That holiday stench

It’s time to rethink the way we celebrate Lag Ba’omer.

Lag Ba'omer 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Lag Ba'omer 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Strong, sustained odors have a way of imprinting themselves on our olfactory sensors, so by the time you read this there’s a good chance you’ll be wondering whether somewhere close by there are live embers left over from Lag Ba’omer.
Now, I appreciate the usefulness of religious symbolism as much as anyone (although I have not yet heard a truly logical explanation for the Easter egg). But the business of lighting humongous bonfires on just about every available dunam of open land in our tiny, parched and arbor-sparse country seems, to me at least, to have outlived its relevance.
There are a number of reasons given for the custom. One is that it represents the brilliant light of learning said to have emanated from Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai, who, according to tradition, died on this day and whose grave is the location for the country’s central Lag Ba’omer extravaganza.
Another is that it commemorates the Bar-Kochba revolt against the Romans, which saw the use of signal fires by Bar-Kochba’s fighters and briefly reinstated the custom of marking each new Hebrew month with a bonfire.
Your average Israeli kid or young teen will probably tell you this. They all learn it in school. But let’s face it, Lag Ba’omer is much more of a guy thing (how many female arsonists or pyromaniacs do you read about in the newspaper?) and the real reason that school-age boys spend days roaming the neighborhood about a month after Passover with noisy, wobbly shopping carts in search of wood that’s not nailed down (and a lot that is) is to satisfy the male’s curious need to set something – anything – alight.
I know the feeling. I was a boy scout, where the preparation of cooking and heating fires and the Native American-style matchless ignition thereof were basic skills. But the allure of crackling flames and bright sheets of sparks shooting up to the stars was so strong and intoxicating that, had the scoutmaster allowed it, we might have cleared an entire forest just to fuel our creations.
Indeed, a short drive through an Israeli neighborhood just before sundown on Lag Ba’omer eve reveals boys (and a lot of men) scampering around towers of twoby- fours, freight pallets and wardrobes, TV stands and other discarded household furniture that soar as high as some buildings.
(Some seem to have been constructed so haphazardly it’s a wonder no one is killed even before the gasoline is splashed on and a match tossed in.) THE
HOLIDAY COMES in mid-spring. It’s a time of year when the evening is blissfully heavy with the fragrance of orange blossoms and lavender, and the temperature is mild enough for us to leave our windows open to catch the redolent breeze. But once the wooden towers are ablaze – they take flame one after another as the youngsters, like Bar- Kochba’s warriors, pass down the signal that the holiday has begun – the tottering structures emit billows of dense smoke, and on this night you quickly hear the sliding and slamming of casements by neighbors who know how difficult it can be to rid curtains, carpets and upholstery of a sour, biting stink.
Few of the country’s inhabited places, if any, are immune. In fact, there are so many bonfires on Lag Ba’omer that there is no such thing as being upwind. Wherever you are, your eyes will water and your nostrils sting unless you get inside. If you’re ultra-sensitive, even a Saddam-era sealed room might not be of help.
But enough about us. What about the environment? Wood is a relatively rare commodity in these parts, and instead of recycling it, we put it to the torch. This means even more trees have to be harvested, even if it’s in some other country.
And the smoke? Taken together, the aerial output from the country’s Lag Ba’omer bonfires probably surpasses that produced by some of our worst forest fires, where, together with toxic gases, the solid and liquid particulates – some highly acidic and even carcinogenic – waft through the air doing damage for long periods of time over great distances. If there’s an inversion layer, a meteorological phenomenon that traps air below a certain altitude and prevents all this from dissipating, the noxious mixture could stay with us for days.
We’re also an arid land. When Lag Ba’omer bonfires get out of control – and some inevitably do – there is a need for water to douse them. And let’s not forget the extra loads of wash we begin the moment the kids traipse in so as not to let the stench from their clothes, usually numerous layers’ worth, overpower the house. All this means water consumption rises for the holiday, something we can ill afford.
And what about the eighth commandment? God tells us not to steal, but in the days leading up to Lag Ba’omer, a whole lot of otherwise upright kids become thieves in every sense of the word by raiding construction sites and other places, such as factory and warehouse loading docks, where freight pallets are often stacked. You have to wonder about the message they get when one successfully diverts the attention of the Chinese/Romanian/Thai worker guarding the site while others make off with some serious wood booty. It says something about the infractions people tolerate in the name of religion and tradition.
ALL IN all, Lag Ba’omer is a holiday that many, especially parents, wish would go away. It’s one of those things looming in our diaries, much like upcoming visits by unpopular relatives. And it’s all because of the fire and smoke.
How about doing away with the pyromania? Where does it say smoke and fire have to be part of the celebrations? If Shimon Bar-Yohai was so luminous when he taught Torah, how about a central commemoration with spectacular lasers, and local ceremonies with light shows? Whatever happened to the days when kids went out to the woods with bows and arrows and other implements (with adult supervision, of course) to remember Bar- Kochba and his warriors?
The time has come to rethink the way we celebrate the occasion. We Jews have done away with the animal sacrifices. We can do away with the bonfires, too.