For the 3rd year Sam Berrin Shonkoff camped at Burning Man the biggest desert festival in the world. The photos below were taken by Tel Avivian Secret Artist, who has spent eight years documenting the “burn” in Black Rock City- a week-long, temporary, spiritual, hedonistic, art community in the Nevada desert. Secret Artist’s pictures are of the geodesic dome built by Sukkat Shalom– a Jewish-themed camp on the playa since 2008. The interview is with Shonkoff who volunteered to lead Friday night Shabbat services for Sukkat Shalom this year.
Shtetl: Can you elaborate on Sukkat Shalom’s mission “to nourish those that sleep in the dust”.
Shonkoff: Dust is a prominent image at burning man because of the natural surrounding. And dust is a very salient image in Jewish tradition. The language comes from the Amidah from the liturgy and it’s an illusion to the resurrection of the dead. But this is reclaiming that image because at Burning Man we are all literally sleeping in the dust.
Shtetl: In what way does the experience at Burning Man intersect with Jewish values, spirituality and culture?
Jewish tradition is filled with imagery around dust. We’re created out of dust in genesis. We acknowledge that we’re dust and ashes in the high holiday liturgy. And the desert is the site of wandering and revelation in Jewish tradition and it’s where Torah is received. And not to mention a historical connection to the desert. So having it there is conduscive to having meaningful Jewish moments.
Burning Man is a very rich and spiritually charged experience for everyone who comes. I mean it’s really fun and lot of partying, but it’s also very transformative.
If one goes as a Buddhist, or goes as a Christian, or Muslim or Hindu, one is going to have an experience through that prism. And so a Jewish person might connect their Jewish memory and experience with their “burn”.
Not to mention a lot of Jews have gone to summer camp and Burning Man conjures up that imagery of community, camping and experimentation.
Shtetl: What other events does Sukkat Shalom offer?
Shonkoff: Sukkat Shalom has everything from metal welding workshops to pickling to the Mount Tushy Dance Party, and this past year we had two morning services, where people came at eight in the morning and sang.
I taught a class on the spiritual meaning of dust and desert in Judaism. There are lots of other events too.
Shtetl: Are there any other ethnically or religiously specific camps at Burning Man? Like an Italian or Hindu camp?
Shonkoff: There’s a camp that’s Latino. There have been Christian camps. I’m sure there are others. It’s a city of 50,000 people with tons of neighbourhoods and you only ever see a sliver of them. There are certainly Buddhist camps.
Shtetl: Would a Christian camp be very different from a Jewish camp?
Shonkoff: I haven’t personally been to one, but I read an article by a minister who was at the Christian camp and it sounds more religious.
At Sukkat Shalom about half the people aren’t Jewish and of the Jews that participate, it’s generally a very secular crowd. For some people it’s not even why they’re there. There has been some conversation of changing the name from Sukkat Shalom to something else. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the Jewish identity of the camp.
Shtetl: Who comes to the service offered by Sukkat Shalom? Why do they come?
Shonkoff: The service draws way more people than those staying at their camp. About 400 people come to the service and that crowd is mostly Jewish. If anyone has Shabbat on his or her radar and is seeking it out, they’ll find Sukkat Shalom. Or, someone could be tripping out on mushrooms and fall upon the service too.
Shtetl: Can you tell us what the spirit of the festival is and why a massive effigy of a human is burned down at the end?
Shonkoff: It’s very difficult to describe. It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’d say it’s an art festival- and art in the broadest sense of the word. A place of radical self expression. Like being inside a giant art project for a week. The economy runs on gifts. There are only two things you can pay for at center camp: ice and coffee.
And that creates an incredible aspect of the experience. A gift can be anything from a taco to a massage to chapstick to a concert.
In terms of the man- it’s open to interpretation. There’s definitely an anarchist streak at the heart of Burning Man. So for some people, burning the man is…burning The Man. For other people it doesn’t symbolize anything but a giant party at the end of the week that brings everyone together. A big fire show.
Destruction by burning is a motif at Burning Man. The man is the most famous well-known burn on the playa, but there are many.
The most meaningful burn for me and for many people is the temple burn. There are certain things in the city that are there every year. The man is always at the centre of Black Rock City, and farther out, there’s the temple. It’s built differently every year. And it’s kind of a pilgrimage site and sacred space. Throughout the week , 24 hours a day there are people in there meditating. Praying, a lot of crying, whispering conversations. People throughout the week write all over the walls and nail things to the wall, in honour of people who’ve died, people who they’re seeking forgiveness from, epiphanies they’re having. And the space takes on this energy from the community.
And on the very last night, tens of thousands of people sit in a circle around the temple and in silence, the temple is burned to the ground. And it’s an enormous, beautiful structure. In some ways it’s the opposite energy of the burning of the man. It’s sombre, thoughtful, quiet. For a lot of people it’s a release. What they put in the temple is in there so it can burn. The destruction of the temple….in a very different context. (See Montrealer Alain Starosta’s images of the temple at Burning Man this year.)
Desert, dust and destruction –there are a lot of interesting parallels and differences between Judaism and Burning Man.
Shtetl: What can the Jewish world learn from Burning Man?
Shonkoff: So much. I think one of the main things is the spiritual value of self-expression. If you have a community of individuals that all feel invited to express themselves and give of themselves in ways they feel called to do, that’s extremely enriching for a community and I think the Jewish world could definitely use more of that spirit.
Secret Artist is a photogragher and conceptual artist living in Tel Aviv, Israel. He has been documenting Burning Man for the last eight years and is a member of the ROI community.