Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lag Ba'Omer Grinch

It's Israeli bonfire season again, time to batten down the hatches, seal the windows and hide indoors until the air clears.

I associate many of our holidays with the smell of burning, but now that I think of it there seem to be many variations of that smell.

Hannukah and Friday night come with the warm, sweet smell of olive oil, mostly odourless as it burns, then pleasantly pungent as the oil burns down and the wick putters out.

Purim in Israel reeks of cordite from the firecrackers. Kind of like the Chinese New Year. Funny they often come out around the same time, I've often wondered if the Israeli firecracker tradition is in someway connected, maybe we get the surplus from the Chinese celebrations.

Pesah eve comes with the whiff of burning bread. Or rather the smell of people trying in vain to get fires going with the remains of their leaven. Hopefully without any plastic packaging, but there is always someone who thinks that will help.

On Yom Ha'atzmaut the whole country smells like a giant grill restaurant. I imagine this must have been what seder night was like at the time of the ancient Temple, a whole nation barbequeing in unison.

Then there is Lag Ba'Omer, holiday of burning, or so it seems. Weeks in advance the children of Israel (note the small c) start gathering wood. And I don't mean firewood, I mean anything that could be considered wood or woodlike, be it packing crates, mdf closet doors or even chipboard and formica old furniture. What's that you say, those things can give of fumes when burnt? Really?

Sad to say that the yearning for kindling of any kind seems to be so keen that some kids will even rip the wooden planks off park benches (in our area many of the benches are metal or stone for this reason) or bits of scaffolding from building sites. 

There just aren't that many spare logs and twigs in these parts where our local trees tend towards puny rather than mighty, and belong to either private individuals or the state.

The aim is to gather the greatest pile of flammable stuff you can and then, on the great night itself (give or take a couple of days) to set it alight into a mighty torch, while you stand around and wonder what to do next. It isn't even as if the nights are usually that chilly this time of year, so it's often uncomfortably warm around the flames. 

It's a curious thing, this juvenile attraction to pyromania. Schools, synagogues and youth groups organise their own bonfires with legally obtained fireworthy lumber, roast potatoes, marshmallows and corn on the cob, maybe a nice singalong too. 

They usually have the good sense to hold their event in the week before Lag Ba'Omer, while the air is still breathable and there are still plenty of open areas uncluttered by competing fires.

As you may have gathered I'm not a big fan of this holiday. Whose brilliant idea was it to set the whole country alight davka at the beginning of the warm dry season, just when the rain has usually come to a halt and there is no way to cleanse the air from all this ash, soot and smoke? 

The pall of Lag Ba'Omer hangs over Israel for days to come, a toxic miasma keeping the elderly, the sick, asthmatic and the allergy prone indoors, and the rest of us wishing we could legally open our emergency gas masks to escape from the noxious air.

Most irksome of all though is that all the stories associated with this holiday, from Rabbi Akiva to Bar Kokhva to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, are largely forgotten in the single minded pursuit of fire. 

I mean come on, why couldn't we have celebrated by eating carobs or remembering the need to be nice to one's fellow human being as per the story of Rabbi Akiva's students? We could have started by not trying to burn down the neighbourhood.

1 comment:

Chana said...

Speaking of Bar Kochva, it seems the only info my daughter learned was the mythological riding of the lion. She did show an interest in using bows and arrows. I suggest a municipal "field day" :)