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Israel’s First Burning Man, One Mile From Ben Gurion’s Grave

From Black Rock City to the Negev Desert, the sandy camping trip comes to the Middle East

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Saba’leh, or “Old Grandfather,” one of the art installations at Midburn, with the camps lit up behind him. (Sharon Avraham)
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Each year before Rosh Hashanah, thousands of Jews visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Rodger Kamenetz joined them and brought along a friend: Franz Kafka.

More than 3,000 people had already encircled the effigy of the man in a temporary desert city in the Negev for the ecstatic climax of the 5-day Israeli Burning Man Festival. It was a wanton ceremony of fire twirlers and African drums, marking the first time Israel hosted a regional event that was officially sanctioned by the yearly Burning Man Festival in Nevada.

Yet after months of negotiations, prior approvals from a litany of fire marshals, building engineers, and practically every bureaucratic safety official in the Negev region, at the last moment police yanked permission to burn the art installations. It threatened to become a Burning Man festival without the actual burning of the man.

“It’s probably a little too difficult for the police to swallow,” said one burner, dressed in an enormous fuzzy robe and top hat with blinking lights, as he gazed up at the effigy that would not burn. “Which is funny, because they have no problem with kids making enormous and dangerous bonfire piles before Lag B’Omer,” he laughed, before slinking away into the desert darkness toward the techno music booming out of the Jungle Vibes camp.

In the U.S. Version of Burning Man, every August, like this week, some 60,000 people create a massive city in the middle of Black Rock Desert for seven days with hundreds of art installations and the burning of a 90-foot Man. The festival has spun from a small fringe community into a worldwide movement with regional “Burns” happening in countries across the world. The Israeli version began after group of Israelis who had attended the Nevada festival got together and decided to bring the spirit of the Burning Man back to the Israeli desert.

At first, the founders of the event considered offering parties or logistical information to assist Israelis who wanted to attend Burning Man. “I came back from Burning Man [in Nevada] and I really wanted to keep the feeling alive,” said MidBurn founder and art director Sharon Avraham. At their first party on the beach, 500 people showed up. Suddenly they realized they had the energy to create a full festival in Israel.

After a few parties as community-building exercises, in June they held the first event in cooperation with the International Burning Man Organization. They dubbed the festival MidBurn—a combination of the Hebrew word for desert, midbar, and “burn.” The event took place from June 3 to 7, less than a week before the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens on June 12, when rockets began pounding southern Israel.

Avraham owns a horse farm in Ein Vered, near Netanya, which became ground zero for the MidBurn operations. Over more than six months of planning, approximately 150 volunteers built “the man,” a 20-foot tall statue of a man and a woman facing each other called Man & Eve, as well as a 65-foot long whale that became a performance space and sound healing garden, and the Temple, a climbable forest complex aimed to create a space for reflection and spirituality. The Burning Man Organization in Nevada approved use of the Burning Man name, and organizers from other regional Burn festivals in South Africa, Norway, Spain, Holland, and Hawaii came to provide logistical help and suggestions.

The MidBurn Artists’ Guild, which gave out grants totaling NIS 150,000 (about $42,000), invited 20 artists to create installations. Among their creations: a pink Sharing Tree where participants left gifts for others to take, a grouping of friends made from white plaster sitting in a silent circle, a dome of “Om Womb,” which created a recording based on participants chanting OM… OM… OM. Attendees could wander among more than 20 themed camps, ranging from the Free Love Camp, with a Pleasure Dome and what was probably the filthiest above-ground pool in the entire Middle East (nudity required), to the chill atmosphere of Coffee & Cookies Camp, to the massive ongoing party of the UnBirthday Camp.

There’s no money on the “playa,” the term for the world of the Burn, a half-mile wide semicircle in the middle of the Negev, which sprang up between sprawling army bases near Sde Boker. You come with what you need to survive and with gifts to give away. The only thing you can buy is ice. The idea is each participant can give something, and the community is created from a collective effort.

“Burning Man is really unique in the whole hippie or festival worlds,” explained Shlomi Mir, the project leader for the Temple and an industrial designer who works at the National Science Museum in Haifa. “Everyone is doing things all the time. You’re not coming to consume, you’re coming to make or give.” Each citizen of the playa is expected to be an active participant in creating this temporary city.

For the first few days, everyone compared MidBurn to the original Burning Man in the United States. “This desert is just like Nevada!” “The fact that we have cell reception here is totally disrupting the purity like you have in Nevada.” Nevada was this magic password, a gold standard, though I’ve always associated the word Nevada with cheap slot machines and sleazy cocktail waitresses.

