The strange and wonderful Hasidic pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 13 2010 4:53 PM

How Do You Say Shofar in Ukrainian?

The strange and wonderful Hasidic pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine.

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He looked at me, incredulous. "Nachman M'Uman!" he exclaimed.

Nachman's disciples have been traveling to Uman for Rosh Hashanah since he died in 1810, though the pilgrimage has boomed in recent years.   The Nazis decimated the Breslov movement, and in the years that followed, the few remaining Hasidim were consistently denied visas by Communist authorities. A handful managed to sneak through, but the torrent only really began once the Iron Curtain fell.

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But access only partially explains the Uman phenomenon. The Breslov ideology, with its emphasis on brotherly love and happiness, is clearly hitting a spiritual chord: It's telling that most people I meet in Uman weren't raised as practicing Jews. Conventional religious institutions, especially in Israel, tend to be stern, antagonistic, and divisive; Breslov is anything but. Circles of dance and song erupt spontaneously throughout the holiday, haridim hand-in-hand with arsim. In this sense, Breslov is a sort of hippie-Hasidim, and Uman is their Bearded Burning Man festival.

By the time Rosh Hashanah began on Wednesday night, the frantic collective energy hadn't lessened, but it had been sublimated. The holiday wear is as exotic as it is varied: fur shtreimels, gold caftans, white robes with matching knee socks, turquoise turbans, silk-engraved bekishes, neon ponchos with tzitzit. At the kloyz, the big synagogue, it was well beyond standing room only—and these people do not pray standing still. They shake, swing, jump. Sporadically, people clap or yell. It's by far the most disorienting prayer service I've ever attended, yet somehow it works, and everyone seems spiritually satisfied. The morning service is a bit roomier—there are scores of prayer groups all along Pushkina, and shofar blasts interrupt one another for hours.

For many, the highlight of the holiday is tashlikh, when, in the final hours of Thursday's daylight, thousands ceremonially tossed breadcrumbs, substituting for personal sins, into a small lake nearby. The prayer itself took perhaps eight minutes, and afterward, the crowd encircled the lake and roared. The sound was audible for miles—there are few buildings taller than three stories in Uman.

Up on the hill overlooking the lake is a local pub; its outside wall was built from Jewish tombstones on which the Hebrew lettering is still legible. When the pilgrims roared, locals enjoying the evening paused, looked up in acknowledgement, and returned to their beers, unfazed. Such is Rosh Hashanah in Uman.

Menachem Kaiser is a Fulbright fellow studying Jewish and Yiddish issues in Lithuania and the surrounding region. He would like to offer special thanks to Yossi Katz of the Breslov Research Institute.