.
Ran out of Chanukah candles?
Yes, there’s even an app for lighting the menorah.
“It’s not only a novelty, it’s useful,” said Barry Schwartz, the 30-year-old CEO of a software development company in Suffern, N.Y., that has produced 22 Jewish-themed apps, including a chanukiah. “People use it because it helps them with their daily life.”
It might sound a little unorthodox, but developers say it’s just a natural extension of our increasingly app-happy culture. Though phone companies have been creating apps for several years now, the trend took off in 2008 after Apple opened its online store to any developer whose product passed a quick screening.
Schwartz’ chanukiah, along with the more realistic iMenorah, were among the first Chanukah apps available there.
“We thought, you know this is going to be huge, and within six months there’s going to be a slew of Christmas apps and one lonely app for the Jewish folks,” remembered Mike Jutan, 28, a San Francisco-based developer who built iMenorah with his colleague, Matthew Parrot, 30. “Wouldn’t it be nice if there’s something for my community and something we can share kind of as an educational thing?”
Their menorah app syncs with the phone’s internal calendar so users will know exactly how many candles to “light” with just the touch of a finger each night. Once the candles are burning, the app sings the prayers, including the “Shehechianu” on the first night, rendered by Jutan himself. Jutan said they purposefully avoided including English text other than the name so that the program would be accessible to anyone.
Today, Jewishiphonecommunity. org, a nonprofit site devoted to all things Jewish and Apple, lists 26 Chanukah apps, a figure that trumps the number of apps for any other Jewish holiday. That’s not even counting what can be downloaded to BlackBerry, Android and other devices.
“It’s fun, you know?” said Robert Reuven Pass, 48, a graphic designer who created the website out of a personal desire to have easier access to Jewish widgets. “Kids can play together, let’s say, coloring stuff that they can talk about why do we have Chanukah and how we observe it. It’s another kind of learning.”
Not a Replacement
But with so many digital substitutes, what happens to the real menorah and dreidels and Chanukah cards?
“Of course, it is absolutely not a replacement,” Pass hurriedly responded, speaking over the phone from Ireland, where the Polish native has lived since 2005. At least, Pass said, he hoped smartphones wouldn’t keep people from conducting the proper mitzvah of lighting candles at home.
On the other hand, he mused, maybe this could be a way to connect with less observant Jews who wouldn’t be lighting candles otherwise.
“People will still remember that they are Jewish, and it’s some kind of special element of our identity and how to be a Jew,” said Pass. “Maybe it’s not halachah, maybe it’s not the best way. But it’s also OK for people to remember from where they are.”
Jutan said he never intended to replace tradition with the iMenorah.
Based on the number of downloads, there’s a ways to go before that becomes a widespread concern anyway.
They sold about 1,000 downloads in 2008 and 2,000 last year, said Jutan. A portion of the $3 purchase price was donated to the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco and a local food bank.
The free menorah app, however, has been downloaded more than 50,000 times, said Schwartz.
“I don’t think that an iPhone menorah could ever really have the same effect as swiping a match and lighting the menorah and crowding over it and feeling the heat,” said Jutan. “But ultimately, it does have a place in our lives. Especially in this run-around modern society, people can still participate in the tradition despite being in an airplane or someplace where candles might be hard to get to.”
Jutan recounted a story he’d heard about a family whose connecting flight was canceled on the way to a Hawaii vacation. Their menorah was packed in checked baggage, so they huddled around the iPhone to light the first candle together.
Shayna Levenson, 24, a substitute teacher in a suburb near Redding, said she wished she had the app when she was attending Penn State University and igniting anything in the dorm was off-limits. She had to make do with placing unlit candles in the menorah.
“It would’ve been nice to have something like this, where you could at least pretend to light the candles and see the flame,” said Levenson.
She purchased the app shortly after it came out.
It’s “kind of corny,” she acknowledged, but fun, too, “and you can do it anywhere.”
“It doesn’t cost an insane amount, and I have it now,” she said. “The fact that it’s on my phone and I see it, it’s kind of a reminder” of the holiday.
Her brother, David, 25, who handles marketing and insurance compliance for a fire and flood clean-up company, said it gives him a twinge of Jewish pride to have the app on hand.
“It’s just the way that things are going now — smartphone this and iPhone that,” explained Levenson. “And for us Jewish people, we actually have something.”
Even though the siblings have no problem accessing a menorah now, David Levenson said they’ll still pull out the app to give non-Jewish friends or children a chance to preview the prayer a few minutes before the real deal.
“At this point, it’s kind of become tradition,” said Levenson.
And now that he has a second iPhone for work, he joked, this year “I’ll have it in more surround sound.”