As the world peeks its head out from underneath the coronavirus pandemic with vaccines gaining steam in many places, prospects look positive for celebrations on Lag BaOmer—the Jewish holiday that has become a family festival celebrated outdoors the world over.
Of course, matters have not yet reached full bloom, but like the springtime blossoms with which the holiday coincides, Lag BaOmer—beginning this year on the evening of Thursday, April 29, and ending the evening of Friday, April, 30—is shaping up to be a sort of fledgling flowering for the global Jewish community.
As the anniversary of the passing of the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a seminal figure in the development of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), Lag BaOmer has long been associated with fire and light. In his epic work, the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s day of passing is movingly recorded, speaking of an intense fire that descended from on High. To evoke this fire and light, Jews have lit bonfires for centuries, and more recently, cracked out their barbecues for a good old grilling experience.
The holiday has gained much popularity in recent years, largely due to the efforts of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—to promote grand parades of Jewish pride.
Last year, with the coronavirus pandemic spreading in much of the world and quarantine measures firmly in place, Chabad-Lubavitch centers across the globe did some creative gymnastics to nonetheless curate fun for the entire family. With car parades, video trucks and drive-by barbecues, Chabad centers defied all odds and Lag BaOmer was celebrated in grand style.
Ethan Stein, a proud member of the Chabad Young Professional Community on Manhattan’s Upper East Side sees much symbolism in this year’s events. “Lag Baomer that celebrates the light of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is so befitting this year, as we can start seeing the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’ What’s more, the whole notion of specifically celebrating outdoors is meaningful to me as a sort of metaphor for our collective emergence from an extended period of being held indoors.”
With the pandemic in so many different stages this year, Jewish communities are again crafting events suited to their particular environment.
Gathering Outside in Baby Steps
For many, the virus has abated to a degree that it’s possible to congregate together outside. While the typical full-blown carnival with shoulder-to-shoulder crowds may still not be in the cards, limited gatherings with proper distancing measures, or for vaccinated members only, is very much a reality.
“Last year, we were limited to a drive-by barbecue, and no one even came out of their car,” Rabbi Levi Druk of Chabad of Downtown in Baltimore told Chabad.org. “While the city parks are still closed at the moment, making our usual large-scale event there impossible, we’re excited about the outdoor event we have scheduled. We plan on implementing social-distancing measures, but that shouldn’t be much of an issue for the drum circle we will be having. Noise can travel six feet!”
Dallas, Texas, was the scene of a screaming roving billboard truck last year, as members of Chabad of Dallas rolled around the city delivering holiday cheer and an inspirational video for all to see. This year, the festivities are pretty much back on track. “We’re super excited to bring all that joy back to the great outdoors here at Chabad,” said Mrs. Manya Zajac, director of youth programming for Chabad, “The regular bonfire, barbecue and children’s program are in the works. With proper social-distancing measures and masks, we’re optimistic that all will be well, and the entire family will once again experience the joy of Lag BaOmer together.”
The young Jewish professional community in Chabad of Uptown in Houston remembers how they “Zoomed by the fire” last year, with s’mores made on their own at home. Thankfully, this year will be different. “I sat on my porch, my son strumming on my guitar, and played Jewish songs for whoever passed by last year,” recalled Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff. His wife Chanie Lazaroff chiming in, “Well, thank G‑d, we’ve come a long way, and this year, I look forward to the outdoor drum circle we’re planning. It may be in pods six feet away from each other, but we’re going to be together, and I can’t wait!”
Some Still in Lockdown
While many are indeed giddy about loosening rules, other parts of the world are still under various measures of lockdown, particularly on the European continent. One of the things that bonds the Jewish communities of Germany, Switzerland and Austria is their shared language: German. Building on the success of last years’ smash hit shared Lag BaOmer celebration, they’re looking at a repeat act, the German-speaking Chabad emissaries banding together to bring a three-country festival to the world.
“Quarantine measures are still in place in Vienna until May 2,” explained Rabbi Zalman Raskin of Chabad of Vienna. “So we hired a professional filming crew and are producing a unique film with local child actors all about ahavat Yisrael (love of one’s fellow)—a central theme of Lag BaOmer. We will be streaming the film on Friday afternoon via Zoom, Facebook and YouTube, plus interactive virtual games and prizes.”
To further facilitate celebrations even while under quarantine, they are preparing packages to send to local families in advance of the holiday, complete with a snack, a printed QR code to scan for the film and a balloon.
Why? Raskin explained: “People will fly a balloon outside their homes, and this way, all will know that here, a Jewish family is celebrating their holiday.”
‘Pretty Much Back on Track’
Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois usually organizes a massive family carnival outside a shopping mall for Lag BaOmer, but last year, they were compelled to retool into an equally massive car parade that left entire neighborhoods with the knowledge that the holiday was still being celebrated.
This year, they’re back, albeit still slightly scaled down. “We have plans to gather together in a large public park, each family bringing their own picnic with them and pretty much assuming their own ‘pod.’ We’ll bring a food truck to the park for people to order pre-packaged food, and we’ll interact across the borders of these pods,” explained Rabbi Yosef Shmuel Moskowitz, executive director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois.
“As the evening progresses and the sun sets Thursday evening—officially kicking off the holiday on the Hebrew calendar—our own homegrown band, Rogers Park, will perform a concert for those still out with family at 8:30 and entertain the crowd for an hour. It will be really exciting to be back—in any way!”
In the sunshine of Florida, guidelines have been loose for quite some time now, and Rabbi Chaim Lipskar of the Rok Family Shul in downtown Miami is eager to host the annual rooftop barbecue and jazz party once again.
Rabbi Yossi Gluckowsky of Chabad of Closter, N.J., is likewise excited. “I vividly remember going around the neighborhood last year with a music truck and dancing outside people’s homes. Dear friends were quarantined inside, and all I could do was dance at a distance of 20 feet away. Thank G‑d, not this year: A member of the community has lent us their very large backyard, and we’re going to gather there with social distancing, G‑d willing.
“This is really the first time we’re getting together for an event, and it’s very exciting. We prayed outside for the High Holidays, so this is the first family event we’re doing since before the pandemic, and G‑d willing, it will be really beautiful to be back together!”