‘Every facet of Judaism’ at gathering around Rabbi’s grave

Trance music, stalls selling felafel... and some very perplexed Ukrainian locals as hundreds arrive in Uman to mark 200th anniversary of Rabbi Nahman's death.

Rabbi Nahman supporters in Ukraine 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Rabbi Nahman supporters in Ukraine 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
UMAN, Ukraine – If Shalom Aleichem had set his plays in Goa, or if Willie Nelson held his Fourth of July picnic in a Ukrainian shtetl, chances are the scene would bear a strong resemblance to the one-of-a-kind pilgrimage taken by thousands of Jews from around the world to the Ukrainian city of Uman.
This year, the gathering of tribes took place as 25,000 pilgrims voyaged to the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Breslav on the 200th anniversary of his death.
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The founder of the Breslav hassidic sect and the grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Nahman encouraged his followers to visit him in Uman each year before Rosh Hashana, in order to pray for selfrectification ahead of the New Year.
After his death in 1810, his followers kept the visit alive.
In the years after the Rebbe’s death, the pilgrimage to his grave in Uman became a tradition, but participation was reduced to a trickle during the years of communism. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the visitors began to return in droves, and every year since, the number has climbed. In addition, the cost of flights and lodging for those taking part has skyrocketed since the early 90s.
On Tuesday, the scenes in the streets around the Rebbe’s grave had all the hallmarks of any mass gathering of Israelis abroad, be it in Uman, India or Thailand: trance music (albeit with lyrics about the Rebbe), guesthouses full of young people sleeping 10 to a room, writing in Hebrew in a foreign country, stalls selling felafel and fruit shakes, and perplexed locals viewing the hot-blooded visitors with a mix of confusion, disdain and guarded appreciation.
Adding to the folk-gathering atmosphere, a tent city was set up on a hillside below the grave, where dozens of tents full of pilgrims stood.
In between the stalls where Jewish merchants sold prayer books, yarmulkes and CDs of rabbinical sermons, dozens of Ukrainian-run booths sold produce, clothes and knickknacks.
At one stall, two Ukrainians were doing their best to hock fox pelts to passersby, as a third local man played “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” on an accordion.
Mike, a 23-year-old Uman native who works as a translator for Jewish pilgrimage groups, said: “This is a very quiet, small place, and then once a year it becomes packed and one-anda- half times the size.”
Mike spoke of the relationship between the town and the Rosh Hashana visit as a mixed situation and noted that “there are two sides to the coin.”
He mentioned the dirty streets left behind by pilgrims, as well as at times unfriendly and aggressive behavior. At the same time, he admitted that “tourism is very good for the town and it brings a lot of money to our budget,” but added that “Jewish people usually like to do business just with Jewish people,” pointing at an apartment building whose units he said were bought by Jewish foreigners and rented to pilgrims.
Nonetheless, Mike added, “for me, it’s been great. I meet people from all over the world. It’s a lot of fun.”
Though commonly seen as a religious rite for Breslav hassidim alone, the celebration hosted a cornucopia of Jewry from around the world, both secular and religious, including firsttimers and veterans paying their 10th or 20th visit.
Eli David Malka, a 20-year-old Montreal native, flew to Uman for the first time this year, together with his uncle, after years of being told he must come. Malka, who says he lives a secular life, was wearing a white Breslavstyle yarmulke in the middle of the festivities on Monday, seemingly spellbound by the atmosphere.
“I haven’t been religious for a while, but this is amazing. It’s beautiful to see so many people coming together for the same cause; to see the grave of this great rabbi,” Malka said.
Malka’s sentiments were shared by Leibisch Lefkowitz, who was visiting Uman for the ninth consecutive year from his home in Brooklyn.
“What you see here is something you don’t see all over the world: the uniting of Sephardis and Ashkenazis, hassidim, and non-hassidim. You see every facet of Judaism here.”
With the popularity of the pilgrimage soaring, the price of visiting has likewise risen. For many pilgrims in Uman on Tuesday, the cost of visiting would not deter them from coming.
Nachman Bar-Lev from Jerusalem said, “I’ve come for 12 years in a row and I hope to come for another 120 years. It doesn’t matter how much it costs. I’m married with a kid, but as they say, I got permission to travel here. It doesn’t matter if I have to use credit, loans, anything – whatever it takes I’ll always come.”
The rising cost of visiting Uman, felt especially by poor religious Jews, has again ignited discussions about moving the Rebbe’s bones to Israel to ease the journey for his followers.
On Monday, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger said, “They talk about moving the bones every year, but it never goes anywhere. Mainly because they [the Breslav hassidim] themselves are against it. He wanted people to come there, it’s what he told them.”
Many people spoke of a growing problem of unruly behavior by attendees more used to the in-your-face style of Israeli daily discourse, a sort of conduct not popular with Ukranians.
Jerusalemite Ya’acov Zilberman, who operates a kosher restaurant in Kiev and is the director of ZAKA operations in the Ukraine, said he and others in the community “are trying to do hasbara, especially with the young people coming, about how to behave themselves.”
Saying that “a lot of young people when they’re in Uman, they act like they’re the owners of the place,” Zilberman spoke of Israeli youths acting hostile and aggressively toward Aerosvit stewardesses, as well as a quite serious problem of youth drinking during the Uman pilgrimage.
“A lot of these kids come here their first time abroad, they have some freedom from their parents and they get excited and start drinking. They never drank before and they mix all types of liquor together and can’t control themselves. They don’t know how to drink and end up getting into fights with each other.”
Zilberman spoke of the Uman pilgrimage as being “in some ways like the Goa of the religious world,” a reference to the Indian province famed for its all-night raves, trance parties and free-flowing drugs and alcohol.
Though he clarified that the comparison was meant in regard to the energy and exuberance of the event, he did say that he had heard from people who spent time with young people in Uman that the town is flooded with high-quality marijuana during the pilgrimage, in addition to unconfirmed rumors that some enterprising Ukranians bring prostitutes down from Kiev to work the event.
Despite talk of unruly and unkosher behavior, and in spite of the prohibitive costs of visiting, a simple glance at the ecstatic faces of the thousands of visitors in the streets of Uman proved that this one-of-a-kind event will continue to be a force on the global Jewish calendar.