Who By Fire?

אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר, וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ וְכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף

ונתנה תוקף —

A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.
— Unetanneh Tokef

The Temple of Grace burned in a manner befitting its name. It burned evenly and brightly, and then its central dome fell with a quiet, twirling, clockwise bow.

We all sighed together. The Temple Burn crowd had been as reverent and quiet as one could hope for at this late point in Burning Man’s history, and we were rewarded with this graceful release. When the structure fell, I came rushing back into myself. I felt the twist of that falling structure inside of my heart, and I began to cry. I shook and sobbed aboard the Crystal Ship, and my campmates held me.

I felt a loss. Burning Man was over, again, for my sixth time. Time to go back to that other life. That wasn’t my loss, though, I realized. Burning Man doesn’t end for me anymore. I gazed, exhausted, at the burning rubble of the Temple. I could picture all six of the Temples I had entered, felt, and left on the same spot (more or less) in the same desert. No longer crying, I reflected on the meaning of an interaction I had in front of the Crystal Ship minutes earlier, just as the Temple began to burn.

Photo by Renee Zouthere

For maybe the 20th time that week — I lost count — a stranger approached me with a pointed Jewish question. “Are you Orthodox?”, this man asked. No hello. He just started right in.

Tired as I was — tired of such personal questions by way of introduction, tired of techno music, tired of being seen — I instinctively coiled up to defend myself. “No.”

“Then why are you wearing a kippah?”

Thank G!d I had my jacket on, so he couldn’t see that I was wearing tzitzit, too. I willed my brain to stir, to cough up an answer to this eminently valid and stupendously ill-timed question. “Because I am worshipful,” is what I came up with.

“Because I am worshipful…” he repeated, pondering, and trailed off. He explained that he was raised Orthodox (surprise, surprise), that he wasn’t anymore (clearly, except in the way he approaches Jews to ask them religious questions), and that he had never seen anyone wearing a kippah at Burning Man before, which is what all 19 other people who approached me that week also said. (They must not have been looking.)

“I heard someone was wrapping tefillin in the Temple the other day,” he said with wide eyes. “Do you know anything about that?”

That shook me awake. This was no momentary curiosity about the Jew on the playa. It was the talk of the town!

“Yes,” I replied, finally smiling. “That was me.”

Photo by Sam Mitchell

G!d of My Forefathers

I carried my grandfather’s tefillin with me for 10 years before I learned to put them on. He was still well when he gave them to me. I don’t remember what he said, but I know it was more than the usual lines about culture and tradition and heritage that I got from the rest of my family.

They were all proud Jews. Celebration of the holidays and festivals mattered to all of them much more than it mattered to me when I was young. I don’t think I had a single elder relative for whom Jewish tradition was not a big deal. Still, I had never even held tefillin in my hands before my grandfather gave me his set. That is to say, though tradition mattered to my family, prayer did not.

Prayer was the part that was missing for me. I understood that tradition had something to do with holding our family together, so I put up with it (most of the time), but I didn’t really get why we bothered with the religious parts. We said blessings that mentioned G!d at the appointed times, but no one ever taught me anything about G!d that made any sense. None of my family members prayed, as far as I could tell. Spirituality was not an important emotion to any of the Jews around me, like it was to me. Except, it seemed, my mother’s father.

He died when I was 18, and I wrote this music for him.

Not long after, my father’s father passed, too. That grandfather was the one who demonstrated the powerful magnetism of Jewish family to me. I don’t think I ever saw him praying, but my childhood memories of Passover seders are mostly at his table.

In the wake of my grandfathers’ deaths, my religious life started. In the following year, I found my first religious communities and began to figure out how Jewish and Buddhist practice fit into my life. Then I went to Burning Man, and the missing pieces began to click together. On my desert pilgrimages, I encountered myself, and I found a Temple. They say “Welcome home!” when you get to Burning Man, and before long I understood why.

Photo by Sam Mitchell

Any first-time Burner will tell you that the worst thing to bring to Burning Man is expectations. The funny thing is, I was good about that at first. I didn’t start having expectations for my Burn until a few years in, when those holy moments started happening. They became the reason I went. I realized that it wasn’t fair to expect epiphanies, though. I started to get scared that I’d show up on playa one year and the magic would be gone. It was still there.

