Jewish Journal


November 30, 2006

Burning Man’s hot Shabbat on the Playa


Half-naked, half-baked and fully blissed-out: Jews and the Jew-like welcome the Sabbath at Burning Man 2006. Photo by Scott Einbinder

Half-naked, half-baked and fully blissed-out: Jews and the Jew-like welcome the Sabbath at Burning Man 2006. Photo by Scott Einbinder

Now I can imagine how the Jews felt wandering the desert thousands of years ago.

Labor Day weekend, I went on a pilgrimage, with my girlfriend, Sue Ellen, to a vast, very dry, very dusty and, as it was the end of the summer, sizzling hot lake bed on the outskirts of Black Rock, Nev., approximately two hours northeast of Reno, to hang with some friends and meet new friends at the annual Burning Man festival.

The festival is a celebration of counterculture, music, art, theater, theatrics and individual self-expression, where anything and everything goes, except commerce, which is not allowed.

Approximately 35,000 people from all over the world came together for a week, living in RVs, tents, old school buses and the back of pickup trucks, without electricity (unless you bring a generator), running water or flushable toilets (yes, everyone uses Andy Gumps), to play, party, dance, share food and drinks and leave the real world behind.

And before arriving, everyone must agree to abide by one rule: When you go, you must leave the desert clean and pristine, exactly the way you found it.

So there was one thing I didn't expect to find in the official Burning Man Guide, listing the literally hundreds of unofficial events going on at the festival, including The Critical Tit Parade -- thousands of women in some of the most creative and fun costumes you could ever imagine, all topless, riding their bicycles in parade-like procession on the outskirts of the Playa -- the center of the grounds of the festival. And that was Shabbat services.

Who could possibly be organizing Shabbat services in the middle of the desert -- miles and miles from any type of civilization? Chabad. Who else?

I remember visiting the small Thai island of Koi Samui a few years ago, and there, in this little touristy beach town, among rinky-dink strip bars, cheap hotels, sheet metal stalls selling badly pirated DVDs and knockoff Rolexes, off a little, dirt side street was a Chabad outlet.

And I'm the one who, for the last two years, has teamed up with my friends Mendy Matusof of Chabad of Cannes and Mendel Schwartz of the Chai Center in Los Angeles to organize Shabbat services and dinner for 90 people on maybe the most famous beach in the world, La Croissette, during the Cannes Film Festival.

I partied with some hard-core Brooklyn Chabad boys until the middle of the night at some of the trendiest bars in South Beach, after my friend Mayshe's wedding a few years back. Believe me, these guys know how to throw down a few l'chaims.

So why would I be surprised to see one of them organizing Shabbat services at Burning Man?

We arrived in our rental car late Friday afternoon after a two-hour drive from the Reno Airport. We unpacked our gear (we were staying in a RV with friends), changed into our costumes (for me it was lots of beads, a psychedelic-colored African shirt and Mad Max-type goggles) and started the festivities with cocktails.

Some new friends invited us to join them at their camp just across the road from ours. Two doors from an old, Western-style saloon led to a building-less bar. No walls, no ceiling and no dishwasher. An authentic Hawkeye Pierce-design. Part prefab, part junkyard and 100 percent hospitality. The true meaning of Burning Man.

After a couple of the brightest pink (and strongest) punch cocktails I had ever tasted, Sue Ellen and I got on our bikes and went on the search for the Shabbat services.

As we were taking off, I said to Sue Ellen, who had never celebrated a Chassidic-style Shabbat, "Wait until you see how these guys do Shabbat. You can't even imagine how much vodka will be flowing -- the singing, the stories, the dancing."

I was really looking forward to welcoming the Shabbat bride with songs and prayer among fellow Jews in the middle of the desert (and very curious to see who the other Jews were at Burning Man). I was also craving some good challah, praying it would be whole wheat.

Now, just for some logistics. The grounds of Burning Man are a huge lake bed -- a few miles from one end to the other, surrounded by mountains on all sides -- and it's very easy to get lost. And the exact location of the Shabbat services was not clear in the guide.

After more than 30 minutes of riding our bikes around the Playa, up and down row after row of hundreds of theme camps, we were caked in the finest dust you could ever imagine and were hot, sweaty, thirsty and frustrated.

"Let's just blow it off. This is ridiculous," I said to Sue Ellen. "We are never going to find them."

At that moment, an ice cold beer back at our RV sounded better than any Shabbat experience.

Sue Ellen, however, has a lot more patience than me and was determined to go on.

"Come on honey. We can't give up now," she said. "Let's go check out that big white thing way over there."

She was pointing toward a bunch of giant twisting, curved spires, each between 50 to 100 feet high, at the far end of the Playa, extending high into the heavens, looking like some futuristic Christo meets Frank Gehry outpost on a faraway planet.

