The approach of Lag BaOmer always takes me back to 1998 when our family spent a sabbatical semester in Israel. We were firmly integrated into Reform Jewish life in Madison, WI. Our children attended religious school – our oldest son had recently become bar mitzvah – at Temple Beth El and were regular summer campers at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, WI.
We were excited to give our children the experience of living in Israel, albeit only for a few months, and were hopeful they would learn Hebrew, make Israeli friends, and get the same feeling and love for the country and her people that my husband and I have. We joined Congregation Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem, beginning a relationship we have nurtured for 20 years.
Our children enjoyed a degree of independence in 1998 Jerusalem that was completely different than what they were used to at home. They could take the city bus to get to friends or social activities and shop for treats – especially shoko (Israeli chocolate milk) at the local macolet (small market) – on their own.
Back then, we thought we knew Israel pretty well, felt reasonably educated about the Jewish holidays, and had a fairly good sense of how Jewish life would play out over the weeks and months of our stay.
There were certainly aspects of Israeli life we found new, even for us.
After Passover, as our synagogue started counting the Omer each Shabbat, we noticed that our 11-year-old son, Daniel, suddenly began to disappear after school for hours at a time. We were delighted with his social connections, but a bit baffled by the sudden intensity to his social calendar. When we asked him about what he was doing, he divulged few details.
Little did we know, that the minor holiday of Lag BaOmer was to be a highlight of our experience in Israel.
It turns out that for weeks, Daniel and his buddies had been scouting our Jerusalem neighborhood for wood for a big Lag BaOmer bonfire. By the time of the holiday, they had accumulated an impressive stack of firewood, which was no small feat, in the urban landscape of Jerusalem.
That night, Daniel spent the evening with his Israeli friends – tending the fire and roasting and eating all varieties of treats and (kosher!) meats. He returned home at 4 a.m., content and smudged with charcoal.
Although two decades have passed, I’ve been back in Jerusalem on Lag BaOmer several times. A few years ago, my upstairs neighbors invited me to join them in their Lag BaOmer celebration. Ironically, we ended up at the same empty lot in the Ba’aka neighborhood of Jerusalem where Daniel had his first and only Lag BaOmer experience.
As I watched the families light their bonfires using the wood that today’s children had been collecting since Passover, I realized just how much this minor holiday – so easy to ignore or miss entirely here in North America – is an integral part of the ritual of Jewish life in Israel.
Marla Gamoran is the founder and executive director of Skilled Volunteers for Israel. She divides her time between Jerusalem, where she is a member of Congregation Kol HaNeshama and New York City, where she is a member of Temple Shaaray Tefila. She also serves on the board of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).