Lighting Up the Jerusalem Night with Bonfires

06/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tonight marks the beginning of Lag B'Omer, a popular Jewish holiday with roots in mysticism and Kabbalah that most people don't understand. What they do understand is the tradition of bonfires on the eve of the holiday, a yearly ritual that has boys of all ages collecting scrap wood nearly six months in advance, scrambling to outdo each other and be the ones to build the biggest, longest-lasting fire. Parents will be asked if they really need that old chair, or if that table is on its last legs--no pun intended. Even from a very young age, size already matters.

We adults have our own ritual: We make sure to pull our laundry off the clotheslines and close all the windows before sundown, lest everything we own become saturated with the smell of smoke.

Lag B'Omer is only celebrated by Jews in Israel, as far as I know--certainly in New York we did not have bonfires. In contrast, Jerusalem transforms into an inferno of huge flames--on roadsides, in backyards, courtyards, and even on rooftops. Kids roast marshmallows or potatoes in the fire, sing songs, and party until the small hours of the night or even--as tradition unofficially holds--until dawn.

As a teenager, I used to build a bonfire together with a friend in Jerusalem's Old City. As residents of the Old City know, its flat crumbling rooftops are a world unto itself, from which you can look down at the winding streets, the Arab market with its colorful stalls, and light pouring out of windows onto the timeworn stones.

So it was on a huge yeshiva rooftop that the neighborhood kids would gather--perhaps even now, they still do--and my friend's brother gave us a board or a beam from his stash of wood, as well as some pieces of cardboard. And with this modest fuel, we built a small fire that lasted until dawn. A guy who had a crush on my friend narrated the entire plot of the movie The Vanishing to us, the flickering flames rendering the story all the more creepy to his fifteen year-old audience. We sang and danced around the fire like a pair of witches. I remember the way we could see the jewels of the city lights blanketed across the night from the vantage of the roof, and later on, the way the first light of sunrise touched the Mount of Olives.

Now I'm one of the boring adults who isn't making a bonfire, but I treasure what I do remember of my Lag B'Omer experience. My teenage sisters will probably be out all night in much the same way that I was once. And the Pope is going to be here in Jerusalem, as the odor of smoke permeates the air and fires burn across the night; I wonder if he'll think we're crazy.