Wednesday, June 15, 2011

New Hasidic Radicals Bellow Down Tel Aviv’s Streets 

The monotonous din of traffic permeated the air on Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street on a recent Friday afternoon, when, suddenly, a large white cargo van whipped around the corner, blasting music from a pair of huge roof-mounted loudspeakers. A few people walking on the crowded sidewalks stopped to stare as five bearded young men wearing white-knit, tassel-topped yarmulkes leaped out, dancing to the thud of electronic bass beats. Some people smiled. Soldiers driving past waved out the windows and cheered. A cyclist cut through the group, her face set in a grimace. A man screamed above the din that his baby was sick.

It’s a scene increasingly common in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other Israeli cities where the loud, brightly painted Ford cargo vans associated with Israel’s hottest new Hasidic sect have become a recognizable sight. The vans are plastered with large Hebrew letters and larger-than-life stick-on portraits of a laughing, bearded old man in a fur hat, his arms cast jubilantly skyward. Religious-themed Hebrew techno tunes blast from the rooftop speakers.

The Bohemian clothing of the dancing young men seems unusual for Hasidic Jews. So does their belief that screaming, singing, and bellowing joyous prayer are the best ways to connect with God.

They are known as the Na Nach — a recently emerged subgroup of the 200-year-old Breslover Hasidic sect. Like other Breslover Hasidim, they follow the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a kabbalist mystic who lived 200 years ago in what is today Ukraine. More established Breslov groups were once seen as an eccentric, vaguely countercultural element in the Orthodox world. But members of the Na Nach sect now stand out as the new radicals, as the older tradition of Nachman study assumes a newfound respectability within the ultra-Orthodox world.

“[Na Nach] are seen as sort of an embarrassment in Israeli society, and held up as a circus sideshow,” said Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University and an expert on Hasidism.

The sect’s name is a stub of the phrase Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’uman. Repeated often by followers as a kind of mantra, it spells out in Hebrew, adding one letter at a time, the name of the members’ revered teacher, who died and was buried in the town of Uman, Ukraine. Nachman’s great-grandfather, known as the Baal Shem Tov, established what was then seen as wild, spiritual Hasidism in response to the increasingly bookish rabbinic Judaism of the early 18th century. Nachman’s version of Hasidism was a back-to-basics campaign of sorts, and not at all popular with the Hasidic dynasties that had established themselves over the previous century.

Na Nachs sport the beards, sidelocks and yarmulkes favored by other ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews, but often eschew traditional black trousers and frock coats. The Na Nach movement lacks a definable hierarchy, and its followers maintain that their connection with God is more personal than anything the authority of a rabbi can deliver. Instead of relying on the direction of a living rebbe, Na Nachs go straight to Nachman’s texts for spiritual guidance. Though the Na Nachs are seen in many cities across Israel, the lack of hierarchy makes it hard to count the number of followers.

The Na Nach van patrols — the movement’s charismatic but often ridiculed public face — are only part of what Na Nachs do. Nachman encouraged self-seclusion and meditation, during which his followers talk to God in an intimate manner. Bellowing, yelling and enthusiastic singing are the norm during group prayer.

Criticism of the Na Nachs by other Orthodox Jews — even from other Breslovers — stems from their unusual habits. “As far as mainstream Breslov is concerned, Na Nach has no validity whatsoever,” said Rabbi Chaim Kramer, a leader in the Breslov community. “You can’t just sit back, close your eyes and say a mantra; you have to study, you have to fill your heart with prayer, you have to have the Torah and perform the mitzvot.”


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