The Lag BaOmer Bonfire and Cultural Depth

I wish that among the criticisms of the custom of lighting bonfires, substantive claims would also be heard and discussed.

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 Ronen Manelis (former IDF spokesman) discuss Lag BaOmer and the holiday custom of making bonfires (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 cancelled, because the kids come home in the middle of the night and it’s really hard for the parents the next day. Ronen Manelis said that in his home town 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 an entire 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.

Lag BaOmer celebration in Netanya. Photo by TPS

The human need for identity means that one’s 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 theoretical 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.

First published by ‘The Times of Israel’.