Shlomo Fischer

The unbearable lightness of discarding Lag BaOmer bonfires

The smell, the mess, the inconvenience – is that all leftists see in this unique, culturally deep Israeli tradition?
Children gather around the Lag Ba'omer bonfire outside Jerusalem, 2010. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/ Flash90)
Children gather around the Lag Ba'omer bonfire outside Jerusalem, 2010. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/ Flash90)

We often hear representatives and supporters of Israel’s religious right say that the previous government, the “left” and the protesters want “a state of all its citizens” and not a “Jewish state.” I usually dismiss such statements as yet more of the propaganda put out by the various ideological adversaries active in Israel. But sometimes things happen that make me wonder whether there isn’t something to that claim.

Last week on the day before Lag B’Omer  I heard Gili Cohen (A well-known journalist) and former IDF spokesman Ronen Manelis discuss Lag BaOmer and the holiday custom of making bonfires. Speaking on the Kan Reshet Bet radio station, Cohen related how, as a child, she’d hated the custom because of the smell and the mess. They agreed that the custom and the holiday should basically be canceled, because the kids come home in the middle of the night and it’s really hard for the parents the next day. Manelis said that in his hometown, there were no more bonfires and that there’s an “alternative activity” instead – a movie or folk dancing. We can assume that Cohen and Manelis weren’t speaking solely for themselves, but that they represent a large Israeli subgroup that feels the same way.

I was a little surprised by the ease with which Cohen and Manelis (and, apparently, other Israelis who share their views) would do away, for trivial reasons, with a common and deep-rooted Jewish custom that has religious features (the hillula – death anniversary – of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai), national features (commemoration of the Bar Kokhba rebels), and fun features (the ubiquitous bonfire barbeques). We could, after all, cancel Yom Kippur and the Passover seder because they’re “inconvenient” and messy and make it hard to control the kids, and replace them with folk dancing or a movie as “alternative activities.”

Yossi Beilin once said that as long people are making Lag BaOmer bonfires in Israel, he wouldn’t be concerned about the country’s Jewish identity. He’s right: Israel is the only country in the world where on the night of May 8th (18 Iyar) bonfires were lit throughout the land. After all, we don’t cancel bonfires on hikes, at summer camps, or at youth movement activities, and kids have to learn fire safety rules sometime.

The human need for identity is bound up with specific tastes, smells, foods, jokes, and stories that can’t be found in any other family, neighborhood, people, or state. That’s why the Germans still “religiously” observe their Weihnachtsmarkt or Christmas-market custom, even if German society is now essentially post-Christian.

My religious friends tell me that the “leftists” at Kan Reshet Bet are against Lag BaOmer because they’re against the connection with Bar Kokhba, whom they perceive as a symbol of irresponsible nationalism (like the settlers), or because the government, the Haredim, and the conscription law are making them oppose anything Jewish. If only this were true and there were some substantive issue or fundamental principle we could discuss and argue about (around the bonfire?) instead of chattering mindlessly, in the absence of any cultural depth.

To take the approach of Cohen and Manelis is to adopt the idea of “a state of all its citizens” in the worst possible way – a neutral society that is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and shallow both culturally and intellectually. I hope I’m wrong to attribute such a view to Cohen and Manelis. I wouldn’t want to admit that Minister Bezalel Smotrich and MK Avi Maoz are right in this case and that non-religious Israelis truly want to live in a state without identity, character, or depth.

This blog was originally published in Hebrew in Zman Yisrael on the Lag B’Omer night. 

About the Author
Dr. Shlomo Fischer is a sociologist and a senior staff member of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem. He taught in the Department of Education at Hebrew University. He is also a founder of Yesodot- Center for Torah and Democracy which works to advance education for democracy in the State-Religious school sector in Israel. His research interests include religious groups, class and politics in Israel and the sociology of the Jewish People in the Diaspora.
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