The Burning Man . . . before the effigy was set alight

Right...so we've been to Midburn - Israel's first Burning Man event - and we survived. Maybe we have changed a little, hopefully for the better. Let me try to explain what happened, how we felt; how, a week later and still in a state of "decompression", we feel now, and what we have learned from Midburn.

Midburn, in its very essence, is spiritual. Before you start thinking that I've gone over to the dark side (or the light side) let me hasten to add that nobody could ever accuse me of being a particularly religious or observant person. But put aside the endless trance music; set aside the fun and exuberance and all-night partying; in embracing the ethos of Burning Man, the 10 Principles and the often surreal atmosphere, there is a certain spirituality that cannot be denied.

Why else would people weep with sheer emotion as the effigies and the Man were engulfed in flames? Why else would they feel the awe and wonder of the vast expanse of the desert? Why else would they rejoice in spending five days in primitive, bare bones, sand-blasted, and yes, often downright unpleasant conditions? How else can you account for the atmosphere of joy, enthusiasm, helpfulness, cooperation, sharing, caring and selfless giving that characterized the entire experience? 

And how else can you explain an Israeli on-duty policeman hanging his contribution on the gifting tree?

Even the image of Midburn officials walking somberly in the darkness towards the effigy to commence the burning ceremony was ancient and primal, like priests gathering around the altar, with the congregation thronged in eager anticipation of the ultimate climax.

The overall feeling at Midburn is one of total freedom: freedom from the norms of a judgmental and demanding society; freedom from conforming; freedom of expression, of emotion, of dress (or undress as the mood takes you, and it certainly took a number of Burners); freedom of movement, of creativity. Freedom to just be who you are and what you want to be on your own terms...all completely benign, without competition, without criticism, without aggression and without any expectations.

We arrived at the incredibly well-organized tent city that sprung up in the desert just off Route 40, a few kilometers beyond Kibbutz Sde Boker in the south of Israel, at lunch-time on Tuesday. Even before we subjected our overloaded Subaru to the rutted dirt-track that pretended to be a road, we felt a frisson of excitement at seeing the wooden effigies, Temple and "Man" on the slight rise just beyond the camp. 

Shades of Mad Max with this wind-powered desert tricycle

At the entrance we were greeted by a phalanx of exotically dressed "greeters" (our younger daughter Lizi - Aliza - among them) garbed, so it seemed, for another world Purim party- fairies, boys and girls in multi-colored costumes of somewhat free design, guys on stilts wearing top hats, strangely clad creatures crawling out of their lairs, all manner of desert denizens just waiting to receive us "Virgin Burners" and to initiate us into this alternative existence for the next five days. We entered a drive-through tent, where we were shown a short animated video about what was expected of us at Midburn and how to behave. After this welcome, each car was invited by the greeters to stop at a large gong, to be struck with a huge hammer, announcing their arrival. 

This process eventually slowed down the entrance of vehicles to a crawl, and by midnight it was taking more than two hours to get from the tar road to the gate - about 1 km. Nothing remotely like in Nevada, where according to Lizi - who has been to two Burning Man events - it takes more than 12 hours to travel from Reno to the Playa at Black Rock - normally a two hour drive! But she says it's all part of the experience for the 65,000 who attend. And the Midburn traffic jam didn't seem to dull anybody's enthusiasm here either. 

At our prearranged site, Marlyn naively set out her beautiful scrap-denim door mat in front of our tent. Its gorgeous design rapidly became invisible, consumed by the desert sand.

Then we explored the "city" on the "Playa" - the term used for the expanse of Negev on which Midburn was set up.

No money is allowed at Midburn - the only thing you could buy for your coin was ice, as a public safety measure. Everything else was given or taken without any concept or prospect of an "exchange". So to describe Midburn's economy as "bartering" is inaccurate. It's "gifting". Plain and simple.

The Playa was home to individual camps in which the members undertook to provide "things" - services, food, drink, music, yoga, counseling, activities for children ...even showers; each participant undertaking certain responsibilities to ensure its smooth running.

