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Saturday, May 07, 2005

Dreadlock Payos and Tie-Dyed Tzitzit at Boombamela Festival

Dreadlock Payos and Tie-Dyed Tzitzit at Boombamela Festival
14:53 Apr 27, '06 / 29 Nisan 5766
by Benyamin Bresky

At a Passover beach festival which promotes "freedom, ecstasy, sex, pursuit of lust" and more, young Israelis also found authentic Jewish spirituality, warmth, and tradition.

The annual Boombamela festival was held this year on Nitzanim Beach in southern Israel near Ashkelon and Ashdod, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The three-day party, camp-out and street fair attracted at least 36,000 people from the New Age/Free Spirit community in 2005. The festival's name is inspired from its Hindu counterpart held in India and called Kumbamela.

The festival grounds cover hundreds of dunams from the beach inland and are divided into villages (tents and canopied areas) featuring different styles of yoga, meditation, participatory music and more.

Amongst the tented areas for meditation, yoga, and various eastern philosophies was the Tent of Love and Prayer. The entrance archway was adorned with a hand painted rainbow.

"At first Boombamela [in 1999], we didn't have a whole village; we had one little booth." says Mordechai Zeller, a rabbinical student from the eastern Gush Etzion town of Tekoa and one of the organizers of the Jewish village. "The organizers of the festival want us to be one of the biggest villages. There is the holistic village and the children's village, and we have the Jewish village."

The name of the tent is a taken from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco, California active in the 1960's. The legendary guitar-playing rabbi was a big influence on many, if not all of the people at Boombamela's Jewish village, although no one is officially connected to any Carlebach organization.

"I never lived at the Carlebach moshav in Israel, but if I was going to call somebody my rabbi, that would be probably Shlomo." says Michah Harrari, a harp maker and another organizer of the tent. Harrari stresses the peacefulness and openness of the tent as part of its success in attracting people. "There has to be a spiritual presence that's comfortable and not threatening. You don't have to do anything crazy to be right with G-d."

Harrari's wife Shoshana, another Boombamela veteran, was there as well, cooking and soliciting an ample amount of volunteers to help prepare for Shabbat.

"All the food that we're making is organic, meaning it's grown without pesticides by organic farmers in Israel. Not only are we giving them kosher for Pesach food, but healthy food," Harrari comments.

In regards to the non-Jewish and sometimes outlandish nature of the festival, Harrari responded, "We came out of Egypt together, and I'm sure we were a rowdy bunch then too."

She emphasizes the need for Jewish togetherness regardless of religious status. "The first time I came, I didn't know what to expect. You see all these kids, and they have all the earrings everywhere, and you think, 'oh, what is this?!' But when you start to talk to them, this one came from a Hassidic family; this one came from a religious home. They're eighteen years old, and they're feeling their youth and their freedom and checking life out. But once they taste Torah, they just love it. They want to feel good as Jews. They do, but they just don't know how. They need people to teach them and help them - that's all. But they're beautiful children. Our rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said one thing that always stuck in my mind. He said, 'if you really want to serve G-d, you better love his children.'"

This year, Boombamela began on Thursday, the day after seder night. But, those that came a day early spent Passover's seder night on the beach in the Jewish village. On Friday night as well, the Jewish village held a free Shabbat dinner led by the organizers as well as adherents to the Breslov hassidic movement. The matzah for the seder was donated by the Belz hassidic sect. "We fed over a thousand people last night for Shabbat dinner," exclaims Zeller in an excited voice. "We've been giving out matzahs to people for the last three days. People might forget it's Pesach until somebody comes to them with hand-made shmurah matzah and offers them a Chag Sameach greeting [Happy Holiday]. It doesn't matter what you're wearing or how many piercings you have in your ear. We're non-judgmental. We let people come in and say to them 'you're welcome in the eyes of G-d.'"

And indeed, there was a strange mix of Shabbat guests, some without kippot [head coverings] and some fresh from the beach and without shirts, but all dancing and singing. So much so that Zeller had to push them back from crashing into the Shabbat table. This was a Shabbat where tie-dyed tzitzit [garment fringes] and dreadlock peyos [side hair curls] were not oxymorons, and you could even find a yeshiva student who doubles as an environmental activist.

