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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UMAN, Ukraine—Last week, approximately 35,000 Hasidim weren't home for Rosh Hashanah. Instead, they were in Uman, participating in the most intense Jewish pilgrimage since the times of the Second Temple.

Uman, an otherwise quiet town about 125 miles south of Kiev, is where Rabbi Nachman—founder of the Breslov Hasidic sect, mystic extraordinaire, and guarantor of salvation to all those who visit him on Rosh Hashanah—is buried. The pilgrims themselves are a Hasidic hodgepodge, from the shtreimel-wearing to the dreadlocked, but they're all here for the same reasons: to pray, love, and eat with their brethren—and with Rabbi Nachman.

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The number of pilgrims has grown exponentially since the breakup of the Soviet Union—in 1989, about 1,000 made the trek—and the infrastructure has kept pace. Dedicated travel agencies book packages (not much room, plenty of board) months in advance. The Vaad, the generic title of the Breslov World Center's administrative arm, sends a crack team of Hasidim (the mishmeret hakodesh; roughly, the Guard of the Sacred) for initial prep: Prostitutes are paid to stay away for the week (there are virtually no female pilgrims); rents are negotiated with the locals; and tents and other temporary housing are put into place. There's also maintenance of the kloyz —the 6,000-person-and-counting, perennially-under-construction synagogue—and the tziyon, the gravesite itself.  

Enough flights are chartered from Tel Aviv to Kiev that Ukrainian customs officials, worried about clogging the terminal, check passports and visas right on the plane, and luggage is dumped directly onto the tarmac. (In earlier years, the luggage-shifting was done by an actual dump truck.) The airport employs Ukrainian-speaking Israelis, who organize and direct the flow and occasionally instruct a nascent minyanto move elsewhere. Minibuses and cabs are waiting for the Hasidim; the only mutually comprehensible phrase, "Uman, Uman, Rosh Hashanah!" is more than enough. There's no need to even exchange money—the drivers go directly to Pushkina Street, the main artery of this Hasidic insta-city.

There is a heavy military and police presence. After all, locals understand, and wish to maintain, the economic benefits of the pilgrimage. (Uman's main industry is, in fact, Rosh Hashanah.) That said, the imposed peace is tense and occasionally fragile.

Beyond the checkpoint—Ukrainians working inside (food prep, usually, or schlepping) require an identification card—Pushkina is teeming, the Hasidic pedestrians flanked by vendors, musicians, buskers, and beggars. The locals are selling staples and tchotchkes, Ukrainian headgear and cheap wind-up toys priced in U.S. dollars, or maybe Israeli shekels, but rarely in Ukrainian hryvnias. The shopkeepers have learned enough Hebrew (the lingua franca here) to quote prices and occasionally haggle. Further down Pushkina, Israelis are selling paraphernalia—the Breslovers are big on their signature yarmulkes, knitted, white, and pointy with "NA NACH NACHMA NACHMAN M'UMAN" (a motto of sorts) emblazoned on the border—and outrageously priced kosher food. There's a jewelry stand to one side, its sign reading, in Hebrew, "For your wife, missing you back home." (These pining women are technically known as "Uman widows.")

The chaos doesn't abate: Thousands of pilgrims are constantly arriving, juggling hat boxes and backpacks and children, trying to find the apartment they've rented. Breslov music co-opted from popular dance songs is blaring. A sheep is being led on a leash, weaving through concentric circles of dancing Hasidim.  

Virtually every local who owns real estate along Pushkina has rented it out for the week, squeezing at least eight people into what's rarely more than two rooms. The going price seems to be about $250 a head; many are banking the equivalent of an annual Umanian salary. Pilgrims with tighter budgets pitch tents, and air mattresses are selling briskly. More than a few people asked me to contribute money for their return fare.

"What will you do if you don't collect enough?" I asked one such schnorreras I gave him a dollar. "It's a long hitchhike home."