Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lag BaOmer - rethinking traditions

Today is Lag BaOmer. Tonight all across Israel there will be hundreds of bonfires, mostly attended by children. While this may seem like harmless fun, I think several things about the traditions of this holiday should be reconsidered.

First, I want to point out that I will discuss here the modern, secular, Zionist celebration of Lag BaOmer, leaving aside the religious festival with its traditions, which would obviously be more difficult to change.

I first encountered Lag BaOmer after I came to Israel at age 9. My class met in the afternoon a few days before to "collect planks" for the bonfire. I wasn't quite sure what this meant. When I arrived, someone had "borrowed" a supermarket trolley (cart) to carry the wood in, and we went around building sites stealing the wooden planks they used in construction work. Then the wood we had stolen was hidden in someone's basement so that other groups of children wouldn't steal it from us before the night.

I was shocked that we were stealing, but was told that this was all part of the tradition. I soon realized that parents, teachers, and society in general were all complicit in this stealing, treating it as a natural part of the holiday. Some building sites now prepare piles of planks for the children to take, leaving them outside the fence so that the children won't endanger themselves by walking around the building site itself. Since that is the case, I would suggest changing the tradition slightly, to going around asking for planks of wood rather than stealing them. It would also be better to "borrow" the supermarket trolley by asking permission to take it for a few days, making sure it is returned, and perhaps even leaving a deposit. Some supermarkets lose a lot of money when their trolleys are taken for various reasons, and this holiday is one of the times when this happens.

My next problem is with the fires themselves. I know that bonfires can be fun, but they are not always "harmless fun", as each year people are injured (burns and smoke inhalation) and property is damaged. This year it is particularly hot and windy, and the firefighters have called on people to have smaller fires and keep buckets of water handy, but I doubt that everyone will comply.

Having so many fires on the same night causes a massive increase in air pollution. Just a week ago, Israel marked Earth Day with public awareness-raising events, including Earth Hour when people were asked to turn their lights off for one hour. Having a festival that encourages air pollution so soon after raising public awareness of the environment seems counterproductive.

The fires are said, in the secular tradition, to represent the signal fires used in the Bar Kochba revolt. However, signal fires would be in high places, rather than on the beach or in the few open spaces remaining within cities. Also, signal fires would probably not be used for roasting potatoes and marshmallows.

Wood is a rare commodity in Israel, and I believe the planks are imported rather than made locally. It seems particularly uneconomical for wood planks to be shipped here from overseas and instead of serving their purpose in construction end up being burned.

Instead of just asking people to abandon this tradition, I was wondering if it could be changed. Perhaps instead of bonfires we could have candle-lit processions. I once witnessed a candle-lit procession at Easter in Crete, and it can be a touching display, with people passing the light from candle to candle. I imagine there would be some resistance to adopting what would be seen as a foreign, non-Jewish tradition. But it would be appropriate to the idea of signal fires, cause less damage and pollution, and encourage cooperation among people rather than competition over who can have the biggest fire, and using candles would not require children to steal anything.

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