Eight nights of apps: iPhone programs put Chanukah in the palm of your hand

On the road during Chanukah and feel the need to light candles? There’s an app for that.

Lost all your dreidels and want to play a quick game? There’s an app for that.

Need to know how many days you have left to buy Chanukah presents? There’s an app for that, too.

Chanukah-themed applications have been a presence in Apple’s iTunes App Store almost since its inception, and with the holiday beginning Dec. 11, a number of new applications have cropped up to help iPhone and iPod Touch users meld technology with the ancient holiday.

When Apple debuted the App Store in July 2008, it contained 500 applications (known as apps) that could be downloaded and installed on an iPhone or iPod Touch. Earlier this month, the company announced that it had just surpassed 100,000 apps and 2 billion downloads.

Jewish developers have pounced on the ability to bring a little Yiddishkeit to the handheld devices, and today there are dozens of Jewish-themed apps available at the store.

Some of them are obvious: Siddur, iTalmud, Hebrew Date. An app called Mikvah shows users the nearest mikvah and provides a checklist of pre-mikvah preparations. The Los Angeles–based Kabbalah Centre International sells the Dialing God app, featuring kabbalistic meditations and blessings.

Then there are the more offbeat apps. ParveOMeter counts down the waiting time between eating dairy and meat; iCharity allows one to deposit virtual coins into a virtual tzedakah box; and if you’re wondering whether mahi-mahi is OK to eat, download Kosher Fish.

And then there are the holiday-based apps: Megillas Esther for Purim, several Omer-counting apps and numerous Passover apps, including haggadahs and a game called Find the Matzah.

But when it comes to Jewish holidays, Chanukah has a clear monopoly on the App Store. From iDreidel to DaysTo Hanukkah to Mobile Menorah, there’s an app for everything you might need for the holiday — except maybe one that makes latkes.

“All the kids in my family are always grabbing at my iPhone, so I figured they should play a Jewish game,” said Jeff Howard, creator of a Chanukah-themed app called Super Dreidel.

Orthodox computer programmer Ronnie Schwartz, who wrote the Menorah app, prays with his iPhone and the Siddur app he developed at his company, RustyBrick.

Howard, a Los Angeles–based screenwriter who describes himself as an “enthusiastic nerd,” came up with the idea for Super Dreidel shortly after Chanukah last year. He joined forces with another tech-obsessed friend, Richard Barry, and the two hired a programmer in New Hampshire to write the program.

Super Dreidel provides unique variations on the ancient spin-and-win game. Players still spin a dreidel (or virtual dreidel, in this case), but now they can choose between playing “traditional,” “Vegas” or “turbo” style.

For example, in “Vegas,” to make the game go faster, every time a player rolls a shin (put one in), the value of shin increases by one. The ante also increases by one every round.

Users can also set a specific number of rounds or increase the bankroll. Super Dreidel allows for up to eight players.

“A friend of mine and I sat down at his kitchen table with a dreidel and we played and played and played,” Howard said. “The funny thing about the traditional version is that it almost never ends. When you’re playing the electronic version … there’s actually a winner instead of it going on forever.”

The other benefit to the virtual game is that it avoids many of the game’s pitfalls.

“The dreidel never falls off the table,” Howard said. “It never hits gelt and the kids shout, ‘That was no fair. I should respin.’ ”

The application took about three months to complete, and after passing Apple’s strict vetting process, it was released to the App Store earlier this month.

Super Dreidel retails in the App Store for 99 cents. Thirty percent of each purchase goes to Apple, so Howard isn’t expecting to get rich off the app.

“When you do something that’s mainly directed at the Jewish community [rather than at a vast audience], you figure you’re not going to sell millions and millions,” he said. “It was mainly just for fun and to do something Jewish for the iPhone.”

While Howard created his app for kicks, iPhone apps mean business for 29-year-old Ronnie Schwartz of Web construction firm RustyBrick.

