When I was in college, I had the opportunity to live in Israel and study at Tel Aviv University. It was the best time of my life. I had been to Israel so many times before on vacation, but this was my first opportunity to live there and take in all that the amazing country has to offer. Interestingly enough, one of my strongest memories from living in Israel is celebrating Lag B’Omer. Lag B’Omer is not one of the most important holidays. There are no special prayers or special foods, it’s just a time to celebrate.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that in Israel, everyone participates in Lag B’Omer festivities. Every empty lot has a little bonfire in it. You see kids everywhere, whole families huddling around cooking their potatoes in the fire. It’s a true sensory experience. You can see and smell the holiday everywhere you go, and the smell of the smoke and fire lingers for the next few days! It was so exciting to see the joy and excitement in the masses of people standing in the streets together.
That’s the thing about living in Israel. You don’t have to be religious or observant to feel your Jewish identity. Living there, the language is Jewish, the culture is Jewish, the air you breathe is Jewish. Many Israelis probably don’t know or care that this day marks the end of the plague that killed the students of Torah sage Rabbi Akiva or that we light bonfires is to celebrate the life of his disciple, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. On Lag B’Omer in Israel, it’s not about religion for most people. You simply participate, you celebrate, you live life.
As I reflected on this memory, it got me thinking about Israel today. With Lag B’Omer as an exception, many secular Israelis equate observing Jewish holidays with being “religious.” And in Israel, being religious is a stigma and the source of many political fights. As a Jew (traditional but not religious) living in the diaspora, it saddens me (although I do understand where it comes from) to see how much hatred and negativity are placed on religious Judaism by Jews who consider themselves “Jewish enough” just because they live in Israel.
Obviously, this feeling is unique to Israel. When many of these same anti-religious Israelis leave Israel to live in the diaspora, they realize that Judaism was a bigger part of the fabric of their being than they ever realized. They begin to seek out Judaism because they miss it. They long for it. And they finally see that for most of the world’s Jews and throughout most of the history of the Jewish people, Jews have had to work at maintaining a Jewish identity. Now, these former ridiculers of Judaism are planning large Rosh Hashanah dinners and Passover seders. And they still head down to the beach for a bonfire on Lag B’Omer. Only now, they realize how lucky they were to have lived in such an amazing country where they got to live, eat, and breathe Judaism without even trying.