Amid hedonistic indulgence, Jews search for meaning at Burning Man

A group gathers for kabbalistic meditation at Camp Sukkat Shalom on Sept. 3, 2009, one of several Jewish-themed camps at Burning Man. (Ben Harris)

A group gathers for kabbalistic meditation at Camp Sukkat Shalom on Sept. 3, 2009, one of several Jewish-themed camps at Burning Man. (Ben Harris)

Lisa Schroeder of Portland, Ore., offered Jewish motherly advice on Sept. 3, 2009 during the Burning Man festival. (Ben Harris)

Lisa Schroeder of Portland, Ore., offered Jewish motherly advice on Sept. 3, 2009 during the Burning Man festival. (Ben Harris)

JTA’s Wandering Jew takes you on a tour in search of Jewish life at Burning Man in Black Rock City, Nevada. WARNING: Adult content. (Ben Harris/JTA)

THE WANDERING JEW

BLACK ROCK CITY, Nev. (JTA) — At first they came slowly, perhaps a half-dozen sitting cross-legged in a circle waiting for Kabbalat Shabbat services to begin.

But as the sun dipped below the mountains marking the western edge of Black Rock City, and as the Sabbath melodies wafted across the desert, the crowd grew to at least 200, fanning out in concentric circles from the middle of a metal-framed geodesic dome.

With its Shlomo Carlebach melodies, ecstatic dance and New Age-y innovations like sharing memories from the past week, the service may have been familiar to a Jewish Renewal community in Berkeley or a hippie shul in Jerusalem.

Except for the costumes. One man in a gold spandex jumpsuit sat atop the dome, his high-top sneakers dangling above the worshipers. Another wore a red velvet vest with gold embroidery that could have been swiped from Michael Jackson’s closet. Others were clad all in white, their garments billowing in the breeze. Some outfits defied description altogether.

And this being Burning Man, several attendees, men and women, wore almost nothing at all.

“You don’t have to leave things behind or change when you come to Burning Man. I mean I don’t,” said Joel Stanley, a London-based theater director, actor and Jewish educator who was attending for the sixth time. “For me it’s about integrating who I am into this and letting it all have an effect on me. So why not express Judaism here at Burning Man, on the playa, in a way that is appropriate to Burning Man as well?”

Since its inception on a San Francisco beach in the 1980s, the annual festival known as Burning Man has grown into a mass phenomenon. More than 40,000 people, or “burners,” now come each year to this post-apocalyptic landscape in the Nevada wilderness for an experiment in temporary community and radical self-sufficiency.

Over the course of the week leading up to Labor Day, an entire city — complete with departments of public works, planning and “mutant vehicles” — is created and then dismantled on the playa, the ancient lake bed where Burning Man unfolds.

Though popular with tech types from the Bay Area — according to a recent census, nearly one in five burners earns more than $100,000 per year — a fierce anti-commercialism prevails in Black Rock City. Participants are expected to bring everything they need to survive a week in harsh desert conditions — and failing that, to depend on the generosity of others.

As a result, an amazing culture of gifting prevails. Themed camps offer everything from snow cones to coffee, from workshops in erotic massage to healing modalities like reiki and shiatsu. Others set up enormous open-air dance parties that last until daybreak and beyond. And all of it is offered in exchange for little more than a smile.

“This is the ‘Olam Haba’ a little,” said a well-known writer on Jewish spirituality who goes by the playa name Dharma, refering to the ancient rabbinic term for the afterlife. “Burning Man is a little of what the world could be.”

Like any other American city, Black Rock hosts a significant Jewish presence and several Jewish-themed camps. In 2003, a Chicago rabbi named Menachem Cohen established the first organized Jewish presence at Burning Man, the Black Rock JCC, which offered Shabbat services and kosher food. In the intervening years, Jewish life at Burning Man has grown in both organization and diversity.

“I think what’s changed is in the Jewish world, not Burning Man,” Dharma said. “The new Jewish culture is not new anymore.”

