Jewish Journal


September 16, 2009

Nachman Chasids Make Holy Days Pilgrimage to Ukraine


Chasidim standing in front of a Jewish store and a poster of Rabbi Nachman.  Photo by  Laura Stampler.

Chasidim standing in front of a Jewish store and a poster of Rabbi Nachman. Photo by Laura Stampler.

On the road from Kiev to Odessa, amid rolling fields accented with the occasional clump of livestock or small fires, a guide told a group of Jewish journalists that they had to make a slight detour to a town that every Jew should see: Uman.

The city, originally intended as a fort defending against Tartar raids, clearly shows the effects of World War II, decades of communism and insufficient redevelopment. Buildings stand dilapidated; electricity is rare. Running water is inconsistent. 

Mercedes Benzes, common on the streets of Kiev, are nowhere to be seen here, replaced by aged Volkswagens and other cars that would be trade-ins under the Obama administration’s “Cash for Clunkers” program.

But within this otherwise undistinguished former Soviet city lies a pocket of Jewish culture, complete with Hebrew signs on shops, kosher restaurants with tzedakah boxes, Israeli music blasting from speakers attached to a Jewish literature shop and chain-smoking boys with peyes riding mopeds in the streets.

During the High Holy Days, Uman looks like a modern-day shtetl tucked away in the depths of central Ukraine.

Every year, without fail, in the weeks surrounding Rosh Hashanah, upwards of 25,000 people (Uman itself has a population of only 100,000) flock to Uman from places as far flung as Israel, Kentucky and Latvia to sing, dance, daven and pay respects. This is because in October, 199 years ago, the revered Rabbi Nachman stated, “Dor is gut tzu leigen”: Here is a good place to die.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement. Nachman, for his part, established the Breslov Chasidic dynasty, which today has tens of thousands of dedicated followers.

One cannot walk through the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem without seeing the conspicuous Na Nachs, a modern sub-sect of the Breslov Chasidim, dressed in white and dancing atop vans to blaring Chasidic-techno music — handing pictures, literature and CDs to passersby with the simple aim of spreading joy and the gospel of their Rebbe.

Nachman taught the necessity of daily self-improvement and that happiness was a mitzvah, a message that his followers take very seriously and express very boisterously.

Nachman also believed that the Jewish New Year was “greater than everything,” and that if his followers truly believed in his teachings, they would be “scrupulous about being with me on Rosh Hashanah.” 

Which is why El Al and other airlines annually schedule extra flights to Ukraine in the month of September.

Reb Noson, one of Nachman’s closest followers, stated after the rabbi’s death, “Even if the road to Uman were paved with knives, I would crawl there — just so I could be with my Rebbe on Rosh Hashanah.”

Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, pilgrims were not allowed to visit Uman. Religious devotion was forbidden under the Communists. In 1934, the Soviets said they would allow 28 Chasidim to travel to the gravesite, but it was a trap: 16 making the pilgrimage were murdered, and many of the rest were sent to Siberia. 

Still, hundreds of pilgrims snuck into Uman during the Communist era.

“I have been coming to Uman every Rosh Hashanah for the past 40 years,” American-born Breslov Chasid Gabriel Grossman said.

After the fall of the Soviet regime, the new, more open government granted 250 foreign visas to Uman in 1988, and directly following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, between 700 and 900 people came to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. The following year the number grew to 2,000 and has increased significantly ever since, reaching 25,000 pilgrims in 2008.

Grossman now owns a small bakery that provides free challah to the pilgrims who attend the festivities. Already this year, in the first week of September, women crowded the kitchen, kneading and rolling in preparation for the thousands to come.

Some pilgrims come to the city early, staying in the town for weeks on end. They can be found in the halls of the temple, begging passing tourists for “just $5 for food, man. I came here with no money, to pray.”

Gili Liyahu, 21, came for six weeks. Born in Ethiopia and now living in Beersheba, he has been to Uman 14 times. “Every day I pray, learn and work in the box,” he said, referring to a shop that sells food, mystic charms and literature about Nachman’s teachings. 

“If you are a real Jew, you must come here,” Liyahu said. “It cleans out your soul! Rabbi Nachman fixes all your problems; it’s good.”

“It’s true,” agreed Menachen Binder, 17, who traveled from Bnei Brak. “What is this place? It’s about Rabbi Nachman. And whatever people ask for here — health, family — he provides.”

Binder tells a visitor a story of a friend with throat cancer who had tried various treatments in the United States and Canada, to no avail. After spending a Rosh Hashanah in Uman praying to Nachman, Binder said, the friend was cured.

Pilgrims write their prayers for Nachman on sheets of paper. It is believed that if you write down wishes for romance, you will be married within the year.

For these many reasons, tens of thousands of people — Sephardi and Ashkenazi, religious and secular — travel to Uman to dance in the streets, pray, and, for all intents and purposes, party.

These travelers, however, are almost exclusively male.

According to a former official for the Israeli Embassy in Ukraine, Chasidic men frequently are caught up in scuffles with women in the area. The former official added that Rosh Hashanah marks a prime time for Ukranian prostitutes to travel to the town.

And the strong Jewish interest in Uman does not mean the city is immune to anti-Semitic incidents. As recently as August of this year, Ukranian television reported that a building occupied by Chasidim in Uman had been doused with a Molotov cocktail and set on fire.  This followed other attacks against Jewish-owned businesses in the area this year, including a kosher food shop.

Although Uman was home to a considerable Jewish community in the 18th and 19th centuries, its current Jewish population is estimated to be somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people. As is typical in former Soviet states, many have intermarried and do not consider themselves to be religious.

“When the holidays are over, we leave,” Liyahu said. “There is nothing else for us here.”

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