Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why I Hate Lag B'Omer

Photo (c)Amy Samin

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 23 May 2005.

Actually, Lag B'Omer is a fairly innocuous holiday. It is a minor festival which almost takes longer to explain than it does to celebrate. It is marked among secular Israelis* these days mainly by the construction of simple bow and arrow sets, and by building bonfires. Indeed, if you were to approach Israel by air on the eve of Lag B'Omer, you would think the entire country was under attack.

Every year schoolchildren and young adults get together (classes from schools, youth groups, and gatherings of friends) and light thousands of fires along the coast and scattered throughout the country. Foil-wrapped potatoes and, more recently, marshmallows, are roasted in the fire. Kids play games, sing songs, and generally engage in campfire-type activities. There is much competition between groups, especially classes of children from the same school or rival youth groups, to see whose fire will be the biggest. But to build the largest fire, you need plenty of something that is relatively scarce in Israel: wood.

For weeks before Lag B'Omer, bands of children scour their neighborhoods for any bit of wood that can be carted off in their "borrowed" shopping carts. Indeed, this pre-holiday scavenging costs supermarkets thousands of shekels in stolen carts. But the markets are not the only ones to suffer financial losses. Construction companies and contractors also lose plenty of money when the wood they have purchased for construction purposes is stolen from job sites by kids looking for fuel for their precious bonfires. One contractor we know gathers up all of his wood well before the holiday, and secures it under lock and key until after Lag B'Omer. Naturally this means that any work requiring the wood must wait until after the holiday.

But far worse than either of those losses, in my opinion, is the damage done when students chop down trees within the Jewish National Fund forests. Just last week I read a report stating that approximately 30 carob, pine, and poplar trees (many over 50 years old) were cut down in Rihasim Forest. The wood was later found on the premises of a nearby high school. I am sure that is not the only such case. When it comes to Lag B'Omer, it seems no holds are barred. And for what?

Every year on Lag B'Omer, I wonder how much pollution we are sending up into the air we breathe. Every year, I close up the house as tightly as I can, and still end up with a home reeking of wood smoke for days afterwards. Every year on Lag B'Omer morning, the air is full of flying ashes and the stench of smoke. I can't begin to imagine how people with asthma must suffer. Blackened patches of earth show where each fire was located. And don't get me started on how dangerous it is to let large groups of overstimulted children build, ignite, and celebrate around a bonfire that can reach over 20 feet in height. If the area around the fire is not sufficiently cleared, there is the danger of a stray spark igniting nearby weeds and brush.

When I asked my Israeli friends for their childhood recollections of Lag B'Omer, they all smiled fondly and talked about how much fun it used to be. When I asked them how they feel about the holiday now, they voice many of the same complaints I have raised. At least they have their happy memories to bolster them as they help their children celebrate. After all, they want their kids to experience the same pleasure they once felt. I can understand that; I used to enjoy our small family celebrations held at my parents-in-law's home. But since they moved to a smaller home, we can no longer celebrate with them.

This year, Israelis throughout the country will be out on the beaches, in vacant lots, indeed in any open space of land, enjoying their Lag B'Omer bonfires on Thursday night, May 26. I'll be hiding at home, with my windows closed and my shutters down tight.

* Religious Israelis also do these things, but they engage in other activities as well.

(c) Amy Samin

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