All the while, back at my other home, wherever it happened to be at the time, my grandfather’s tefillin still slumbered in their case.

Something was missing. I needed holy moments more than one week a year. My whole life was happening in orbit around that one brief flash of sacred time. I yearned for more. On the night the Man burned in 2013, I wandered the chaotic night as usual, looking for that magic fix, and I didn’t find it until I returned to camp, defeated. I saw my Burning Man family there, smiling on the dusty couches as always, and I just laughed. Of course. Family and tradition are the containers of holiness for me. I knew that.

After that many years, my Burning Man camp was surely a family tradition of sorts. But coming from a proud Jewish family like mine, I knew there was room all year round for more tradition in my life. So I opened up to it with the rest of my time.

You Shall Bind Them as a Sign

In the span of a year, starting at that Burn, my partner and I forged a deeply Jewish relationship. We found religious community together in the Bay Area and at Wilderness Torah festivals, and we lived that Jewish life alongside our Burner life. When she was called to enroll in rabbinical school, I was delighted, not surprised. So we moved to Los Angeles, beginning a five-year mission that will surely make the rest of our lives Jewish lives.

Photo by Tom Levy

When we got to LA, we began keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat, and figuring out other ways to align our lives with Jewish law. Neither of us felt our surrounding community in the Bay Area encouraged us to do that. Most of the Jews we spent Friday nights with didn’t even keep Shabbat, and we always had to drive home afterward anyway. We’d both been yearning to make the shift to religious life for different reasons. She had grown up with those practices, and she missed them. I had never had them, and I craved them.

I longed for the container of tradition that I did have growing up, and I still needed more. I had begun to realize that I needed an all-encompassing, spiritually alive religious practice in order to be okay. As the move to LA loomed, I began to count the days with anticipation. Like counting the days before Burning Man. Like counting the days before Hanukkah or my birthday as a child. I was giving the gift of religious life to myself.

Moving on a Thursday was the best idea ever. We got to LA Thursday night, unloaded our stuff into our temporary apartment and returned the rental trailer Friday morning. On Friday night, we shut off our phones, threw them in a corner, and welcomed Shabbat. It was the most restful day I could remember having. It seemed to stretch on for days and days.

The weeks that followed were as stressful as a search for a home and a sane life in a new city should be, but we handled it. We had spiritual shields, including one branch of Ariel’s family living just around the corner. It’s probably not my story to tell, but for now I’ll say this: I couldn’t possibly have asked for a better window into American Jewish life in 2014 than my first couple Shabbos dinners with that family.

After a few weeks, it was time to go to Burning Man. Ariel couldn’t come because of rabbinical school orientation, so all summer I had been preparing for what was really my first solo Burn. I had gone with a partner every single time. Ironically, I was going into this experience more accustomed to the spiritual protection of a relationship than ever before. I reassured myself that my Burning Man family, which includes my brother, would be there.

Photo by Ariel Root Wolpe

I decided that my new religious life would be my anchor to home out there. I would even step it up. Not only would I keep kosher on the playa, I would wear a kippah. I even went to The Mitzvah Store on Pico Boulevard and bought cheap tzitzit to wear every day, a commandment I had never fulfilled before. I wasn’t practicing in these overt, all-the-time ways at home, at least not yet. I was only putting on religious garb in explicitly religious situations in LA. But Burning Man has been my spiritual home! It seemed like the perfect place for me to try out religious life.

As I was packing these sacred possessions alongside my most practical, earthly ones, I finally mustered the courage to receive my grandfather’s gift. I searched online for instructions on wrapping tefillin, I removed my grandfather’s tefillin from their cases, and I practiced putting them on a couple times. Once I was sure I knew how, I said the Shehecheyanu, and then I put the tefillin in my dusty Burning Man trunk.

Now that I was on a roll, I got my portable prayer book and Psalms out of the still-packed box of books and put them in my backpack. I would need them for a ritual I was planning at the Temple. This year, I would make my first fire offering.

