UMAN, Ukraine (JTA) – Eight days after he was born in Israel, Yossi Galant’s
youngest son was already 3,200 km. from home, undergoing a circumcision near a
rabbi’s grave amid a mass of Jewish men engaged in euphoric prayer.
last month on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the brit mila ceremony coincided with the
peak of the annual fall pilgrimage to the grave of Rebbe Nachman, the founder of
the Breslov Hassidic movement.
“It was a very moving event that will help
him later in life, as he stands to be judged by God,” Galant said.
least four newborns were circumcised near Nachman’s grave this year, part of
what experts say is a rash of new customs developed by followers of the rabbi in
connection with the site.
In addition to the yearly influx of worshipers
who come to spend the High Holy Days here, this central Ukrainian city has
become a destination for Breslov honeymooners and troubled young men. Women have
started prayer groups at the grave and begun to perform the commandment of
separating dough during halla-making there.
But it is the practice of
circumcising eight-day-old boys that has commanded the most attention and drawn
intense criticism from medical professionals and rabbis. They are concerned that
it needlessly endangers the newborns and draws unhelpful scrutiny to a religious
rite already under fire across Europe.
“This new gimmick goes against
Halacha and is contemptuous of the mitzvah of mila, as well as the sanctity of
human life,” said Rabbi Avi Zarki, a well-known radio talk show host and mohel
from Tel Aviv.
The trend “is happening as people in Europe are already
searching for reasons to fight circumcision,” he said.
Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich also had few positive things to say about the
“I don’t understand why people would bring a baby to a rabbi’s
grave for brit mila,” Bleich said. “It’s just bizarre.”
Observers say the
circumcisions began about two years ago and are a result of an overall growth in
travelers to Uman, a city of about 85,000 that is flooded annually with some
25,000 pilgrims – mostly men from Israel and the US.
Nachman, who died childless in 1810 at the age of 38, have traveled here for
more than a century.
But following the collapse of the Iron Curtain 23
years ago and subsequent improvements to local infrastructure, the pilgrimage
has turned from a trickle of diehards into a flood of Jews from all
“Now that merely coming has become mainstream, devout
believers are looking for new ways to express their commitment,” said Bar-Ilan
University’s Zvi Mark, an expert on hassidic movements.
One of those ways
is bringing newborns to be circumcised.
Galant’s son was circumcised in
the Kloiz Synagogue here while lying on a replica of Nachman’s chair. The
following day, Galant’s cousin, Yisrael Meir Yegudayev, saw his boy circumcised
near the gravesite.
“I wasn’t worried at all,” Galant said. “There are
good medical services these days in Uman.”
Not everyone agrees. Galina
Borisovna, who heads Uman’s pediatric clinic – an apartment-size space that
looks like the set of a 1950s film – said it was foolish to circumcise a child
in Uman, where the nearest modern hospital is 320 km. away.
have to be crazy just to bring a week-old baby to this place with tens of
thousands people around, let alone circumcise him in unsanitary conditions,”
Borisovna said. “It exposes the child to all sort of diseases and I strongly
advise against it.”
But Nicolay Vasilyevitch, a surgeon at Uman’s
hospital, said the risks are exaggerated. During the week of Rosh Hashana, the
Breslov movement runs a round-the-clock clinic that is capable of providing
initial treatment for emergencies and handling minor
“Circumcision is a minor procedure and we have the tools to
deal with any complications right here, not to mention that the hassidim have
their own medical services, which are quite good,” Vasilyevitch said.
circumcisions are just one of a number of new phenomena that have sprung up in
Uman in recent years.
Chaim Hizin, an Israeli who is among a handful of
Breslovers who live permanently in Uman, says the city has become a destination
for honeymooning couples.
“Thanks to the permanent hassidic presence in
Uman, they have kosher food and a community, but they can still be alone
together in a place which is full of spiritual significance to them,” Hizin
Women, though still a minority during pilgrimages, have recently
begun to assert their own rituals, performing hafrashat halla – the act of
separating a piece of dough during bread baking – on the grave.
turned into a ceremony of feminist empowerment not only for Breslovers, but
across the haredi world,” Mark said. “In a way, Uman has become for some haredim
what India is for secular Israelis – a place to escape real life, with all its
stressfulness, for a while and rediscover spirituality through a host of