So we got back on our bikes and rode toward the setting sun.

As we approached what we later learned was called the "Cathedral," we could see a group of people gathered at one end of this structure, which was built by volunteer engineers, architects and artists to accommodate anyone who wanted to explore their spiritual side, to meditate or just form a friendship circle.

We parked our bikes and hesitatingly joined the approximately 100 people, most of them standing in a very informal, odd-shaped circle. I still wasn't sure we were in the right place. All were wearing the most original costumes you could imagine. They rivaled the best at the annual West Hollywood Halloween festivities on Santa Monica Boulevard. Words can not do justice to what we saw in front of us.

More than a few of the women were topless. And four or five of the people were, well, wearing almost nothing.

I did see a few yarmulkes. But I also saw a guy wearing a long, bright-orange, floor-length silk robe and beads, with an almost Muslim-like purple head covering -- and a bunch of people who just looked simply lost. They all could have been Jews at Shabbat services, but they also could have been a bunch of people listening to a recitation of Rumi poetry.

As we got in real close, it became clear that a real Shabbat service was going on.

A woman in her late 30s, a true hippie wearing a flowing white, see-through gauze dress and looking like she was attending a Grateful Dead concert in heaven, was at the center of the circle.

Her level of observance was unclear, but she was acting as the unofficial rebbetzin and was explaining the meaning of Shabbat and the prayers.

Although she may not have been the wife of a rabbi, I could tell she'd had a strong formal Jewish education. Perhaps she'd just gotten sidetracked somewhere along the way, but she still knew her stuff. She touched on themes that I bet Abraham Heschel would be proud of.

She was accompanied by a mid-40ish Israeli guy with a guitar, who, most likely, had just come from a few months hanging out in Ko Samui or maybe India.

The rebbetzin had gone to great length to photocopy the Shabbat prayers from a siddur and to make sure everyone had a copy. She obviously didn't expect such a large turnout, so she asked everyone to share.

I'm not sure which siddur she had used -- it certainly was not an Artscroll. The prayers were abbreviated with very liberal translations, but they hit the highlights.

She and her Israeli counterpart could only remember some of the words to most of the prayers. And they couldn't agree on the melodies to any of the prayers.

At some point, she seemed to be looking around at the minyan, hoping someone with experience with this kind of thing would step up and take charge. But no one did. Not even the few serious, obviously observant, daveners in the group. So she continued on, struggling at times. But she never gave up. She and her guitar-strutting chazzan definitely received an A-plus for effort.

Our rebbetzin reiterated, over and over, that it was more important to hum along and read the prayers in English to yourself than to be concerned about your inability to read and follow in Hebrew.

Our Israeli chazzan said more than once that it didn't matter which God you believed in or if you even believed in God -- we should use the time in the beautiful setting of the Cathedral to find spirituality in anyway we felt comfortable.

We chanted "Lekha Dodi," said the "Shema" and "Aleinu" and even did a chorus of "Adon Olam."

The services were followed by, yes, a traditional chanting of Kiddush, the one prayer that everyone seemed to know, even the non-Jews in attendance. A warm bottle of Manischewitz was passed around to take a swig from.

Our rebbetzin then unveiled a bunch of challahs, asked everyone to touch someone who was touching someone who was touching the challah, and she led her congregation in a festive rendition of the Hamotzi.

The challahs came from the Bay Area, she said. Where else, right?

She asked everyone to hold hands, and this is when the real Shabbat celebration began. A mix of Israeli dancing meets Bob Marley meets a rhythmic rave in the desert. People were moving and shaking in every direction possible. And having a great time!

But who were they? Where did they come from? Why did I all of the sudden hear Hebrew being spoken everywhere? And why did it seem that more of the women were topless?

Israelis ... I forgot ... they are everywhere. They're the ones who really know how to party.

My friend Talia has told me about the all-night, dance-trance parties on the beaches of Israel. Maybe this was just a different version.

And where were the Chabad boys? Nowhere in sight.

The dancing went on and on. The group grew. People were wandering up and joining in the party. Many had arrived early to attend the next event that night in the Cathedral -- the wedding of two porn stars.

After 45 minutes or so, Sue Ellen and I finally decided we'd had enough of the dancing. We were thirsty, hungry and needed some downtime.

So we hopped on our bikes and headed back to the RV, where we enjoyed our own Shabbat meal under the stars. Microwaveable Indian cuisine, mango chutney, whole wheat pita bread and cold Coronas -- all from Trader Joe's -- never tasted so good.

And I promised Sue Ellen I would bring her to a more traditional, Chassidic-style Shabbat with lots of l'chaims and singing at a friend's home in L.A. real soon.

Scott Einbinder is a film producer in Los Angeles.

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