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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The horrifying truth about Lag Baomer bonfires



There's so much I love about the period between Pesach and Shavuos here in Israel.  But there's one thing that absolutely disgusts me.  I'll tell you in a minute and see if you feel the same.

When we lived in Canada, this time of year was pretty dull and featureless.  There's Pesach... Yom HaAtzmaut, if we remembered it... Lag Baomer, if we got our act together to get to a bonfire... and then Shavuos.

It was okay, but nothing special.

Here in Israel, it's a VERY special time of year, especially if you measure by how many days the kids have to wear white shirts to school.  In many religious schools, often kids are supposed to wear white shirts for Rosh Chodesh and any other special occasion... and these seven weeks give us PLENTY of those. 

My son's school also has them wear white shirts on Fridays, bringing the white-shirt days up to an uncountably high number:  two days for Rosh Chodesh Iyar, Yom Hashoah, a couple of Fridays, Yom Hazikaron, and more that I'm probably not remembering.  Some chains actually have sales on white t-shirts with school logos just to help parents stock up.

I love all these special days, especially Yom Haatzmaut, which comes smack-dab in the middle of the solemn sefirah period and means we can celebrate Israel's birth with music, which we don't normally listen to during this period (I'm aware that different people observe this different, halachically -- consult your rav for details if you're not sure).

But here's what I don't love. 

What I hate, if you'll allow me to use a strong word.  What disgusts me.

Lag Baomer .

(photo credit: Roi Boshi via Wikimedia)

Not the celebration, not the bonfires.  I love those!

And I absolutely love the fact that kids here are so independent, going out and gathering up wood all over the neighbourhood, using shopping carts, baby carriages, and whatever else they have handy to build their own bonfires.  Parents are very much in the background of this process, which the former homeschooler in me adores.

(photo credit: Yaakov via Wikimedia)

BUT.

But.

But.

The definition of "wood" when it comes to these bonfires is, frankly, appalling.  Disgusting.  Scary.  Dangerous.  Bad.

Period.

I'm not a party pooper, seriously.  I love Lag Baomer... in theory.  There's nothing I love more than sticking a marshmallow over a blazing-hot fire until it gives way and starts to droop.  Or tossing foil-wrapped potatoes inside to bake.

But when it comes to gathering "wood," essentially if there's a picture of wood on it or it's brown or brownish or wood-like in any way, or furniture, Israelis will burn it on Lag Baomer.

There are pallets, which are great, although I suppose in theory they could be reused.  When they're abandoned on empty lots, fine, they deserve to be burned.

But then there's furniture.  Of all kinds, most of which isn't wood.
Here, for example, is the pile our neighbours' children have accumulated, all on their own, roaming around the neighbourhood.

(see any wood???)

(okay, the chairs are wood, the rest simply isn’t, as we’ve tried explaining to them over and over)

Let's face it -- wood is scarce in Israel, especially in urban areas like where I live.
Kids roaming the streets, concrete playgrounds, and asphalt paths here aren't going to find a whole lot of fallen trees to build bonfires out of.  Honestly, there aren't even enough live trees that you could even consider chopping one down to make a fire.

There are a lot of things that make me sad in Israel, in ways I never expected.  And one of the biggest disappointments so far has been how badly the people around me treat the environment.

Sure, there are exceptions, but in general, Israelis have no qualms about tossing litter, garbage, unused whatever, out their windows, into empty lots, or out onto the street.

One of my favourite examples of this is this picture I took the night before the municipal election last October.  One of the candidates had apparently given out ballots – or rather, strewn them around the streets of our neighbourhood.  (Due to how weird Israeli elections are, you’re allowed to walk in with your own valid ballot, so it’s quite common for candidates to give them out.  But not to dump them all over the ground.)

I was so disgusted that, even though I’d been on the fence up to that point, I decided I couldn’t in good conscience vote for a candidate who had so much disdain for this holy land and the tidiness of the neighbourhood (nobody cared, and she won anyway – that’s politics for you – but at least now I have the right to complain about her).

