Israel's Take on Burning Man: Where Radical Behavior Is Discouraged and Arabs Are Turned Away

The security briefing at the entrance to the compound that was designated for sexual activity eliminated whatever desire was left. At some point you realize what the veterans already know: Nothing is happening

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Contra Burners in Lake Kinneret last weekend: Everyone talks to everyone, sweaty embraces and instant profound discussions are common.
Contra Burners in Lake Kinneret last weekend: Everyone talks to everyone, sweaty embraces and instant profound discussions are common. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert

I was unable to buy a ticket for Burning Man, the famous hippie festival in the Nevada desert. Actually, it hasn’t been a hippie festival for a long time. Mark Zuckerberg arrives by helicopter, the founders of Google are regular participants, and the person who got me interested in the whole deal is actually a Nobel laureate in chemistry, Michael Levitt, who a moment after winning, instead of talking to me about molecules, chose to share experiences and stories from the dust-covered event. And then he rushed to erase the photos from Facebook, because a partially nude Nobel laureate is a potential embarassment.

The guard outside the Free Love tent wondered about our relationship and explained that the place was designed for sex only and not for anything – and that includes foreplay

So I registered for the lottery, waited for the online window of opportunity, sat in front of the computer half an hour in advance, and found out that I couldn’t buy a ticket to the festival. I also gave up on the Midburn, the highly successful Israeli version that attracted over 10,000 people on the Shavuot holiday this year – mainly because people who travel to Nevada every year recommended that I first experience the real thing to maximize the experience.

And then I heard about the Contra Burn, an event with far less publicity, which has been taking place in Israel for the past three years during the period of the American Burning Man Festival (a nine-day event that ended Monday). A friendlier and less dusty version. One weekend, 1,500 people, an organized camping site between the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret, bathrooms, electricity and water and even a minimarket. Burning Man for beginners. Just what I needed.

And this time the organizers added a little twist: No photographs. Which means making everything far more “radical.” And in a world where if you didn’t take photos you didn’t do anything, it’s quite possible that from a modern philosophical perspective, this event is considered something that didn’t take place at all.

They referred me to Shiran, who is in charge of the media at Contra Burn. During our first conversation she sounded enthusiastic, but she stressed the prohibition against taking pictures. She also had one little question: Would they see my article before publication and be able to approve it? When I explained that there was no such possibility, she informed me that she had to check the feasibility of bringing in a journalist, and then she stopped answering and disappeared.

The Sea of Galilee. Four tremors felt in 24 hours. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Send the "cousins" away

There was also the guy who ties girls to trees. People seem to forget that in the middle there’s a girl hanging with her head down, turning like a chicken on a rotisserie. And other girls wait in line to be next

In any case, it wasn’t too difficult to get a ticket. Mainly because there was a shortage of volunteers for guard duty at the “gate.” For 200 shekels ($56) and a commitment to do guard duty for four hours, I was in. A few days before the event I arrived together with another 30 “gatekeepers” in Tel Aviv for a compulsory preparatory session. A young guy who took the whole issue too seriously read us the regulations for at least 40 minutes. The entire procedure could have been summed up in 10 minutes, but he was clearly enjoying himself.

I learned that in case the police arrived they had to be told that this is a “family event,” and under no circumstances should we talk about a production, which requires permits. And this event has only a “certain permit.” In other words, no real permit. They also warned us that quite a number of “cousins” – an Israeli word for Arabs – were likely to come, because the event takes place at the same time as Eid al-Adha (the “Feast of Sacrifice”). And those “cousins” should be told that this is a closed event. And most important: Once every shift we had to randomly choose someone entering the gate, tell him that he’s “the one thousandth participant,” and then “get happy with him – get him wet, roll him around in the sand.”

We arrived at the shores of the Kinneret after a stop to stock up, which turned out to be unnecessary. The fresh products that we planned to eat upon arrival didn’t survive the heat, even after less than an hour’s drive. The “gatekeeper” at the entrance asked if this was my first Burn event. I made a mistake and told the truth. He informed me, without much enthusiasm, that I had to get out of the car so he could “get happy with me.” I immediately changed my story and said that I meant it was my first time in the present location. It was obvious that we were both equally relieved. Nobody wants to get happy in this heat.

