My Review of the Pashut Festival at Desert Ashram, Israel
Jordan and I first heard about the Pashut festival 3 years ago during our last trip to Israel. We had arrived in Israel just after the spring festival took place, so naturally we couldn’t attend. But this year, the timing was right. We had a wedding to go to in the same month and rearranged our plans so we could hit the desert first.
Currently in its 12th year, Pashut bills itself as the “largest naturist festival in the Middle East.” I wondered if it couldn’t be perhaps the only naturist festival in the Middle East?
With its conservative religious Jewish and Arab populations, many think Israel to be an unlikely naturist destination. But there are many nudie opportunities* if you know where to look for them. The Pashut Festival is just one example.
Coincidentally, Israel just had an important court debate over the issue of public nudity. This was sparked by “Midburn,” the third largest regional Burning Man event in the world. Midburn (whose name comes from “midbar,” the Hebrew word for “desert,” combined with “burn” for obvious reasons) was taking place at the same time as Pashut.
The Israeli police wanted to prohibit nudity entirely at Midburn, among various other event permit stipulations that were being negotiated in the months leading up to the event. Police argued that Midburn was a public event and therefore nudity shouldn’t be allowed. They also claimed that last year some naked participants “committed sexual acts.”
Disagreements were taken to the administrative court of Be’er Sheva. Here’s how the judge ruled according to this YNet News article: “Judge Barkai noted that there is no law forbidding nudity as such, and explained that she understood the police’s desire to prohibit nudity out of concern for public safety and to protect minors. She ultimately decided to allow festival participants to be nude as long as it was in a closed area that minors could not enter.”
And so, the Midburn festivities were allowed to take place. Needless to say, we were happy to see the progressive nature of Israel’s judicial system.
Back to Pashut….
The festival takes places at Desert Ashram in the Negev. It’s basically in the middle of nowhere. It’s possible to get there by bus, but we rented a car. As far as accommodations, they had dorm-style and private rooms but we preferred to just pitch a borrowed tent.
The Ashram is a very spiritually oriented place focused on meditation and yoga. It follows the teachings of Osho, an Indian guru / spiritual teacher who became a prominent figure in the 1970’s – 80’s. Osho was known for his open-minded approach to sexuality. The Ashram website includes this quote from Osho on the Pashut Festival page:
“Your clothes are not just clothes – they are hiding you from everybody else’s eyes. And it is good sometimes to be with the birds and with the animals and with the trees, just as they are – utterly nude.”
The festival page also has some nice words about naturism / being naked – “Pashut festival is calling us celebrate ourselves and our naked bodies in an environment of freedom and love. …The unique thing about this gathering is that it allows us to just be as we are, without clothes and masks. Accepting ourselves fully, body and mind.” They’re speaking our language!
As far as the name of the festival itself, the Hebrew word “Pashut” means “simple.” It comes from the root P-sh-t which means to strip away something to its natural state.
In inquiring about the festival, we were told we had to buy tickets ahead of time. They were 319 NIS each, about $80, per person, which we paid over the phone with a credit card. This included the workshops and festival activities as well as camping.
But we did run into one snafu — their strict gender policy. Men and women must register and attend together in equal numbers. We had a single male friend who wanted to attend and after a bit of finagling, we obtained special permission for him to go. (However he later had to bail on the trip.)
Monitoring the gender balance is understandable, but we do wish they were more inclusive of single men. And what about same-sex couples? I suppose they, too, have to find the opposite gender to go with.
The festival is 4 days long, Thursday through Sunday, and they released the workshop schedule a few weeks prior. Their website has an English version, but the schedule in English only had titles of workshops. So I was quite intrigued by ones like “(Don’t) Touch My Boobs” and “Leather Garments.” (Thankfully Jordan does speak fluent Hebrew!)
We arrived Friday afternoon, checked in at the entrance and then scoped the place out. There were already a few hundred people there and thus plenty of hustle and bustle. People’s tents were sitting almost on top of each other, covering every inch of available grass. I even saw one or two couples camping out in the parking lot, using their vehicle for shade.
There was no specific area set aside just for camping, and we were told we could set up camp wherever we found space.
There’s not just grass but quite a few trees, as the ashram sits on a desert oasis. Areas with grass and shade were prime real estate, as the desert is HOT during the day. We managed to find a rocky but semi shady area next to two other tents.
After setting up camp, we decided our first activity would be to try the clay mud bath, which was located under its own white tent. This is when I realized we forgot one towel.
WHAT KIND OF NUDIE AM I? A blanket became our second towel.
The clay mud “bath” was constructed from a heavy canvas material stretched over a rectangular frame. It’s probably about 8 or 9 ft wide, 2 ft long and 4 ft deep. But the mud itself is only a few inches deep, and it was cold! I stepped in and it felt like thick pudding. I sat down in it, but I do not recommend this. Too much clay around my nether regions. Instead it’s better to stand and apply a thin layer to the body.