There's the International House of Pancakes camp, cooking up pancakes day and night to feed the masses; over there, the "Shithole" camp, dispensing Bloody 'F...ing' Mary's to anybody brave enough to try them - without a doubt 4 parts vodka, 4 parts Tabasco to 1 part tomato juice! Here's the Puppet Camp, where anybody can use the gorgeous puppets provided to put on a show (as Camilla and I did for Omri); a Jungle Camp, a Family Camp and a dozen or so others - and of course that Trance Music camp (right next to ours which accounted for my three restless nights!) art installations, dance, amazingly supple pole-dancers, sculptures, music, all-night revelers, the Dome of the Rock - with a drum set perched high on top of a geodesic dome - so many events and experiences.

And of course the amazing structures, art installations and effigies centered around the overall "Genesis" theme, each and every one an outpouring of dynamic creativity, talent and sheer hard work.

To fully participate in this spirit of "giving", Marlyn and I - among the more senior Burners around - decided to contribute our personal skills. Marlyn held a lovely scrap-denim quilting workshop with a wonderful group of international students from the Ben Gurion University Sde Boker campus. I gave a story-telling hour, reading from the works of my late friend Pnina Isseroff, and South African author Herman Charles Bosman. 

Our campsite: Marlyn, Liz and Omri

Facilities were...errr...basic: without dwelling on it, the most popular vehicle crawling around the camp in the early morning, stopping at each line of Porta-potties, was the "Negev Naki" ("Clean Negev") waste disposal truck...'nuff said. 

The Shower camp provided welcome wetness in the desert heat, as long as you were prepared to stand pretty much in the open (preferably without your clothes) to get sprayed with water and soap. It was exhilarating ...particularly after the day-long sand storm that battered the camp on Thursday - EVERYTHING was covered in sand - and a week later, after having washed and washed and washed, we are still finding remnants of the Playa among our gear...and I can still taste and smell the desert dryness.

Ever tried flying a kite in a sandstorm? Not recommended...especially when the string on Omri's kite broke twice (but that's another story).

All 3,000 Burners adhered to and were vigilant about "Leaving no Trace". There was nary a scrap of paper, plastic or any trash whatsoever, anywhere. Any "moop" (matter out of place) which might have been blown about by the wind, was quickly scooped up and sealed in a personal garbage bag to be dumped later.

At times, I felt as if we had been transported into a post-Apocalyptic movie. Many of the participants were dressed in Mad Max-style garb, with aviator goggles, leather flying helmets, cut-off military-style shorts and desert boots. I could imagine the organizers calling everybody together to make an announcement that the rest of the world had been annihilated in a nuclear holocaust and that we 3,000 Midburners were the last survivors...and this is where we would be living for the rest of our lives, relying only on the 10 Principles as our guiding ideology.

Does this sound Utopian? Possibly. But I don't believe "Utopia" is what the founders of Burning Man had in mind. No, I think they just intended to get people back to basics for a short while, to encourage human kindness, to show them what they could do, what they could achieve when they really had to, and hoping that such conditions would generate a change in attitudes and some creativity which all could enjoy.

If that was their intention, then they certainly succeeded at Midburn. The level of creativity, in the designing and building, the creating of the effigies, the Man, Grandpa, the Temple and numerous other installations was incredible. The level of cooperation and sharing amongst the camps was inspiring. And the sheer hard work and dedication put in by the Midburn team in a year of planning and then setting up the Playa in searing desert heat is beyond praiseworthy.

In closing, I wish to repeat that while I am neither particularly religious nor observant, sometimes something weird and wonderful and often inexplicable happens - especially in the desert.

Like Midburn. 
It took place over Shavuot, the celebration of receiving the Torah in the wilderness. The following quote (admittedly paraphrased to suit my purpose - I hope the good Rav will forgive me) creates an intriguing link between Midburn and Shavuot. 

"The desert. A place of emptiness, of desolation...(as the Talmud says,)to grasp Torah one must make himself owner-less like the desert. One must nullify himself, abandon himself as it were, and simply allow whatever happens to happen — just let the Divine light flow in. One must put aside critical thinking..."  

Rav Hanan Schlesinger, Texas Jewish Post

I believe this puts Midburn and the Burning Man experience into apt perspective.


My thanks to Shoshana Michael-Zucker, Hod VeHadar Masorti Congregation in Kfar Saba, for inspiring me with these thoughts.

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Larry Butchins

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Larry Butchins’ career with notebook, typewriter and then computer keyboard and screen, started as a cub reporter on Durban’s Natal Mercury, covering fi...
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