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.

Click here to launch a slideshow on the Hasidic pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine.

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.

Advertisement

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."

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Behold

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 7:13 PM Deadly Advice When it comes to Ebola, ignore American public opinion: It’s ignorant and misinformed about the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 6:48 PM Apple: Still Enormously Profitable
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.