Thousands of Hassidim gather in Ukrainian city to celebrate Jewish New Year
Dusty and drab, devoid of any charm unless you count the 18th Century Sofyivka Park and the Georgian cheese pastries at the bus station, the Ukrainian city of Uman would be a strong contender for the most uninteresting place in Eastern Europe.
But it is not the most uninteresting place in Eastern Europe – at least not for a couple of days each year when it gets filled with joyful crowds of Ultra religious Jews flown in from as far as Canada, Britain, Israel and Australia to celebrate the Jewish New Year, usually in September. They all converge at Pushkin Street, take out their heavy luggage and drag it to their rented rooms in small houses and tall Socialist apartment blocks. Music is booming, the smell of cooked food comes from the tents of the openair eateries. Happy people in the streets greet each other, smiling from ear to ear when they meet and embrace some old friend.
Uman, a city of roughly 90,000 residents in western Ukraine, is the focus of pilgrimage for Hasidic Jews, who come here to celebrate at the tomb of one of their greatest spiritual leaders.
When pilgrimage to Rebbe Nachman's grave resumed in the early 1990s, the locals of Uman were amazed by the Rosh Hashanah antics of visiting Jews
Rebbe Nachman (1772-1810) of Breslov was the great-grandson of Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, a conservative movement that spread among the Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. He showed the first signs of having a special connection with the divine as early as 17, and spent the next decades of his life moving around the area of what is now western Ukraine and eastern Poland, attracting followers. Rebbe Nachman's travels even brought him to Palestine, where he met and talked with prominent Jewish sages and scholars.
In 1802, he settled in Bratslav (as Breslov is more commonly known) and announced the creation of a new movement of Hasidism, the Breslov Hasidism.
Selling Rebbe Nachman-themed techno music on Pushkin Street
Rebbe Nachman was incredibly popular, but not everyone liked him, because of some of his more radical ideas, one of which encouraged people to feel free to find spiritual leaders for themselves, and to break with the tradition of the hereditary Hasidic dynasties. Rebbe Nachman also encouraged the individual search for the divine. His teachings spread during tumultuous times. The beginning of the 19th Century saw the spread of democratic ideas across Europe, and for the first time in centuries Jews enjoyed – at least theoretically – equal rights. Many chose fuller integration into the modern European society, but for more conservative Jews, these changes threatened the foundation of their communities. The teachings of Rebbe Nachman were a sort of reaction to this trend, blending tradition with more individual freedom.
For many Breslov Hasidim, the pilgrimage is also an opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones
Whether Rebbe Nachman thought of himself as a Messiah is still a matter of dispute. Some phrases from his teachings would make great Facebook quotes in today's era of soul-searching and "positive thinking," such as "If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix” or "You are never given an obstacle you cannot overcome."
In Breslov, Rebbe Nachman saw his movement flourish and grow, with great crowds of followers assembling for feasts like Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah or Shavuot, when they eagerly listened to his teachings. In 1810, however, he had to move.
Barbers are busy making traditional hairstyles, surrounded by booming music as well as dancing pilgrims
Consumption had been devouring the still young Rebbe Nachman for some time, and then his house was destroyed by fire. He moved to nearby Uman, a town of great significance for the local Jewish community. In 1768, about 20,000 Jews from Uman, along with many Poles and Uniate Ukrainians, were killed by the Ukrainian Haidamak rebels, who had risen against the then Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Rebbe Nachman's health was quickly deteriorating. He managed to preach to his followers for one more Rosh Hashanah, but died ten days later. Before his end, he expressed the wish to be buried in the Uman cemetery together with the victims of the 1768 massacre, and he made a great promise to his followers. Even after his death, Rebbe Nachman would absolve from sin anyone who came to pray at his grave on Rosh Hashanah. On the following year the grave of Rebbe Nachman had already become a place of pilgrimage.
Rebbe Nachman is the descendant of Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, a branch of Orthodox Judaism where mysticism is at the foundation of spirituality
About a century later, however, the flow of pilgrims to Uman was brutally interrupted. First came the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and then the Russian Civil War, and then the Stalinist terror and the Nazis, who in 1941 sent 17,000 Uman Jews to concentration camps. The Jewish cemetery was destroyed, and the grave of Rebbe Nachman was lost.
Soon after peace was restored, the most ardent followers of Rebbe Nachman took the risk of being caught by the Soviet authorities and sent to Siberia, and started searching for their leader's grave. The place was eventually rediscovered, the plot was acquired and a house built over it to prevent further destruction.
The pilgrimage was still in abeyance, as most of Jews in the USSR at that time were more eager to emigrate to Israel or the United States, rather than stay put. In the mid-1980’s the faint wind of democratisation, known as Perestroyka, blew across the USSR. With much fear, but with great enthusiasm too, Hasidic Jews from the USSR resumed the gatherings at Uman.
Prayer in a tent synagogue. On his death bed, Rebbe Nachman promised to absolve every believer who came to his grave for Rosh Hashanah, and pray to repent
The Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage was restored in full after 1991, when the USSR disintegrated and visiting Uman became possible for people from the United States or Israel. Within a fortnight, the bemused locals found their town flooded by strangely dressed men speaking even stranger tongues, who were interested in only one street, Pushkin. Many of the local people were quick to make a dollar or two, offering accommodation and tourist services to the places of Jewish interest in the area.
Over the following two decades, the Rosh Hashanah gathering in Uman became ever stronger. On average, about 10,000-15,000 Hasidim come to celebrate each year. The atmosphere is festive in the streets and tense around the grave of Rebbe Nachman, and people are generally friendly, even when they notice the odd tourist in the crowd. Many of the pilgrims get tipsy, and dance to rave and rock music booming from stalls, gardens and balconies. Children run to and fro, carrying presents bought from the ramshackle openair market.
A Jewish boy tries his brand new plastic gun, bought as a New Year's present from a makeshift openair market in Uman
There are signs, however, that these people are not the average partygoers. The song lyrics are devoted to Rebbe Nachman, Uman and Rosh Hashanah Shofars howl, and the streets are lined with barbers shaving the heads of pilgrims in the traditional way. The posters on the walls announce the scheduled flights to and from Uman, and the crowd is predominantly male.
Sometimes, there is violence. Many locals are not happy with the pilgrims and the fact that many Hasidim have bought properties around Pushkin Street, introducing their very specific lifestyle. There are complaints about the noise and the rubbish, and the level of security. 2010 is remembered for several, sometimes bloody, fights between locals and pilgrims. In 2013, the Haaretz reported that pilgrims caused fire, power shortages, a sewage flood and prompted several arrests.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 pilgrims visit Uman for Rosh Hashanah, arriving on packed regular and chartered flights from all over the world. The record year for pilgrims is considered 2011, when supposedly 26,000 Breslov Hasidis came to Uman
Overall, though, visiting Uman for Rosh Hashanah can turn into the experience of a lifetime, even for people with only a faint interest in Judaism. The event is an immersion in a bygone era right amid the post-Soviet reality of Ukraine.
In 2014, Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset on 24 September and ends at nightfall of 26 September.