November 16, 2018

Burning Man’s hot Shabbat on the Playa

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.