Towards the back of the Tent of Love and Prayer was Yakov Nagen, a rabbi at the Hesder Yeshiva [seminary] in Otniel. The soft-spoken husband and father of five was an unlikely person to attend a new-age festival. With the bass of the Israeli psychedelic trance music pulsating in the background, Rabbi Nagen explains how a former student of his inspired him to return for his third year to Boombamela.

Click here to see a video of the Jewish village.

Noam Apter was one of the four yeshiva students in Otniel who were shot and killed by Arab terrorists. "He was always trying to push me and the other people in my yeshiva to go out to the place that Am Yisrael really is. Not in the yeshiva, but in the streets. He kept saying, 'you can't wait for Am Yisrael to come to the yeshiva; the yeshiva has to go out to Am Yisrael.' I feel that since he couldn't continue his work, whenever I'm given the opportunity, I have to go out and be with Am Yisrael."

"One of the teachings I try to give over at Boombamela is that it may have been easier had we never been born, but it is not better," says Rabbi Nagen. "There's what's easy and what's good. What life is really all about is choosing between the easy path or choosing to do what's good."

To exemplify this lesson, Rabbi Nagen recounts the story of his student Noam's death. The armed Arabs wanted to enter the yeshiva dining hall to perpetrate a mass murder amongst the 100 students who were singing traditional songs and dancing during their Friday night Shabbat meal. Noam and three others were in the kitchen, which is where the terrorists entered and began shooting. Noam was next to the dining room door and could have fled through it to safety. But, he perceived what the terrorists were planning, and locked himself in the kitchen with the terrorists to prevent them from reaching the scores of students.

"So that last moment choice not to run out," says Noam's teacher Rabbi Nagen, "but rather to lock the doors and be sealed inside, I think, is the best example of the choice between what's easy and what's good."

Click here to hear the entire interview with Rabbi Nagen in INR's The Beat with Ben Bresky

The Tent of Love and prayer was not the only Jewish presence at Boombamela. There was also a Chabad tent, tucked behind the food vendors and adjacent to the colorful Jamaican dub sound system stage. The large tarped area resembled a yeshiva.

"We are the opposite to the whole festival," says Eyal, one of the organizers, who like the others in the tent sported a black hat, a long black beard, a button down white shirt a black suit and a big smile - "looking like a penguin," in his own words.

But, Eyal didn't always dress this way. For eleven years he was a yoga instructor and studied Buddhism and Hinduism in Tibet. It was there that he became interested in Chabad after he went to the Tibet rabbi for advice. "I got a nice soft recommendation from the rabbi over there. I kind of heard him, but I was not really listening. A year later, I can see that all that he told me really came up to the surface. It was interesting to know that he didn't tell me 'no, you're not supposed to do it.' He just told me, look, you will miss some things. And he was right. Then I started studying with him. I began to see see that everything that I was studying in other philosophies and wisdoms is all within Judaism, and even far more. Far more."

It is this attitude that has brought Eyal to Boombamela for the past three years to teach classes in Torah as well as offer advice on relationships and other spiritual matters. While some of his old friends feel he left them for another life, he begs to differ. "You can use the tools that you gathered along your trips in the world on our journey and use them to work with yourself to become a better person. But to be them both, that's a very delicate matter. It's either you believe in G-d or you believe in a system of yoga. Yoga is not just stretches. It's got beliefs. You can take some of it with you into your Judaism, but you need to leave some of that behind."

The Chabad tent is not officially sanctioned by the Chabad organization. "This kind of festival is too open, to use soft words. Too wild. But we are here because people are searching. There's lots of confusion. We are connecting people back to their roots, reminding them about where they are coming from, where their ancestors came from. It's not just stories. It's real and it's alive."

Baruch Gordon contributed to this report.
Benyamin Bresky is the host of The Beat, which airs weekly on Israel National Radio. He maintains a music blog at