In Ukraine, Celebrating Rosh Hashana at Rebbe Nachman’s Tomb

In Ukraine, Celebrating Rosh Hashana at Rebbe Nachman’s Tomb

Yosef Chaim Bernfeld, a younger businessman from New York who’s making an attempt to straighten out his life, journeyed to Uman this weekend for a “non secular repair.”

Each Jewish New 12 months, even this one throughout a raging struggle, 1000’s of Hasidic pilgrims flip this metropolis in central Ukraine right into a mini Jerusalem.

They roam round in massive teams sucking down Coke Zero and kosher pizza, paying in shekels. They pump out Hebrew hip-hop and dance arduous collectively in the midst of the road.

They change blessings — “I ask God to offer you a way of belonging, to offer you stability, to develop your online business this yr” — and drink copious quantities of crimson wine well beyond the wartime curfew.

Mr. Bernfeld, a sturdy 33-year-old who stated he has struggled together with his religion and substance abuse, has joined this gathering 11 instances. However this yr he was clear, and his verdict was, “It’s totally different, possibly not fairly as enjoyable.”

However then his face lit up. “No man,” he stated, “it’s superb. It’s like a reset.”

This yr, even Europe’s largest struggle in generations and in depth journey warnings couldn’t cease the pilgrimage. Greater than 35,000 folks, practically all of them males and boys, confirmed up over the weekend, upending stereotypes of Hasidic Jews who typically minimize an austere picture with their black hats and lengthy black coats. Lots of the Hasidim who got here to Uman got here to social gathering.

However Uman serves as a testomony to one thing even deeper. Every year, it turns into a thriving Jewish neighborhood in a spot the place Judaism was nearly worn out.

The truth that one of many world’s largest Jewish New 12 months’s celebrations unfolds in Ukraine, the location of among the Holocaust’s worst atrocities, and in Uman particularly, the place the Nazis gunned down a thousand Jewish youngsters and threw their our bodies in a pit, illuminates a resilience fairly apt for the second. It’s the Excessive Holy Days, in any case, a time for pleasure but additionally painful remembrance.

“It provides which means,” stated Yitzy Gradman, one other one of many many New Yorkers who flocked to Uman. “The most important tribute I may give to the individuals who suffered right here is to stroll these streets at the moment and say, ‘We’re happy with who we’re, and we are going to by no means be extinguished.’”

The Uman pilgrimage goes again greater than 200 years. It’s cemented on Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who died in Uman in 1810 and was a great-grandson of the person extensively thought-about the founding father of Hasidic Judaism.

Rebbe Nachman was a deeply non secular, charismatic determine in his personal proper. He inspired folks to indicate their happiness and commune immediately with God, like a good friend.

He requested his followers to be with him on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New 12 months, and earlier than he died, he promised that if even the worst sinners would pray at his grave in Uman, which is close to Breslov, and provides slightly to charity, he would do no matter he might to avoid wasting them from hell.

Whereas Jewish custom accommodates a wide range of interpretations of the afterlife, Rebbe Nachman’s followers deeply imagine in his energy of salvation. Even throughout Soviet instances, when organized faith was primarily shut down, Jews sneaked into Uman on the danger of being despatched to the Gulag. After Ukraine gained independence in 1991 and spiritual freedom returned, the crowds at his graveside steadily grew.

The pilgrimage stays pious, however it’s also wild. The Breslovers, as followers are known as, are recognized for the exuberance with which they worship. Dozens have been arrested in Uman in previous years for drug possession, drunkenness and brawling. This week, the Ukrainian police stated that they confiscated unlawful medicine from a number of pilgrims and deliberate to deport others for “aggressive conduct.”

However Breslovers are additionally recognized for being open-minded. Males in black hats and sidelocks prayed subsequent to males in tight T-shirts and tattoos. Most got here from Israel, with the second largest contingent from the USA.

Earlier than the struggle, a number of even choppered in from Kyiv, the capital, about 120 miles away.

