September 20, 2007
I have perfectly normal, respectable friends -- doctors, producers, financiers -- who every year slip into something more comfortable and head down to Burning Man.
About 25,000 gather for one week each year in Nevada's Black Rock Desert to create "an experimental community"
"You have to come," they say each year, and each year I look at their photos from a week spent in the Nevada desert in the baking sun with thousands of strangers into everything from Druid solstice worship to group hug camps and tell them, "Um, no thanks."
Part of me can think of nothing I'd rather do than take a break from my professional and familial duties and watch aging and wannabe hippies do naked yoga in the Nevada sun -- one must always expand one's horizons. But then I think of the shlep and the dust and the smell of patchouli -- I hate patchouli -- and the potential for sunburn, and I lose interest.
"But you have to experience it to understand it," they say. Well, that I believe. For as long as people have mistaken my simple curiosity or bemused expression for an eagerness to join them on whatever farkhakta spiritual journey they've embarked on, they've relied on the old "You'll never know 'til you try" to get me on board. I've heard it from acolytes of everything from est to Jews for Jesus to Scientology to ecstasy.
The Burning Man Web site chides, "Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind." Which begs the question: Does a blind person really care what puce looks like?
But I think I do know a little about the spiritual and communal power of Burning Man.
Because I have Sukkot.
When it comes down to it, there are two types of Jews in the world: Those who celebrate Sukkot, and those who don't.
Either you know what it is to sit outdoors under a sukkah on a cool autumn night, surrounded by family and friends, feasting on traditional Sukkot foods, laughing and singing as if it were summer camp all over, or you don't.
Either you know that Judaism offers evenings of ease and joy and unmitigated celebration, or you don't.
Why so many Jews neglect to celebrate this holiday (which begins this year on the evening of Sept. 26 and lasts a week) may go to the heart of why so many Jews are alienated from Jewish life. To observe Yom Kippur but not Sukkot is to experience Judaism as a dour and guilt-inducing religion, full of difficult prayers and expensive tickets.
Sukkot makes no such demands. Judaism, in its time-tested wisdom, presents Jews with the melancholy reflection of Rosh Hashanah and the awesome duty of Yom Kippur. But Sukkot, which comes four days after Yom Kippur, is the religion's equivalent of Miller Time. All you need to do is sit outdoors in a festive sort of hut, a sukkah, say a few blessings and eat a good meal. The sun sets, platters are emptied, jokes told, wine bottles drained. If someone has a guitar, even better. At my first meal in a sukkah, I thought I had walked into a different religion.
There is a deep religious, historical and spiritual meaning to Sukkot and some rituals and rules that accompany it. Also called the Festival of Booths and the Feast of the Harvest, it commemorates the successful harvest of the preceding year and the time of the first rains, as well as the journey of the Children of Israel through the wilderness on their way to Sinai.
Observant Jews follow the commandment of holding branches of willow, myrtle and palm and an etrog, or citron, during each evening's blessing. Sukkah guests can discuss the symbolism of these four species for hours: the intertwining of the masculine and the feminine, of Israel with God, etc. Or you can focus on draining those bottles of wine.
But, ultimately, the beauty of Sukkot derives from the holiday's biblical name (Exodus 23:14-16): the Feast of the Ingathering. The sukkah creates an intimacy that is the glorious opposite of many large, modern Jewish institutions. A sukkah meal is part picnic and part secret clubhouse meeting, part ... Burning Man.
Not surprisingly, children delight in Sukkot. They watch as the grownups essentially ape what children do the rest of the year: construct a playhouse. The kids can help decorate it any way they wish -- Martha Stewart need not apply -- and then every meal becomes a kind of camping trip. Sukkot is the mystery and revelry of Thanksgiving -- a holiday whose pagan origins in harvest festivals Sukkot likely shares -- taken to an exquisitely deeper level, perfected.
There is no better way to introduce non-Jews to Judaism than by inviting them for a Sukkot meal. For that matter, there is no better way to introduce Jews to Judaism.
Next year, perhaps some local innovator will find a large, convenient piece of property and erect a capacious, traditional sukkah upon it, a community sukkah. It will be open to all Angelenos, Jews and non-Jews, all day and night for the entire week, and be a place where the ancient holiday can be used to forge new friendships, new community, new understanding. It will bring the beauty of Sukkot to all and become an annual L.A. institution.
People will pass this giant sukkah and ask, "What is it?" and someone will answer, "To understand it, you have to experience it."