Next year in Black Rock City

The sun had already dropped behind the mountains, and we were running late. I donned a multicolored sequined, backless top and a fuzzy leopard print hat. I grabbed the plastic bowl of orzo salad I had made while still in civilization, a bottle of wine and my own plate and silverware and threw them into my backpack.

I jumped on my bike and rode through the dusty streets of Black Rock City, a few friends in tow, heading to Shabbat services at Congregation B’nai HaMidbar or “Children of the Desert” otherwise known as the Black Rock JCC.

I rode down Amnesia Street, passing a roller disco, dodging a couple lying down and making out — and possibly more, I didn’t stop to look — in the middle of the street.

I knew I was getting close when I heard the sounds of “Lecha Dodi” in my dust-filled ears. I pulled up, dropped my bike and joined in. As I wedged my way closer, I was handed a siddur by a woman in a sheer negligee.

I spent last Shabbos at Burning Man.

It is nearly impossible to live in the Bay Area and not know about Burning Man. An annual event that began 20 years ago on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, it now takes place the week of Labor Day in the vast expanse of the Nevada desert. The word “fringe” is almost always associated with it in the press. At last count, almost 40,000 people — making it Nevada’s fifth largest city for that week — show up for the festival centered around the burning of an illuminated tower of a man on Saturday night.

The folks at the Black Rock JCC call it “the world’s largest Havdallah candle.”

Some say that Burning Man is about sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but stopping there would not be fair. Of course those elements are there in massively available amounts. But there is also the art — in the form of metal and neon sculptures that are shlepped out and built in the desert for that week. There are the “art cars,” or vehicles that have been ornately decorated to the point that it is impossible to distinguish what kind of cars they once were. And there’s the total freedom that allows people to dress however they choose, whether it be in skimpy lingerie, fur, tutus (a favorite for men) or nothing at all (it is not uncommon to see people cruising around the playa — the ancient lakebed where the event takes place — on their bikes, totally naked, which leads to a whole other set of questions).

But Burning Man is more about challenging our notions of who we are. Anyone who spends any amount of time in Black Rock City will do something they’ve never done before; be stretched in all kinds of ways.

For example, a few hours before Shabbat, I participated in the annual Critical Tits ride, in which several thousand women decorate their bare breasts and ride bikes topless en masse to a party, where they are fed cold melon and jellybeans by male waiters and if they care to wait in the long lines, get a nice foot rub as well.

Yup, never before had I gone on a topless bike ride through the desert just before Shabbat; Burning Man is filled with such Shehechiyanu moments.

Burning Man was conceived of and founded in San Francisco, and Bay Area residents are by far the majority there, though by now word has spread, and people come from countries around the world, including Israel.

Camp Tawonga had to stop holding its young adults weekend on Labor Day weekend, because so many of its Bay Area staff wouldn’t work due to Burning Man. And as I looked around the Black Rock JCC on Friday night, I saw many people that I knew or at least recognized.

Each year Burning Man has a theme. This year’s was “Psyche: The Conscious, the Subconscious and the Unconscious” and Rabbi Menachem Cohen gave a drash to that effect. The week’s Torah portion was Re’ah, which talks about a blessing and a curse. He called consciousness a blessing and unconsciousness a curse.

Cohen, who has served as the Jewish presence at Burning Man for several years now, spends the rest of his year as spiritual leader of a Jewish Renewal community in Chicago.

When my friends and I dropped in on him in the course of a Friday daytime bike ride, he was in the midst of laying tefillin, the sounds of the nearby roller disco threatening to drown out his afternoon prayers.

My friend and I left Cohen to rush back to our camp to prepare for Critical Tits. On our way, a woman standing under an umbrella with the words “Latke Palace” beckoned us to stop. Indeed, the familiar smell of potatoes frying in oil in the middle of the desert was as great a miracle as anything else at Burning Man.

Burning Man does not permit commerce, except for the buying and selling of coffee and ice. Participants are encouraged to be creative and give to others. The latke-makers were a middle-aged man and woman dressed in street clothes rather than the typical Burning Man finery. I waited my turn for a latke behind a skinny man wearing nothing except for a long furry tail coming down from a belt around his waist.

The latke-makers said that the Latke Palace was a gimmick to get people to stop, so they could offer them a pen.

They picked latkes not because they were Jewish, but because potatoes can withstand the withering temperatures of the desert.

The pen was stamped with a Web address,, and came with a piece of paper listing facts about the Iraq War.

The man making the latkes was Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

Besides being a part of this grand spectacle, for me the greatest thing about Burning Man was camping with 12 people that I know through my Jewish community in the Bay Area, some of whom I consider family. A few of their friends also joined us, creating a real sense of home in what was to me, a totally unfamiliar environment.

Some of my friends have attended Burning Man for years and have all kinds of theories about the spiritual aspects of it that meld so completely with their Jewishness.

For Jeffrey Axelrod of San Francisco, this was his seventh “burn.” He appreciates that Burning Man falls right before the High Holy Days because the burning ritual to him symbolizes a renewal, where one burns whatever residue is left from the previous year in preparation for the year ahead.

Before the burn, fire dancers spin their magic to the beating of drums and the man topples down in a cascade of fire and people linger and dance around it for hours. It is “just like Yom Kippur,” said Axelrod, 47. “I feel purged of all the heaviness of the previous year.”

Indeed, as we were making our way to the burn on Saturday night, we met up with Jonathan Gutstadt, a 20-something Oaklander who created a CD called “Hip-Hop Shabbat.” This was his third burn, and as he led us though Black Rock City toward the man, in a floor-length white robe, I couldn’t help but think of Moses leading the Israelites through the desert.

“Our whole religion is based on camping,” he said. “Our people spent 40 years in the desert,” so attending Burning Man makes perfect sense to him.

At her fifth burn, Alissa Blackman of Berkeley, 36, agreed with Axelrod that the environment there was conducive to the self-reflection that takes place in the High Holy Days period.

“I never really brought my Jewish self to Burning Man before in the way that I did this year,” she said, adding that on the way to the JCC for Shabbat, she and her group greeted those they passed with “Good Shabbos.”

They got an enthusiastic reply from almost everyone, whether they knew what they were talking about or not. “I was glad that my camp brought that, and it felt very significant to be so out as a Jew there.”

On Sunday night, a wooden temple, where participants left all kinds of personal artifacts, including written notes pushed into the crevices of the walls — just like at the Kotel — was burned.

Though money is hardly exchanged at Burning Man, we were encouraged to help Katrina victims on our way out of Black Rock City, which we did as a camp. This made one of my friends feel better, as she felt horribly conflicted on her way in, knowing she was about to spend a fun-filled four days while so many people were suffering.

Burning Man was even sending a contingent of people to help out, which made all of us feel we were contributing to help the victims by our participation there.

We broke down our camp on Monday morning, disassembling our tents and shade structures and everything that had made up our home for part of a week, and gathering for a final circle where we shared a few highlights with each other.

As we were leaving the circle, heading to our vehicles, one person called out, “Next year in Black Rock City!”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."