First Person: The kids are alright

A pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nahman on Rosh Hashana clarifies why Breslov hassidism has come to attract so many young Jews.

311_Jews in Uman (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
311_Jews in Uman
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
UMAN, Ukraine – “Dude, you’re a Jew, in Kiev, right before Rosh Hashana, you have to come with us to Uman. We can’t let you get on that flight to Tel Aviv.”
I wasn’t supposed to stay in Uman for the holiday, and the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. I had just wrapped up a whirlwind two-day work trip to Kiev with a two-hour visit to Uman and was waiting for the flight back to Tel Aviv when I made the fateful decision to grab a beer at the bar at Kiev’s Boryspil airport.
In line ahead of me were two obviously Jewish Americans who sported a college, hippie-style religious look, “Colorado Frum” if you will. After striking up a conversation with them, they started giving me the hard sell, making it clear that it was now or never. Well, truth is the chances I’d be back in the Ukraine on Rosh Hashana again were slim to none. I said I couldn’t afford a new ticket and they called my bluff, with Ephraim Sternberg, 21, of Far Rockaway, Queens, New York, busting out a wad of cash and saying the ticket’s on him, just make sure I pay it back in tzedaka over the next year.
I was running out of excuses, and after getting the OK from my wife and my boss (not the same person) I had a new ticket in hand and I was in a taxi van heading back down the highway at midnight for the threehour ride to Uman. Somewhere overhead my flight back to Tel Aviv was climbing into the air, but I could only focus on the clapping and the chants of “Uman, Uman Rosh Hashana” rocking the mini-van and no doubt giving the massive Ukrainian driver a migraine.
Ephraim was quick to calm my nerves about his expensive impulse purchase of my new return ticket, saying how his grandmother was from Uman and was a descendent of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his grandson, the one and only Rabbi Nahman of Uman.
“When she finds out I spent this money to bring a Jew to Uman on Rosh Hashana, she’ll be in heaven; you have no idea. This is my honor really,” he added.
His partner in crime from the airport, Baruch, added, “Yeah, that double shot of Jameson he took before we met you might also have played a role.”
THREE HOURS later, the minivan pulled into the Jewish compound of Uman and I instantly realized that Uman is a whole different ballgame at night. Israeli teens chugged beers outside a Ukrainian kiosk, a hassidic Jew had a mysterious conversation with three young local girls, and all around hawkers accosted pilgrims with offers of rooms to let and taxis to who knows where.
We set up camp at “Nekuda Tova,” a complex of three houses, a kitchen and a prayer tent/mess hall, where in the dead of night a group of Americans were eating piping hot bowls of matza ball soup as a violinist and a guitar player jammed in the prayer tent.
It turned out I didn’t have a surefire place to stay and the hunt was on at 3 a.m. in the middle of Pushkina Street, asking fellow English speakers for a spare bed, mattress, or even a sleeping bag to toss in a corner somewhere.
Eventually, Waxler, a mid-20s American from Monsey, New York, said he had a spare bed and we headed back to Nekuda Tova to get my stuff, where in a dark corner outside the complex, a New Yorker in his late twenties was taking pulls off a makeshift gravity bong fashioned from a two-liter plastic soda bottle and an apple.
“This is the best stuff in New York right now. I only brought over two grams. I should have brought more, it’s Uman,” he said, as Waxler walked over to take a hit.
“Hey, does anyone want to trade uppers for bud? I’ve got Adderall if anybody wants to trade.”
Waxler found no takers, and we were on our way to the two-bedroom house he rented out deep in a wooded, poorly lit neighborhood of Uman that had a rural, “Borat-chic” look to it, complete with a chicken coop underneath the porch.
On the way we linked up with Michael, a short New York Jew with peyot and a full-size Breslov-style white skullcap. Like many I met in Uman, Michael didn’t hesitate to speak from the heart about Rabbi Nahman and the pilgrimage to Uman.
“I had gotten into trouble with my parents and in yeshiva when I was younger. When I came to Breslov I learned that Rabbi Nahman and Hashem just want you to be happy, and you need to find your way.”
Michael spoke of Breslov Hassidism as a sort of way of life, a philosophy of happiness, personal betterment, and acceptance of others that is not the province of any single group.
“Of course there are Breslovs who aren’t hassidic. There are Breslovs who aren’t even Jewish, a lot of these Ukrainians out here are Breslov and don’t even know it.”
