The ancient Israelites spent 40 years exiting the desert. Two Pittsburgh Jews decided to go back.
Andrew Mallinger and his mom, Lauren Mallinger, were among 73,000 people who attended Burning Man earlier this month. The Nevada-based festival features an annual week of art, music, dancing and myriad activities offered by temporary residents in a makeshift city.
Before attending the gathering in Black Rock Desert, Andrew Mallinger, 35, had seen scores of pictures and videos online and spoke to past participants about spending time in the desert with strangers and limited resources.
It seemed like it would be a “super fun, really unique, opportunity to get away and be disconnected for a week,” he said.
In 2022, Mallinger, and his partner, Adrienne Faurote, became “virgin burners” — the term is used to describe first-time attendees — and traveled to the desert.
Located about 100 miles north of Reno, the area is a silt playa surrounded by mountain ranges.
“It’s extremely remote,” said Mallinger, a former Squirrel Hill resident who lives in Florida.
During one week, more than 70,000 people created an enclave, coexisted and committed to leaving “no trace.” Numerous small camps were erected on site. Mallinger and Faurote stayed in “Hot Cheeks.” The camp had a generator, kitchen, several tents and a shaded sitting area.
Temperatures topped 100 in conditions where “you’re looking around and you couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you,” Mallinger said.
Still, the experience was incredible, he added.
At week’s end, another camp — Milk+Honey — operated a Shabbat service and meal for hundreds.
“It’s a really beautiful thing,” Mallinger said. “Everybody is just kind of gathered around. It’s dusty, it’s the end of the week. You’re tired. You’ve been there for a while and everybody just kind of bands together, has a beautiful service and then they serve a meal afterwards for those who want to stay.”
Celebrating Shabbat in the desert was “raw,” he continued. “People cried. Everybody’s hugging. Everybody’s singing the songs together. It’s a really, really, beautiful thing.”
After returning from last year’s festival, Mallinger invited his mom to join him and Faurote at Burning Man 2023.
Squirrel Hill resident Lauren Mallinger, 69, agreed and, on Aug. 26, she arrived in the desert. Along with her son and his partner, she stayed in Hot Cheeks.
The first several days were dedicated to setting up the camp.
“It was hot,” Lauren Mallinger said, “but everybody got to know each other, which was really nice.”
She met several people who had attended Burning Man for nearly 15 years; despite being a virgin burner, Lauren Mallinger was greeted “with open arms,” she said. “In the beginning, everybody at the camp made sure that I was OK, that I got my feet on the ground and that I was able to spread some wings to go off on my own.”
One morning, after waking to use the restroom around 7 a.m., two members of the camp invited her to attend “the 7 o’clock rave.” Still dressed in her pajamas, she agreed.
“Off we went, and there was this little female DJ rocking it, bumping it,” Lauren Mallinger said. “There were people crowded in. Some of them you could tell had been up all night.”
The “7 o’clock rave” was one of countless moments throughout the Aug. 24-Sept. 4 festival where she was warmly welcomed into a group largely comprised of people half her age, she said.
“There’s not a lot of people in their upper 60s and 70s — you see them but it’s more like 30s, 40s and 50s,” Lauren Mallinger said. “It’s a younger generation, but we were all able to communicate together. We built a camp, and we were cohabitating, eating and recreating together.”
When meeting others in the desert she often asked if they would bring their mother to Burning Man — the reply was always, “no,” she said. “I guess I felt special that I still had that free spirit, and I was still a free enough spirit that I could handle this.”
Whether setting up camp, helping cook or build a bike in the dust and heat, Lauren Mallinger dealt with “an environment that wasn’t exactly inviting,” she said. “You have to have a sense of humor about it because some of the stuff you saw is not everyday stuff. People were very uninhibited there.”
Part of what helped, she added, was being able to “roll with the punches.”
Nowhere was this trait more necessary than at week’s end.
Between Friday afternoon and Saturday, the desert got between half an inch and an inch of rain. The downpour was unusual — average rainfall in Reno during September is 0.21 inches, according to the Associated Press.
“It went from a very hard, dusty surface to this globbly guck that you could only walk barefooted on or in socks to get any kind of traction,” Lauren Mallinger said. “It was a mess. It was an absolute mess.”
Burning Man organizers told attendees to shelter in place, so Lauren Mallinger didn’t attend the Shabbat service at Milk+Honey camp.
She also had to forgo another scheduled activity.
Since 2000, festival attendees have erected The Temple. The wooden structure is a place of rest and reflection where people often leave messages or gifts to the departed and others. Before Burning Man’s conclusion, The Temple is incinerated.
Lauren Mallinger had heard about The Temple from her son. They planned on concluding their week by visiting The Temple and leaving a collection of photographs.
The images, Lauren Mallinger said, included Andrew, his siblings and their grandmother Rose Mallinger — one of 11 Jewish worshippers murdered during the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
“We were going to put them in The Temple, but unfortunately we didn’t get there,” she said.
Lauren Mallinger said she doesn’t plan on attending the festival again and that she experienced much of what she imagined it would be.
Before leaving the desert, the Mallingers found themselves stuck. Their vehicle, like countless others, was trapped in Saturday’s mud. A group of Jewish festival attendees nearby was in the same predicament.
Andrew Mallinger said the situation was “crazy” and asked the group what to do.
“One Israeli guy looked at me, and he’s like, ‘We’re gonna band together, and we’re gonna help each other, and we’re gonna get out,’” Andrew Malinger said.
Passersby stopped, dug and pushed the vehicles through seemingly endless piles of goop. Andrew Mallinger drove for miles. He headed toward Reno and noticed a trailer with a purple wheel cover. He remembered an Israeli in the camp owned a similar accessory. He flashed his lights and dialed the campmate, who he hadn’t seen for hours.
“I asked him, ‘How did you get out?’ He said, ‘You’re in the middle of a caravan of Israelis — eight, nine cars deep — who figured out how to leave together.’”
The call was a “mind-blowing moment of community,” Andrew Mallinger said. “Burning Man is a community where everybody’s supposed to help each other. But within that, there’s this Israeli Jewish community that always feels a little closer, a little tighter, just because of who we are.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.