November 30, 2006
Burning Man’s hot Shabbat on the Playa
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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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