Walking onto the Midburn playa, deep in the Negev Desert in Israel, it was hard not to feel I’d entered a space portal and somehow magically been transported to Nevada’s Black Rock City (I mean, anyone who has ever been to a burn knows that stranger things have happened, ha!).
The confusion makes sense, to an extent — Midburn is an official Burning Man-inspired regional burn, the second largest in the world. But with the clock-like grid of camps surrounding a dusty central playa scattered with flammable works of art, the two were so visually similar it was striking.
That said, the differences between them were notable — and also, in some cases, provided fascinating insights into the cultures of the United States and Israel.
Whenever I mentioned to someone at Midburn that I’d been to Burning Man, twice, they were quick to ask how the temporary cities compared. When I returned, my Burning Man friends had the same questions about Midburn.
One thing that’s impossible to say? Which is “better.” Both are unique festivals that I loved various aspects of — and can’t wait to go back to. Here are a few of my observations.
English is the second language at Midburn
I know, I know — this falls into the “duh” category. Needless to say, attending a burn where you don’t speak the primary language is a very different kind of experience!
There were a few in my camp who constantly reminded everyone to speak English around me, which was so sweet and appreciated, but more often than not everyone defaulted to Hebrew very quickly. I honestly didn’t mind — people speaking their shared native language in my presence has never bothered me. If you let things like this get you bent out of shape, you’re not going to enjoy yourself traveling or living abroad.
However, if you are planning to attend Midburn it is important to know that some camps will not accept non-Hebrew speakers. I saw a lot of controversy about this in the international Facebook groups, where some members questioned if this was against the spirit of radical inclusion. I see their point, but I too respect that some people Israelis may not feel comfortable speaking English and want a camp where they can communicate freely with all their camp members.
If anything, I was surprised and impressed by how much English was used at Midburn (though the fact that the organizers set aside eight hundred international tickets exclusively for those outside of Israel clearly shows their intent to make this an international event). Many camp signs were bilingual, my Midburn map and schedule booklet was in English, the yoga class I attended was bilingual, and I went to one workshop at Camp Freelove where the moderator asked at the beginning if it was okay to proceed in English and everyone agreed.
Can it be challenging to make connections at Midburn if you don’t speak Hebrew? Yes, it absolutely can be — I think my first introduction to my camp was ample proof of that! But just party on. There are 11,000 people there. You’ll find someone else to talk to.
Midburn is back to basics
This is what I truly loved about Midburn, more so even in retrospect. At the moment, there’s a ton of conflict and controversy in the burner community over “plug and play” camps that make a profit off designing luxury trips to the playa, advertising shoots that commodify the festival, and other inevitable results of popularity that just take Burning Man away from its core ten principles.
Midburn is 0% bullshit, 100% authenticity. Everyone parks offsite, which means there are no luxury RVs. I didn’t see a single air conditioned igloo tent. There’s no onsite airport to jet in and out of. Photo taking is frowned upon (more on that later). There’s a very limited extent to which you can buy yourself a more comfortable Midburn experience. There’s really no way to half-ass Midburn, the way there is with Burning Man.
I was told that Midburn was the closest thing to getting in a time machine and going back to the early years of Burning Man. I really, really loved that.
Midburn is a pedestrian city
When I first nabbed my ticket to Midburn, I started stressing about how I was going to acquire a bike in Israel. Luckily, it was for naught — I quickly learned that unlike Burning Man, where a bike is all but essential, two feet are all that’s required to get you around the playa at Midburn. I felt like I could manageably cover everywhere I wanted to go walking and in fact, with more soft sand, random shrubbery, and uneven topography, biking would actually be somewhat hazardous at Midburn.
I was very happy about this — one less thing to acquire, transport, and stress about.
this bike was essentially the only one I saw the whole time
Black Rock City is more brutal
Sometimes I feel like I can be a bit of a buzzkill when people enthusiastically tell me they want to go to Burning Man. After a brief gush sesh, I really start leaning into the struggle. Someone has to break the news.