When I was packing up to move to LA, I found a strange cache of objects from my childhood. (I’m prone to hoarding magical totems, especially rocks.) One of the objects was a box containing all of the teeth I had ever lost, including my wisdom teeth. It was kind of a gory sight. The teeth hadn’t aged too well, especially the tiny baby teeth. As soon as I opened this box, a horrible recurring dream of mine rushed to mind. I have been dreaming of these teeth for years. It was time for them to go.

I asked my friends what to do with them, and one brilliantly suggested that I leave them as an offering at the Temple. This is customary; the Temple at Burning Man is where people leave memories, often memories of relationships — with relatives, partners, friends, pets, or themselves — from which it is time to move on. When the Temple burns at the end of the festival, those offerings burn with it.

I planned to go to the Temple one morning, put on the tefillin, pray the morning service, and then leave my teeth to burn.

Look, that’s just how I roll, ok?

A Burnt Offering

My holy aspirations for Burning Man ran into reality pretty quickly when the only departure date that made sense logistically was Saturday. I let myself off the hook, deciding to start my religious Burn when I arrived. My brother and I pulled into camp, unloaded our stuff, and then the sun went down, so I said to myself, “Shavua tov. Welcome home.” As the family arrived, they saw the garb, knew what it meant, and immediately began asking good questions and figuring out how to accommodate my kashrut needs in our 18-foot PVC dome-home.

In the dome, keeping dishes, cutlery, and coolers kosher was not easy. I double-bagged all the dairy and kosher meat in the cooler, but it was no use. I couldn’t fit two sets of everything into the car, and even if I had tried, someone else would inevitably use them for the wrong thing by accident. Then, this being Burning Man, my brother needed to put bacon in my cooler, and that was that. My old friend Mischa, himself of partially Jewish descent, advised me wisely that G!d was probably just glad I was trying. So I let go of the kitchen stuff and just decided to concentrate on the eating practices. Eating kosher meals the whole time was no problem.

In the morning and at night, I said Sh’ma on the walk to the porta-potties. I smiled on those walks the whole way there and back, and people returned the smiles.

Photo by Sam Mitchell

As I got out into Black Rock City more, though, the comments began. It was only Jews making comments. I know because of what they said.

There were two versions in roughly equal proportion. The first was “Woohoo! Go Jews! Hell yeah! Member of the tribe!” Which, come on, bro. The second was “Are you Orthodox?/in yeshiva?/Israeli?” in either English or Hebrew, which, when I replied in the negative, was always followed by some variant of, “Well, then why are you wearing that?” And all of them said at some point, “You’re the only one I’ve ever seen at Burning Man!”

I’m pretty well practiced at the art of Immediacy by now. I know how to draw people into a real encounter out there. So I made these interactions fun at first. Sometimes I would answer the question in some theatrical way. Sometimes I would pause and ask that we introduce ourselves before discussing such a personal topic. The effort gradually wore me down, though, as I had more and more of these encounters. There was something heavy about them. The Jews who approached me seemed burdened by me, as though I was forcing them to confront something they had come out to the wild desert to forget.

New religions always start in deserts. That effort to forget must have something to do with it.

The people who inquired about my religious garments had built boxes for me their whole lives, and it perplexed them when I didn’t fit. That must be why it was apparently a sensational event that I wrapped tefillin in the Temple. I did it on Thursday morning. The Temple was full of people meditating, chanting, or crying, as it usually is. A man was singing and playing Tibetan singing bowls. I found a spot to pray, carefully put on my tefillin, and I davened Shacharit right there with everybody. When I was done, I took off the tefillin, wrote a long prayer on a piece of wood, I spat into the box containing my teeth (I knew what I was doing, all right?), and I hid those offerings in the wall of the Temple. That was the spiritual high point of my week.

I felt tired after that. I wanted to end on a high note. I confided in my friend Dave that I wanted to take the kippah and tzitzit off, finish the Burn in my old Burner persona, and see how that felt. He didn’t talk me out of it exactly, he just framed it more rationally. I already knew what it felt like not to be religious at Burning Man. Five times over, in fact. But I didn’t know what it felt like to be religious for an entire Burn. Why not find out? So I kept wearing the stuff.