The mud is supposed to be great for your skin. Once it’s on, the idea is to wait for it to dry and then peel it off. So after getting thoroughly covered in it, we walked out into the sunny desert to dry. My layer of mud was a bit thick. I peeled and rubbed a lot of it off, then went in the outdoor shower adjacent to the bath, to wash off the rest.
Around the Ashram are miles and miles of vast, empty, rocky, dry desert. It’s quite a sight to behold. The country of Jordan (no pun intended) is just a few miles away, and with nothing obstructing the view, you can see all the way to the peaks of its mountains across the border.
Leading out the back of the Ashram gate is a distinguishable path out into the desert. It leads to a small circle of objects: guitars, signs with written sayings in Hebrew and a piano. The piano doesn’t play, but it makes for some whimsical décor. Close by is another circular clearing with a sort of totem pole in the middle.
Though there’s no reprieve from sunshine or the heat outside the Ashram, I did see people hanging out and walking around out there. We preferred to head out at night for the grand view of the stars.
The whole Ashram has a whimsical feel to it in fact. The seating areas, trees wrapped in colorful fabric, a wishing tree, not to mention the animals. They have a small “zoo” with donkeys, pigs, chickens and other animals. Chickens, peacocks and rabbits wander freely around the property. The Ashram is a strictly vegetarian place, so the animals are friends, not food. Visitors are not even allowed to bring in any meat.
A few lines from the long sign: “Keep us safe with all your heart. Otherwise, we will be eaten by the wolf. Close behind you so we will not run away…Don’t feed us junk food. Just let us be. Thank you so much and lots of love. – The dove, the chickens, Selba, all of us chipmunks and even the bunny.”
It was surreal to see chickens and roosters clucking and poking around tents in the morning. You could hear them loudly crowing every morning. The peacocks made themselves heard, too.
The main hub of the Ashram consisted of their indoor workshop spaces and offices (never saw inside them), outdoor information / ticket table, bar and dance floor under a thatched roof, food stands and seating with tables and chairs.
Behind the ticket table, they had a communal charging station for people to plug in and charge their phones. We thought this was pretty ingenious.
From the main area, a path led down to a small grassy field with a few trees where they held concerts and a Friday night Shabat ceremony. On one side of the field, another food stand sold baked goods, tea and coffee. On the other side were restrooms, showers and outdoor sinks.
There was some form of upbeat music playing at the bar most of the time, which would get louder at some point and draw people to the dance floor. Off to the side, people were body painting. In past years, they’ve had serious body painting competitions but those were discontinued at some point.
For buying food or anything, you first have to trade in cash for “Ashramoney.” We got one piece of paper for 100 NIS, and purchases were made by crossing out numbers with a marker. If you didn’t use it all, you could trade it back in for cash. Clever and convenient. Though you still had to figure out where to put your Ashramoney while naked (haha).
The food is considered expensive for Israelis, but not for Americans. As for the offerings, no complaints. The bar served fresh lemonade and smoothies (along with alcoholic bevs). At breakfast I had a delightful parfait with fruit and granola. As a vegetarian, it was the first time I’d been to a festival where I could eat anything on the menu. I even had a vegan seitan schwarma that was pretty good.
In the morning, Jordan had a funny experience getting coffee at one of the food stands.
Jordan to the vendor: How does it work here?
Vendor: Well, what do you want?
Jordan: Well what can I get here?
Vendor: You can get something to eat or drink.
Jordan: What can I get?
Vendor: What do you want?
Jordan: Ok…I’d like two coffees.
– There were two cups of coffee already filled on the counter. So Jordan picks them up. –
Vendor: Oh, hey, what are you doing! That’s not yours.
Jordan: Ok, so how does it work here??
Not knowing how things work seemed to be a theme for us here. We had only brought sleeping bags, blankets and a straw mat for tenting, so we were sleeping on rocks. On the last day, we noticed a little sign next to a pile of mattresses that said you could rent one for 15 NIS / night.
We had a chance to sit down and chat with Shradha, owner of the Ashram and Advaya, the Pashut organizer. They told us that this festival had their biggest attendance yet with about 600 people. The attendees were mostly young, in their 20’s and 30’s, but there were some older folk too.
Some young couples brought their children. Kids are permitted, but there are no activities or facilities especially for them as the festival is geared towards adults.
In our conversation, we also learned that for many years, the Pashut Festival demographic was mostly older people. At some point they had a breakthrough, and young adults started coming. It’s a wonderful trend that keeps growing every year.
One of the first things we noticed about attendees was that a lot of women had underwear on, bikini-style as well as thongs. The festival is clothing-optional, and there were fully nude men and women, too. But we found it strange that so many women chose to keep bottoms on, especially given the hot desert temperatures. Unfortunately we didn’t get the opportunity to chat with any of these women and ask them.
