I was on an airplane, looking through the window at Israel’s shoreline which just appeared in the far distance in the early dawn hours. The land below was still looking grayish; there was just enough light outside to know that a new day was beginning.
As soon as we crossed the shoreline we were over Tel Aviv’s suburbs but I couldn’t see anything. A layer of thick smoke covered the entire viewing area. As high as the plane was over the city, all I could see was one huge flat dark layer of smoke that covered the entire city.
We landed few minutes later. The sun was already up in the sky by the time I was out of the arrival terminal. The first thing that hit me as the automatic glass doors opened and I stepped outside was the smell of smoke. It was so strong that it couldn’t be missed. No, Tel Aviv wasn’t under attack. There was no uncontrolled forest fire in the area either. It was the morning after Lag Baomer’s bonfire celebrations, an ancient Jewish celebration that evolved in modern Israel in a unique way and became the Israeli national bonfire holiday.
The bonfire celebration origin is the tradition to light bonfires on Lag BaOmer eve to commemorate the immense light that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai introduced into the world via his mystical teachings. By far, the largest Lag BaOmer celebration takes place in and around Rabbi Shimon’s tomb, located in the northern Israeli village of Meron. Hundreds of thousands attend the festivities, and the round-the-clock celebration, singing and dancing are unparalleled. [ www.chabad.org]
I was once in Meron village in the Galile during Lag Baomer celebrations and I can confirm from my own experience that on that night there were bonfires everywhere. Thousands of religious Jewish people were there with their families to celebrate the holiday. I wasn’t there to light a bonfire or to celebrate mystical teachings. Together with three other teenager friends we joined thousands others in another tradition; climbing to the summit of Meron Mountain on Lag Baomer. (Meron Mountain is the highest mountain in the Galilee.) We reached the summit at dawn and by the time we climbed back down to the Meron village the celebrations were over. All we saw was the smoke that was still coming out of the remains of the hundreds of bonfires that lit the sky the night few hours earlier.
Lag Baomer bonfire tradition started in Meron village but it is now celebrated everywhere in Israel. Secular Israelis (the majority in country) do not celebrate the holiday for its religious meaning. They do it because it is fun. The celebration takes place in the spring when the weather is perfect for outdoor evening activities.
By far, most bonfires are lit by kids. They begin collecting wood for the bonfire days (sometimes weeks) before the holiday. During this season the kids visit every construction site they can get to. They come after school when construction workers already left for the day. They pick up every piece of wood they can get their hands on. They load shopping carts that they “borrow” from the nearest supermarket and bring the wood to a site that they claimed for their bonfire (usually an open field in their neighborhood).
I once listened to a program on the radio where construction executives and supermarket executives described their efforts to guards their wood and shopping carts from waves of storming kids, and how in the end the kids won. The executives weren’t upset. At one time they were kids too. Their kids were probably doing the same thing. It’s a tradition. They accept it as an unavoidable expense.
The fire department is on special alert on Lag Baomer and there are accidents every year where kids are rushed to a hospital for emergency treatment. However, for most people it is a fun event; people from the neighborhood get together and Barbecue. Kids stay up all night, returning home the next morning tired and happy as they can be. Some of my best memories as a kid are from Lag Baomer.
What can top the one night a year were you are allowed to lit a huge bonfire and stay out all night without any adult around?
If you have the opportunity to visit Israel during Lag Baomer, don’t miss out on this festive event. It is one of a kind experience. Look around as you taste the different cuisines, you’ll probably see hundreds of bonfires in every direction as if the entire country is on fire.