Let the spirits take you

Burglaries, brawls, stabbings, prostitution, arrests, car chases, alcohol and drugs. An exclusive inside look at the annual hassidic pilgrimage to Uman.

311_Breslov (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
UMAN, Ukraine – “Ganef, ganef,” people in the angry crowd shouted, surrounding the alleged thieves in a parked car, cutting off their escape. A small contingent of Ukrainian riot police formed a barrier between the local men and the mob of Jewish pilgrims, keeping them at bay with their imposing size and the German shepherds they kept on tight leashes.
With no common language between the mob and the outnumbered police, the potential for violence was palpable.
Every Rosh Hashana thousands visit Rabbi Nahman’s grave in this town of 90,000, three hours south of Kiev. This year, on the 200th anniversary of his death, an all-time high of around 30,000 visitors came. By Friday afternoon, shortly before the onset of Shabbat, hundreds of them had become unruly.
After police used pepper spray and began to shove some of those in the crowd, two uniformed Israeli police appeared on the scene and began to work with their Ukrainian counterparts to extricate the two alleged thieves.
The two Israeli officers were met by boos from many in the crowd, who wanted to use vigilante means to settle the score with the two local men, now being spirited away in a Ukrainian police SUV. The calm would not last for long.
That evening, outside the same residential tower, pilgrims cornered another man they accused of stealing, following a spate of robberies in the area. Again police swarmed into action and, at some point, an Israeli pulled a knife and slashed the accused thief.
Bedlam ensued as Jewish pilgrims clashed with police, and formed a human shield to prevent them from arresting the man. As the man holed up in an apartment inside the tower, police managed to break through the crowd, and began arresting every person in the building, threatening to jail everyone until the man turned himself in. They also allegedly found drugs in a number of tourists’ apartments and claimed that two of their officers were injured in the fracas.
The man was taken into custody, and it was widely reported he was held until the Mishmeret Hakodesh and other Jewish leaders at the pilgrimage were able to raise an exorbitant bribe for local police, after which he was released and immediately deported to Israel.
Subsequent reports in the Ukrainian media stated that 10 pilgrims had been deported and banned from entering the country for five years, as a result of a series of incidents in which bodily harm was caused to local residents, including one in which a man was allegedly beaten by hassidim after he threatened to call the police over excessive noise.
IN ANOTHER INCIDENT, hundreds swarmed the vehicle of a man who plowed his car through a crowd of pilgrims returning to the Jewish compound from the tashlich ceremony at a nearby stream. No one was hurt, but many in the mob called for the man to be torn to pieces, until police came and cleared the crowd.
Not what you’d expect from a religious pilgrimage? Chances are you haven’t been to Uman, where alcohol, marijuana, prostitution and tension between visitors and locals are widespread. To be sure, there are several different kinds of pilgrimages to Uman, and it appears the vast majority of attendees aren’t using illegal substances. Nonetheless, drugs, booze and women are a common part of the pilgrimage, during which Uman’s Jewish quarter becomes a giant gathering of campsites, with travelers wandering from guesthouse to apartment to synagogue morning and night, taking part in good vibes, strong liquor and intoxication both spiritual and chemical.
For anyone raised on outdoor festivals in the US, or who followed Phish around in college, or joined a campsite at Burning Man, the site would be very familiar, if with an overwhelmingly Jewish and Israeli flavor.
Unlike those gatherings though, Uman is definitely a man’s world, with tens of thousands of men far away from their wives staying in close quarters together, going long lengths of time without showering, and eating less than gourmet food, when they eat at all. Picture a sort of reserve duty for haredim.
This year’s pilgrimage brought record crowds to the backwater town of Uman.
