THE AIR WAS FULL of sirens, the uncertainty heavy yet floating above the ground. Large crowds were moving like a whirling ocean all around me. I wasn’t sure where I was or where my friends were, but I saw that something had occurred on my phone. Many messages were flying in—my parents asking if I was okay, friends trying to triangulate each other’s position—faster and spinning my head quicker than the sirens engulfing my ears, but I still couldn’t tell what was happening. “My friend, do you know what’s going on,” I asked the man standing near me amidst the crowd, in my broken Hebrew. Wearing a similar expression of confusion dusted with slight fear, “I don’t know, but it looks like we should leave,” he replied.
Looking back, those early moments were the beginning of a period in my life, effects of which I live with still, memories of which do not remain nestled in my mind but find endless new ways to manifest themselves in my life. Since at least the 1500s, hundreds of thousands of Jews have made a yearly pilgrimage to Mt. Meron, the location of the burial site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd-century Talmudic sage and mystic, for his yahrzeit, his death anniversary, called Lag BaOmer. Different groups light fires in huge theaters near the burial site with massive bleachers for the attendees to dance and sing festive songs. Mystics gather in tents lower on the mountain to celebrate the siyum, completion, of the Zohar, a Jewish mystical text ascribed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Hundreds of thousands of Jews circulate through this tiny mountain town throughout the night. Officials had warned for years of possible tragedy on Mt. Meron due to the large number of pilgrims and the ill-prepared infrastructure, and this year, the inevitable happened. Hundreds of people were exiting one of the main theaters and slipped on a narrow metal ramp leading to a set of stairs that were blocked off, creating a crowd crush resulting in 45 dead and 150 injured.
I didn’t know, nor could I have predicted when I had gone to spend a gap year in Israel, in a Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem, that I would find myself there when the tragedy finally struck.
There was smoke on the tarmac when the plane landed in Israel, a mix of fog and steam; it spoke to me of freshness and moist air. Perhaps a sign from God, I comforted myself, amidst my anxiety. I exited the plane, looking at all the faces in the airport. They all seemed to be the same face, and each face seemed to be telling me the same thing: stranger, stranger, stranger. The airport’s stone walls loomed imposingly upon me, but they also contained a silent beauty. There was some ancient artwork on the walls, but the walls themselves would be enough to stun the mind. It seemed as though I was walking backward in time, into the temple of some stone god, and whether he would be vengeful or merciful had yet to be seen.
The months that followed were ruled by various spirits, some kind, and some dark. I cycled through periods of depression and periods of elation. I recall times when I would walk through those narrow, cobblestone streets of old Jerusalem, those golden brown streets, and breathe in a wonderful air, full of sounds and life. Merchants hurrying to sell their stock, men and women scurrying down to the Western Wall. The stones themselves felt alive, as though they too breathed and spoke and contributed to this city’s excitement and bustle. My joy would come when I would take my place as one more face among the thousands in this holy city. But I found few true connections, few who shared my dreams and sights. I hadn’t met anyone who saw this city the way I did: a place where even the stones felt like they breathed.
A friend of mine named Levi, a kind-faced soul with lines on his forehead that spoke to his intelligence, tried to convince me to join the group from our Yeshiva that was heading to Meron for the Lag BaOmer festival.
“You would love it!” he said, pushing me.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “not anymore, at least.”
I was slowly being beaten down by the constant ups and downs which characterized my time in Israel. I was finding it hard to motivate myself to do anything, and I felt quite ready to leave, and go back home. As beautiful as Israel was to me, as treasured as it had become, I couldn’t experience it with joy and peace of mind. I had struggled with depression in the past, but never at this level of intensity, where I was isolating myself totally. Going to Meron was the last thing I wanted to do. I knew about the huge crowds, the massive festivities. I didn’t think I could handle it.
“Trust me. It’s the perfect thing to get you out of your slump.”
“But there’s so many people….”
“I can’t handle it these days. It’s all too much for me. Stresses me out like crazy.”
“Just come. I’ll stay with you the whole time. When else are you ever going to be able to go to this?”
He was right. When else would I get to do this? So I decided to join him and the rest of the group at the 11th hour, the day before the 3-hour trek to Meron.
