CROWN HEIGHTS — It was inching toward 10 p.m., and 9-year-old Shalom Felberman was mounting the barricades. The ice cream being handed out didn't interest him. The bicycle raffle did, but only a little. What Shalom was here for — the thing he had gone to bed early for two nights in a row and squeezed in among hundreds of other children in the parking lot of Crown Heights' George Wingate High School to see — was the fire.
The 20-foot tall bonfire would mark the beginning of the Jewish festival of Lag B'Omer, a day filled with weddings and outdoor activities, including archery.
To celebrate, more than a thousand people — hundreds of them very small children — marched down Kingston Avenue from the Jewish Children's Museum on Eastern Parkway to Winthrop Street in Crown Heights Wednesday night, where they sang and prayed for more than an hour before sparking the much-anticipated blaze.
"They won't sleep tonight," said mom Batia Zvulenov, gesturing at her five young sons and infant daughter she'd brought to the bonfire Wednesday night. "I have great memories from childhood. I know the kids enjoy it — they like to see the fire."
Though not widely celebrated in America, Lag B'Omer is popular with secular Israelis and religious Jews worldwide. The festival celebrates the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, a period between the major religious holidays of Passover and Shavuot. It is also the yartzeit, or death anniversary, of an important mystical rabbi.
"It's a day for prayers to be answered and for receiving holiness in the world," mom Devorah Felberman, who had brought her three youngest children — Shalom, his 7-year-old sister Chaya, and their 4-year-old brother Schneur — despite it being well past their bedtime.
"What are you most excited for?" she asked them.
"Ice cream!" Chaya shouted.
"Fire," Shalom replied, mischievously.
For many Jews — and particularly Israelis — Lag B'Omer has become an extremely popular wedding date, as it marks a daylong break in a nearly two-month stretch of mourning during which Jewish couples are forbidden to marry.
How the festival became associated with archery and giant bonfires is less clear, but that didn't stop scores of kids from exploding with excitement as, just before 10 p.m., the towering pile of scrap wood and cardboard was finally set alight.
"We had to bring them," Felberman said. "When they experience something like this, they remember it forever."