Light years away from the glitz and wealth of Kiev, this dirt-poor town of 90,000 is bathed in the gray monotony of an Eastern European nowheresville. Hardly any of the buildings are more than three stories and almost no one seems to be in a hurry. The streets lack heavy traffic and the luxury cars common on the streets of Kiev or Moscow, with even the local mafia having to make do with Toyota sedans. Uman’s infrastructure is also not quite up to Western standards, and water is typically unavailable for several hours each day, a problem that becomes exaggerated during the pilgrimage.
Though the annual influx of cash brought on by the pilgrimage helps fill the town’s coffers for the entire year, Uman reels with the burden of absorbing the visitors, who bring a different culture and a completely foreign look.
Near the roadblock at the beginning of Pushkina Street, the heart of the Jewish complex, a number of kiosks stay open late into the night, selling cheap Ukrainian beer to the visitors and locals. Every night before the holiday, a steady stream of customers is bathed in the glow of the kiosk lights, and in the morning, the curbs and sidewalks nearby are littered with empty bottles and plastic cups, just like any nightclub area in Tel Aviv the morning after.
In the rented guest houses and the passageways that run between them, young pilgrims could often be seen smoking joints day and night. Several said they had bought from Ukrainians before the holiday, while others had smuggled small stashes into the country. Some young American Jews admitted to stopping in Amsterdam on the way to Ukraine to take some of its high-grade cannabis with them.
THROUGHOUT THE pilgrimage, in a rentedout household deep in a poorly lit neighborhood, six young Jews from New York passed around joints and giant, 64 oz. (1.9 liter) beers late into the nights.
Asher, 20, said “the smoking and drinking thing is really just a side thing; it’s not the main reason people are here or even the main thing they do here. Really it’s something I think only around 10 percent of the people here do.” Nonetheless, Asher and his friends did admit that the drinking and smoking is a result of the fact that “there isn’t much to do in Uman.” On most nights, after they had left evening prayers and dinner, they would begin a nightly voyage from cabin to flophouse searching among their friends for a spare joint or a small piece of hashish before returning home for a late-night smoke session.
Outside the Disco Bar in central Uman, local toughs and their girlfriends waited in line to be patted down by a hulking security guard with a shoulder-length mullet. When this reporter and a fellow American Jew reached the front door, the bouncer gave one look and said, “No hassids here!” before slamming the door closed.
Down the street, a keyboardist in a café/karaoke bar was playing “Hava Nagila” for the Jewish visitors, while outside a group of off-duty Ukrainian police were smoking cigarettes.
When asked what they thought of the thousands of religious Jews who visit their town each year, they spoke in rudimentary English of the problems they said they bring.
“They, hassids, they get drunk in the street, and they make a lot of noise,” said Vitali, who looked no older than 19.
Speaking of the knifing incident earlier in the evening, Vladimir, who towered over Vitali, said, “There were hundreds of them, and we are only six, eight. And we can’t do anything, because they are foreigners, we can’t touch them.”
The cops’ sentiments resembled those of the dozens of Ukrainians who took part in a protest march in the week before the pilgrimage began. Organized by the far-right nationalist All-Ukrainian Union party, the marchers protested what they referred to as “hassidic aggression” and a litany of allegations of lawlessness and rude behavior.
The sense of insecurity and being outnumbered is largely shared by both sides. A number of Jewish visitors spoke openly about being harassed or threatened by locals, typically after having left the Jewish compound.
With many visitors staying in rented houses far from the Jewish quarter or the city center, returning home at night can mean long treks down lonely, unlit and poorly paved roads.
Many said they did not feel safe walking alone at night, and would carry some sort of weapon, including one young haredi walking up a steep unlit neighborhood road who said, “I carry a knife with me all the time out here, they really hate Jews, but they’re cowards if you bring it to them.” Several American Jews staying at the Nekuda Tova lodging facility related stories of being harassed by Ukrainians, and mentioned in particular a friend from the US who shortly before Rosh Hashana was stabbed in the head by a local during a visit to nearby Breslov.
“It sounds bad because it was in the head, but the skull stopped the knife, he just bled a whole lot is all,” said Menahem of New York, a friend of the victim.