However now that Ukraine’s airspace is closed, most made overland journeys from Poland, Moldova, Hungary or Romania that have been lengthy, exhausting and costly.

“Individuals put away all yr for this,” stated Mr. Bernfeld, who goes by Bernie. “However it’s lovely. I don’t suppose I’ve ever seen a lot unity.”

As a younger man rising up in Rockland County, N.Y., Mr. Bernfeld stated he chafed on the strictness of his Extremely-Orthodox neighborhood and turned to hurry, cocaine and acid. It was not till he noticed Rebbe Nachman’s followers dancing ecstatically on YouTube that he realized “there’s a enjoyable Judaism, too.”

“It helped me immensely,” he stated. “It may need even saved my life.”

He lately moved to Israel, and on Friday evening, he was kicking again with fellow Breslovers in a tent laid with a feast: plates of salmon and baked hen, vegetable broth, salads, fried potatoes and hunks of freshly baked redolent challah that they dragged by means of bowls of thick Ukrainian honey.

The pilgrimage lasts a couple of week, and whereas there are some scheduled occasions, it’s a variety of hanging out and breaking bread.

Throughout the day, pilgrims flow into on Pushkina Road, the principle drag in Uman’s tiny Jewish neighborhood. They search for associates they haven’t seen because the final pilgrimage, go to rabbis for blessings, hearken to motivational talks and squeeze into the small constructing housing Rebbe Nachman’s grave. The scent of sweat, pizza grease and cigarette smoke hangs within the air.

At evening, music blares from audio system and males throw their arms round one another and switch Pushkina Road right into a dance flooring. Later, they retreat to rented flats to uncork drinks. Even after the midnight curfew, loud music — and loud laughter — wafts by means of open home windows throughout city.

Locals usually are not certain what to suppose. Earlier than the Holocaust, half of this metropolis was Jewish. Immediately, out of 85,000 folks, just a few hundred Jews are left. Greater than 2 million Jews as soon as lived in Ukraine. Now it’s round 200,000, maybe much less, although a type of, Volodymyr Zelensky, is president.

Mr. Zelensky didn’t cease by Uman this week however a small contingent of Ukrainian Jews joined the festivities, which have fueled a bustling financial system. Whole 10-story buildings are employed out, taxi drivers get dream fares and distributors do a imply commerce in T-shirts, books, amulets and different Breslov merch.

Officers at metropolis corridor stated the pilgrimage brings in additional than $20 million a yr, and businesspeople are clearly grateful. Nonetheless, some residents don’t prefer it.

“There’s dysfunction in our metropolis due to all this,” stated one resident, Natalia Hordiyenko.

“I’ve nothing in opposition to them,” she added. “They got here right here to have a good time their non secular vacation. We perceive all that.”

However then Ms. Hordiyenko lit into the pilgrims for abandoning “horrifying” quantities of litter and making undesirable advances on girls, saying, “They misbehave.”

Resident-pilgrim relations is a wealthy matter. Some pilgrims complained equally bitterly concerning the Ukrainians, accusing them of being chilly and suspicious.

Considered one of Mr. Bernfeld’s associates proposed on the dinner desk that Rebbe Nachman’s grave needs to be excavated and flown to Israel. It sounds far-fetched, however the Israeli authorities has lobbied to do precisely that.

“It’s a humiliation we’re even right here,” stated Shlomo Ettlinger, an accountant, as he put down his glass of wine. “Why are we having this occasion in a city the place Jews have been massacred not as soon as, not twice, however many instances? Being right here is like an abused individual going again to their abuser.”

One other man on the desk laughed. “So, what are you saying, Shlomo?” he requested. “Individuals don’t like us? Inform me one thing new.”

Mr. Bernfeld then stepped in, saying, “Shlomo, you understand how a lot I respect your opinion.”

He dragged one other hunk of challah by means of the honey and chewed thoughtfully.

“However Rebbe Nachman stated challenges are necessary, and it’s a problem getting right here,” Mr. Bernfeld stated. “And greater than that, I like this vibe. I don’t wish to change it.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting from Uman.

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