I am dropped off at the Israeli Burning Man by Amir (not his real name), a professional tour guide born 60 summers ago in a cave somewhere nearby in the desolate expanse of the Negev Desert. He was with me the night before, when I came as close as I ever have to being murdered.
“They’re running a marathon,” Amir half joked that night as several people, either plainclothes police or strapped civilians, bolted down Ha’Arba’a Street in Tel Aviv toting semiautomatic assault weapons.
Reflexively trusting him, I took another bite of sea bream, only to watch a second round of cargo-shorted Rambos dash past the window. Had the speakers in this faux American-Irish gastropub not been bumping “Sweet Home Alabama,” I would have heard the spray of bullets.
The restaurant staff swiftly locked the doors, and our waiter calmly asked us to move away from the window. For the inconvenience, we received free tiramisu. Battalions of soldiers, police and German shepherds canvassed the block, epileptic blue lights bled through the glass windows, and a Twitter scroll revealed that two heavily armed gunmen had just attempted to slaughter everyone in a Sarona Market restaurant across the street.
For 15 minutes, the hissing fear that we were next hung in the air. So this is how my story ends, I thought, in a knockoff pub, en route to this country’s version of the Burning Man festival, called Midburn, where my mission is to reconcile this Hanukkah of hedonism with the internecine warfare that has plagued the region since Israel’s founding in 1948. How many gallons of Maccabee beer does it take to ignore the odds that at any point you might be shot, bombed or sliced into gefilte fish?
The music switched to Simon and Garfunkel and the Israel Defense Forces swarmed into the humid June night. “It’s Israel,” the waiter said. “It happens all the time, but never close to you.” He scurried off, humming to himself.
After a dizzy fugue of either two hours or ten minutes, they unlocked the doors, and a trail of unflappable customers strolled out. By then, news reports had circulated about a pair of West Bank cousins influenced by Hamas, dressed in black suits and blasting Carl Gustav–style rifles, killing four and leaving others wounded. Our path back to the car led past a welter of orange emergency tape, police lights, ambulance sirens and grave soldiers in olive uniforms. The silent drone of news cameras captured those crying and those offering consolation. A signpost read 24-minute walk to the ocean.
“I can’t believe it,” Amir muttered, rubbing his bald skull. “The good people pay a price for a bad few who have broken the name of Islam.”
A Muslim Bedouin, Amir is in the demographic often considered one of the nation’s few neutral players. His Mercedes, Diesel jeans, Polo shirt and resemblance to an Arab Telly Savalas clearly align him with the forces of modernity, but his lineage traces to those nomadic tribes who owe their principal allegiance to the land.
“I try to show you the right things, but then this happens,” Amir said, his voice trailing off, exhausted from the burden of always having to explain.
Written in English, Arabic and Hebrew, an incantation scrawled on picket signs—We dreamed / We thought / We spoke / We made / We created / We conceived / Abracadabra!—leads to the Burning Man entrance. Noble aspirations, sure, but the concepts hold limited cachet when you’ve spent the previous night picturing masked assassins bursting into your hotel room.
“It looks like Disneyland,” Amir says of the ramshackle rainbow tent city sprouting from the skeletal desert.
The Midburn fest boasts the blessing of the original Burning Man, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this Labor Day weekend in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Over the past decade, the most chic temporary utopia in the U.S. has spread to a global network of “Burns,” the most popular being South Africa’s AfrikaBurn, followed by Midburn in Israel, with cozier love-ins in Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe. This year, Midburn’s third, organizers sold more than 8,000 tickets at about $170 a pop—a tremendous increase from the 3,000 pioneers of 2014.
I’ve never made the pilgrimage to the U.S. Burn, but I’ve perused enough celebrity photo galleries to assume it’s no longer the untainted sacral rite it once was. Transcendence is still accessible, but there’s a limit to how low-key you can be after Puff Daddy has told the world, “Burning Man, I’ll never be the same.” Maybe Midburn harkens back to the Edenic spirit that existed before a billionaires’ row cropped up in the campsites and tech CEOs ate sushi dinners off nude models at dawn.
Under the blistering late-morning sun a welcoming committee approaches: an ebullient cowboy in a lime green hat; a ballerina in a pink tutu, butterfly wings and a cotton-candy wig; and a girl in a sequined black unitard that looks like it could be straight from an American Apparel Purim collection. Amir’s eyes bulge.
“It is very interesting and new,” he says, cautiously warming up. “But this sand and wind will kill you. Are you sure you don’t want to come back with me?”
Art installations range from impressive (a life-size wooden Noah’s ark called No One’s Ark; a towering burning man and woman) to on-brand (a glow-in-the-dark raver rabbit stage playing psy-trance and deep house) to what would have been blasphemous in ancient Canaan (a golden statue of Baal). All we’re missing is a Red Sea wave pool that parts when you raise your staff.