Everyone talked for hours about how special it is that just at the moment when they’re hungry, thirsty or need a lighter, someone comes and provides what they want. Nothing related to the fact that all during the festival, people walked around everywhere with food and drink and lighters

The participants in the event, the “Burners,” are divided into two groups: People from the theme camps (guys who shared food and equipment and set up a camp, usually adding some activity that’s open to the general public), and Free Campers, people like me who aren’t with any group or camp and set up their tents in the public areas between the camps.

At first I felt like a kind of parasite, but then I remembered my 4 A.M. guard duty and felt much better about myself. And in any case, I quickly got into “sharing” and “gifting.” Even that is no longer simple. Because when someone full of good intentions walked around with a huge bag of jelly snakes, half the festival participants explained to him that they were vegan and that “there’s gelatin in that.”

More talk about nudity and sex than nudity and sex

At some point you realize that you’re actually walking around in a gigantic buffet, minus the wedding. And if you have a cup and a plate handy, someone will always make sure to fill them up. Sometimes there’s some task on the way to a drink or a snack, like kissing the barman or getting a little spanking, or singing a karaoke song. But even that is avoidable, and the main chore is washing the non-disposal dishes. Because there’s this business with MOOP (Matter Out of Place, which is Burning Man’s designation for everything at the festival except the land, and which must be removed at the end) and the organizers’ desire to avoid garbage, although it’s a campsite with lots of garbage cans, which were emptied with reasonable frequency. And there were numerous water faucets.

The prohibition against photography was supposed to make the event more extreme, more “radical,” which is a delicate way of saying that there would be more nudity and sexual activity. And as happens at events of this type, there was much more talk about nudity and sex that there was nudity and sex. Maybe because the foreplay was a kind of downer: It included too many explanations about the limits of nudity (mainly a reminder that this is a public place, that there are minors at the event, and that by law undressing is prohibited, at least in the areas outside the “camps”). And the security briefing at the entrance to the compound that was designated for sexual activity eliminated whatever desire was left.

The above-mentioned compound is in a camp called Free Love. It was located right at the entrance to the festival area, near the clinic, which at a certain point became the air-conditioned tent where everyone goes to recuperate. The most clichéd joke among the volunteer medics and doctors was that they hoped no patient with a sexual disease entered the Free Love area instead of coming to them. I passed through Free Love twice. The first time a woman standing at the entrance reminded me that we had met a year ago at the Minzar bar in Tel Aviv, “and I got terribly drunk and you didn’t want to come up to my apartment, you’re looking at a girl who’s trashed and you ran away. That evening changed me a little, I realized that I have to stop getting into these situations.”

And if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, someone else said the meeting here between she and I was a real cosmic thing and he thought that we should enter the Dome together – the tent designated for group sex, with entry to couples only – to close a circle or something. And when she said she would be happy to, I was embarrassed and as it turned out I ran away again.

Sex inside, foreplay outside

The next day I returned, mainly because I felt it was an important part of my journalistic assignment. This time I came with a girl with whom I feel somewhat more comfortable. At the entrance to the Dome stood a guy with a list of regulations and began to brief and question me. He wondered about our relationship, checked that we weren’t drunk or high, explained that the place was designed for sex only and not for other things, and made it clear that other things include foreplay. That has to be done outside, inside you only do the thing itself. And if you want to do things with other people, you have to ask and receive permission. And you need permission even to look.

And only when we had stopped paying attention entirely, did he give us the entry permit: a pair of condoms. And if for a moment we weren’t sure that the passion had leaked out of us once and for all, the guy doing the briefing looked at us and said: “Maybe you’ll begin with foreplay outside the Dome? I suggest that you warm up a little and only then go inside, but it’s your decision.” We decided on another recuperation in the air-conditioned clinic, leaving the entire Dome to one couple who were inside at the time.

Aside from that, there was nudity. Not much, but there was – one or two people at most at any given moment. Most of the nudity was among those immersing themselves in the Jordan. To be more precise, among the women immersing themselves. There was far more female than male nudity. And that led to quite a few discussions. Someone propounded an entire theory to the effect that girls feel a greater need to celebrate their bodies, to shout that they’re fine with it, especially girls with a body of the kind you don’t see in fashion catalogues. Because girls from catalogues don’t have to do anything in order to be looked at.