Midburn came with its own unique set of challenges for me — see language, above, for reference. That said, it was physically and environmentally a much gentler experience. The dust isn’t acidic nor as sticky as it is in Black Rock City, so you don’t really have to worry about the dreaded Playa Foot or other unpleasant burning sensations should you come into excessive contact with it. I gasped the first time I saw someone barefoot, but really the big boots are more of a fashion and comfort statement at Midburn than the absolute essential they are at Burning Man.
I also found Midburn to be much milder temperature in the evening than Burning Man. Don’t get me wrong, it was still very cold at times, but nothing compared to the arctic frost that invades Burning Man in the evening and that you need to devise a whole separate packing list just to tackle.
Finally, getting there. Israel is the size of New Jersey and Midburn is a small fraction of the size of Burning Man so, the drive and en-route traffic are both significantly more manageable. It has taken me over twelve hours to get from Black Rock City to Reno. Midburn was a quick two hours from Tel Aviv, with barely a blip of traffic on the way out.
Midburn is still windy and hot as hell though!
Photography is seen differently
So, those of you who are regular Alex in Wanderland readers will understand how deeply this one cut me. Photography is my passion and I couldn’t wait to run around and get my camera so dusty that the tech I bring it to for cleaning would threaten to turn me in for Canon abuse.
It did not take me long to pick up on the strong anti-photography sentiment at Midburn. Of course I’m always all dressed up and out having a good time of my own, showing that I’m an active participant in the festival myself, and always ask or gesture for permission before taking a photo of someone, showing I’m looking for consent. At events like Burning Man, Batabano, The Coney Island Mermaid Parade, and more, taking my camera out has been an extension of the party; another fun way to interact with the other beautiful wild people around me.
At Midburn, not so much. Some that I asked to photograph straight up said no, and many that said yes looked so uncomfortable I quickly deleted the photo. By the end of the second day, I was so chastened I basically stopped bringing my camera out at all.
My friend Dave was less easily spooked than I, and got some incredible images as a result! But he also had a few encounters where he was confronted, including one for even capturing someone in the background of a portrait he was taking of me. Twice, someone demanded that they look through his photos and make sure they weren’t captured in the background.
I joked to one of my fellow camp members that at Burning Man, they’d be mad if you didn’t take their picture. They laughed, but explained with a shrug that “Israel is too small. Everyone knows each other here.” It was a sentiment I heard over and over again. Israel is a close-knit country, and residents consider their time at Midburn to be sacred and private.
My recommendation, if you want to take photos at Midburn, is to be extra over the top respectful, grow a thick skin, and find a photo buddy — Dave and I filled a lot of our aperture addiction taking portraits of each other.
They Have Different Gifts
At Burning Man, you could essentially pack a couple protein bars and otherwise spend the entire week drinking at various playa bars and lining up at camps giving out special delicacies as their gifts. Food and alcohol just flow with abundance as the spirit of gifting is really embraced.
At Midburn, there were almost no parties that had open bars (Mexicamp, my own headquarters, was one of the few) or were centered around providing sustenance or treats for the masses. If you haven’t been to a burn, this might seem like a really weird thing to bring up, like, duh, no one is providing you with free food and booze, girl! But after going to Burning Man, where there are entire camps dedicated to handing out warm grilled cheese on a dancefloor, or providing hot tea delivery at sunrise, it was a very noticeable difference between the two burns. Traveling Israel I felt that Israelis are extremely generous and love to ply you with excessive amounts of food and booze, so I think that applying this concept to a festival scale and setting is probably just something that takes a few years to catch on.
Similarly, there were less workshops and classes offered overall by the various camps. This part, largely, can be chalked up to the scale of the two events — though I wouldn’t be surprised if this is also something that flourishes in future years, as camps become more confident and ambitious in their gifts to the community.
What the camps at Midburn do currently emphasize is creating very cool public spaces, producing amazing art, and throwing really dope parties. Damn. Israelis know how to party.