I woke up early that morning from fitful sleep to pray, as I was wont to do, and walked to my usual synagogue. I took my time that morning, walking carefully, playfully too, each step a dance between the lines in the cobblestone. I prayed too, somehow more playfully, more fitfully, more sharply, than I had before. I was excited for the day, yet terribly nervous.
That night, Levi and I, and the rest of our group, took the light rail to the bus station. It was around 9 P.M., and the light rail was filled with fellow travelers to Meron. Arriving, we walked past the vast lineup of buses, which were releasing much noxious gas into the air. We passed behind many buses before reaching ours, all the while breathing in all the smoke.
Levi briefly argued with a traveler who wanted to board the bus which our group was taking, even though there was no more room, but they ended up friends for the trip.
As the bus started moving, I heard the passengers talking excitedly all around me, some discussing if they should go to the siyum first or head straight to the fires. All the noise kept me from sleeping, though in truth, despite my worries, my own excitement was building. We left around 8pm as the last dregs of sunlight were draining from the sky, and it made it seem as though all the stones and trees were covered with a fading golden cloth. I watched the landscape morph around me through the window as we headed north, how the night changed trees into dark masses against an even darker sky, how it changed desert rock formations into almost threatening, wrathful faces.
We arrived at midnight, and the festivities were in full swing.
I smelled smoke. My ears filled with sounds of frivolity; I saw arms gesticulating wildly, faces swimming and fading behind other faces and entering my space, a mystic with eyes closed, a woman with eyes wide open in fear of being knocked over. Loud music shook my legs. A few small children were scurrying around me, trying to find their fathers in the sea of hands. Winding paths, each road uncertain. You couldn’t ever be sure which part of the mountain any path would take you. There was a beauty in the quiet stone columns, and the rowdy dancing just beside them. Small sparks filled the night sky, flying high and above the festivities from the fires on top of the mountain. The smell of smoke pervaded every street and tent, thick on my tongue, both from the huge fires on top of the mountain, and from the cigarettes of the pilgrims.
The Rabbi who was leading our group to Meron insisted that instead of joining the festivities on the top of the mountain, we must all first herd into the largest tent at the base of the mountain to join a massive siyum of the Zohar by a large assortment of mystics. The walls of the tent were a blinding white, slowly becoming stained from the pieces of ash descending from above the mountain, and the cigarette smoke of those inside. We all entered and sat down in the back. It was just as rowdy an affair inside. Men were dancing, men were sitting, men were drinking large amounts of Arak, men hunched over holy books alone. There were men dressed in all white, and men dressed in the typical ultra-orthodox attire. There was a long main table where all the grand rabbis were sitting, and those in the tent periodically walked over to receive a blessing, and a fresh cup of Arak. Loud music was blasting inside the tent, a very oriental, nasal sound. It had a strange, mesmerizing quality. The air seemed to shimmer close to the speakers. I was sitting near the door feeling quite out of place, but at the same time, intrigued. I was aching to go see the fires, the main reason I had come.
I stole away, myself and a few others, to head up the mountain. I later learned that several people from our initial group had already left to join the fires. As we ascended, we heard distant sounds of sirens echoing over the mountain.
“Don’t worry about it,” someone said; “something happens every year.”
As we got closer, we decided to go to the Toldos Ahron fire, which was said to be in the largest amphitheater. As we got closer, the crowds became denser, the cold air suddenly warmer. In the thickness of the crowds, I lost the others.
Then, a scream. Another scream. A low rumble of panicked yells in the distance now reaching my ears. Sounds that human beings only muster from within themselves out of pure terror. The crowd grew confused, all looking around for some kind of guidance. The sirens were growing louder and louder, piercing through the air like lightning on a freezing morning. The lights were blinding. The sea of people parted for the emergency vehicles slowly moving through. I turned to the man standing near me and asked him if he knew what had happened in my broken Hebrew. A rumor was now circulating through different voices in the crowd, in messages exploding through my phone, that the bleachers had collapsed inside the amphitheater. And that was when I first saw the bodies.
Those bodies, all full of life a mere minute ago, were bouncing limply in the arms of the first responders hurriedly carrying them out over uneven steps, and their lifeless eyes live on in my uneven mind. Living eyes flitted about in every direction seeking some explanation perhaps hidden underneath one of the metal barriers, an answer lying atop a stone column. But none came.