From what I could tell, most people were Israeli, with a small Russian minority. Most Israelis speak at least a little bit of English, though they can be shy about using it. Hebrew was the dominant language. Once we got a full schedule, Jordan translated workshop descriptions for me. He also acted as my personal translator during the workshops themselves.
I didn’t seem to have any luck getting a workshop conducted in English. Though the workshop leaders were sweet and willing to accommodate me, there were a couple of non-English speakers in every workshop so Hebrew it was.
The workshops were mostly focused on the arts, creativity, health, sexuality, meditation, and yoga. There were usually 4 or 5 workshops happening simultaneously. If you didn’t like the one you were in, you could leave and still join a different one.
Friday night, we attended a “Cocoa Ceremony” with Ronit Love. It was $10 extra, but very much worth it. It took place in an enclosed white dome with straw mats covering the floor. We sat down in a circle, and Ronit stood in the center.
She first talked about the history of cocoa and how it was a “food of the Gods” in Mayan culture that was supposed to bring about euphoria. Then we proceeded to the shamanic ceremony known as “calling in the directions.” Ronit would first pass around a small chocolatley dessert. We had fudgy melt-in-your-mouth chocolate; a thick, melted cocao drink (like the best hot chocolate you’ve ever had), pieces of chocolate-covered pineapple and other amazing treats.
As we slowly tasted and savored each one, Ronit would call in one of the directions (north, south, east, west, sky, earth). Then her talented musician friend named Nirvana would play a song on her guitar and sing a chant that we would all repeat and sing together.
Once that was over, it was “time to play.” We were all given a sticky “dough” of pureed dates (a common base for raw desserts and truffles). First we were to roll it in cocoa powder. Then we could add ingredients that represented the four elements (sea salt, red pepper and others), according to whichever elements we desired. Then we were to sculpt it with our hands to form a symbol, as guided by our intuition.
I don’t like playing with food. I’d rather just eat it. But Jordan had fun making his own “Stone Henge” formation which he felt was a monumental achievement for his artistic abilities (I am not going to comment on his creation).
It ended around midnight, and we left feeling the chocolate euphoria. From start to finish, it was over 2 hours long, but the time just flew by and it was a beautiful, enchanting ceremony and experience.
Meanwhile the DJ dance party was starting up in the bar area. It was packed with people. The music was dance-worthy, and the energy was great. But fatigued from our travels, we settled in so we hit the hay.
Thankfully our tent was not too close to the bar. The music went on til at least 4am and even later the next night. My cheap ear plugs sort of helped drown out the sound. Between the music and the crowing animals, it never seemed to get quiet at night.
Saturday morning we went to another workshop with the mysterious title, “As Close As Possible” under the category of “My Body & Me.” It was run by two Israeli psychotherapists – Meital Geva Ohayon and a male counterpart. The description read,
“As close as possible – The longest relationship we have is the relationship we have with our own bodies. Therefore it makes sense that it be a pleasant one – right? We will be examining this relationship, we will be accompanying our bodies on this journey and we will create a discussion with it as well as with the parts we like less. We will be creating a foundation for healing and change the negative aspects of this relationship. ”
It was a body image workshop where we essentially explored our relationship with our bodies. It consisted of a variety of single and partner exercises, some of which reminded me of the Human Awareness Institute’s intimacy workshop (taking place again at the 2015 Northeast Naturist Festival).
In one exercise, we were supposed to use a piece of light fabric to cover the body part that we felt insecure about. Then we partnered up with someone to talk about that. Jordan had to be my translator, so he was stuck as my partner for most of it.
I thought a body image workshop was a great thing for a festival like this. But as far as other workshops, there was nothing about naturism. It also stood out to us that there were no rules or information about proper behavior in a naturist environment. The only available rules were the 10 commandments of the Ashram written in Hebrew on the schedule. Most people know how to behave, but rules / etiquette would seem a necessity nonetheless.
We spent the rest of our festival time chatting with people, listening to music on the lawn, and cooling off in one of the pools.
The most surreal part of the festival took place Saturday afternoon. On the edge of the property, overlooking the open desert, is a big stage. At about 3pm, a crowd of maybe 200 people or so gathered on stage for a naked midday rave with a DJ playing EDM. They were jumping up and down, punching the air and dancing in a frenzied manor. With a childlike energy that seemed to know no end – these naked revelers were truly letting it all go.
An hour later, the rave was over, the stage cleared and just like that… it was quiet once again.
For anyone interested in going, the Pashut Festival takes place twice a year, in May and September (with the one in May being the larger of the two). This is the only clothing-optional festival in the Ashram (as far as I know). It’s very much worth the experience, and the Ashram itself is such a unique place. Plus, Israel is a gorgeous country that I tell anyone to visit if they get the chance!
Learn more at http://www.desertashram.co.il/en/
*Many years ago, Israel established a federation of the INF (International Naturist Federation), but I’m not sure whether it’s still active today. The Israeli naturist sites I looked at don’t seem to have been updated in a long time.