The Jewish Burningman: Uman on Rush Hashana

The Jewish Burningman: Uman on Rush Hashana

An account of a merry trip to one of Rosh Hashana’s most famous destinations.

Published by the JPost Magazine October 2nd 2016

This year, like every year, the town of Uman in central Ukraine will turn into a shtetl for a little while.

It is a peculiar shtetl, not only because it comes to life for only three days a year in a remote Ukrainian town with bad weather, not even because it’s an exclusive men’s club, but because it’s a place made up of Jews who speak all languages – from East and West – temporarily coexisting in a functioning anarchy.

And as in any shtetl, every Jew in Uman – whether a Jerusalemite Breslov hassid or a son of a Catholic Puerto Rican mother and an affluent Jewish businessman father – is a storyteller and philosopher.

Rosh Hashana is the time God examines our deeds and decides who shall “pass” – be inscribed in the book of life – and who shall not. But if you ask those who flock to Uman, many would tell you that in order to “pass,” it is quite enough to visit Uman on Rosh Hashana. In other words, there’s no need to pray, keep the rules or give tzedaka... Rabbi Nahman will make sure you “pass.”

And so the pilgrimage to Uman offers a possible attractive alternative: The bar is lowered and only a minimal threshold remains. (Those who delve deeper will find that Nahman added that coming to Uman is enough only as long as one also does real repentance, asks for pardon and does not return to his evil ways; but that part is often omitted in conversations.) One tale I often heard is about how Nahman would visit secular “Enlightenment” Jews. One time the rabbi’s top student, seeing him debating with the these secular Jews, asked, “What do you have to do with them?” Nahman’s response was: “What do I have to do with you?” The moral of the story is that every person, no matter who he was or what she had done, was equal in Nahman’s eyes.

Something of this spirit abides in Uman.

Simon, for example, who rebelled against the ultra-Orthodox world in which he grew up, found in Uman a new community among young hassidim who, like him, had been exposed to the outside world. His group was mostly made up of young American Satmar Hassidim who, on the one hand, want to keep their traditions but, on the other hand, are unwilling to give up their freedom to express themselves. I spent time on the first night of the holiday with Simon’s community, and on the afternoon of the next day Simon unfolded his view of Uman affairs.

“F*** Rabbi Nahman,” he said. “It’s not about him or his tomb. This is about the bubbling and renewing of our culture. That is what’s happening here.”

Indeed, the Satmar boys’ party was hopping. Two weeks prior to the event a wooden hall, located on a hill overlooking Uman’s lake, was built for them to hold their annual convocations. At night, the large hall was beautifully lit by fire, and the hassidim indulged with meat and wine, served by local waiters wearing black suits and white gloves.

After the feast the singing began, and some gathered in the center of the hall around two men who stood on chairs and led the zmirot, lifting the spirits first with a theatrical, weeping ballad in Yiddish, then by singing Israeli rock singer Eviatar Banai’s song “Aba” (Father). 

In the yard, those who wished to take a break from the singing or praying were chatting and smoking. Inside, despite the traditional spirit, a pluralistic “everything goes” kind of atmosphere prevailed. Those who wanted to smoke, even weed, were welcome, and the alcohol kept pouring. Even not wearing a kippa was okay.

“Why aren’t there any women here?” I asked Simon. “Everything at its own pace,” he replied.

“And listen,” he continued, “there are many more women here than before.” He pointed at two guys and two gals and said, “Look at these two [guys]. They speak Yiddish, which means they are of a hassidic family, but they came here with local Ukrainian women and no one said anything to them about it.”

Simon was wrong, twice. First, there were a few people who did find ways to convey their disapproval of the women’s presence. Second, the women were not local but from Israeli hassidic families.

Simon was right about the guys, though.

They were both living on the borderline of the haredi world they were brought up in.

For many, part of Breslov’s charm is that it isn’t very institutionalized and doesn’t have a single leader. Instead, there are “influencers,” rabbis whose teachings spread and do not remain exclusive to one community or sect.

In Uman you could find Mizrahi rabbis, such as Moroccan Rabbi Shalom Sabag, and Ashkenazi ones, such as Rabbi Motte Frank, who was walking in our direction when he decided to stop by the group of the guys and women.

