Middle Israel: Alien fire

Lag Ba'omer, as celebrated in Israel: vandalism, pyromania, and paganism.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Overwhelmed by nature's whims and wrath and confounded by history's twists and turns, man has been observing holidays since the dawn of civilization. The quest for a decent rainfall and the urge to celebrate a rich harvest, or the need for comfort in autumn and warmth at the height of winter are both universal and timeless, and easily explain at least some aspects of major holidays in many cultures, from the Persian Noruz to the Hindu Vishakhi; so do the commemorations of historic events, from Muhammad's birth through the Israelites' exodus to the storming of the Bastille, and so do numerous rituals involving water, fire, soil and blood. While varied in origin and rationale, and though in many cases they actually stemmed from awful things like an encounter with a demon or the loss of a luminary, holidays eventually became engines of happiness, if only for the prosaic reason that they served as an excuse to halt work, assemble families, play, feast, drink, hang loose and in some case also abandon daily norms and prohibitions. Surely, holidays and happiness are not always synonymous; not only because holidays are instituted and happiness, in its purest, is spontaneous, and not only because holidays are, by definition, collective, while happiness, at its strongest, is individual, but because some holidays actually make some people cringe. Some, when made to look back at an elapsing year's accomplishments and failures, do not like what they see. Others, when made to eat a substitute closer in its shape and taste to Styrofoam, recall longingly the soft, warm and fragrant bread they must at the same time shun. Others yet dread the thought of facing a phalanx of relatives across a Thanksgiving or Seder table cross-examining them about their failure to marry, multiply or earn in line with family expectations. Holidays can be aggravating not only emotionally, but also philosophically. Hebrew University humanist Akiva Ernst Simon, appalled by the Purim story's commemoration of violent events, is said to have avoided that carnival by spending its first day in Jerusalem and the second outside it, thus swapping the locations and dates at which it is celebrated. Similarly, feminists are aghast that Succot's main highlights are obligatory only to men, vegetarians resent Thanksgiving and the Muslim Id al-Adha, Protestants often ridicule Catholic commemorations of assorted saints, and conservatives are put off by Gay Pride days. And yet, at the end of the day all holidays are generally happier than ordinary days; all, that is, except one: Lag Ba'omer. ANY STROLL last Monday night by the fields that were carpeted with scorching bonfires like a Napoleonic battlefield would have made any fair-minded visitor wonder what on earth justified that pyromania. The annual scenes of adolescents relentlessly stoking fires as if determined to burn just that one last thing that should never have been created in the first place; the sounds of celebrants cheering, jeering, howling and drum beating well after midnight, even in the thick of the most crowded, ordinary and quiet neighborhoods; and the ubiquitous, unmistakable and unshakable odors of smoke, charcoal and general incineration that annually make us shut even our smallest windows hours before the conflagration begins and the entire Jewish state turns into one big stink bomb, would all make one assume that behind all this must lurk something very ancient, big, inspiring and profound. What else, after all, can justify the major-league robbery of construction sites and disfigurement of public property this society allows its youngsters to commit annually come Lag Ba'omer? What makes mothers fatalistically accept toddlers' swallowing of semi-baked, pitch-black potatoes, onions and marshmallows that make half of them sick, not to mention the annual crop of kids who burn an arm, leg or tongue? There must be something, people tell themselves. The fact is there is nothing. Yes, there has apparently been an element of historic salvation somewhere behind this strange holiday. Tradition says that a plague that had consumed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's disciples ended on that day. Yet there are two flaws about that. First of all, historians find the plague story a bit cryptic, and suspect that what actually happened there had less to do with epidemiology and more with Rabbi Akiva's ill-conceived support of the futile anti-Roman revolt led by the man he thought was the messiah - Shimon Bar-Kochba. The calamity that followed that revolt resulted, unlike the Temple destruction 65 years earlier, in the Jews' actual loss of their Holy Land, whose Jewish communities were now systematically destroyed. What's there to celebrate in all this? Secondly, even if whatever happened with Rabbi Akiva and his disciples offers reason for happiness, how does that justify torching an entire country? The answer is simple. The Lag Ba'omer most Israelis celebrate is not the one whose Judaic roots lie somewhere between Rabbi Akiva's intellectualism and medieval rabbi Yitzhak Luria's mysticism, but a bizarre Zionist invention reflecting a deep a craving for the mythological gentile's ostensibly intimate relationship with nature, power and rebellion. The thought that once upon a time there was a ferocious Jew who stood up to an empire as mighty as Rome turned Zionists on, and gave rise to what began as a reasonable, if debatable, ideological statement and has since become a cultural monstrosity. Throughout the centuries Jews were so cautious with fire that they wouldn't even light their Hanukka candles in a visible location, despite the obligation to do so. Only here, in the Promised Land, did they get into the habit of setting the entire country ablaze on Lag Ba'omer, and even today, this is one ostensibly Jewish thing that the religious Diaspora largely ignores while in Israeli schools it's a vacation day. In fact, Lag Ba'omer is the one "holiday" secular Israel makes sure to "observe" strictly, even though it has long ceased to even nominally consider or even just mention its roots, and instead abandons itself thoughtlessly to what increasingly resembles a pagan celebration of pyromania and vandalism. Many civilizations celebrated natural powers, from the Japanese who dedicated a holiday to Sanno the mountain god, to the Zoroastrians who placed fire at the center of their faith. In this land there also was once a deity whose believers saw as the god of fire. His name was Molech, and his followers' archenemies were the Jewish prophets who scolded King Ahaz who "consigned his son to the fire" and praised King Josiah for having "defiled Tofet [modern Hebrew for inferno] which is in the Valley of Ben-hinnom [where Jerusalem's Cinematheque now stands] so that no one might consign his son or daughter to the fire of Molech." Now where does this leave us?