Thursday, October 06, 2016

Revelry, prayer and visions of apocalypse at Uman Orthodox Jewish pilgrimage 

Tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews this week flocked to the central Ukrainian city of Uman in a pilgrimage to mark the Jewish New Year.

The pilgrims – who go to Uman annually to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav – come from around the world, but mainly from Orthodox communities in Israel and the United States.

The gathering sees more than 30,000 pilgrims visit Uman, according to the Uman Emergency Clinic, a non-profit that supplies medical services for the gathering.

Uman, which is 191 kilometers south of Kyiv, has a population of roughly 86,000.


Rabbi Nachman died in 1810. A Hasidic Rabbi who is noted for combining notoriously legalistic Jewish exegesis with the Kabbalah, a brand of Jewish mysticism in vogue with Hollywood.

Nachman's teachings founded a sect of Orthodox Judaism called Breslover Hasidism, named for Bratslav, the Vinnytsia Oblast city where the rabbi spent much of his life.

Nachman moved to Uman in his later years. Before his death, he wrote that he would expiate the sins of any Jew who came to his grave on New Years.

In the Jewish religion, New Years occurs 10 days before Yom Kippur, the day on which Jews are supposed to atone for their sins of the past year. The Jews who travel to Uman believe that communion with Nachman's grave will allow them to further cleanse their souls.

"We're all gonna be in a better place because of him," said Zev Bennet, a 38-year-old pilgrim from Israel.

The pilgrimage's epicenter is located on Uman's Pushkin Street, a dusty road that winds down the hill where Nachman is buried. Many of the buildings that line the road have large banners with Hebrew writing on them.

During the Soviet Union, some pilgrims were able to receive visas for the pilgrimage, while others snuck across the Polish border, said Nachman Siegel, a New Yorker who has made the pilgrimage nearly every year since 1989.

"People come from all over," said Shmuel Siegel, Nachman's brother, who also resides in New York City. Siegel then said that on the flight to Kyiv he sat next to another pilgrim who was coming directly from the Burning Man festival in Nevada.

"It's all very spiritual," Siegel added.


Many of the pilgrims believe that Nachman's writings herald the coming of the Jewish messiah.

Though nobody at the gathering appeared to think that traveling to Uman would speed that process up, most pilgrims were quite open about their beliefs. Many of the pilgrims were anti-Zionist, believing that Israel's secular government is an abomination, and that the territory should be controlled by a theocratic Jewish government.

With the coming of the messiah, the pilgrims explained, Israel would cease to be secular, Israel would become a theocracy, and then the world would end.

One Israeli pilgrim named Mo Dori told the Kyiv Post that he became a follower of Nachman after a life of partying that nearly ended with a suicide attempt.

"When the messiah comes, all the bad guys are gonna go away," Dori said. "It's going to happen soon."


Residents of Uman have criticized the pilgrims for public drunkenness, saying that the event is a pretext for Orthodox Jews to get drunk and party near the grave of a man they consider holy.

Though this year's gathering passed in peace, pilgrims have clashed with locals in the past.

2010 saw 10 Hasids deported from Ukraine after getting into a knife-fight with local residents.

Since then, the Ukrainian authorities have taken steps to separate the main pilgrimage center from the rest of the city, with non-Jewish residents needing special authorization to make it past a police cordon that covers the area.
The festival was full of people swigging bottles of Corona or Carlsberg in between prayers. One teenage Hasid appeared to be sneaking a bottle of Glenfiddich whisky under his coat jacket to a ritual purification session, while many started the day with beer.

"It's all about loving each other," said Yitzhak Feldman, an Israeli pilgrim sporting a porkpie hat instead of a yarmulke along with aviator sunglasses. "It's fun – you pray when you want."

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