We watch 500 people fist-pump to the Goa trance pounding from a fake pirate ship beached in what was a barren wasteland until last week. Amir offers his card and tells me to call him at any hour if things get too bizarre. Before he leaves he says, “I get why you want to stay here, but I’d still prefer Disneyland.”
A musician friend helps me procure a tent and a place in the Lev (“heart”) Camp—a compound of generous Tel Aviv artists and professionals, veterans of the American Burn, who have constructed a white geodesic dome to host meditation and yoga and, more vitally, provide a shade structure and a kitchen.
And so begins my Holy Land Burn. My ancestors withstood Assyrians, Romans, Germans and both regular and lactose intolerance. I can survive a few days in a dust-choked tent if it means learning why an American communal arts bacchanal has gripped the Israeli psyche—and maybe feel closer to a people who seem half alien despite our shared heritage.
“The playa provides.” In the Burner lexicon, that’s the equivalent of “Everything happens for a reason,” or the major-key mantra of sage Palestinian American DJ Khaled: “They will try to close the door on you…just open it.”
After all, there are no locks here. Approximately 100 whimsically themed camps ring acres of dirt flats, and each has its own mantra, according to Midburn’s website. There’s Where’s Waldo, Tits Heaven, the Ethnic Demon (“You will kiss the mezuzah and fall on righteous graves!”), LED Colored Shrooms and Chai, Camp Lebowski (with giant bowling pins), Elders in Bikinis and AssCream (“We will treat every visitor with cold and amazing American chocolate ice cream poured out of a huge ass!”).
Even here, though, the specter of death is inescapable. It’s more than infamous neuroses, minor threats to daily existence or compulsory military service for male and female Jews and Druze (though only about half actually enlist). It’s the “never forget” evocation of the Holocaust, a permanent rupture in the national psyche, the irreconcilable statistic that just two generations ago 6 million of our ancestors were murdered. In my own bloodline, there’s the macabre oral tradition of my great-grandfather who returned home to Poland after the war to inquire about his family, only for impassive bureaucrats to tell him, “No one by that name ever lived here.”
Maybe Midburn is the ultimate revenge on Hitler. What could needle the mustached fascist more than knowing his plans failed and the descendants of the survivors are throwing a massive countercultural freak fest in the same desert that Abraham wandered?
It looks like Pompeii, except the people frozen in ash are attempting to Instagram.
I watch a rabbi perform a wedding between Sierra and Coral (Playa names) in a giant MDMA-neon glowing rabbit. They met the week before during festival set construction. He was a Northern California hippie from the Sierra Nevada’s on his 9th Burning Man; she was a Cleopatra-eyed designer from Israel. The psy-trance DJ stops as soon as the sun comes up on Saturday morning.
“Some random on the airplane said, ‘Be careful, Israeli girls mate for life…but I could be okay with that,” Sierra laughs, sweetly kissing the bride. “We might consummate it Dothraki-style, in front of everyone.”
So what else does the Playa provide? A pillow fight club, gallons of Goldstar beer, Soviet quantities of vodka, “ghoulish” miniature golf, Israeli soft-core porn theaters, “Glory Galleries” of dick pics, free mammograms and spontaneous dance parties interrupted by snowmen.
Around 10 p.m. on Friday, the air now thin and cold, a wooden Goliath and his Amazonian effigy partner burn. It’s like a high school bonfire in a Hebrew Hunger Games. All week, a temple in the middle of the playa serves as a makeshift shrine. Penitents post photos of dead friends and tributes to David Bowie; some scrawl missives onto wooden beams: “Confusion will be my epitaph,” “Chaos of the soul be gone,” “Free your balls and the rest will follow.”
In memory of those slain in the Sarona Market shooting, I offer a silent prayer to a god I don’t believe in. When I tell others about what I saw, they apologize profusely as though bearing personal responsibility. One camp mate offers a hug and two words: “That’s reality.”
On Saturday, my second and final night, the playa provides me with psychedelic dates. It seems only sensible to devour them on my way to watch Noah’s ark burn, staggering past the golden statue of Baal, where a man wearing only a thong is passed out. The wind turns lacerating, and people rush closer. A 50-something British woman feebly yells, “sit down! We need keep a safe perimeter!” The pyromaniac crowd ignores her, and you understand why the British Mandate of Palestine never worked.
It soon becomes clear that tripping in a foreign country while cold and filthy, among a rowdy mob of people chanting to torch a mythical floating zoo, may not be my wisest decision. When the ark burns, it’s the biggest inferno I’ve ever seen. Huge demonic gusts of orange glowing embers obscure the stars. It looks like Pompeii, except the people frozen in ash are attempting to instagram.
