The Grinch Who Tried to Steal Lag B’Omer

When a mayor tried to put an end to traditional Lag B'Omer bonfires out of environmental concerns, a community rose up in protest. With a potential war on the horizon, why not let the kids enjoy their toasted marshmallows now?

Lag B'Omer - Gili Cohen - May 8, 2012
Residents of Maccabim celebrate Lag B'Omer. Gili Cohen

There’s nothing Israeli kids love more than Lag B’Omer. For weeks beforehand, they roll stolen grocery shopping carts around town with their friends, collecting every scrap of wood in sight for the class bonfire. As a kid in America, where Lag B’Omer - one of the most minor and forgettable of all Jewish holidays - is often overlooked - massive bonfires were not part of my childhood. But as a parent in Israel, I have spent countless nights watching my ash-encrusted kids run in circles around the campfire, thrusting sticks into the flames, enjoying the forbidden thrill of playing with fire, poking the flames to see if their foil-wrapped potatoes are fully cooked and spearing sticks with rows of marshmallows to be roasted. No one is quite sure what they are commemorating. The death of an ancient rabbi? The Bar-Kochva revolt? Nobody cares. It’s an excuse to steal, play with fire, get dirty, stay out ridiculously late and then miss a day of school - all socially sanctioned. What’s not to love?

Clearly, I’m no big fan of the ritual, but most Israeli adults harbor nostalgic affection for the annual bonfire, remembering the camaraderie and romance of the bonfires of their childhood and adolescence. (Unless they suffer from asthma or breathing problems, in which case they miserably barricade themselves indoors, windows sealed tight against the massive amount of smoke in the air.)

But the past few years, in some of the more upscale and politically correct Israeli communities, Lag B’Omer bonfires acquired a new enemy. Environmentalism. I know this because mayor of my city, Nahum Hofree is really big on the environment. It’s his thing, his schtick. Most of the time, this has worked out pretty well for him - saving the environment is a warm, fuzzy, and non-controversial consensus issue for an Israeli politician to advocate. Who’s going to violently oppose recycling bins and bicycle paths? So the mayor gets excited by turning lights off for an hour on Earth Day. Let’s humor him.

But the good mayor ran into big trouble two years ago, when he took on Lag B’Omer and attempted to shut the bonfires down.

It’s no secret that the fires are bad. The Environment Ministry has issued statements repeatedly noting the excessive pollution levels caused by the bonfires, and their long-term contribution to global warming. Hofree pointed this out when he launched his campaign, writing a well-meaning letter to parents saying “I am not going to just warn you about the dangers of the fires and asked that they be well-supervised and safe ... I am coming to you in order to help and participate in my proposal not to hold bonfires at all this year and to find an alternative way to mark the holiday." His rallying cry was to stop the damage that bonfires do “to the community, the country and the planet.”

In an instant, the popular mayor became the local killjoy, the Grinch who was trying to steal Lag B’Omer. The local press and town Internet forum erupted with residents blasting Hofree for his attempt to extinguish the flames. "Next thing you know he'll be ordering us not to light Hannukah candles," one angry resident wrote.

It was as if an American mayor asked his constituents to stop taking their kids trick-or-treating on Halloween as part of the fight against childhood obesity. No way.

This year, Mayor Hofree has backed off - he’s realized that extinguishing the tradition of bonfires is a lost cause. Besides, it’s an election year. He can’t get rid of the fires, but he’s regulating them as much as possible. You can only have fires in specific locations in the city. Instead of a fire for each class, he wants them for a whole school grade, or even better, for the whole school. If you have a properly organized large-scale fire, the city will allot you a specific area for your fire. My daughter’s elementary school, being chock full of obedient do-gooder English-speaking politically correct immigrant types, used to obeying rules, is uniting around one campfire. We have applied for and been given our municipally-approved plot of land.

But we’re the goody two-shoes. Most other parents of elementary school kids are ignoring the guidelines and having their individual class fires where they want, when they want. As for the teenagers and 20-somethings - forget it. For them, it’s business as usual: they’re out there grabbing every bit of wood that isn’t chained down and staking out their territory, getting read to enjoy every smoky, ashy minute of the bonfire.

Objectively speaking, Mayor Hofree was right about the fires and the environment. But no one wants to deny their kids the memories that they treasure. All the ominous talk of war with Iran over the summer is bad enough for our kid, Israeli parents are saying. Let them enjoy their toasted marshmallows now. They’ll worry about global warming on Wednesday.