I'm a kosher-eating, Shabbat-observing, drug-fearing orthodox Jew who attended Burning Man - here's how it helped me overcome my introversion
- Eli Reiter is an orthodox Jew who decided, on a whim, to attend Burning Man several years ago.
- While the event was full of intimidating spectacles - including half-nude people, unique outfits, and plenty of drugs - he's glad he went.
- Experiencing Burning Man helped Reiter overcome his introverted tendencies (and fear of Ferris wheels).
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I have two big fears: Ferris wheels and people. Ferris wheels, because they terrified me growing up, and people, because they also terrified me growing up. As an introvert, big crowds oftentimes render me silent, desperately seeking an escape route. Smoking is a habit I'd eventually take up just for the excuse to exit awkward situations.
One of my earliest childhood memories is going to Hershey Park and getting off a ride before it finished, only to be followed by other scared children. See, I'm adventurous but not free-spirited. I tend to make rash decisions then instantly regret them. I've taken advantage of many liberal return policies. I always wonder if I'll be banned from Nordstrom one day.
And it's this impulsiveness that led me to go to Burning Man several years ago. I didn't set out to scale my mountains of dread, but wanted to examine what being in a totally alien environment would be like. I'd heard of it through the grapevine, and had some friends who I thought might have attended in the past. I grew up an observant Jew, so the natural opposition to that was the carefree, experiential Burning Man festival. I figured, maybe I'd find a home in a place I didn't belong.
At that point, I knew two things about the event: It had something to do with art, and something to do with burning art. I Googled, "When is Burning Man?" and then "Where is Burning Man?" On a whim, I purchased a cheap flight on Priceline. I scoured Craigslist for a ticket and emailed a few sellers. Eighteen hours later, I landed in Nevada.
After spending the night at a Reno motel, I met my ride for the next three hours: a fellow Burning Man attendee from California who I'd found in one of the numerous Burner Facebook groups. We stopped at Walmart to stock up for the remaining five days of the festival. It took me over an hour to shop, as I needed to find food that was both kosher and able to withstand the hot desert without a refrigerator. I decided to go with cucumbers, tuna, and crackers.
Courtesy of Eli Reiter
We drove through the empty expanse and got to know each other. A very smart programmer who worked for a startup, she was also very knowledgeable about drugs. Unabashedly describing her various substance-related explorations, I only grew more nervous. Her kindness and openness had a reverse effect than intended. After learning I was unprepared, she gave me what became my most prized possession at the festival - a container of baby wipes. I felt the familiar urge to flee, but knew I had nowhere to go.
She asked me if I liked EDM. I said, "What's EDM?"
She laughed and said, "You'll find out soon enough."
We got to the site and there were three greeters, all naked men covered in dust. They beckoned us out of the car and hugged me. After asking if I'd been to "the burn" before, they handed me a piece of rebar and told me to hit a bell and yell "I'm no longer a virgin!" Which is technically not true; I don't eat bacon, don't use drugs, don't desecrate the Shabbos, and I'm waiting to have sex until marriage. I soon learned those were all the things that drew people to this festival.
The scene I came upon in the camp was what I could only describe as chaos. There were bikes everywhere and it seemed like everyone was in costume. We drove past some people playing carnival-like games. Some people wore top hats, capes, or masks, many decorated with sequins. Others were in various forms of undress. I was unprepared in my t-shirt and jeans. My anxiety spiked. I imagined my rebbi shaking his head, saying what he often said: "Eli, you're such a person of talents."
We drove to my camp, where a friend's boyfriend was letting me pitch a tent. One of the leaders of the camp asked me if I was the "rabbi." No, I said, but here I was at this godless place. And the nickname stuck. He offered me space to set up near the "methheads" or the "orgy tent." I'm still not sure if he was kidding.
On an art car nearby, which was shaped like a large ship, there was a tall naked man with a big fuzzy coat dancing with three women. I rode a magic carpet - another art car - and my skull cap fell off. Later that day, I met a group of 80-year-old men and women eating breakfast, who invited me to join them. I ate the only kosher food they had: Tropicana orange juice. They told me they were in a "moresome", which is "like a threesome, but for more."
On my third night there, it was cold and after midnight and I was in deep playa, the back-back country of the cordoned-off desert in Black Rock City, Nevada. I was trapped with myself, questioning my life choices, when I saw it: the line. It was illuminated because it led to a Ferris wheel. I joined in and started talking with two couples who alternated between our conversation and making out. They invited me to a Shabbat dinner, with bacon. One guy proved to me that he was Jewish by taking off his hat and showing me his curly hair.
I said goodbye to them as they were ushered in and walked up the metal steps to the ride. Despite not intending to ride, I was snapped into a seat. I asked the ride manager if I yelled, would he turn it off? He grunted. I rode the wheel and, with a renewed sense of pride, managed to stay on until the very end.
At Burning Man, I overcome two of my biggest fears. I sought by attending to experience a life-changing moment, thinking it would transform me, but it turns out that all I really needed to feel like I'd evolved was a bit of human connection.
Before I left, the head of our camp took me aside and told me I shouldn't take drugs. I'm the only person who left the Burn with a PSA. I'm glad I went, but I'm also glad I don't have to go back. Armed with my newfound courage and confidence from Burning Man, I'm ready to find adventure in less far-away places.