Berslover Hassidim 521.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Years ago, I visited Uman for a few hours on a trip up from Odessa where I was
staying for a few weeks. I had long been intrigued about the location to which
so many Breslover Hassidim make the journey each year on Rosh
The way I always understood it, Rabbi Nahman, the deceased
leader of the Breslov sect, had insisted that his followers visit him every year
on Rosh Hashana. It is said that he had meant this to be a sort of pilgrimage,
as it was difficult in those days to reach Jerusalem – the place where true
spirituality could be achieved.
He had also apparently asked to be buried
at the site of the 1768 Haidemack massacre, where some 20,000 Jews were
And so, since 1811, Breslover Hassidim made the difficult
pilgrimage to the small Ukrainian town to spend some time at the grave of their
Over the years, as traveling became easier, so did
visiting the grave. In recent years, multitudes of followers flock to Uman for
Rosh Hashana and the pilgrimage has become so popular that it even attracts
To me this is unique and somewhat astounding. After all,
how many non-Hassidim are attracted to any one of the numerous existing Hassidic
sects and their practices and rituals? Do outsiders interest themselves in the
Bobov, Satmar or Lubavitch strains of Hassidism? Not apparently.
Breslov appears to have a certain magnetism that the other sects lack. Is it the
“hippie” lifestyle? The always-be-happy approach to life? THE BRESLOV doctrine
includes what they call “the three keys:” 1. Study the Rebbe’s writings 2. Give
charity 3. Practice secluded prayer and meditation These and many other pieces
of advice are laid out in the numerous books the sect publishes, including The
Garden of Emuna, The Garden of Yearning and now the latest publication, The
Garden of Gratitude. These are all intended to assist the individual in
perfecting himself and the life he leads.
And it appears that more and
more people are enamored by the teachings, since the crowds in Uman seem to grow
each year. The pilgrimage has become a mix of people from all walks of
Naturally, the Uman pilgrimage does not lack
Last year, an Israeli pilgrim was placed in custody after
the stabbing of a Ukrainian citizen. This year, some followers are planning a
tent protest there to fight what they claim to be the exaggerated cost of the
The town of Uman is also protesting against the influx of
unruly religious tourists who trash their town and are more a nuisance than a
The Washington Post recently reported the detention of 300
supporters of the Ukraine’s Svoboda (Liberty) Party and about about 100
activists of the country’s nationalist party as they protested.
agreement between Ukraine and Israel to waive the visa requirement means that
this year there will likely be an even greater influx of Jews into Uman. The
number of pilgrims this year is expected to exceed 30,000.
TOURISM” is nothing new. Muslims perform the Hajj at least once in their
lifetime. Each year, over three million Muslims travel to Mecca to fulfill one
of the five pillars of Islam – a religious requirement each Muslim must
The Hajj appears, from photos, far more organized and a lot cleaner
(though until safety procedures were recently implemented by the Saudis,
hundreds of Muslim pilgrims died every year due to stampeding). The only
apparent similarity between participants on both the Hajj and Uman pilgrimages
is that they wear white.
Some Breslov Hassidim appear to feel the need to
outdo the spiritual level of Muslims on their Hajj.
Last year, some
devout followers wore a veil over their faces, Taliban style, as part of a
campaign dubbed “Protecting the eyes” to avoid the sin of looking at women. They
called it “an amazing experience.” No doubt.
Rumors are that the
Ukrainian mafia runs the town of Uman and some of the proceeds deposited in
charity boxes actually help pay off the big bosses. Protection rackets operate
freely and there are certainly at least some Jews who are making a nice profit
off of these pilgrims. This apparent “shakedown” doesn’t appear to bother many
Efforts to move Rabbi Nahman’s grave to Israel have, so far,
proved futile, no doubt to the pleasure of those who earn a nice profit off the
Rosh Hashana season in Uman.
If traveling to Ukraine offers those
spiritual tourists a chance to reach whatever highs they seek to obtain, let
them be. I have no intention of returning there.
Israel is the place to
be at the start of another Jewish year.