Tsfat Blog -- Sephirat HaOmer
On the second night of Pesach, a period of counting begins, as Jews “count the Omer” – a period of 50 days, which leads up to the holiday of Shavouth. (Coinciding with the 50 days which separated the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, Pesach, with their arrival at Mt. Sinai and receiving the 10 commandments, Shavouth.)
I’m not sure whether this semi-mourning period in Jewish tradition (religious Jews don’t shave, listen to music or other entertainment, or hold wedding ceremonies) somehow mystically connects to the same sort of schizophrenic atmosphere present in modern-day Israel during this period, but there is certainly a feeling of uncertainty during this period as to whether we should be sad or glad.
One week after Pesach, Israel marks Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom HaShoah. Though the Holocaust is always a present shadow in our lives here, a reminder of what Jews had to live through in our wait for a Jewish homeland, the period surrounding Holocaust Memorial Day is much more intense. Television screens movies and interviews, the newspapers devote much of their coverage to the memories of survivors, and the schools cancel classes and try to develop ceremonies which will touch the students. Radio and television broadcast periodic messages for survivors and their families, many of whom experience emotional crises during this time, to turn to support groups which increase their staffing during these weeks. In Yochi and Ariella’s school, the 9th grade, Ariella’s class, was given the assignment of preparing an appropriate Yom HaShoah ceremony. Ariella became very involved in the preparation, and before Pesach, she went to the library and took out a number of books relating to the Holocaust. One of the books that she took out was an account of the Eichman trial, and in reading it, she was startled to find that one of the witnesses was our neighbor – the woman was forced into service as an assistant to Dr. Menegle in Aushwitz, and cared for Mengele’s victims while he experimented on them. The Kenesset spends the days reading names….Kenesset member after Kenesset member takes a turn at the podium, and reads names…name after name after name. Some of then names are anoynomous…taken from records which were found at concentration camps, or from local Jewish communities which were wiped out – some of the Kenesset members read names of their family members who died. Some read the ages of the victims. And some…are unable.
Just as the television programs on the Shoah are winding down, a whole new set of documentaries and films are showing up on our TV screens, as Israel gears up for Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers. Once again, we see the local paper with the lists of local families who have lost sons, brothers, and fathers, and wonder, when we see these families in the street, how they keep going. As with Holocaust Day, there is a siren which sounds at 11:00a.m. on Memorial Day, and everyone in the country stops (cars actually stop in the middle of the road) to give a moment of thought to those who have died. Again, endless lists of names are read on the radio, and just as one thinks that one can’t cry any more….we switch gears, and Independence Day begins!
Sometime around the end of Pesach, the kids start planning for the annual Lag B’Omer festivities, which means…bonfires. Lag B’Omer is a festive day on which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi, the first Rabbi to begin studying and teaching kabbalah during the Roman period, is commemorated. Tens of thousands of people flock to his gravesite on Mt. Meron, about 15 minutes from Tsfat, so Tsfat also becomes a center for Lag B’Omer festivities. It has become traditional for some religious families to give their 3-year-old sons their first haircut on Lag B’Omer, and to light bonfires in memory of Rabbi Shimon’s flight from the Roman rulers as he hid in a cave on Mt. Meron and learned Kabbalah with his son. So for weeks beforehand, one can see neighborhood boys (no offense, but I’ve never seen girls involved in this) lugging branches, boards, sticks, and wooden planks around the city, preparing for their bonfires. There is little that is wooden that seems to be sacred during this time….friends of ours have had wooden boards removed from their walled-in backyards during this time! By the time Lag B’Omer night falls, every parking lot, empty field, and back yard has its bonfires, and most of them are used for roasting various delicacies.
Tsfat is famous for a Lag B’Omer tradition which stretches back 170 years, when the Abu family began to take their Torah Scroll from its place in the family home on the afternoon preceeding Lag B’Omer, and dance it across the wadi to Mt. Meron. These days, they still take the same scroll out of the same home, but now, together with local polititians and dignitaries, they dance it up to the bus station and bus it to Mt. Meron. For those of us who live in the Old City of Tsfat, we can hear the festivities throughout the afternoon, until dark starts to fall, when we start seeing the bonfires which have been lit on Mt. Meron across the wadi.
This year, Avishai will be staying out with his friends all night by their bonfire somewhere in the wadi below Tsfat, Ariella will be traveling to Mt. Meron with her friends (public transportation runs between Tsfat and Meron every 15 minutes throughout the 24-period of Lag B’Omer), Yochi will be with her friends next to the zoo, and even Hagai has deserted our family bonfire in favor of his class. So in our yard, we will be gathering with some friends who still have kids who are too young to light matches, or whose kids have deserted them for other adventures. This doesn’t mean, of course, that my responsibility to their evening entertainment has ended….all of these bonfire require REFRESHMENTS, and my food budget during the week of Lag B’Omer skyrockets to accommodate packages of hamburgers, chips, and drinks. (In Avishai’s case, his group has begun to invite some young ladies to their bonfire as well, and they feel honor-bound to host the young ladies honorably…which means that their parents have to pay for the “date”.