With COVID in Check, Israel’s Version of Burning Man Is Back

The Midburn festival in the desert hosted as many as 5,000 people instead of 13,000 last time, as foreign tourists remain a fantasy for now. Still, under a theme of 'Return,' participants tried to put COVID in the rearview mirror

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Midburn, the five-day music and art extravaganza in the south held this week for the first time since 2018.
Midburn, the five-day music and art extravaganza in the south held this week for the first time since 2018.
Shanna Fuld
Shanna Fuld

For the first time since the arrival of COVID-19 to Israel, the country’s Midburn festival, a local version of the world-famous Burning Man event, took place this week in its traditional desert setting.

The five-day music and art extravaganza opened with long lines as participants fumbled with their phones to find the digital Green Pass proving they were vaccinated against COVID. It was a sign of how much things have changed since the last time the festival was held in 2018.

The Midburn site near Arad. It isn't always easy to find a venue for the festival.

Midburn is a pop-up city in the desert near the city of Arad in the south. Set up like a half moon, groups of people camp together, enjoy live music and provide something to the emerging community, whether a camp for coffee, a yoga experience or a dance space. In addition to interactions with art and new people, dance parties go on around the clock.

This year’s festival was pushed back from September to October, just as the country's number of daily new COVID cases started sinking as its booster shot program kicked in. Still, a government cap on outdoor events limited ticket sales to 5,000; last time, Midburn attracted as many as 13,000 people, including hundreds of foreign tourists who came especially for the event.

Everyone has to provide something to the community.

This year, because of Israel’s travel restrictions, it was Israelis only. “I’m sad we couldn’t have tourists this year,” said Ayelet Maizner, a volunteer who coordinates Midburn’s public relations effort. “We miss them.”

Midburn is the third largest festival of its kind in the world and is recognized by the official Burning Man community. The Burning Man event was first held in 1986 in San Francisco. Since then it has expanded and spread around the world, with the original U.S. event now held in the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada.

Plenty of interactions with art.

The idea is to create a shared society where participants are completely self-reliant, using bartering and gifting instead of money, all while indulging in what organizers call “radical self-expression.” The Israeli version has been operating since 2014.

Midburn was put on pause for more than three years, even before COVID. Danna Colin has been participating and volunteering with the festival from the start and says it’s increasingly difficult to find a place to hold the event.

Midburn has indoor installations, too.

“2019 Midburn did not happen. We lost the land. And the truth is we lost the land because of the noise level,” she said. “There was no way to get past the radical self-expression, and it became a radical expression at your expense. And your expense was the expense of the outlying communities.”

The reason: complaints from neighboring communities about the noise. By the time the organizers found possible solutions to these problems, the pandemic struck Israel and harsh restrictions were placed on public gatherings.

Lots of dancing as always.

Midburn started with just a few thousand people and has become more sophisticated as it has expanded. This year’s setup included nine sections of campgrounds and the Playa expanse that housed 120 art installations.

The theme of this year’s event was “Return,” an effort to highlight Midburn’s comeback after three years, which included Israel’s emergence out of coronavirus lockdowns.

The Playa expanse at the festival housed 120 art installations.

All art is welcomed at Midburn, but not every project gets funded. Organizers told Haaretz that the installations that receive money are the ones that have the most potential to reach completion.

Efrat Kaufmann and Tzahi Zaharia are behind Lev Moach, an art display showing a “beating heart” made of metal, fabrics and LED lights placed inside a circular tent that looks like a brain if you’re standing inside. The installation cost 25,000 shekels ($7,920) and the duo was awarded a 7,000-shekel stipend by the Midburn grants committee.

In the background, an enormous wooden image of a woman donning a tribal headdress.

Kaufmnan is now working to crowdfund the remaining 18,000 shekels. During the festival, the installation also served as the backdrop for a momentous occasion – Kafumann’s wedding. She and her partner tied the knot on the next-to-last day of Midburn in front of 100 friends, most of whom wore costumes.

Other artists made smaller yet still-sophisticated pieces like a crystal temple, a mango-tree hangout and an interactive multi-instrument keyboard with colorful lights.

There were also beautiful enormous wooden structures, alas burned down in typical Burning Man fashion. The biggest, known as the effigy, was the wooden image of a woman donning a tribal headdress. It took three months to create and about three minutes to go up in flames.

The crowd cheered. They waited three years for this moment; now everyone hopes that the next event won’t take three years to organize, and that unlike this year, tourists from around the world will be back.

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