We Jews have our own May Day holiday, which is celebrated with a bonfire. This Lag B’Omer ritual has a number of interpretations; figure out your own favorite.
Are the flames a memory of the old Ink Spots song, “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire”? Or the lyrics in the Dinah Shore melody “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”: “You’d be so nice by the fire”?
The Hasidic idea is that the holiday memorializes the inspiration of your rabbi or rebbe. A candle for the soul of a beloved but bygone person from your own past.
I think that every element – water, fire, air, earth – can serve to light up the merry month of May, which also features Mother’s Day. So, in May I make my way to my eldest brother’s house, near Blackstone Boulevard in Providence, to go upstairs and visit the portrait of our mother of long ago and blessed memory.
This painting was done right after World War II by our G.I. uncle, Herbert. I believe it was actually my boyhood request to have an image of Betty, but I was never satisfied with any artist’s depiction, nor that of any camera. Nobody could see what I saw in that lovely countenance.
Over the decades, though, the large canvas has grown on me. I think Herb, who was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, was also disappointed, like all veterans of all conflicts, by the victory, and the civilian contrast with the dark and haunting memories soldiers have that they can only share with each other. (The Cold War was a slap in the face to the liberation that Russia and America and Britain had shared in common, not to even mention the Jewish GIs in particular.)
So, there at the top of the stairs, is the large oil of my mother, not wearing a fancy dress nor sitting on an upholstered love seat, but in a work sweater with no necklace or earrings to enhance the pose. It is as much – like all art – a picture of the artist, Herb, as of his cousin/sister-in-law/friend/fellow artist Betty.
I see them both somehow and their era and the spiritual bonfire of their talented search for something I like to call “beauty.”
The sun is a giant bonfire whirling endlessly above us, and this May holiday of Lag B’Omer comes to life for me this year within the context of nostalgia for their shared light and bygone times.
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.