Grumpy old man: Smoke (still) gets in your eyes

A repeat appeal to put an end to the unhealthy way we mark one of the most minor holidays of the Jewish calendar.

People celebrate Lag Ba'omer (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
People celebrate Lag Ba'omer
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
For those still unsure as to when this year’s smoky, malodorous Lag Ba’omer eve bonfires will whoosh into the otherwise sweet spring air, it will be May 14, a week from Sunday, rather than the previous evening, a Saturday night, which, according to the Hebrew calendar, is when they should be lit.
According to the country’s all powerful ultra-Orthodox pols, some people, especially the young, might be tempted to prepare their bonfires before the Sabbath ends. Better to put it off by an evening than risk having our precious young people lose some of their Judaism.
So the country’s “official” bonfire, on Mount Meron, will take place Sunday night, as will all bonfires sponsored by schools, community centers and other state-affiliated or public bodies. But this probably won’t keep some of our more hard-core religious youngsters from going rogue and celebrating on Saturday night – meaning that in heavily religious cities like Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, we’ll be coughing for two nights, not just one.
Our kippa-wearing education minister, Naftali Bennett, kowtowed to the ultras and moved the day off from school from Sunday to Monday; this was, you know, to give the kids time to sleep in and rid themselves of Sunday night’s smoky stench. But there was not a peep at all from the two members of the cabinet (both religious) whose jobs are to look after our well-being and that of the planet: Ya’acov Litzman, our health minister, likely was cozying up to the cigarette manufacturers who advertise in his party’s newspaper, while Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin probably was busy looking for new ways to shore up the sagging popularity of his patron, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
FIVE YEARS ago, just before the 2012 holiday, I wrote a piece on why the bonfire ritual should be snuffed out. Obviously, nothing has changed, so in the spirit of doing nothing, I’ll just insert right here the gist of that column, headlined “That holiday stench.” Perhaps it’s worth another read.
“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 two-by- 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 is 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... the tottering structures emit billows of dense smoke, and on this night you quickly hear the sliding and slamming of window 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 will sting....
“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....
“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... where freight pallets are often stacked.... 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.
“....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 no longer sacrifice animals. We can do away with the bonfires, too.”
THERE. IT TOOK little more than copy and paste, but it’s a whole lot more than the people who should be looking after us have done. To them, keep the Sabbath and you’ve done your job. Our health and the environment are much farther down the list of commandments – if they are on it at all.