The next day, I messed up. I had agreed to interview Grover Norquist at Palenque Norte at 6:30 on Friday. It was my one firm appointment. As soon as I heard the time, I worried it would run into Shabbat. Still, according to sensational media outlets who couldn’t get people to click on anything else in August, Grover Norquist going to Burning Man was the most scandalous development in the event’s history, so how could I say no?

Photo by Jenna Marek

Photo by Jenna Marek

The talk was great, Grover was kind of a cool guy in his way, and as it ran into Shabbat, I just let it happen. I missed Shabbos dinner at Milk & Honey, the camp formerly known as Sukkat Shalom. That’s the only large-scale, organized Jewish activity that I know of on the playa. Ah, well. I forgave myself on the ride back, and I said the blessings on my own. But my heart was heavy.

Traditionally, when Shabbat ends on Saturday night, we light a big, crazy-looking candle in a ritual called Havdalah. At Burning Man, we do that, too. That’s when we burn the Man. “I wish every word I wrote or spoke was a prayer,” I wrote in my journal while we sat on the ground waiting for the burn to start. “I wish prayer poured effortlessly out of my mind.”

Photo by Devon Tackels

As the chaos descended that night, as it always does on Burn Night, only confusion came this time. In the middle of my dark wandering, a big guy approached me from behind. “MAH zeh, kippah?” he said. That would be drunken Hebrew for “What’s with the kippah?”

I don’t speak Hebrew, so I just muttered something like, “Yep. I’m wearing a kippah.”

“You Israeli?” he asked.

“No,” — he was already walking away — “I’m American… mm.”

It was always easy for me to make connections at Burning Man in the past. This year was different. Clearly these visible signs of religiousness were creating distractions while I was trying to connect with Jewish Burners, which I really wanted to do this year. It didn’t happen. When I reflected on it, I wasn’t making nearly as many connections with Burners of any stripe. I only had one conversation that gave me a sense that a non-Jewish Burner was uncomfortable around me, but symbols of any organized religion might have set her off. Most of the time, it was just a less social Burn. I expected the opposite. Every other year, I had been in a couple. I thought I would be more approachable this time. I thought I would be more willing to approach others. Nope. It was pretty lonely.

Photo by Devon Tackels

Sunday, I was pretty drained. I just wanted to see the Temple burn. I warned the camp that the burn was an hour earlier this year, which they didn’t know, and the Crystal Ship left late. The burn had already started when we pulled up, but there was still time. We settled into the reverent quiet and watched the flames get hotter. When I got off the car to walk closer, I had that one last Jewish encounter with the guy who asked me about the tefillin. Then came the tears.

When the waterworks were over, I took out my journal, which I am wont to do, and started scribbling like mad. What had I lost? What was I mourning? I tried my best to uphold my religion in my spiritual home, and it didn’t work. I felt out of place on the playa for the first time. When I finished writing, I felt this cold feeling and knew what I meant. I took the kippah off. This Burn was over for me.

Photo by Jenna Marek

Photo by Jenna Marek

My mindset will be so different next year, and I’ll probably have become more religious at home in the meantime. Hopefully, I’ll have Ariel with me, and that will make it easier. Jewish tradition makes it quite clear that this stuff works better when shared with others.

The sense of spiritual home has shifted for good, though. A West Coast laser-beam-and-explosion festival just lacks the depth that thousands of years of G!d-wrestling will give you. To be sure, it’s exciting to be part of a nascent, as-yet-unwritten culture. I’m endlessly interested in the evolution of Burning Man. At the Head Office, we like to say that “Burning Man is a way of being in the world.” I know it is a year-round life for many. It has been one for me. Burning Man prepared me for Jewish life as a Burner, but I have more work to do before I’m prepared for Burner life as a Jew.

The Shabbat after I got home from Burning Man, which we spent praying, eating, studying, and eating more with Ariel’s teachers and colleagues, was the best “Welcome home!” I’d had in so long.