Burning Man burns are a way bigger deal
At Burning Man, it’s practically a pilgrimage to visit the temple. Visitors often leave behind beautiful, touching tributes to lost loved ones, past relationships, old friends — it’s incredibly moving and special. I like to go various times through the week to honor the contributions and see how the space has filled and changed.
The night the man burns is the wildest party you’ll ever attend, quite simply like something from another galaxy. And then the following evening, while the temple burns, you could practically hear a pin drop — if not for the crackling flames and the weeping — while tens of thousands of people sit in reverence and watch the sacred space go up in flames. Again, it is very moving.
At Midburn, the burns just weren’t as huge a deal. The “man” burning was definitely a kick-off to the night, but on a much smaller scale. The next evening, the temple and several other art pieces burned, but they didn’t draw much of a crowd or much reverence — perhaps related to the fact that I’d never seen any notes or memorials left inside like at Burning Man.
Art cars aren’t really a thing
At my first Burning Man burn, I was lucky enough to join a camp with an art car. It was a huge part of the experience for me, and I’ve always found riding on, biking along, and admiring from afar the many art cars of the playa to be one of the most surreal, special parts of Burning Man.
Midburn art cars are much fewer and far between, which again, makes sense based on the size, and the slightly rougher terrain. But fear not — that creativity is channeled other places.
see those shrubs and elevation changes? not as art car friendly, especially at night!
The principles land differently
I find the application of and the exposure to the ten principles to be one of the most fascinating parts of Burning Man. They are what makes it Burning Man, and not just a bunch of naked people running around in the desert (though that is, admittedly, also involved.)
For me, comparing which of the ten principles most challenged the community at Burning Man and Midburn was really fascinating. In Israel, principles of civic responsibility, communal effort, and radical self reliance appeared to come very, very naturally — which makes perfect sense from a population that has completed years of conscripted military service for a nation that was founded not too long ago on pure grit and self sufficiency. As the only Jewish nation on Earth, Israelis stick together and lift each other up, and that was reflected in the beautifully run camps and clockwork-like organization of Midburn.
Self expression and radical inclusion, on the other hand, appeared to be the principles that presented the greatest cultural challenge. There was an almost palpable excitement over the sense of personal freedom at Midburn.
Both these strengths and challenges are almost a complete inversion of what I’d say about the culture of Burning Man. How interesting is that?
Midburn is much smaller
Almost all of the points in this post circle back to one fact: Midburn has a population of 11,000 while Burning Man tops out at 70,000. Whether a smaller or bigger burn is “better” depends on what lens you happen to be looking through at that particular moment.
I spent four nights and four days at Midburn (I came a day late) and during the day, I kept pretty busy with my camp duties, my personal “stay alive in the desert” duties, and popping around to various camps and events. But by the last night, I kinda felt I’d pretty thoroughly explored the playa — at least the camps and parties that were “open for business” late into the evening. That said, it’s all about making your own adventure. Despite the relatively compact size, I had a unique adventure every day and night thanks to the people I met and the fun we got into.
I did love the fact that the relatively compact size of Midburn meant I ran into the same people over and over again. It was fun to dance with someone, have a chat, and then run into them the next night and ask about how their burn was going. That would essentially be impossible at Burning Man, where the second you walk away from someone you can pretty much guarantee you won’t see them again unless you’re sharing a tent — and even that’s a toss up.
Expectation management is essential to any burn. I hope, if you’re considering attending one or the other, this post helps you set them! And if you’ve already been to both, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, too.
I think my overall takeaway is that due to the enormous scale, you simply cannot compete with the visual wonder, endless offerings, and infinite playground that is Burning Man. But due to the intimate size, you cannot compete with the authentic, community-focused, and “back to the roots” experience that is Midburn.
The fact that the Midburn community has grown to what it has in just four short years is nothing short of incredible. I can’t wait to see what they do next — and to attend other regional burns around the world.
Do you have a regional burn on your bucket list?
Almost all the photos in this post are courtesy of the incredible Dave Jones. He’s one of the best people and most talented photographers I know — follow his festival adventures for a constant dose of wanderlust!