As the ark smolders, psy-trance menace swallows the air. The dates leave me nauseated. The vibrations are sinister. My only options are returning to a rickety dust-strangled tent strewn with dirty clothes or wandering this neon Mount Sinai, searching for an improvised promised land.
Relief ostensibly comes via Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heavens’ Door” honking from the “Afterlife” camp, whose walls are decorated with heavenly clouds and unicorns. I expect a chill-out tent, but instead the Playa provides a hyper-intense S&M show where one leather woman spanks another as a burly goon cracks a bullwhip. It’s overseen by a red goblin dressed like a Medieval Prussian Faustus. There are no empty seats. Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” comes on, and suddenly 100 eyeballs press upon me. It becomes clear that if I don’t leave, I will be ritualistically sacrificed to a Richie Sambora solo.
Inside my six-by-four-foot tent, I hallucinate Hieronymus Bosch hell-scapes and Francisco Goya horror scenes: bodies disemboweled, knives twisted, entrails splattered, skeletons in caskets. Somehow I become convinced that the “Pussinema” camp next door—modeled on a 1920s bordello and offering poetry readings, witch apprenticeships and tonight’s “Chastity Belts: Lockup Party”—is being run by satanic Jewish Nazis and that allowing this torture constitutes a form of unconditional surrender. Never again!
I catapult off the floor, miserable, aching, crazed and wearing my final item of semi-clean clothing: baggy late-1990s breakaway pants. Half the camp is still awake, but they’re all speaking Hebrew and have no interest in the American acid casualty. I spot the guy who gave me the psychedelic dates; he’s wearing a velvet military commander’s suit. He invites me to watch the sunrise set of Hadas Kleinman and Aviv Bahar, a vaunted Israeli cello-and-guitar duo. But first I have to help.
We trudge off again into the pitch-black, ditch-studded playa. Suddenly a magical stained-glass village house looms before us. I’m as high as I’ve ever been in my life, hauling 50-pound speakers from a rusted pickup to the top of a sound rig. As an ancient lemon sun rises, casting a glow over the empty Eastern horizon, a ragtag caravan of people materializes, spreading blankets and rolling cigarettes, sleepless and silted with dust. The performance begins, and I understand none of the lyrics, merely the spiderweb beauty of the instrumentation and the universality of the emotions. These are songs about life and death, love and regret, the permanent sense of loss that expands with age.
Toward the show’s end, an aging bubbe in polka-dot pajama pants and Birkenstocks shuffles over and holds out her hand to offer raisins. I look into her Eastern Europe shtetl face and thinning red hair, and suddenly I can’t see anything but my own grandmother, long gone—the daughter of the man who returned to Poland to discover he no longer had a family. I start to cry. Tattered and broken down, wild-eyed and overly sentimental, weeping for those I never knew and those I’ve loved who aren’t coming back, for everyone murdered at Sarona and for the killers themselves, for all those trapped in unbreakable cycles and entranced by the false promise that murder can make peace. In this nullifying desert, on these tilting drugs, you can’t avoid yourself or your origins. Our only reprisal is to create a fleeting oasis out of the ashes as we collectively wander with fear and hope until we eventually fall.
On the solitary trek back to the campsite I feel oddly euphoric, as though I’ve endured a purification ritual or one of those offhand illuminations when for a split second you feel aligned with an energy much larger than yourself. For a nation of scarred people, maybe this is a way to be healed.
I breathe in the dry air, satisfied that I may actually understand. Then, out of the seven a.m. calm, I hear the jackhammer throb of psy-trance.
About 45 minutes later, I wake up looking like Jon Snow after the Battle of the Bastards. My face caked in filth, hair knotted, eyes crusted, breath foul and body hobbled. I beg a few others in my camp for a ride back to Tel Aviv, but no one has room. This is rock bottom.
I’m told to go to the Midburn center station for help, which means another trip across the playa in the pitiless sun, my brain like a battered eggplant, and no one able to understand my mumbled English. By some miracle, I meet Nimrod, a chill half-Hungarian, half-Persian surfer bro and survival-skills teacher from northeastern Israel.
“Look, I don’t want to violate the sanctity of the Playa,” I blurt, “but I’ll give you $100 American dollars if you can take me back to Tel Aviv.”
“We can work something out,” he says, smiling. “The playa provides.”
He tells me to meet him in an hour in the parking lot, and when I arrive I can barely believe my eyes. He’s driving a late-model eight-seat Land Rover action-hero jeep complete with water jugs and AC. Just before I hop in the car, I step in human shit.
Somehow Nimrod doesn’t toss me out. Instead he laughs, turns the key in the ignition and points us out of the dust bowl and back toward civilization. He turns on the radio and looks at me—the American—and it plays, I swear to God, “Sweet Home Alabama.”