Nineteen centuries ago, a Jewish mystic named Shimon bar Yochai passed from this world to some other, purportedly in a blaze of divine “light.” (Read: mystical revelation.) A couple thousand years later, devout Jews (and hippie Israelis) mark Shimon bar Yochai’s death with a minor holiday called Lag ba’Omer.
There are some deep cuts about this holiday, but for today’s purposes there’s only the one vital deet you need to know: on Lag ba’Omer, Jews mimic Shimon bar Yochai’s conflagrantly divine revelation by building very, very large bonfires.
On May 26, the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Palo Alto celebrated Lag ba’Omer playa-style with a party called Burning Mensch. The event featured workshops on friction fire making, Jewish mysticism, an acro yoga jam, face painting, mural painting, a costume station, live bands, poi spinners, a silent disco, and, duh, fire.
For all you gentle Gentiles out there reading now, a sidebar:
Mensch is the German word for “man.” But in Yiddish, the linguistic lovechild of German and Hebrew, a mensch is more than that. A mensch is a person of high integrity and noble character whose behavior and deeds we could all do to emulate. Notable mensches throughout history: Mother Teresa, Mr. Rogers, Lassie.
The Lag ba’Omer Burning Mensch festival is the vision of Joel Stanley, the Palo Alto Jewish Community Center (JCC)’s Director of Jewish Innovation and a veteran Burner. Funnily enough, the first Theme Camp Joel joined at Burning Man is the now defunct epicenter of Jewish life on playa — the Black Rock JCC. Some things really do come full circle.
Employing the Burning Man ethos of gifting (the event was free), Radical Inclusion (those in attendance were a mix of Orthodox Jewish families, JCC holiday regulars, Jewish young adults, and smattering of South Bay Burners who heard about Burning Mensch through the South Bay Burner list), and Communal Effort (via collaborations with two Burning Man Theme Camps; we’ll get to that in a minute), Joel saw an opportunity to infuse some primal vitality into Judaism, a faith that has become, Joel mused, “perhaps a bit overly cerebral,” which sounded even more erudite when Joel delivered this reflection in his charming, native British accent.
“I used to think Burning Man was all about going beyond traditional or received identities,” Joel said, “Then I went to the Burn with the Black Rock JCC. As I watched the Jewish experience grow on the playa, my Jewish life and my Burning Man life got closer and closer.
I realized you don’t have to leave behind your whole identity to have an authentic, creative, wholehearted experience on the playa, nor do you have to leave your Burner identity in the desert when you come back home.”
And bearing this small but vital illumination in mind, Burning Mensch was born.
The event, staged in the Palo Alto JCC’s parking lot, represented a beautifully symbiotic collaboration between the JCC and two well-known Burning Man outfits, the Flaming Lotus Girls and the Theme Camp Milk + Honey.
Joel, who knew he wanted this event to involve fire “in a major way,” contracted the Flaming Lotus Girls to bring two “feathers” from their piece “The Angel of the Apocalypse,” which made its first appearance on playa in 2005.
The collaboration Joel orchestrated was a win-win-win. The presence of two fiery plumes arcing and flaming over the center of the event delighted, and later warmed, the roughly 400 attendees. The Lotus Girls went home with a little more funding in their pockets to go towards their newest major art piece, which will debut on playa this year. Milk + Honey, whose campers staffed the workshops, painted faces and provided costumes, also built modular benches for Burning Mensch, which Milk + Honey will use later this summer during their annual playa-wide Kabbalat Shabbat service Friday night of the Burn. Having 24 brand new beautiful benches will solve a design problem the camp has faced for years, as the popularity of the Shabbat service has grown: of the 600 people who attend, probably half of them end up with shitty seats.
“It felt deeply satisfying to have the opportunity to share the magic of Burning Man during a part of the year other than the Burn,” says Katie Richmond, a.k.a. Gleam, one of Milk + Honey’s two head coordinators this year.
“It was surprisingly easy to take what we’ve become so good at as a community and replicate it somewhere else. As a community, we know how to create experiences that are meaningful and enlivening for a larger community. Securing the funding that allowed us to build these new benches may seem like small thing, but it directly bolsters our ability to continue giving back.”
(Full disclosure: Milk + Honey is my Theme Camp too. And having worked the Burning Mensch event myself, teaching a workshop on Jewish mysticism with my fellow camper Yosef, a.k.a. Bambi, I couldn’t agree with Gleam more about what a big deal this capacity building partnership was. That said, I’m also biased as f***.)
Joel was quite pleased with Burning Mensch too. And like a true Burner, he’s already planning how to bring some playa energy back to the Palo Alto JCC next year for Burning Mensch round two, with an event that’s brighter, hotter, and even more mystically primal, made possible by ever-more robust partnerships with uber-competent, wildly creative, indefatigably enthusiastic Burners.
“Milk + Honey and the Flaming Lotus Girls were like my extended innovation team for this event,” Joel says. “In my role at the JCC, I work with quite a few different teams, and sometimes I feel like a bit of a solo artist. But not this time.”