Wood Mongers

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06 May 2009
Lag BaOmer

For most of my adult life I remember that early sightings of Christmas decorations near my suburban NJ home were a sign that Thanksgiving was coming. In my childhood, the opposite was true – Thanksgiving was the official start of the Christmas (“Holiday”) season, ushering in sales and the beginning of public decorations. It never really fazed me one way or another, except to observe that the holiday had become that much more commercialized and seasonal sales were starting that much earlier.

Collecting WoodThere are other things that herald the arrival of different seasons and holidays. I’ve been observing those signs here in Israel for the last five years. The first sign of rain in the fall ushers in the beginning of a rainy season that never quite seems to be rainy enough.

After Purim, stores around the country begin covering shelves upon which to display the Pesach foods and, as the holiday gets closer, whole shelves and aisles are covered, closed, and barricaded to prevent the sale of chametz.

And then there is the early seasonal sighting of one of the most unique Israeli traditions of kids going out to collect wood. Collect wood? What’s this about? What holiday or season involves collecting wood? Lag B’Omer of course. It’s a day of weddings and other smachot, haircuts… and bonfires. Admittedly, my experience is not vast on the subject, but the bottom line is that in just about every village, town, and city, fires are built that border on state sanctioned pyromania.

From as early as Purim but definitely after Pesach, it’s common to see boys and girls as young as 5 and 6 out collecting any piece of wood that is not nailed down. The first one or two wood mongers go almost unnoticed yet warrant a chuckle for their early industriousness. Then the trickle becomes a swarm. Children collected pieces of wood bigger than they are is a common site. Sometimes they are single pieces. Sometimes pieces nailed to one another. Sometimes nails protruding. Unsafe is an understatement, but nobody seems to think twice about it.

Sometimes a “borrowed” shopping cart is employed to transport the loot. Sometimes a scooter or skateboard. Sometimes, kids pile the wood up on top of another piece of wood, or a whole palate, and tie a rope to the bottom piece, dragging a mini construction site behind them, back to their hidden stash, only to be revealed in the days immediately preceding Lag B’Omer.

On Lag B’Omer, on many blocks, or within any small patches of (relatively vacant) land, there can be several different bonfires going on. Children get together in groups to make their own fires. Sometimes kids take burning embers from one fire and make breakaway fires.

Kids plan with friends for weeks about what they hope to do; staking out their land, gathering their collective wooden loot, and thinking nothing of building towers that are many times their size, ultimately burning well into the night, or even until the next day.

Perhaps it’s the budding engineers among them who are the chief architects of the most interesting fires, where the “fuel” in the form of planks, boards and palates become part of the props and scaffolding in order to reach and sculpt the highest points of the pyre, ultimately to be burned along with the rest.

My first year in Israel I made a mistake I’ll never make again. Before going out, I left the windows open in my house so that in the morning, the house smelled like there had been a fire in the house. Now, I keep the windows shut, and do my best to stay upwind.

As children (and adults too) scour the country to collect just about any piece of wooden anything that will burn, it’s hard to imagine that there’s enough wood in the country for the vast amount of fires that people ignite and stoke all night. It’s hard to imagine that a year from now the abundance of wooden planks, old furniture, shipping palates, trees and branches, etc., will somehow be regenerated so that there’s enough wood to burn the night away, yet again. But every year, nobody seems to be disappointed.

If only we could train our kids to pick up garbage, and bottles and cans that can be recycled, even once a year, with the same intensity, we’d do a lot to repair the damage to the earth that we do by burning these fires all night. A national recycling day. Who do I talk to?

Yonatan Ben-Natan has a long and distinguished career in the field of non-profit, Jewish communal and organizational development. Most recently the Israel Representative of the American Friends of Magen David Adom, he has worked for the Israel Anti Drug Abuse Foundation, Jerusalem Graduate School of Management, UJA Federation of New York, the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev), Yeshiva University, ORT, United Jewish Appeal and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Mr. Ben-Natan received his B.A. from Emory University and his MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He made aliyah from New Jersey with his wife and 6 children in the summer of 2005.