A voice in Yiddish blared over the loudspeaker: “There has been an incident at the holy site of the burial place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai—everyone must please begin descending the mountain and exit the festivities.” The voice was rough, unnaturally deep, and very unaffected, and it cut into the scene before our eyes. Tens of thousands of people now had to make their way down the mountain, and somehow find a bus to take them out of Meron. As the multitudes began to hurry and push, pressing desperately down the mountain, the large bright signage teased the evacuees: “Welcome to the burial site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, please watch your step.”
As I made my way down the mountain, I found a few from my group that I had arrived with, and we quickly banded together. In a stroke of luck, one of them had done a cross-country hike that had passed through the Meron mountain a few months prior. “There’s a large empty clearing meant for buses—we should head there,” he shouted to us above the throngs. There was only one problem: the only way to the clearing was through a forbidding forest that stretched endlessly before us. But we were desperate for any direction and were willing to follow someone who seemed to know what they were doing. “Let’s go!” someone yelled.
Our group had grown smaller and smaller as we pushed our way through the masses and reached the forest. “Keep up, Dov!” yelled one of the “leaders” of our group, but my legs were burning. I couldn’t run even on my best days, and adrenaline only had gotten me so far. “I can’t,” I panted, “I can’t.” As we entered the inky forest, the trees became a dense and imposing mass above our heads, a beautiful thing by day, a death sentence by night. I fell further and further behind. My wailing “WAIT” and “PLEASE” were only thrown against the trees, and fell to the ground, unheard. After a minute of blind running, I realized I was completely separated from the others; I could no longer hear or see them. Fighting rising panic, I stumbled and ran, tripping over large roots from the ancient trees, cutting my legs on sharp brambles pushing through bushes, trying to head in the same direction I believed the others were going. Every twenty feet deepened my terror with the realization that I was lost in this unknown and pitch-black forest. I ran blindly, yelling, at times, incoherently. Looking back, it seems to me an almost mythical, archetypal scene. But it was quite real, and I still shiver whenever I enter forests.
I was abandoned, hopeless, I would be roaming forever. But I continued fighting my way through the darkness.
Finally, a glimmer of hope. Shimmering like a beacon on some dew further ahead was some light. I ran faster, tripping still and cutting myself worse pushing through the dense thickets. Coming closer, I saw the clearing up ahead, filled with buses, and my heart filled with relief. I found the group I had joined earlier, and they beckoned to me to join them on a certain bus. The bus drivers no longer asked for tickets; as soon as their buses were filled they would leave. I entered the bus out of breath and collapsed into a seat. It was around 4 A.M. Around me were the assorted members of the Jewish people, the scattered victors who had made it somehow to this clearing. There were children without their parents, crying into the seats in front of them, and parents without their children, crying to anyone who would listen. I lent my phone to several people trying to locate a loved one, but the lines were so busy that the calls rarely connected.
The bus ride back to Jerusalem was unnaturally quiet. Perhaps it only seemed so in the face of what we had all just seen. We didn’t even know that the bus would be heading in that direction when we entered; we just knew we had to escape. By a lucky coincidence, it was the correct destination. We arrived in Jerusalem at 7 in the morning. We made our way to Yeshiva, went to our beds, and went to sleep without a word.
I awoke the next morning quietly, fitfully, mind full of terrors, and frightfully silent. I skipped morning prayers, my mind too busy, too empty. I went for a short walk through the Old City but was terrified of the crowds. I walked into a shop, but soon felt as though the walls were closing in on me. I hurried outside, but it was no better. I saw dark trees where the beautiful stone walls once stood, scratching brambles where every person saw me. I needed to hide, to separate from the world. I began to run madly, blindly, like a fugitive. I was suddenly back where I was the night before, abandoned in the dark forest. It took me several hours to calm down, but the next several months were punctuated by these episodes. I was unable to enter crowds, and at times, my room was the only safe place for me to remain.
On the last day of my stay in Israel, I woke up early in the morning, when the sky just begins to stain light blue, and the piercing yellow streaks begin to appear, like the blinding eye of some yellow god.
I stared through my bedroom window at the large tufts of smoke rising above the towering churches in the distance. I watched birds fly through them then disappear from sight. Perhaps the smoke was too much for them, or perhaps they ascended too quickly out of view. I often think of those birds.