The Artsy Outsiders Behind Israel's Burning Man

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As the Shavuot holiday approaches, the work of a small group of people from the Ein Vered moshav is reaching its peak. Every day, under the radar, and for no pay, they labor to join wooden boards and forge iron to build huge installations that will eventually be burned. All this work is being done in preparation for the upcoming first-ever Midburn festival, an Israeli version of the Burning Man festival held annually in the U.S.

The preliminary success of the Midburn festival, to be held between June 3 and 7, attests to the power of life outside of the Israeli mainstream. Even without any advertising, coverage or public support, 1,900 tickets for the festival were sold, at a steep price of 490 shekels ($141) a piece. The first 700 tickets were sold within three hours. “We did not expect such a massive response, especially as we chose not to publicize the event,” admits Nir Eden, one of the organizers, who works as a logistics manager for a fashion chain. “There are about 300 people working nonstop on the Midburn festival. You have to understand, it involves building a temporary city.”

Though at first, many believed bringing Burning Man to Israel would be a slow, arduous process that would take years, Midburn organizers claim theirs has quickly become the third-largest Burning Man-type festival in the world, behind the original in the U.S. (70,000 participants) and one in Africa (8,000 participants). 15 trucks and two shipping containers full of equipment will be brought down to the desert, along with installations and artworks created by 40 different groups. Midburn has a foundation supporting its artwork, which has granted 150,000 shekels to the artists. Eden, a perennial guest at Burning Man, says he has gladly spent tens of thousands of his own shekels on the festival. Representatives from the World Burning Man have recently arrived in Israel to declare the country one of the seven official areas where the festival is held.

Radical self-expression

There will be 80 patrolmen on hand at the temporary city near Mizpe Ramon to prevent things from getting out of hand. “They’ve learned how to deal with people having psychotic episodes, for example, and prevent sexual harassment,” says Eden. “We believe in radical self-expression, which for some people means nakedness. But there are also others who aren’t fond of being hugged by naked people. We will provide information on what to do in such situations, and how to preserve personal space. It’s forbidden, for example, to photograph people without their permission. We brought in two staff people from the United States, as well as Gilad Sher, who served as chief of staff for the prime minister, to lecture on mediation with the patrolmen. A police representative will also speak.”

Moshav Ein Vered is ready for the Midburn festival. Photo by Tomer Apelbaum

When I ask about drugs, Eden answers: “According to Israeli law.”

An impressive Midburn project, pertaining to the subject “Genesis,” is a whale that will turn into a therapeutic treatment center, using sound frequencies. The whale is 66 feet long, 16 feet tall and 23 feet wide. There will be various presentations inside the whale during the festival. Carmel Shefa, another member of the production team, says the whale was inspired ban article he read about a woman bonding with a whale. As far as the treatment center, he says, “Frequency treatment is the medicine of the future."

Photographer Sharon Avraham is responsible for coordinating the artists’ work and installations. Avraham owns a horse farm in Ein Vered, which he describes as “Midburn command center.” "We managed to bring the Burning Man spirit into our lives. We’ve become people that like to create and give without judgment. Over the past two years, I haven’t heard the word ‘impossible,’” says Avraham. Musician Aya Shvid, one of the organizers, says the production team is not led by one producer that gives orders, but rather engages in pure teamwork.

Freedom not free-love

One of the initiatives undertaken for the Midburn festival is the White Donkey Theater, which will also continue afterwards, started by Uri Golad. I meet Golad at his home, after he was dismissed from his job for spending too much time and effort on his new theatre, which will be dedicated at Midburn. The theatre will be moved by cart between 24 different towns, from Katzrin and Tira to Faran and Yeruham.

“We won’t turn in to Kfar Shmaryahu,” says Golad. “For years I’ve dreamed of creating a wandering theater, because people I know don’t go to theaters anymore. I learned the ability to follow my dreams from the American Burning Man festival. I learned to work with a clear head, less leading and more doing. I believe Midburn will really change things in Israel,” says Golad. He stresses this “is not a festival for hippies to hug each other, but a festival for artists to make exceptional work. There’s a difference between free love professed by hippies and the freedom that Burning Man offers. Burning Man has laws. You come to create things, break boundaries and preconceived notions that one must earn money. They don’t sell food and drink there: It’s a reality without capitalism. Bring food and water for five days.”

Golad’s theater will present Bertolt Brecht’s “The Exception and the Rule” translated into Hebrew by Aharon Shabtai. According to Golad “Israeli theater is closed. There’s one actor, Itay Tiran, and Tiki Dayan. Everything revolves around the desire to make money, even if it means resorting to the lowest common denominator. They praise 'Antigone' because that’s how they’ll get high schoolers to come out and see it. Tickets are expensive. I can’t afford to see a show at Habima [National Theater]. I convince my mother to buy me a ticket once in a while.”

Like most of Midburn’s activists, Golad also travels every year to Burning Man in Nevada. He has been there seven years and is proud to say that two years ago, he was one of 170 people who built a 200-foot-tall temple at the festival. The temple is part of every Burning Man festival around the world. The Israeli temple was left to Shlomi Mir, who works as a designer at the Science Museum. The shrine will be called “Creation Forest,” and it will be made of nine structures in the shape of huge trees, which can be entered or climbed on. “I don’t represent the religious aspect of the temple, but rather the connection to the sublime,” says Mir. “A day before the festival ends, we burn the burning man, and at the end, burn the temple too. I feel torn about the fire — we worked so hard, but it’s a true feeling of freedom.”

I ask Mir if the fact that the festival is being held in Israel will give new meaning to the idea of burning a temple. “Most of the participants are secular,” he says. “But a religious friend of mine said that it sounds like idol worship. There’s something to that, it is a little pagan. But I mostly see the artistic side of it.”

Moshav Ein Vered is ready for the Midburn festival.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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