A mutant vehicle travels across the playa at Burning Man 2017.Credit: JIM URQUHART/REUTERS

This theory didn’t survive very long. There was nudity of all kinds here, including girls from catalogues. Like most of the participants in the event, I remained in a bathing suit. Maybe because there were very few nude people and I didn’t feel a need to be different. And the most deviant thing I did was to take part in a discussion about the ethics of urinating while immersing together in the Jordan. Because nobody had the strength to go all the way to the bathrooms, and everyone peed in the Jordan.

I spent the first day trying to understand what was going on and to find the main attractions. At a certain point that became the official shared activity of all the “Burn virgins,” the first-timers. We walked together from one camp to the next, from one party to another, from installation to installation, from workshop to workshop, looking for something, it wasn’t clear what. Following rumors. At some point you realize what the veterans already know: Nothing is happening.

The parties are no more that something between a class party and a neighborhood party (and singers Omer Adam and Eyal Golan are the winners here too), the various workshops remained insignificant, and the same was true of the game of truth or dare. (“You must demonstrate an act of BDSM that you’re familiar with.”) There were a few nice installations and a few harmless activities scattered all over the playa (the name for the area where the Burning Man takes place in Nevada, which was adopted here too): a corner where you look each other in the eyes for three minutes, a stand with a microscope connected to a screen, which enables you to see strange things that are inside people’s bodies, a photography corner that due to the prohibition on photos is actually an easel.

There was also some semi-artistic scenery: a wooden statue, hoops of lights that change color, a decorated lifeguard’s hut. Everything is very pretty, but nothing is very impressive or at all reminiscent of the lovely installations you see in pictures of the Burning Man or even the local Midburn. There’s a limit to how much people are willing to invest for three days.

The search for something interesting was led by David, a dentist from Jerusalem who immigrated from England 30 years ago. Five years ago he starting attending the Burn and he still gets excited about every activity and every party. He takes us to karaoke, then gets a signal that something’s happening in the heavy metal complex, or that we have to find the guy who brought an orgasm machine from Germany.

Chabad tent adjacent to the gays’ camp

In the tents there were mainly two generic discussions: about previous Burn events and about mind-altering substances, and then about the side effects of those substances. On the last night everyone sprawled next to the tents and talked for hours about how special it is that just at the moment when they’re hungry, thirsty or need a lighter, someone comes and provides what they want. Or how much they love the expression “the playa will provide,” which refers to magical forces. Nothing related to the fact that all during the festival, people walked around everywhere with food and drink and lighters.

There’s no point trying to characterize the participants. Professional hippies alongside accountants, families with children and serious potheads, even a Chabad tent, which was set up adjacent to the gays’ camp.

There was also the guy who ties girls to trees. He doesn’t just tie them, it’s a real art: with dozens of ropes wound around. Everyone is fascinated, people forget that in the middle there’s a girl hanging with her head down, and turning like a chicken on a rotisserie. And girls wait in line. They want to be tied.

There’s something unmediated about this event: Everyone talks to everyone, everyone touches everyone. Sweaty embraces are common, as are instant profound discussions. A girl stretches out her hand so I’ll help her enter the water with confidence. And then she chooses, it’s not clear why, to share with those around her the fact that she has returned to a friendly relationship with her ex, and they sleep together occasionally, and it really helped her to get over him.

On Shabbat afternoon, a moment before we fold it up, one redhead wondered aloud about the difference between this event and ordinary family camping at Lake Kinneret. And several people joined the discussion and mentioned the “sharing” and the “gifting.” But the redhead claimed that at family camping at the Kinneret they always give you what you need and share leftovers. Someone else mentions the prohibition on photography. And everyone agreed that it really upgraded the event. Not because it became more radical, but mainly because people didn’t walk around with their cell phones and weren’t busy staging mementos. And just then, on the banks of the nearby Jordan, several telephones switched to camera mode. And nobody said anything to them. Maybe because both the photographers and those being photographed were totally naked. Maybe because we all wanted proof that this festival really did take place.

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