Israel Realities 3: Lag BaOmer, and a Home in Palestine

Erev Lag BaOmer. It was after ten last night and we had had a long day but I said, “The anthropologist has to see if there are bonfires.” So I went out and soon heard the happy shouts and smelled the smoke before I saw them: One on the abandoned railroad track, three larger ones across the street, and three much larger ones on the empty field on Reuven, the narrow street divided by huge old eucalyptus trees.

So even a few steps from Emek Refaim, the hippest avenue in Jerusalem, there were  happy

celebrations of this holiday. There are at least two interpretations: one invokes the campfires of Bar Kochba’s rebel army during the Second Jewish Revolt; the other is mystical and both sad and happy.

The great Rabbi Akiva, who in a rare lapse named Bar Kochba the Messiah, also (according to the Talmud) had 24,000 of his students die—from plague or at Roman swordpoints—during the counting of the Omer, the seven weeks from the second day of Passover to Shavuot. The deaths are said to have stopped on the 33rd day, or “Lag” (lamed-gimel) in Hebrew letters. The bonfires cheer the slaughter’s end.

Also, one of Akiva’s few remaining students, the illustrious Shimon bar Yochai, is said to have died on this day years later, and to have dictated the essence of the Zohar—the core work of Kaballah—on that last day. Some say he postponed the sunset to light the last of his teaching. So the biggest bonfires of all are lit around and atop Rabbi Shimon’s tomb near Tsfat. Shimon was a spark of the soul of Moses, so it is fitting that he would have the Zohar’s essential vision: infinite sparks of divine light emanating at the creation, making all things in this world.

But Jewish children today follow their rabbis and teachers out to light the bonfires while holding toy bows and arrows. So the celebration is seen by the Israeli left as a toxic mixture of nationalism and mysticism, militarism and ancestor-worship. Some see Lag BaOmer as inapt praise for exactly the cocktail of martial fantasy and messianic fanaticism that brought to a tragic end not only that Jewish revolt but also the first, which ended in the razing of the Temple, Jerusalem, and Masada, that double-edged sword of fierce courage and suicidal slaughter.

In this neighborhood the celebrations were not at all fanatical, and mostly not religious, but more like the Independence Day fireworks and barbecues. A man yelled at me for taking a photo, which did not much seem in the spirit of the holiday, but it was his fault for stumbling into my frame when I was just shooting the line of fires.

We had spent the day in Ramallah with the wife of a friend who is himself at the moment in Yemen with an NGO. Both are brave and good young people who go where there is a crisis others are fleeing. In the decade they’ve been together, that has taken them to Iraq (for a year after the three-week U.S. war toppling Sadam), Darfur, Gaza, and now Yemen. She was soon to leave again.

The day before we had met our friend—let’s call her Yasmeen—for a light lunch in the beautiful garden of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, which is either elegant neutral territory or a hangout for anti-Semitic Western diplomats, depending on your viewpoint. She agreed to meet us there again in the morning and take us up to Ramallah. I had been there but Ann hadn’t, and we jumped at the chance.

We passed through the checkpoint with ease going into the West Bank. After a detour through some dusty back streets to pick up Yasmeen’s sister—an articulate young woman about to defend her doctoral thesis at a British university—we soon were sitting in the offices of one of their cousins, a thirty-something pharmacist who has a small chain of drugstores. Within a minute we were looking at a slideshow on his computer of his beautiful daughter and son at play and soon sipping ambrosial tea brewed from fresh herbs. I mentioned half-jokingly that we were running out of Claritin and after a few words from the boss another young man left and reappeared with a box of the Palestinian generic, Claristine. It turned out that another of Yasmeen’s cousins, Maryam—a stylish, lithe, young mother fluent in English, French and Hebrew as well as Arabic—is a daughter of the generic manufacturer.

By chance, the women, another cousin, and a couple of their aunts (the latter wearing hijab) were scheduled to stop by a dressmaker’s shop for a fitting, and they invited us along. The shop was a third floor walkup in a mall in the center of Ramallah, where the unthreatening press of people, the fresh food and fruit for sale, and the bright colors of the clothes, the signs, and the wares in store windows were almost dazzling. The women were each designing their own dresses, varied modern cuts embellished with intricate, beautiful traditional embroidery.

Ann said that except for the language was just like what you would see at an American dressmaker, but it was wondrous for me—“A man can come too?!” I had asked—to watch the women consult, laugh, handle cloth and patterns, and even stand (fully clothed of course) for measurements, a process I and others could easily see through the glass storefront from the hallway of the mall. In the street most women wore headscarves but had an air of determination as they swirled around the famous lions fountain, mingling with men without touching them.

We went to lunch at a Palestinian-style pizza place, with with some of the men of the family. Everyone spoke English, the food was good, the warmth and hospitality embracing. Yasmeen, a filmmaker, had to go off to work with her editor, but her family continued to make us feel like friends. The conversation: a project to market poor women’s embroidery; our kids little and big; their family; and marriage: I said women civilize us, first our mothers, then our wives. Nobody disagreed.

Back in the pharmacy offices, the talk turned to airport security, always unpleasant for Palestinians. Maryam, recently returned from a State-Department sponsored trip to the U.S. for outstanding entrepreneurs, said calmly that she saw no point in getting angry about the security measures, but then did, recalling the time they insisted on searching her two-year-old son. “What is he learning from this?” she asked the guard, a woman. “You’re just sowing more hatred for the future.” The woman replied that there had been attempts to stash explosives on small children’s bodies.

This was the closest we got to political, despite Obama’s big speech all over the headlines. Predictably, Ha’aretz editorials attacked him for killing the unborn September UN initiative for Palestinian independence, and The Jerusalem Post attacked him for mentioning the 1967 borders—although he promptly said, “with mutually agreed-upon swaps.” Yasmeen favors a one-state solution in which everyone gets along, but even she considers that unlikely.

Returning to Jerusalem, we followed an SUV full of women, some covered, some not, driven by Yasmeen’s lively and funny “Auntie”—“Like a mother to me,” Yasmeen had said—who took care to make sure we were following her, puling over several times to wait. We stopped to pick up the pharmacist’s wife and small son, and got to see their horses. Auntie took us around by way of the higway past Jericho and both cars were waived through the checkpoint returning to Jerusalem.

I thanked Yasmeen for their marvelous hospitality, copying five of her family for whom I now had email addresses. She replied, “You always have a second home in Palestine.”

These are gifted, brilliant, creative, ambitious, well-educated, hard-working, good people who are building Palestine from the ground up. They are knowledgeable about the world and open to it. They may still be the minority, but they are the future.


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