Photographer Yehoshua Shuka Glotman first attended the annual hillula for Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai (Rashbi) in 1983. After almost 40 years of attending the Lag Ba’omer celebration, he gathered the photos together for a book that was published last month – prior to the tragedy overnight Thursday that left at least 45 people dead at this year’s event on Mount Meron.
“The intensity of the experience was overwhelming and left a strong impression on me,” he writes in the text accompanying his book about the event. “To me, the masses celebrating enthusiastically under the open sky in the heart of the Galilee landscape resembled the camp of the Children of Israel in the desert. The colorful and vibrant sight I witnessed was dizzying; order and chaos intermingled. I was really intrigued by it,” he states. The last Lag Ba’omer event he attended at the tomb of the second-century rabbi was in 2018.
In the book, he doesn’t note the years when each photo was taken, nor are there captions. “The entire book is a single work of art in black and white, so there wouldn’t be a disparity among the different periods,” he says by way of explanation. “This is a place people have been visiting since the 16th century, and some of the elements haven’t changed.” (All of these comments were made prior to Thursday’s deadly crowd crush.)
He says the people he photographed were always friendly. “Despite the crowding, everything is very gentle,” he says. “All the Jewish denominations are represented. It’s a unique place. I’m not a believer and not religious; I’m motivated by the desire to have an experience. The place is open to everyone.”
In one of the photos, a young man is seen covered with black clothing and lying on a piece of cardboard. “The photo was taken very early in the morning, after he apparently drank alcohol. A lot of people simply fall asleep where they are on the floor, after dancing all night long. I take photos there at all hours.”
In another image, we see young boys peering through a metal fence. “The government tries to separate various areas at the site. Between men and women. But nobody pays any attention to that, and there are plenty of hormones in the air. Yeshiva students are far from their mashgichim [spiritual supervisors] and I caught them peeking at women. Human nature is stronger than any restriction.”
The photo on the book jacket is of a young boy atop his grandfather’s shoulders. “The grandfather and the child are dancing inside a circle at a khalakah [a ceremony held for Jewish boys who get their first haircut at age 3; it’s also known as an upsheren], and I squeezed into the middle at the site,” Glotman explains.