Normally, snakes scare Myles Natenzon, 5. But, yesterday, when Chabad of Staten Island hosted a Lag B’Omer community celebration at the local zoo, Myles was among the 200 community members who worked up the courage to stroke the corn snake, held by the zookeeper. “Slippery,” he said and quickly withdrew his hand.
Lag B’Omer at the zoo is radically different from the celebrations Myles’s mother Angela Natenzon recalls from her childhood in Israel. There, bonfire flames licked the skies and roasted potatoes to piping hot perfection. “We’d rub our faces black with the potato skins,” said Natenzon. While the only fires at the Staten Island gathering could be found singeing the barbecued chicken burgers, Natenzon was not disappointed. “Anything that brings Jews together for Lag B’Omer is positive,” she says.
Lag B’Omer commemorates the passing of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, known for revealing the secrets of the Kabbalah and leading the Jews during a stretch of Roman oppression. A plague that devastated 24,000 students in the same era also ceased on this date. Celebrations in Israel involve bonfires sparked in tribute to the spiritual light Rabbi Shimon brought to the world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menacehm M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, introduced the concept of children’s parades to convey Rabbi Shimon’s messages–unity, loving a fellow Jew, and joyful mitzvah observance. Many of the children who marched in Lag B’Omer parades in the 1960s and remember passing the reviewing stand as the Rebbe waved to them, have now fanned out across the world, leading communities of their own. The Lag B’omer celebrations worlwide, reflect their own permutations of the original celebration, with bikes, balloons and bonfires, too.
Lag B’Omer marches are also popular in Goteburg, Sweden. Police escorted Chabad of Sweden’s parade of 200 marchers, carrying signs urging onlookers to give charity and light Shabbat candles. Banging drums with as much abandon as Swedes can muster, the parade turned heads, and proclaimed a “revolution” in Jewish attitudes, according to Chabad representative Rabbi Alexander Namdar. “In general, Jews were terrified to show Judaism in public because of the Arabs here, or they are embarrassed,” said Rabbi Namdar.
Efforts to draw in the entire community for a Lag B’Omer Unity Bike Ride started months ago for Chabad of Houston. Chabad representatives Rabbi Dovid and Elisa Goldstein pulled together a coalition of participants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, the Jewish Community Center of Houston, Bnei Akiva Houston, Young Israel Houston, Robert M. Beren Academy and many, many others. Cooperating groups and area Chabad Centers from Texas Medical Center, Uptown, Sugar Land, pitched in to man rides, run carnival booths, serve food and supervise the hundreds of riders who biked two miles from the Seven Acres Jewish Senior Center to the Merfish Teen Center. As hundreds of Lag B’Omer Jewish Unity Bike Parade Balloons bobbed from bike backs along the bayou route, Chabad representative Rabbi Moishe Traxler exulted, “It’s an absolutely wonderful demonstration of Jewish unity, how we can rise together for a higher purpose and recognize the beauty of being Jewish, something we all share.”
Bikes played a starring role in the Lag B’Omer get together hosted by Chabad of Five Towns in New York. For the Extreme Stunt Show, Chabad left the soaring BMX bikes to the professionals, an event that drew an estimated 2500 gape-mouthed onlookers to the event. On the surface, bringing in the crowds was the reason Chabad of Five Towns chose the two-wheel entertainment, but on further reflection, Chabad representative Rabbi Zalman Wolowick said the event evoked Rabbi Shimon’s teachings. Rabbi Shimon revealed the unity between the natural world and the mystical elements of the Torah. Customarily, Jewish students spend Lag B’Omer out in the fields–not for a vacation, but to exercise the ability to reveal spiritual purpose in any setting. “Everything may be utilized for holy purposes,” said Rabbi Wolowick. “One look at a stunt bike tells us that nothing is impossible.”