Digging into the archeology of Lag B’Omer
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HistoryA view of days past

Digging into the archeology of Lag B’Omer

A photo from 1922 gives insight into the significance of the day for local Jews

Thanks to a Jewish community study  conducted in 1923, we know with some certainty that this photograph shows the entire student body of the Hebrew Religious Academy, give or take a few kids. (Image courtesy of Rauh Jewish Archives.)
Thanks to a Jewish community study conducted in 1923, we know with some certainty that this photograph shows the entire student body of the Hebrew Religious Academy, give or take a few kids. (Image courtesy of Rauh Jewish Archives.)

In an editorial about Lag B’Omer, in 1936, the local American Jewish Outlook made a lovely observation about the suppleness of the Jewish calendar, the way important days accumulate meaning over time. The editorialist, most likely Dr. Asher Isaacs, explained the scriptural basis of the Omer period between Passover and Shavuot. It was a time of thanksgiving for the new freedoms of the Exodus and for the first fruits of the harvest.

“But,” he continued, “just as through the centuries one city was built on top of another more ancient than itself, so in Jewish history, the various days of the year came to be associated with events coming on the same day or during the same period although many centuries apart.” And so the fullness of spring was burdened with a suite of tragedies, from the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century to the first Crusades nearly a millennium later, leading to the spirit of mournfulness still observed during these weeks.

The handwritten text in the bottom corner of this photograph reads, “Second Leg Boamer Outing Jr Class Pitts. Pa YESHIVAH.” The spelling of the holiday likely reflects the dialect of whoever wrote it. Say “Leg Boamer” aloud, and you can hear a bit of the past.

These are the students and teachers of the Hebrew Religious Academy, a yeshiva in the Hill District founded by Rabbi Eliyahu Wolf Kochin in early 1921. This photograph documents their second annual Lag B’Omer outing, held on Tuesday, May 16, 1922.

The boys started the day outside their yeshiva on Tannehill Street at 9 a.m., according to a notice in the Jewish Criterion. A local businessman named J. Steinberg gave each boy a flag and a bow and arrow. You can see those flags here. They come at a moment of uncertainty for American Jews, amid the ugly national debates on immigration quotas.

It’s a shame that none of these boys have their bows and arrows. It would have been nice evidence of an old custom intended to recall the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Lag B’Omer. To oversimplify: tradition says that, during his lifetime, the world never saw a rainbow—a sign of forestalled destruction, since Noah. Hence, the bow and arrow.

The boys paraded down Tannehill Street and zigzagged their way to Forbes Avenue, where a caravan of cars was waiting to take them to Highland Park. The photograph shows them on the steps of the Highland Park Zoo, as the Pittsburgh Zoo was then known.

What were their impressions of the East End? There were no synagogues yet in the neighborhood. But certainly the boys must have known that the area was where Jewish families were moving when they could afford to leave the crowded Hill District.

The boys sat through some speeches. Rabbi Kochin spoke on “Torah and Knowledge.” J. Steinberg spoke on “Good Behavior.” A teacher named Mr. Goldstein spoke on the “Value of Education.” In return the boys got to eat candy, cake and ice cream. They sang Hebrew songs. And then they had a race—with prizes. It sounds like a pretty great day.

Jewish youth groups rediscovered Lag B’Omer following World War I. The themes of the day complimented the revival of Zionism underway at the time, as evidenced here by the proto-Israeli flag. Throughout the 1920s, Squirrel Hill and East Liberty congregations opened their social halls for programs featuring poems, plays, songs, food, and speeches.

The Hebrew Religious Academy outing was different. The children were taken away from their regular daily environs to spend the day outside, in another neighborhood.

That sense of respite is the heart of Lag B’Omer. The Talmud tells us that 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students died between Passover and Shavuot from an awful respiratory disease known as “askara.” But according to tradition, the plague ended on Lag B’Omer, which is why the mournful restrictions of the Omer period are now lifted on that day.

The corollary to our easing restrictions is obvious. What is easy to overlook, though, is the way our experiences add another step to the hopscotching path of Jewish history. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at eslidji@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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