Fun for a Girl and a Bow
From Hunger Games to the London Olympics, archery—a Lag B’Omer tradition and great girl-power sport—is hot
Today is Lag B’Omer. If you’re not sure exactly what this Jewish holiday is about, well, join the club. (Briefly, “Lag” is a conjunction of the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel, which add up to 33 using Hebrew numerology, because the holiday falls on the 33rd day of counting the Omer, which is … oh, forget it.)
Still, you might be familiar with one of the traditions associated with the holiday: kids’ games with bows and arrows. Which means that this year, Lag B’Omer is in synch with pop culture in an unprecedented way. Archery, it seems, is everywhere right now, just in time for Lag B’Omer, offering lessons of bravery and empowerment for kids—especially for girls.
There’s Katniss in The Hunger Games, kicking butt and fomenting revolution with her bow and arrow. On another screen at the Googolplex, you’ve got Hawkeye (a.k.a. the one whose biceps are bigger than Robert Downey Jr.’s but smaller than the Hulk’s) in The Avengers, coolly whipping an arrow into his recurve bow while plunging off an exploding building. Coming soon is Pixar’s Brave (a.k.a. the One About a Girl), in which an animated Scottish princess named Merida enters an archery contest for prospective princes so she can shoot for her own hand. (Guess who wins.)
If the silver screen isn’t enough to convince you that archery is officially hot, consider the Olympics in London this summer, where the American archery team is expected to dominate, and the forthcoming 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel, where archery will be included for the first time. Archery’s having a fashion moment, too: Bows and arrows are rapidly becoming the new owls, which used to be the new octopi, which used to be the new handlebar moustaches. Check out the zillion arrow-strewn necklaces on Etsy, or the mass-market T-shirts, or the baffling hair accessories. A couple of weeks ago, every Louis Vuitton store in the world had archery-themed windows. And I have no idea what to say about the humungous brass cuff topped by a Paleozoic fossilized arrowhead designed by Kelly Wearstler, best known for dressing like an extremely stylish lunatic.
I give Katniss most of the credit for the archery boom. When the other two movies were a mere gleam in a marketer’s eye, Suzanne Collins’ books were roaring up the best-seller lists. Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss in the movie sealed the deal. The fashion—and a boom in the actual sport of archery—followed. Jim MacQuarrie, a Wired blogger who is also an archery instructor, noted that archery clubs are reporting as much as a 75 percent increase in attendance in their classes in recent months, and the Associated Press wrote that archery ranges nationwide have seen steady increases in business, especially among girls.
Which is good, because apparently girls are way better shooters than boys—at least if we’re to believe the movies. MacQuarrie offered a fascinating analysis of the shooting in all three films: In a close reading of a Brave trailer and a Hunger Games trailer, MacQuarrie writes in admiring detail about how both Merida and Katniss display superb archery skills. Especially compared to Hawkeye, the hot-guy archer in The Avengers. In a third (and very funny) post, McQuarrie eviscerates actor Jeremy Renner’s form, concluding, “If you wanted to guarantee 100 percent that your arrow would miss the target by a wide margin, this is how to do it.”
So, apparently when it comes to shooting, unlikely heroines rule. And what we have here, fellow yehudim, is an opportunity. Archery could be a great way to get sedentary and cerebral girls into their bodies, and a great way to show super-princess-y girls—who may focus entirely too much on their bodies—that there’s more to one’s physical self than adornment. Female bodies have power, and it’s not merely sexual power.
For boys and girls alike, archery feels deliciously dangerous while actually being super-safe. (It may seem counterintuitive to give sharp weaponry to little Elias and Lillian, but the practice is about as lethal as eating soft cheese during pregnancy.) MacQuarrie cited stats showing only one in 2,000 participants in archery get injured; for golf, it’s one in 625. This is a sport that rewards focus, calculation, and precision over brawn. In other words: a sport for Jews!
Which brings us back to Lag B’Omer, the minor Jewish holiday that falls between the more important celebrations of Passover and Shavuot. What, you may ask, is the holiday’s connection to archery? There are a few explanations, depending on what exactly you think the holiday itself is about. Maybe Lag B’Omer celebrates a military victory by a rebel Jewish soldier named Bar Kochba in a revolt (ultimately fruitless) against Roman rule, and the bows and arrows are a callback to wartime. Or maybe the bows and arrows refer to the ones carried by students of Rabbi Akiva, who were forbidden by the Romans to study Torah, so they’d study secretly in the forests, and when Roman soldiers came by, they’d pretend to be having wholesome non-Jew-y shooting parties. (This doesn’t explain why we mark this on the 33rd day of the Omer, but OK.) Or maybe it commemorates Rabbi Akiva’s disciple Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who supposedly died on this day; a South African Chabad rabbi suggests that the archery symbolizes Shimon bar Yochai’s attitude toward morality, spirituality, and enlightenment. “To propel an arrow forward, you need to pull the bowstring backwards,” he wrote. “Spiritually, when you’ve slipped a little in the wrong direction, you develop potential to fly in the correct direction. Rather than criticize the person who had fallen, Rabbi Shimon hinted that each fall has the capacity to propel us to new heights.” (There’s a reason the term for sin we use on the High Holidays—chet—is an archery term that means “missing the mark.”)
In the tradition of Merida and Katniss, we can even offer a bit of a feminist interpretation. Hippies note that Lag B’Omer usually falls around the time of Beltane, a Celtic festival that also involves bonfires and revelry, but with an additional gloss of fertility and female power. “Lag B’Omer celebrates the Shekhinah, who is the sum total of our being, as a passionate bride in union with Tiferet, the Holy One, the heavenly and regal Divine,” notes the website of Tel-Shemesh, a patchouli-scented organization that integrates Jewish texts and earth-based imagery.
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