I tried saying it effortlessly, like I’d been saying it all my life.
“We’re going to New York for the Lag B’Omer parade,” I announced to my parents twenty-seven years ago.
I figured, my parents knew what New York and parade were, maybe they would just let the Lag B’Omer part slide. Because if they asked me what Lag B’Omer was, my answer was weak and artificial. Less than one year earlier, a “log” was something you put in a fire and I had no idea what a “Bomer” was. I just knew it sounded too funny to say with a completely straight face.
Still, I needed to tell my parents something about the reason for my trip, besides that the Lag B’Omer parade promised to be both “fun” and “Jewish” and I wanted to see for myself if this was actually possible.
I practiced what to say to them: “Lag B’Omer is the day Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying so it’s a day of celebration.” This would be my ready reply for years to anyone who asked about the holiday.
Of course, there was no fooling my parents back then. They knew and I knew that Rabbi Akiva and his students meant nothing to any of us, including me. But at least I had an answer. But why was our family, which included three kids still with English names, going to New York (not New York–Brooklyn!) just to follow the Rosenfelds, our new rabbinic family in Pittsburgh?
Just looking at Lag B’Omer itself, how could it have been any other way? Here was a Jewish holiday on the calendar for thousands of years, and all I knew about it was that it had a funny sounding name. I had absolutely no frame of reference for it–no historical context, no experiences, no deeper lessons–gornisht.
Believe it or not though, I saw this lack of knowledge– about Lag B’Omer and everything else in Torah– as a spiritual advantage. I knew I didn’t know anything. Which meant I just had to be a good follower and, if necessary, a good faker, at least until things came together for real.
I can’t say that Lag B’Omer played a big part in making that happen. One of the reasons is there aren’t any mitzvahs associated with the holiday. You don’t have to say certain prayers or eat certain foods. Every year there’s a picnic celebration in town, but there’s nothing everyone has to do because it’s Lag B’Omer. Which means it was easy to dismiss Lag B’Omer as a “minor holiday,” especially during those years when providing my children with the basic necessities of Judaism was already a huge commitment.
It’s only recently, since the fog of child raising has lifted, that I can absorb more of the holiday’s significance. And it’s tremendous. Because Lag B’Omer is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who authored the Zohar, the first book of Jewish mysticism. He revealed the soul of Judaism in the second century, even though only the most spiritually enlightened were allowed access to it. Today, the Zohar’s essence flows through the teachings of Chassidus, with its wellsprings of self-knowledge available to any Jew, at any time.
“Bomer” may sound funny to me all the days of my life, but I’ve been nourished by these wellsprings, and I can honestly say, I feel the difference.
Today, Thursday, May 7th, is Lag B’Omer. Funny as it may sound, it is an auspicious day to celebrate Jewish unity.