Burning Down the House

Lag BaOmer has got to go away. It is time we let it die and quit celebrating arrant idiocy, highway banditry, and uber-greed wrapped in nationalism.  Put Bar Kochba out of his misery and let the rest of us get on with our lives.

Lag BaOmer is the Stephen Colbert of Jewish Holidays. It really is two holidays in one. They are both called the same, superficially the seem to be the same guy, but the moment you scratch the surface you realize that one’s for real and one is phony through and through. Colbert the man is said to be intelligent, thoughtful, and considerate to a fault. Colbert the character, well… you know. A very similar thing happens with the Lag BaOmer holiday(s). One of the them has a history of roughly eight-hundred years, with traditions and history attached to it and, if you happen to be religious, deep meanings associated with it. The other Lag BaOmer somehow combines celebrating that almost one-million Jews died in Bar Kochba’s rebellion against Rome with the modern attempt to burn down the country once a year.

Not being religious and not being one with a particularly Kabbalistic bent, I don’t get the whole deal with going up to Galilee and having a huge party at the tomb of a long-dead rabbi. Of course that does not mean that the event is not important and significant to other Jews, so to them I say: “Nice holiday you’ve go there. I wish you happiness in its celebration.” Religious Jews want to celebrate the thirty-third day after the beginning of Passover; as long as they are not hurting anyone they certainly do not need either my permission nor my approval to do so. wish them well.

Having dealt with the actual holiday, let us turn our attention to the yearly attempt by everybody else to burn the country down. To review: every year in the days leading up to Lag BaOmer, roving gangs of kids steal supermarket carts that they then use to steal wood from building sites. On the day of the so-called holiday they light said stolen wood in bonfires all over the place while the rest of us watch from the side and hope that none the bonfires get out of hand and scorch a chunk of our very tiny country. Why bonfires? No body seems to know.

Every year I ask people standing around the Lag BaOmer fires about the holiday. I put on my best naive immigrant face and ask, all sweetness, for people to explain it to me. A sampling of the conversations.

Benjamin Levy – “So, what’s this holiday all about then?”

Random Israeli 1 – “Oh, you know, Bar Kochba… and stuff.”

BL – “What about Bar Kochba?”

Random Israeli 2 – “Err, you know, he rebelled against, ehm, Rome, and… and he won.” (“You know” seems to be an important part of the holiday).

BL – “But didn’t we LOSE that rebellion? Isn’t that what got the two-thousand year exile going? And while we’re about it, what’s with the bonfires?”

RI2 – “You know, it’s like signalling. Like that Lord of the Rings movie.” Brilliant, we’re celebrating the fact that fictitious characters signaled other non-existent characters that they should ride into battle. Great, just great.

You might think that over-simplify the situation, that there are plenty of non-religious Israelis that have a good handle on the holiday. I doubt it, but I’ll even concede that point because it’s immaterial. For a great many Israelis Lag BaOmer is about finding wood somewhere and burning it. It’s not even a custom empty of meaning; it’s worse than that, it’s actually wrong. Let’s start with the fact that a holiday built around stealing anything is not that good of an idea. Then we go and burn the stolen wood. Not to cook something or to warm ourselves, but to burn it. Simple, wanton destruction of natural resources. And it is not like we live in northern Finland and have plenty of trees to choose from. I hate to point out the obvious but we live in the desert. What little wood there is around here we actually need for important stuff. Like building houses for people.

Roughly sixty years ago, the powers-that-be in Israel decided that we needed to balance out the religious character of Lag BaOmer with some good old-fashioned nationalistic celebrations. To that end they elevated the character of Shimon Bar-Kochba to that of national hero and created some flimsy mythology around him. There is considerably controversy around good ol’ Shimon. Some sources consider him a great general and leader; quite a few others describe him as an overly-ambitious, cruel, thoughtless warlord. As far as the myth goes, he rebelled against the foreign overlords and he did it so successfully that Rome had to send six legions to crush his rebellion and then limp home bloody and wounded. But they did crush it, and about one-million Jews perished in the struggle. And whomever was left alive was then exiled from the land. Great victory that one.

If I were feeling generous I would say that the young country of sixty years ago needed such a hero. Maybe. But certainly we don’t need him today, do we? And I’m pretty sure that we don’t need the waste and the danger and the pollution caused by all the ill-supervised bonfires. It’s time to let it go. Lag BaOmer should be a purely religious holiday. Let the religious people have it and enjoy it properly. The rest of us should be fine without it.


File under: Shooting ourselves in the foot.


About the Author
Benjamin Levy is the CEO of IsItYou, Ltd; an Israeli start-up specializing in mobile face recognition; He was born forty-six years ago in Mexico City and lived for a long time in California. Today he is married to an Israeli and the proud father of three. To date, he’s managed to fit in getting three degrees, launch a democratic school, hold eight proper jobs, completed over eighty consulting assignments, and worked in 61 countries, and fourteen of the world’s time zones at last count; His favorite line of poetry comes from Rainier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.”