Thursday, April 15, 2004

What dust is to Burning Man, sand is to Boombamela.

We camped out on the edge of the beach, away from the hordes of Israeli sixteen-year-olds. The size of our camp changed from day to day, as people arrived late and left early, but there were four of us from the yeshiva who were there for the whole event - me, Randy, Uri and Ezra. Every day we'd get up around 10, take our time over breakfast (invariably involving matza) and then head into the festival. I like to wander these things alone. That way I'm free to respond to whatever comes up, to meet people, to take in the full range of festival sights and sounds.

It was wandering alone that I met Moish Geller. Sat by the festival entrance, dressed in orange robes, with a purple sparkly throw wrapped around his shoulders and a big rainbow-coloured kippa on his head, he waved to me as I passed. It must have been because I was wearing my own deep blue kippa, knitted large enough to make me look like I was one of the very frum (ritually observant), mystical collective of Jews that Moish so clearly belonged to himself. I took the opportunity to sit and chat with him. He had a croaky American voice - he was struggling with a bad throat and smoked enough weed to almost finish it off - but he oozed charisma. Later he stood by our camp and spoke to my friends; whatever they thought of him, as suspicious as they might have been, he held them all in rapt attention.

He was as seriously a hippy as he was a Jew. In some ways he was nuts. "If every Jew woke up tomorrow and said the shema," he told me, "even without any thought or intention, amazing things would happen. If every Jew woke up tomorrow and noone said the shema, there would be disasters, earthquakes, floods..."

I've heard this before. Some hassidic groups (the Breslavers and the Lubavitch Hassids for example) think that Jews' obeying Jewish law has global, even cosmic effect. Where they get this from I do not know.

Moish was what I can only call a Carlebach hassid, a member of one of the Moshav Modiin - Yeshivat Bat Ayin - Nachlaot communities who revere the late Shlomo Carlebach. Moish assured me that very few people really knew Shlomo - very few when he was alive and even less now (certainly not the majority of the innumerable 'Carlebach-lite' Friday night services that now use his melodies). Moish welled up when he spoke about Shlomo and I believe his emotion was real.

But speaking with Moish wasn't straightforward, because I had the impression he was constantly trying to 'convert' me. Maybe I was a likely candidate. So I don't think that Jews keeping Jewish law is what sustains the universe (a claim that verges on the racist), but other things he said sounded OK. "Everything starts from an initial point and whatever results thereof continues to replicate that initial paradigm, even if it seems completely different on a surface level." This is perhaps the basic premise of mysticism.

It wasn't just about what he said; it was more how he said it. And of course the moment - the pink sky over the sea, the infinite folds, ripples and waves on the water's surface. But all of this is why I was suspicious, why I told myself not to trust either this man or my feelings at the time. I don't like keeping my own natural reactions in check. It feels repressive. But what choice do you have if you feel someone is trying actively to change you? I believe Moish was authentic and earnest, but he wanted me to be more like him. And until I am allowed to come to these things - indeed anything - on my own accord, reliable evaluation will remain almost impossible.

He invited my friends for a smoke later that night. They went, I didn't. I didn't think I could handle more of his intensity. They got into an argument with him about Truth. Figures.

Thankfully, I didn't see too much of Moish for the rest of the festival. I was going to spend Shabbat with the hippy Jews in Kfar Tfillah v'Ahavah (Prayer and Love Village) but spent it instead in the nude section of the beach. First naked lunch I've ever had. All we had to deal with there were the 'peepers', the Israeli kids who would peer over the barrier, fascinated and titillated by all these naked people so unselfconscious about their bodies.

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