“I think what was most similar [to Nevada] was the atmosphere, the feeling of freedom, of being in a safe place where you can really have fun and express feelings or ideas that you otherwise would repress,” said Mir, who helped create an Israeli art installation at Burning Man in Nevada last year. Since Israeli culture is more conservative than American culture, Mir worried that the playa values, including full nudity or the general radical self-expression, wouldn’t translate to Israel as readily. But as the Israeli incarnation gathered strength, rearing up on its own two legs, references to Nevada began to fall away. This was not Nevada, this was Israel, with all of its faults and beauty and uniqueness and complexity.

The location was also uniquely Israeli, Mir noted. “It’s a really Israeli desert,” he explained. “You have this connotation of desert from Israeli history and identity. Ben Gurion is buried two kilometers away. Talking about building utopian city in the desert is something you cannot disconnect from Israeli ideals and thoughts. Even though [MidBurn] is a completely non-political, international event, it slipped across my mind.”

Chabad and the Breslov “Na Na Nachmanim” were there, of course. I spotted dozens of Jewish Israeli men wearing traditional Arab keffiyeh headdresses and jalabiyya robes. Many just said it was the clothing best suited for the desert, but perhaps there’s a side of Israeli culture that doesn’t get to express the Arab aspect of its identity on a daily basis. Other aspects of MidBurn also existed far outside the Israeli mainstream. A hundred miles north, a parking lot opens in Jerusalem on Saturdays and the Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, hold weekly demonstrations with such passion that they sometimes degenerate into violence. Here, in the middle of the desert in this strange alternative world, Israelis are burning the Temple on Shabbat.

***

MidBurn was not fun. It was hard, and it was hot. I went down early to help build my camp and got violently dehydrated. I struggled to drink enough water every day. Despite the militant adherence to Leave No Trace principles—collecting used water in evaporation pools rather than throwing it on the ground, walking around with your own cup to avoid the need for disposables—the sheer amount of stuff created and then dumped in a landfill or burned at the end of the festival was mind-boggling.

I was lonely. Hippies can be very clique-y. This gathering was supposed to be a place for freedom from judgment. But never in my life have I felt so judged by strangers based on my appearance, or the lack of rubber duckies glued to my pink sun hat. Perhaps as an immigrant in Israel, where I always feel like I’m a step and a half behind, racing to catch up to understand the jokes and the local memes, it’s even harder for me to go wild.

Then again, maybe this kind of experience isn’t about having spring-break-like fun, but rather opening up toward the possibility of moments of pure beauty. Moments like dancing among a sea of flashing LED lights at 4 a.m., bare feet stamping the ground and raising a cloud of playa dust to the heavens, or climbing the Temple towers and watching the sun set over a temporary city, built for no other reason than the celebration of beauty—creation where before there was nothing.

It was a temporary city, of course. True to the name, the massive art installations were burned during the event. Three days after it ended, the last vestiges of the festival were swept away, and the desert returned to its silence. Isn’t it sad, to work so hard to create something, and then destroy it?

“You can clean the slate once it’s done, you can release all the good and bad things that were a part of creating it,” said Mir. “It says something about renewal and temporary nature of everything. Everything is sort of heightened, everything is more real, it feels more intense and also short-lived. It comes and it goes, experiences, and people, and the whole city, and whatever you build.”

In the end, we Burned the Man. The police gave the final OK on Friday night, shaking their heads and throwing up their hands. The entire camp gathered in a circle around Man & Eve. The fire dancers twirled, the crowd howled, the drummers circled, the effigy was doused in gas. Then slowly, amidst the twirling and the drumming and the chanting, two people walked over to the bottom of the structure carrying a lit torch.

We held our breath, waiting for the flames to start. And then it burned. It burned with such ferocity that it threw off swirling fire devils of flame, tornadoes that spun violently toward the perimeter of the crowd. The flames licked higher and higher, the drums beat with frenzy, awakening a primal desire for destruction and beauty and freedom and fire and love, the outline of flames still showing Man & Eve, their arms outstretched to the heavens.

After the structure crashed to the ground, the firefighters gave the signal to let down the perimeter and the crowd surged forward, watching the last flames consume the sculpture that had so recently grazed the top of the sky.

***

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Burning Man Israel

Photographs from the Negev by Sharon Avraham
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