As tens of thousands of children prepare for next week’s Jewish unity parade through the streets of the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., newly released footage of a similar 1984 event captures the energy surrounding observances of the minor holiday known as Lag B’Omer.

Always occurring on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, Lag B’Omer marks the cessation of a plague that claimed 24,000 students of the 1st century B.C.E. sage Rabbi Akiva, and is also the anniversary of the passing of the mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whom many credit with authoring the Kabbalistic source text known as the Zohar. In Israel and in Jewish communities throughout the world, the day is characterized by massive bonfires and, in keeping with a Bar Yochai’s directive to his students, celebratory gatherings.

And ever since the 1950s, whenever the holiday has fallen on a Sunday – as it does on April 22 this year – Lag B’Omer has meant the throngs of parading Jewish children. During the lifetime of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, who instituted the practice, 13 such parades transformed the normally stoic streets of Crown Heights into a cacophonous fairground. At each parade, the Rebbe delivered a public talk emphasizing the power of Jewish unity and the special role that children occupy in perfecting the world.

“They were historic and inspirational events,” says Rabbi Elkanah Shmotkin, director of Jewish Educational Media, which released the entire collection of footage from the 1984 parade on DVD. (It can also be viewed online through the Judaism website’s Jewish.TV portal by clicking here.)

Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum, spiritual leader of the Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation in Victoria, Australia, describes his childhood memories of Lag B’Omer parades in Crown Heights as a wondrous collection of sights and sounds.

“Nearly every Jewish kid in town [was] simultaneously singing [and] marching down the main street,” he recalls. “Police vans and fire trucks [serenaded the neighborhood] with sirens while marching bands representing every branch of the military competed for attention.”

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)

In 1984, busloads of schoolchildren arrived from all over the Northeastern United States for the occasion. They sat along Eastern Parkway, waving banners and singing songs, as a multitude of colorful floats passed by, along with clowns, marching bands, and drum corps.

In addition to all the merriment, the Rebbe encouraged the assembled crowds with moving speeches. At this particular parade, he reminded the children that Bar Yochai’s profession was studying the Torah. While every person had infinite potential, children in particular, the Rebbe said, by virtue of the support of their parents, could reach the lofty level of Bar Yochai.

By extension, the Rebbe continued, parents had an awesome responsibility in raising their children according to the Torah’s teachings. Parents in free countries, the Rebbe emphasized, should look to the self-sacrifice of their counterparts in such places as Russia who, despite the freedom to practice their religion, did whatever it took to ensure a Jewish education for their children.

The 1984 parade was broadcast around the world under the direction of JEM founder Rabbi Dovid Krinsky, and funded by a grant from Count and Countess Maklouf Elkaim. The archival footage was preserved especially for this release through grants from George and Pamela Rohr and Benyamin and Rochel Federman.