When I saw the word “revellers” I realised we had fallen into a bottomless canyon of cultural incomprehension. The word appeared in the Daily Mail and it described illicit Lag Ba’Omer activities by Chasidic Jews in Stamford Hill.
Revellers is a term invented by newspaper lawyers to imply misconduct without risking a libel writ. Like “fun-loving” for promiscuous and “tired and emotional” for dead drunk, “revellers” suggests that some folk were having a terrific time at the expense of others — in this case, a bunch of Chasidim dancing around a bonfire on a council estate whose tenants were in lockdown.
Shame on those revellers is what the Daily Mail wanted you to exclaim. Many did, including a spokesman at the Chief Rabbi’s office, such was the anxiety aroused in high and holy places by the sight of Jews having a good time these days. Reading the Mail, you’d think most of Britain was bunged up in a ghetto while these Chasidim were celebrating Guy Fawkes, VE-Day and a Spurs win rolled into one.
Before long, even Chasidic rebbes joined the universal chorus of condemnation at these odious frolics which, according to the Daily Mail, involved the waving of a gorilla mask, and not for antiseptic purposes. Cue outrage from the animal rights lobby. The one redeeming grace that went unnoticed was that no women were involved in the alleged revelry, either because they had too much sense or due to their imagined vulnerability. Altogether, an all-round disgrace
Now I know you are expecting me to join the howls of indignation and I hate to disappoint hordes of new JC subscribers but I find myself incontrovertibly on the side of the revellers.
The first thing you have to recognise is the importance of Lag Ba’Omer to Chasidic Jews. A minor festival that falls on the 33rd day after the second night of Pesach, it marks, legend has it, the moment when Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying of a plague a couple of millennia ago. It is also the date (which most scholars think is the consequence of a misprint) that the hermit Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai gave up his soul in the Galilean hamlet of Meron.
Bar Yohai is credited by Chasidim as author of the Zohar, cornerstone of Kabbalah. He is credited in much the same way as literary cranks believe J K Rowling wrote the complete works of Shakespeare. Why Rowling? Because this is the JC, for heaven’s sake, and I can’t mention B*con.
Be that as it may, Lag Ba’Omer is big day for Chasidic Judaism, a movement which began in 18th-century Ukraine as an ecstatic uprising against arid Talmudism. Its founder, the Baal Shem Tov, drew inspiration from Meron. Over time, customs accrued. Bonfires were lit on Lag Ba’Omer and three year-old boys were brought to Bar Yohai’s grave for their first haircut, a landmark in little lives.
Aside from the cult of Bar Yohai, the Baal Shem Tov’s most striking contribution was his emphasis on the first verse of Psalm 100 -—’’Serve the Lord in happiness, come before Him in joy’’ —as route one to heaven. In the face of Litvak frowns, Chasidic rebbes sang and danced, composing hundreds of nigunim, both happy and sad. The oldest nigun is supposed to have been written by the Baal Shem Tov himself but, like so many other things in Chasidism, the romance of the attribution matters more than the historic substance of the belief.
As Chasidism splintered into dynasties and the sons of rebbes set up separate courts — there are currently three Satmar rebbes, maybe four — the songbook kept growing and so did the festive occasions. Chabad probably has more fests than the next three sects put together. All are observed with song, dance and drink — vodka in the Baltic, slivovitz in the Balkans.
So why am I giving you this shiur in history and geography? Because song and dance are as integral to Chasidism as confession is to Catholicism and the iftar meal to the Ramadan fast. Celebrating Lag B’Omer is not just an excuse for a booze-up based on a dodgy story. For Chasidim it is an existential act of self-affirmation. I dance, therefore I am.
In this plague year, the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students acquired added poignancy, the more so as Chasidim in Stamford Hill are dying in greater numbers than Jews elsewhere. In lockdown, the need to rejoice on Lag Ba’Omer was irresistible, imperative. To suppress it would have been bad for mental health. To condemn it in the media is futile. Myself, I applaud the revellers who came out and danced this Lag Ba’Omer. Their dance is our hope of salvation.