The company, based in Suffern, N.Y., mostly creates medium-sized Web applications for its clients. But it has also created more than 50 iPhone apps, many of which are Jewish-themed.

Schwartz and his twin brother, Barry, own RustyBrick — and happen to be Orthodox Jews. The first app they created was Siddur: For $9.99, users can have every prayer they could possibly need at their fingertips, day or night, no matter where they are — although some of the functions were programmed to be limited on Shabbat.

After the success of Siddur, the brothers decided to create a series of free holiday-themed apps that would get their name out there, and hopefully translate into downloads of Siddur. The closest holiday was Chanukah, and so Menorah was born.

Jeff Howard shows off Super Dreidel, the app he developed with business partner Richard Barry.

The app has several functions: It allows for a virtual menorah lighting, tells users what day of Chanukah it is and provides the necessary blessings, along with audio done by artist Mo Kiss, a friend of Ronnie Schwartz.

“These were original recordings just for the app,” Schwartz said. “I didn’t like what was available on the Web. It was old-school stuff — this is a little more hip for the iPhone crowd.”

As chief technology officer of RustyBrick, which employs around 15 people, Schwartz is the main developer for its iPhone apps. He’s been programming since he was 13, and it took him no more than four days to write the Menorah program that came out in late November 2008.

An update was released this past July to fix a bug that occurred after the iPhone operating system was updated to version 3.0.

Thus far, Menorah has been downloaded around 30,000 times. Schwartz thinks it appeals to those who don’t own a menorah or who have never lit one before, or travelers who are away for the holiday and don’t have access to their menorah.

RustyBrick has had its share of run-ins with Apple over its apps — such as a feature on Siddur that would add Hebrew dates to the iCal calendar program on the device. Apple didn’t like that, so Schwartz had to remove the function.

There haven’t been any quibbles with Apple over Menorah — the worst he’s had to deal with, Schwartz said, were some overly nasty reviews.

“With Menorah we got a bunch of anti-Semitic reviews, because you used to be able to review without owning the app, so people would put up anything,” he said. “But Apple removed them within a month.”

Schwartz grew up Orthodox  and is well versed in the halachah of the iPhone. RustyBrick has received requests to create apps such as a machzor and zemirot, which would only be useful on Shabbat or yom tov (when the use of devices such as an iPhone is prohibited), but Schwartz refuses. “Our rabbis won’t let us,” he said.

When it comes to Menorah, though, things get a bit hazy.

“Halachically the requirement [for lighting Chanukah candles] is oil,” Schwartz said. “The rabbis said, ‘OK, anything that’s physical light’ — after that it’s questionable if you’re allowed to use electric ones with filament bulbs.

“Bottom line, though, the mitzvah is not necessarily the lighting of it — it’s to spread the miracle,” he noted. “If you open this app and show it to someone else, that’s the mitzvah right there. If you have nothing else, it’s better than nothing.”


Cover illustration by Cathleen Maclearie


More Chanukah games

Super Dreidel and Menorah aren’t the only Chanukah-themed apps available for your iPhone or iPod Touch. Here are some other apps to enhance the Festival of Lights. (For reviews of the apps, visit the iTunes App Store.)

DaysTo Hanukkah (99 cents): Displays the number of days left until the first night of Chanukah.

Hanukkah Match (free): A Memory-style game that has users match Chanukah and other Judaica items (including dreidels, gelt and Torahs). The faster you match, the higher the score — and users can compete for high scores with other users worldwide.

A Dreidel Game (99 cents): A basic dreidel game for two players.

Mobile Menorah (99 cents): Light the shamash with your finger and drag it to the other candles to light them. Has a programmable “burn rate.”

Dreidel Tap (free): Tap the falling dreidels with your finger while avoiding the burning candles. Compete for high scores with other users.

MyMenorah ($4.99): A menorah-lighting app with live flame animation and a video of candles being lit. Comes in English, French and Russian.