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.

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."

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.

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.