One expression of that culture was on offer at Burning Manischewitz camp, a ribald group whose contributions to life on the playa included hosting games of strip dreidel and America’s Next Top Shixxxa.

The brainchild of a “fake lesbian couple” — San Francisco writer Molly Freedenberg and Kate Levinson, an advertising location scout from Chicago — the camp was home to a multi-religious group whose members uniformly cited “insta-mitzvahs” as their most popular innovation.

Aimed at non-Jews and Jews who had never had a formal bar mitzvah, the process includes “un-baptizing” its subjects through submersion in a kiddie pool, the reciting of gibberish and hoisting them on Elijah’s chair while "Hava Nagila" is played.

“For me it’s a break from everything that’s serious to just be able to be as free as possible,” said Levinson, 26, who sat for an interview clad in Star of David pasties, panties fashioned to look like tzitzit and a bra made out of yarmulkes.

“That’s why Burning Manischewitz, I think, is really appropriate for this place,” she continued, “because we can make jokes like, ‘Well tonight’s the Gaza Strip club. Bring on my water balloons and bomb us.’ In my day-to-day life, I would probably think talking about something like that would be offensive and insensitive. But out here, it’s like anything goes.”

Further down the playa, a camp marked by three Moshiach flags, the emblem of the messianic wing of Chabad, was the temporary home of a group of former Chasidim who found in Burning Man something of a replacement for the spiritual path they had abandoned.

“Burning Man for me is Pesach, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur all mixed into one,” said Sholom Fishman, who was raised Chabad in Los Angeles and now lives in New York.

“Why? One, Pesach is freedom … and then Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, it’s almost like the new year. My year starts at Burning Man. Burning Man is the beginning and it gives you like this amazing amount of energy and strength to carry on through the year.”

Despite such lofty ambitions, Burning Man has gained a reputation for debauchery, and not undeservedly. Men and women walk around in various states of undress, public sex is not unheard of, and drugs are freely on offer.

Maybe not freely. Despite the community’s insistence that no cash change hands on the playa — officially, only ice and coffee are permitted to be sold — drugs are exchanged on more or less the same terms as they are on street corners across the United States.

Still, even the party folks at Burning Manischewitz made sure to mention the cathartic aspects of the Burning Man experience, its impact on their souls as much as on their bodies.

“If Burning Man’s a big party, how come there’s a temple in the center of it?” Dharma asks.

The temple is a wooden structure built on the open playa. Three stories high, the temple features ornate wood cuttings that are lit from within, making the entire structure glow against the dark desert backdrop. Burners write wishes on the wooden planks and leave personal effects to be incinerated when the temple is engulfed in flames on Sunday evening — for many the most poignant moment of the festival.

“I think it’s a bit of a religion almost,” Fishman said. “But at the same time, you got to watch out. I think part of growing up that way is that any time you see group think, right away my paranoia kicks in and says, ‘OK, hold on, what’s going on?’ And Burning Man is very like that. At the burn you see 30,000 people doing something and it’s like, whoa, no.”

The burn happens on Saturday night, when all of Black Rock City gathers on the open playa for the ritual burning of the Man, an enormous wooden figure several stories high and bathed in yellow and white neon. At the appointed hour, the Man’s mechanical arms are raised and a thunderous roar rises from the assembly. Teams of fire twirlers perform in a sort of preparatory homage to the inferno to come. Finally, presaged by a fireworks display, the Man ignites in a massive fireball.

For his first several burns, Dharma worried that the whole affair was idolatrous, a cardinal violation of Jewish tradition. Eventually he concluded that it wasn’t. But even if it were, it wouldn’t matter because the ecstatic experience of Burning Man is what truly matters. And in that, he said, there may be a lesson for the wider Jewish world.

“It’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing — it’s a powerful thing,” Dharma said. “Hitler knew it. The Ba’al Shem Tov knew it. And when Judaism is at its best, it harnesses that power for tremendous good. Basically, I think we could all stand to get our freak on in shul a little more.”

For video and more reporting on Jewish life at Burning Man, click here. To keep up with Ben Harris’ other travels, visit blogs.jta.org/wanderingjew.

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