Like Michael, the rest of the gang spoke of Rabbi Nahman in the present tense, as a living, breathing conduit to God, who understands their spiritual journey, their questions about observance, and their own failings before the Almighty.
In the living room of the Monsey boys’ compound, four or five young guys sat around the kitchen table, passing around big bottles of Ukrainian beer and a bottle of Jack Daniels that was doomed to perish before the holiday.
Down the hallway, two bedrooms were covered wall-to-wall with singlelevel bunk beds covered with flimsy, five-centimeter mattresses. At times, the scene resembled a cabin at a Jewish summer camp, albeit one taken over and redecorated by Ukrainian hillbillies.
In the living room, the walls were covered with a tacky Ukrainian wallpaper showing pastoral forest scenes, and the iconography of saints, Jesus, and Mother Mary popular with Eastern Orthodox country folk. Next to a calendar showing a blonde model hugging a Siberian tiger, a spot lay bare on the wall.
“There was a huge Jesus there, so I asked the lady who owned the house to take it down. It’s Uman, I’m not going to look at that all week,” Waxler said.
Late into the night, as happens most nights in Uman, the bottles were passed and the conversation ranged from life to God to women to Rabbi Nahman to Israel, all of it in English peppered with Yiddish and Yiddishaccented Hebrew.
WHILE THE Uman pilgrimage is often portrayed as a collection of religious Jews and newly observant former or current Israeli criminals going through collective hysteria far from the wife and kids, for the majority of pilgrims, including the gang from New York, the party atmosphere and search for good vibes was part of a legitimate, heartfelt religious voyage filled with a powerful sense of Jewish brotherhood.
“It’s not just the party thing that makes Uman fun, it’s the togetherness of it all. You see guys with streimels praying with arsim [greasers], and the religious and secular together. You see the walls go down between Jews. I guess it is kind of a party, but it’s a spiritual party,” Ephraim said on one of the final nights of the pilgrimage.
“It’s a party for the right reasons,” said Menachem of New York, who, like the others, said the number of people smoking and partying in Uman is “less than 10 percent.”
Baruch, who was “raised religious, but not hassidic, but I’m chilling with it for now,” said that every time he comes to Uman he “gets food for the whole year” and leaves “wanting to recommit myself to Judaism.”
When asked what he took from the experience in Uman, Dan, a 22-yearold aspiring fashion designer from Monsey, said, “I realized prayer works more than I thought it did. I said a prayer and it was answered. I hope that’s not just Uman, but something I can do the same in New York.
“The rising crowds in Uman also showed me that Jews are heading in the right direction. If Jews push hard for the Messiah to come, he will.”
Spending time in Uman and talking to the pilgrims who make the trip, it became clear that Breslov Hassidism speaks to Jews, especially young ones, who are thirsty for answers and a sort of spiritual renewal that is lacking from their upbringing. It also appears to offer a deep, personal connection to God and Judaism that seems to deny the absolute sovereignty of liturgy, repetition, and personal suffering, looking instead towards happiness.
Rabbi Nahman’s teachings, including meditation and hitbodedut – isolating oneself far away in nature and speaking, yelling and screaming to God – seem to offer a raw, personal religious experience that many Jews feel they are lacking. When one looks at the emphasis on meditation and speaking one on one with God, it seems that Rabbi Nahman was into New Age spirituality about 200 years early.
By Sunday morning, after five days in the same set of clothes and having only one freezing cold shower in Uman, I was ready to head back to Kiev en route to the relative sanity of Tel Aviv. As someone who only associated Breslov with the “Na Nachs” dancing on top of vans in the middle of intersections in Tel Aviv as ghetto blasters pump hassidic trance music, or with the “newly religious” murder suspects appearing in court with massive white skullcaps, Uman was an eye-opening experience.
I learned that as much as the pilgrimage constitutes a sacred annual rite for a rapidly growing hassidic sect, it is also a pan-Judaic gathering the likes of which I’ve never seen in Israel or anywhere else. With all the reports of drunkenness, violence and midnight liaisons with Ukrainian prostitutes, the overwhelming picture I saw was of a gathering of tribes that didn’t consider the litany of ethnic, liturgical, linguistic and geographical distinctions that divide Jews, especially in Israel.
I’m still not convinced that after visiting Uman on Rosh Hashana that Rabbi Nahman will pull me out of hell by my (nonexistent) sidelocks when I’m dead and gone, but I can say that the gathering held every year in Uman in his honor is a one-of-a-kind experience that devours cynicism like a plate of apples and honey.
The names of some of the persons have been changed to protect their identities.