I had many reasons for wanting to spend a year in Israel; a chance to improve my Hebrew, create a deep personal connection with my people’s land, and to experience all the Jewish holidays and festivals in the Jewish state. I thought I would be celebrating at most maybe five holidays during my year, but so far it’s felt like a holiday every other week!
The most recent festival was Lag B’omer, which supposedly marks both a victory during the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in the early 2nd century, and the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the great Jewish mysticist. What that means to the average Israeli is what is known as a “Siba le Mesiba”, which means “a reason to party”! The whole country celebrates by lighting bonfires and barbecuing the night away, to an extent that I have never seen anywhere else. As I walked around with my friends, almost every single patch of gravel had a group of kids surrounding a bonfire, or a family firing up a grill. It was a rough night for Israel’s fire department, but everyone else was enjoying the festivities.
As a part of my mission to immerse myself in Israeli culture, and not just manufactured tourist experiences, my friends and I set out on Lag B’omer to have a typical Israeli night. We walked through the smoky haze of Acco, looking for the publicized community wide celebration. After walking past about thirty bonfires, we found our way onto the basketball court where the main festivities were happening. I had no idea what to expect, but what I found was true Israeli hospitality.
Spending this year volunteering with various organizations in Acco has helped me meet many people in the community, and before I could even join the buffet line at the barbecue, I had already bumped into three people that I knew. I thought to myself: “How many tourists could say that?” Then later while my friends and I were munching on our hot-off-the-grill hamburgers, a little girl came up to me and held out a stick with a marshmallow on it. She said to me in Hebrew, “I’m scared of the fire, can you roast this for me?”. I answered in my American-accented Hebrew, “Of course, do you like it brown or burnt?”. She seemed confused and asked me where I was from. “I’m from America!” I told her. How many Americans have ever roasted marshmallows on Lag B’omer in Acco?!
The phrase that stuck with me through the night was Lag Sameach, which is a pun and a combination of the name of the holiday (Lag B’omer), and the traditional Israeli holiday greeting, Hag Sameach. Walking to and from the barbecue, and while at the celebration, countless people wished me a Lag Sameach. In America you could never wish a random stranger a Lag Sameach, but here in Israel, everyone acts like family. There are downsides- there is no such thing as private information- but the upside is that no one feels like a stranger. I felt completely welcome at the barbecue; eating free food, helping roast marshmallows, saying hi to friends, and all this in a city where I was living as a foreign volunteer. Even without the bonfires, I still would have left the evening with a warm feeling.