I see this Lag Baomer thing as part of that, and it makes me sadder than sad that this destruction of the environment goes on in the name of a Jewish occasion.

Some organizations are trying, feebly, to raise awareness, but I haven't seen anything widespread, just this wanton stockpiling of brownish, woodish things and setting it on fire for Lag Baomer.

Are Israelis dumb?  Seriously, we’ve tried telling our neighbours it’s not wood, at least the kids.  But hey, it’s brownish.  It has wood grain on it.  I cannot believe in this country, which has made so many breakthroughs in terms of ecology, water conservation, and other areas, that people are still burning glues, plastics, asbestos, and other hazardous materials right along with the innocent pallets and chairs.

Some Israelis are also speaking out, like this site, with its “guidelines for an eco-friendly bonfire” (in Hebrew).  But mostly, these are fringe and freaks and weirdos… nothing like the mainstream.

And meanwhile, parents say nothing.  Teachers say nothing.  Rabbis say nothing.

And I’m ashamed to be Israeli and sit by and watch this going on.

(photo credit: Government Press Office via Wikimedia)

(monster added by me!)

Am I the only one who cares?

Here's an old post from 2012 suggesting that this celebration has gotten out of hand, out of control.  I wouldn't go that far.  I like the celebration aspect of it.  This person points out four problems with the way Lag Baomer is currently celebrated, but the environment doesn’t seem to be one of them.

1) it's a perfect time for pedophiles to prey on kids -- not something I've observed, but I do urge parents to be vigilant
2) kids aren't well supervised and could get burnt -- my son's class has organized a semi-supervised bonfire with parents taking turns watching
3) kids steal shopping carts to collect wood -- probably very true
4) kids steal "anything made of wood" -- well, sure.  But the definition of "anything made of wood" seems to have expanded considerably from my understanding of it from when we lived in Canada and I still believed wood came from trees.

I don't want to put an end to Lag Baomer.  Chas v'shalom. 

I think it's awesome to have events on the Jewish calendar that kids not only look forward to but -- to whatever safe extent -- rule.  Parents do enough telling kids where to be and when and what to do.

But I'm pretty sure someone should be speaking out.  I’m pretty sure we shouldn’t be destroying this country the way we are.  I’m pretty sure Israelis shouldn’t be figuratively spitting on the holy ground, air, and water that Hashem has given us here, taking it for granted and even abusing it.

I'm not the one to do it, which is probably what every single oleh says.  I wonder who is?

What are your thoughts on how Lag Baomer is celebrated where you are?  Is it out of control?  Is there any chance Israel will ever change?  And is there anything we horrified / disgusted olim can do about it?  Let me know in the Comments!


Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


5 comments:

  1. I live in your neighborhood so it's the same here. It's been seriously disturbing to see what has been hauled away by kids and some adults to stockpile to burn. Nearly all of it is "fake wood". Kids are industriously filling shopping carts with this stuff. Little boys are dragging large pieces down the street. It would be great if it wasn't that I realize how bad these fires will be and how toxic the fumes. The big empty dirt lot right behind where I live now will be ground zero for bonfires in this neighborhood I'd expect. After seeing how fires were built on Pesach to burn the chometz(toilet paper and cooking oil) this looks to be far worse.

    And yes, it makes me very sad to see the trash everywhere, the lack of recycling or composting and seemingly total disregard for the environment. Really sad as this is Eretz Yisroel and we are expected to care for this land and treasure it.

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  3. My biggest concern is that almost all of the bonfires have no adult supervision and no water nearby. Worse still, they never put out the fires when they are done. They just smolder until the next day. It is a terrible fire hazard and you can see the firefighters stay busy putting out all the brush fires around the country.

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  4. I must agree. A super gazillion years ago I did the "campfire badge" in Girl Scouts. Israeli bonfires are nothing like it.
    My kids were taught that when coming home from one of those fires, they had to march into the bathroom, strip and shower/shampoo with lots of soap and water.
    Lag B'Omer is a time to close all the windows and doors to keep out the stink.

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