“In years past,” explained Simon, “this rabbi would never have talked with them. Today, something new is happening.”

The Breslov hassidic branch sprang from Nahman of Breslov, who died in 1810 and asked to be buried in Uman. It includes many offshoot sects and various groups.

However, the most interesting thing about Uman during Rosh Hashana is not only that the lines between the different Breslov groups are blurred, but that other Jewish movements are also part of this trend, even while retaining something of their own flavor. In Uman, one can find 14-year-old West Bank settlers as well as Chabad Hassidim.

However, there are two sectors of Israeli society that by and large are still conspicuous by their absence: women and mainstream Israeli religious Zionists.

While it’s wrong to speak of religious Zionists as one group, and while many of those who frequented Uman might identify both as religious and Zionist, the sector is not seen as part of this Jewish-Ukrainian phenomenon.

The main reason for their absence, some claim, is the anarchistic character of the Uman carnival.

I stayed in a multilevel complex called Boris’s Place with seven other people in the room.

Living, eating, cooking, smoking and singing in the complex were Yemenite yeshiva guys from Jerusalem, an American Israeli who takes tourists on dual narrative – Jewish and Arab – tours in Hebron, American hippies, wealthy Parisians, former prison inmates and even a hassid who was so high on acid it was impossible to ask him why he had decided to bring his six-year-old son on this adventure.

This sort of mix is anti-normative, and Uman is a place where the environment cultivates more closeness and intimacy between people; it’s a place where people interact fairly freely and share their innermost secrets, radical views and proclivities with whoever is willing to engage in a conversation.

This is the sort of limitlessness that makes Uman a threat to any established community that fears outside influence. At the same time, the hassidic world is losing youngsters to the secular or semi-secular world, and therefore even some of the conservative leaders of that world reluctantly approve of the pilgrimage to Ukraine, since they have come to recognize the power of the place in stimulating a spiritual spark.

As mentioned, women are more or less excluded from the event.

“Recent years brought more women than in the past,” a Canadian hassid, on the flight back to Israel, said.

Last year, at least, there were hardly any women around.

Whenever I was in a group when women showed up, a cold breeze of discomfort was felt.

I spent the second evening in Uman in a large, colorful tent compound made up mostly of twenty- and thirty-something West Bankers.

They put all the Jews I know to shame with their flexible treatment of time. Many hours after sunset, instead of preparing dinner they seriously debated fundamental questions of devotion, belief and path-seeking.

It was clear that while most of them grew up religiously, they all detoured through the nonreligious world, too, drinking from different kinds of fountains.

At some point during that evening, one of the guys returned from his nocturnal wandering about Uman and told his friends he had stumbled upon two women who wanted to hear kiddush. The two, he said, were waiting around the corner, and he asked if it was okay to invite them. This fostered an uncomfortable discussion. Eventually, they decided to invite them in, but this verdict wasn’t wholeheartedly embraced by all the men present. The two women were handsomely served with drinks and food, yet were seated not at the table but near the fireplace with the guy who brought them along with him.

There is an apparent tension between the Jews and locals in the town. Every year the site sees violent incidents that sometimes even end with deaths. Jewish and non-Jewish hands equally bathe in blood. Last year no fight ended in death, despite an alleged murder attempt.

Above the lake, which is a center for the tashlich ritual on the second day of the holiday, Uman locals erected a large cross that dominates the scene with its presence. It is a way of reminding the pilgrims who owns the town. Sadly, the tension is visible even without it. The teachings of Nahman of Breslov speak of fixing the world, and a mend between Jews and non-Jews is most definitely needed here.

Indeed, many of the pilgrims believe that the event has a gospel that should be spread to Jews all around the world and perhaps also to non-Jews. On some level they might be right.

The pilgrimage to Uman can be inspirational even for those who are not part of the faith. It is a special opportunity to relate freely to people one usually sees only from afar. Only rarely, however, do these encounters develop into lasting connections.

Both in Israel and the United States, Jewish politicians and thought leaders speak broadly about bridging divides between people within the Jewish society. Uman definitely has something to offer in that department.