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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

Marjorie Ingall
May 10, 2012
Merida with her bow and arrow in Brave.(©2011 Disney/Pixar)
Merida with her bow and arrow in Brave.(©2011 Disney/Pixar)

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.

So, given that there is no single answer to what this holiday is about, I’m going to suggest we go with the feminist hippies. Why not use this holiday to incorporate the girl-power-ness that current pop culture has brought to this season? (And let’s all not tell this joke: Did you hear the one about the blonde who shot an arrow into the air? She missed.) Perhaps we can tie Katniss and Merida into our own tradition of bad-ass girl heroes: Deborah, the judge who rode into battle with the men; Yael, who jammed a tent-pin through a Canaanite general’s head; Miriam, who saved her baby brother’s life and later led her people in dance. We can teach about our historic kickass heroines Hannah Senesh, parachuting into enemy territory to help downed British pilots, and Emily Landau, the first freedom fighter to die in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. We can even talk about some of Merida’s comic-book and animation precursors: Marvel Comics’ Sabra, the tough-as-nails Mutant and member of the Mossad; and Dorit in the 2010 Simpsons episode “The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed,” in which the Simpsons tour Israel and the niece of their tour guide (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) defeats Bart’s karate with her Krav Maga by repeatedly kicking Bart in the testicles, barking, “No groin, no Krav Maga!” Well, maybe that one wasn’t a great example.

In any case, we can certainly Jew-ify archery with only a little effort. In my Camp Ramah days, the Rosh Kashatut (head of archery) was a guy I did not know was a rabbi, Barry Dov Lerner. I also did not know that he’d held two intercollegiate archery championships in college. A former pulpit rabbi and longtime Jewish educator, Lerner believes archery can be a wonderful conduit for Jewish values. “Everything you learn can be tied to Judaism, and if you don’t understand that, then you have the wrong teacher,” he told me in a recent interview. Archery fosters the Jewish values of self-discipline, intellect, and meditation, he said. “Standing on the shooting line, silence is critical. It’s like saying the Amidah: You do it individually, quietly and respectfully, and then you put your bow down and stand quietly until everyone has had the chance to shoot.”

Learning archery can incorporate ancient history and architecture (“the Bet Hamikdash was in part a citadel and fortress, with windows shaped to be arrow slits, maximizing range and direction from the inside out but keeping the people within safe,” Lerner told me). It can connect us to ancient texts; for instance, the way Jonathan tells David he’ll use a flight of three arrows as a signal parallels the way archers learn consistent aim today. (Two arrows are insufficient to show that you can hit the same spot repeatedly; four is overkill.) And finally, archery can connect us to the miracle of the physical world. “I would have the kids sit and watch hawks and I taught them to track deer,” he said. “When deer came close as we were sitting, the kids were in absolute awe. And I said, ‘That’s what I want you to feel. When you are shooting in the field as ancient Jews once did, you are part of nature, and you have to understand it and you have to respect it.’”

The upshot: Here we have an activity that can tie together a seasonal holiday, a sport for non-sporting types, cultural relevance to engage the easily distracted youth of today, and the power to make girls feel good about themselves. Maybe Jewish camps and schools should take a closer look. As an archer might say, get the point?


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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.