A careful look at the pilgrimage would suggest a level of security that leaves much to be desired. While there are a few Ukrainian police around the compound, people continuously come and go as they please, and security is not nearly as tight as one would expect from an event hosting tens of thousands of Jews, most of them Israelis.
“From the standpoint of security, there is absolutely zero in Uman,” said Shimon Grossman, one of the managers of a contingent of ZAKA medics sent to this year’s pilgrimage.
This year, for the first time ever, ZAKA volunteers played a central role in security and firstaid assistance for the pilgrims.
While he did say that this year’s pilgrimage was “the craziest and most beautiful ever,” Grossman added that Uman “is potentially very dangerous. People need to understand that they are in someone else’s house, with someone else’s rules.”
Speaking before the fatal stabbing late on Saturday night, Grossman, who was in Uman for his 21st time, said that in spite of some altercations between locals and Jews, “we did have 30,000 people in a place this small and nothing tragic happened.
There was a fight between Jews and a Ukrainian man, but no one was seriously hurt.”
In spite of the substandard security, Grossman said “the Jewish workers and the Ukrainians have very good relations and work together very well.”
He said that one of the best signs of cooperation and mutual understanding had been the decrease in prostitution during the pilgrimage.
In previous years, Grossman said, Ukrainians and Russians would bring large numbers of prostitutes to work the event, causing what he called a blow to modesty.
The prevalence of prostitution was much lower at this year’s event, a fact that many said was the result of the Mishmeret Hakodesh and other Jewish leaders arranging bribes for local mafia and pimps to ensure they kept the temptations far away from the pilgrims.
Nonetheless, outside the entrance to Pushkina street late on the Tuesday night before Rosh Hashana, a number of hassidim could be seen talking fervently with a group of young Ukrainian women, and several pilgrims had mentioned being propositioned by prostitutes when venturing out of the Jewish complex at night.
Another sign of cooperation has been the deployment of four Israeli police officers in Uman for the pilgrimage. According to Israel Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfield, their aim “is to work with the local police on coordination and operational effectiveness so that things can go off without a hitch. They are there to interact and communicate with the Ukrainian police so that if something takes place they can resolve the situation on the ground and ensure that the channels of communication remain open.”
At all hours of the day and night throughout the pilgrimmage, Jews visit the complex at the grave of the Rabbi Nahman for prayers, dancing, and singing. Also, at virtually all hours, the “kloyz,” the main synagogue in the Jewish compound is packed to standing room only with thousands of visitors. In addition, pilgrims spend the days and late nights migrating from house to house praying and breaking bread with their fellow Jews, creating what are some of the most varied groupings of secular, hassidic, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews anywhere on Earth. Also, large numbers of pilgrims visit the forests and parks in Uman, including the famous and immaculate Sofiya Park, where they practice meditation and hitbodedut, Nahman’s act of privately speaking one on one with God far out in nature IN SPITE OF the cooperation, highly publicized violent incidents and widespread drug use have given more wind to the annual calls to move the rebbe’s bones to Israel. The move would not only prevent tension and violence between visitors and locals, it would also save thousands of largely poor religious Jews from paying exorbitant fees for tickets and lodging.
With average ticket prices to Kiev for this year’s pilgrimage running more than $800 and with pilgrims paying around $100 a night for lodging, bringing the bones to Israel would surely be welcome news for the families of many of the destitute pilgrims who scrimp and save – and in many cases beg – all year round to make it to Uman.
In spite of the rising prices and the security shortcomings, Grossman is not convinced the bones will be moved, or that next year the pilgrimage won’t be even larger. “Israel has come up with plans to move the bones, but the Ukrainians won’t agree. They make more money in that week than they do all year.” He said he didn’t believe that the 30,000-strong pilgrimage had reached its critical mass, saying whatever happens and however big it gets, “God will protect us.”