עַל־אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם כִּי־רָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי הָיוּ בָנַי שׁוֹמֵמִים כִּי גָבַר אוֹיֵב׃ (איכה א:טז)
“For these things do I weep, My eyes flow with tears: Far from me is any comforter Who might revive my spirit; My children are forlorn, For the foe has prevailed.” (Lamentations 1:16)
Our hearts are heavy after the tragic loss of 44 souls as we begin to understand the terrible disaster that occurred during the LaG Ba’Omer celebrations on Mt. Meron in Northern Israel. Our deep condolences go out to all the families whose lives are torn apart now, including children who are orphaned, and parents who lost children. This tragedy is such a heavy loss for all of the people of Israel and we express our sorrow over this terrible and senseless loss of life. There are many questions that will have to be addressed around the circumstances of this tragedy but as Shabbat comes in and the victims are laid to rest, we bow our heads in pain and grief.
הַמָּקוֹם יְנַחֵם אתם בְּתוֹךְ שְׁאָר אֲבֵלֵי צִיּוֹן וִירוּשָׁלַיִם
May the Omnipresent comfort them among the rest of the mourners
of Zion and Jerusalem
By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
Friday April 30, 2021 – י“ח באייר תשפ“א – ל“ג בעומר
This past week we saw thousands of teens and youth scrounging in nature reserves and industrial areas for sticks, branches, scraps of wood, broken palates, etc… to add to the bonfires set last night (for those communities who allowed in-person bonfires). It is safe to say that ל”ג בעומר – LaG Ba’Omer – which is today – is much more celebrated in Israel than in Diaspora communities. It has become a mainstay of youth movement culture, teenage fun, and ultra-Orthodox pilgrimage ritual.
This period of the Omer (a biblical time period between Pesach and Shavuot which measures the grain harvest leading up to the holiday of the first fruits) has, since the 9th century, come to be seen as a time of mourning over the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students, who, according to the Talmud (Yevamot 62b), died between Pesach and Shavuot of a plague. Thus, during the Omer, traditional Jews observed some mourning rituals which included a ban on shaving, haircuts, and weddings.
Over time, the ancient religious rituals were reinterpreted and reinvented to assume secular historic meanings: Lag Ba’Omer was celebrated because on that day Bar Kokhba achieved a victory over the Romans in the 2nd century C.E. Bonfires were lit because that is how this victory was signaled throughout the Land. Bows and arrows were used because that was one of the weapons Bar Kokhba’s forces used to fight the Romans, and so on.
Thus, in our times, the holiday is celebrated in three distinct ways: 1) many children hold bonfires supposedly celebrating Bar Kokhva’s victory; 2) other Jews celebrate the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (The 2nd-century tannaitic sage in Judea, who is described in the Talmud (Shabbat 33a) as having left a 12-year stint in a cave with fire burning from his eyes, which offers lots of parallels to our current situation of emerging from a year of isolation), in a great celebration drawing hundreds of thousands atop Mt. Meron (said to be his gravesite), but also in lesser celebrations elsewhere in Israel and abroad; and 3) Israeli universities took the old tradition of Lag Ba’omer as “Scholars’ Day,” creating student day celebrations on campuses.
According to Professor Yael Zerubavel of Rutgers University in an article titled “Bar Kokhba’s Image in Modern Israeli Culture“, a number of Lag Ba’Omer traditions were reinterpreted by Zionist ideologues to focus on the victory of the Bar Kokhba rebels rather than their ultimate defeat at Betar three years later (135 C.E.). Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 disciples turned into martyrs killed in the revolt; the 33rd day (Lamed Gimmel – ל”ג = the Hebrew letters for the number 33, hence the 33rd Day of the Omer) when the plague that ended became the day of Bar Kokhba’s victory. By the late 1940s, Israeli textbooks for schoolchildren painted Bar Kokhba as the hero while Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Akiva stood on the sidelines, cheering him on – which played into their anti-religious/rabbinic narrative.
As Rabbi Benjamin Lau wrote in Haaretz:
“This is how Lag Ba’Omer became a part of the Israeli-Zionist psyche during the first years of Zionism and Israel. A clear distinction became evident between Jews and Israelis in the way the day was celebrated: The religious Jews lit torches in Rashbi’s [Shimon bar Yochai’s] honor and sang songs about him, while young Israelis, sitting around an alternative bonfire, sang about a hero ’whom the entire nation loved’ and focused on the image of a powerful hero who galloped on a lion in his charges against the Romans.”
Along with reinventing holidays to serve the nationalist ethos, the Zionist Movement sought to create a ‘New Jew.’ The New Jew would create a new Jewish society in the Land of Israel and a modern Jewish culture that would serve as a corrective to the image of the Diaspora Jew as weak, pale, timid, and afraid. The New Jew would be strong, confident, courageous, and utilitarian. Developing the Land of Israel would, in turn, develop the Jewish psyche and person.
With a nod to this chapter of Israeli and Zionist history, the “New Jew” is now the title of a new series produced by Israeli comic and cultural personality Guri Alfi (not yet available in English or to viewers outside of Israel). As a result of his own Jewish, spiritual, religious journey, Alfi uprooted his family to live in Los Angeles for a year. The 4-part series takes one on a journey through some of the most unexpected places in North America. From a tiny snow-laden place in Colorado called the “Backcountry Bayit” to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of our Movement’s Central Synagogue in Manhattan, and Rabbi Jamie Korngold the “Adventure Rabbi“.
The series (sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Ruderman Foundation), explores real and personal stories trying to break the mold and dismantle old stereotypes.
Alfi spends significant time with Jews of Color discovering that there are quite a few African-American, Asian, and Latino Jews, some of whom have grown up Jewish and others who have converted; as well as Jews of other backgrounds such as the large Persian Jewish community of Los Angeles. His handler, former shaliach Moshe Samuels, takes him on a journey through the unexpected including meeting Rochel Freier, the first Hassidic woman to be elected a judge in New York City, and even exploring the 3rd rail topics of intermarriage and the Jewish dating scene through online apps.
While Alfi is a comedian and seasoned talk show host, he is at his best when he is serious. One can tell that the conversations he has, are deeply moving and impacting. There are many important takeaways here from this journey of exploration and discovery for Israeli Jews and world Jewry.
The first is that a Jew-by-choice is no longer just a euphemism that we once used to refer to a convert. The pervasive message that comes through the series is that in North America every Jew is a Jew-by-choice. The second, according to Alfi, is that maybe “we” Israelis, should start listening a bit more. Maybe the old school image of the Diaspora Jews is just that – old – and maybe Israelis ought to explore the struggles and the uniqueness of these Jewish communities a bit more to shed light on our own story?
At the turn of the 20th century, the New Jew was the mythic warrior-poet-farmer who took up arms and defended her/himself while working the Land. The New Jews left the throes of the Galut behind, abandoned meticulous and arcane rituals, and reinvented themselves as free people in our Land. If a century ago the New Jew chose strength and physical labor as a means of self-definition, maybe today the ‘New Jew’ is a Jew-by-choice, who chooses community, meaning, and soul to define oneself – and maybe s/he’s not actually from Israel? Lots to think about!
Shabbat Shalom and Happy LaG Ba’Omer,