Back when I was growing up in Cleveland Ohio, Lag B’omer was a great excuse for a school trip. While I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, the countdown to Lag B’omer was nearly as fervent as the countdown to Shavuot. Up until about fourth grade we’d only go to some big park. But then we moved on to miniature golf, relay races, and barbecues. By the time we hit middle school we had graduated to Niagara Falls, conveniently located just three and a half hours away, and the occasional amusement park. For years, when I thought Lag B’omer, I thought “Please Hashem, make sure it doesn’t rain.”
Then I moved to Israel. Rain is no longer a blip on the screen, but neither are class trips. In fact, Lag B’omer day has the distinctive sense of the morning after, a day for those who have spent the night in Meron to catch up on sleep and for others to look at the charred remains of the previous night’s festivities. In Israel, Lag B’omer night is when you get in on the action.
And the drama doesn’t begin on the thirty-third day of the omer. Oh no, it starts the moment Pesach ends. While mothers are still trying to figure out how they can fit all their fleishig Pesach pots into a box the size of a gerbil cage, their sons are out collecting wood. There is a method to the madness, my son assures me, steps you must take to ensure you have a bonfire that will make the fire department shudder.
The first step is to form the right alliances. No boy can hope to make a respectable pyre on his own, and choosing the right partner is essential. You need a hard worker who has initiative, creative ideas and some brawn. You need a guy willing to help you schlep wood twice your body weight halfway across the city. And a fellow with a chilled out mother and a big backyard are nice pluses.
Once you’ve formed your bonfire committee, it’s time to get to work. Every day, directly after school, you go hunting (or is it foraging?). You check outside the dumpsters, you look for dry kindling in fields surrounding the city, and if you’re lucky enough to have a parent with a car and a lot of good will, you can drive to the nearby forest and collect fallen branches.
The real trick is to find the places no one else has yet discovered. This year, my son got an insider tip from a classmate about a dump for old appliances and furniture at the edge of town. Within three days, there were hundreds of boys swarming all over the dump, but my son and his team had beat them to it and landed some prize pieces – large pieces of beat-up furniture and the remnants of wood from a work site. Why the city bothered taking these things to a municipal dump I can’t fathom. They could have just posted the whereabouts of the junk in a cheder or two, and the work would have been done for them.
How, you may wonder, do boys ages 7-13 get these enormous pieces of wood home? There are several choice methods. For the past couple of years, my son has managed to recover discarded baby strollers from garbage dumps. He hoists the wood onto the stroller and he and his friends set off for home, holding onto the wood so it doesn’t tip off. Those who aren’t as lucky, tie ropes to the wood, tie the other end to their bikes, and then drag their booty through the streets. They may also gather the wood in a box and then drag the box through the street. The real shleppers do the whole thing by hand, without a wheel in sight.
The final obstacle to overcome is that of storage. Where does one keep a daunting heap of wood? The easiest solution would seem to be at the site of the future bonfire. But you will make that mistake only once. You see, the rule in the jungle is that any wood found in open areas is considered ownerless, and since all bonfires must be lit in open areas, you leave it there at your peril.
Most families find their porches and gardens blanketed in dry wood in the weeks leading up to Lag B’omer. My son and I have reached an understanding over the years. He may use our yard as a gathering spot as long as the wood is not piled higher than the bottom of the window (since we’d still like to enjoy light and air) and we can walk from one side of the garden to the other without getting splinters in our legs.
We currently have a frightful amount of wood in our yard. And I look at it and marvel. Isn’t this the country that has a severe wood shortage? Isn’t there a reason that solid wood furniture is exorbitantly priced? Haven’t I been told that paper here is so expensive because we have no trees from which to make the paper? So how is it that in Beitar Illit alone, the boys have uncovered enough wood to supply a national magazine with enough paper for a year? How does all this wood suddenly materialize?
The answer is as profound as it is simple – if you look for something hard enough, you will find it. Of course, it all depends on what you’re looking for. If I look for it, I can find beauty in a sometimes harsh world, goodness in crabby children, blessing in the challenges of life. I can find kindness tucked deep in the heart of a disenchanted teen, nobility in the homeless man huddled in the park, and meaning lurking beneath the veneer of tragedy. And when I find that, the fire I ignite need never be extinguished.
Bassi Gruen is a licensed social worker, a professional writer, and the Editorial Director of Targum Press. She’s published hundreds of articles in numerous Jewish publications and is the author of A Mother’s Musings, a collection of articles taking an honest look at the challenges and joys of motherhood. She lives with her husband, her children, and her dreams in Beitar Illit.