Yosef Chaim Bernfeld, a younger businessman from New York who’s making an attempt to scrub up his life, journeyed to Uman this weekend for a “religious repair.”
Each Jewish New 12 months, even this one throughout a raging warfare, 1000’s of Hasidic pilgrims flip this metropolis in central Ukraine right into a mini Jerusalem.
They roam round in large 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 alternate blessings — “I ask God to provide you a way of belonging, to provide you stability, to develop your online business this yr” — and drink copious quantities of purple wine well past the wartime curfew.
Mr. Bernfeld, a sturdy 33-year-old who stated he has struggled along with his religion and substance abuse, has joined this gathering 11 occasions. However this yr, he was clear, and his verdict was, “It’s completely different, possibly not fairly as enjoyable.”
However then his face lit up. “No man,” he stated, “it’s wonderful. It’s like a reset.”
This yr, even Europe’s greatest warfare in generations and intensive journey warnings couldn’t cease the pilgrimage. Greater than 35,000 individuals, practically all of them males and boys, confirmed up over the weekend, upending stereotypes of Hasidic Jews who typically reduce an austere picture with their black hats and lengthy black coats. Most of the Hasidim who got here to Uman got here to get together.
However Uman serves as a testomony to one thing even deeper. Every year, it turns into a thriving Jewish group in a spot the place Judaism was nearly worn out.
The truth that one of many world’s greatest Jewish New 12 months’s celebrations unfolds in Ukraine, the positioning of among the Holocaust’s worst atrocities, and in Uman particularly, the place the Nazis gunned down a thousand Jewish children and threw their 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 that 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 in the present day and say, ‘We’re pleased with who we’re, and we’ll by no means be extinguished.’”
Rebbe Nachman was a deeply religious, charismatic determine in his personal proper. He inspired individuals to point out their happiness and commune immediately with God, like a pal.
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 a little bit to charity, he would do no matter he may to save lots of them from hell.
Whereas Jewish custom accommodates quite a lot of interpretations of the afterlife, Rebbe Nachman’s followers deeply imagine in his energy of salvation. Even throughout Soviet occasions, when organized faith was basically shut down, Jews sneaked into Uman on the danger of being despatched to the Gulag. After Ukraine gained independence in 1991 and non secular freedom returned, the crowds at his graveside steadily grew.
The pilgrimage stays pious, however it’s also wild. The Breslovers, as followers are referred to as, are recognized for the exuberance with which they worship. Dozens have been arrested in Uman in past years for drug possession, drunkenness and brawling. This week, the Ukrainian police stated that they confiscated unlawful medication 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 greatest contingent from the USA.
Earlier than the warfare, just a few even choppered in from Kyiv, the capital, about 120 miles away.
However now that Ukraine’s airspace is closed, many made overland journeys from Poland, Moldova, Hungary or Romania that have been lengthy, exhausting and costly.
“Folks put away all yr for this,” stated Mr. Bernfeld, who goes by Bernie. “But it surely’s lovely. I don’t assume 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 group 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 might need even saved my life.”
He not too long ago 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 rooster, vegetable broth, salads, fried potatoes and hunks of freshly baked redolent challah that they dragged via bowls of thick Ukrainian honey.
The pilgrimage lasts a couple of week, and whereas there are some scheduled occasions, it’s a number of hanging out and breaking bread.
In the course of the day, pilgrims flow into on Pushkina Road, the primary drag in Uman’s tiny Jewish neighborhood. They search for mates they haven’t seen because the final pilgrimage, go to rabbis for blessings, take heed to motivational talks and squeeze into the small constructing housing Rebbe Nachman’s grave. The odor 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 ground. Later, they retreat to rented residences to uncork drinks. Even after the midnight curfew, loud music — and loud laughter — wafts via open home windows throughout city.
Locals will not be positive what to assume. Earlier than the Holocaust, half of this metropolis was Jewish. Immediately, out of 85,000 individuals, only some 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 kind 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 economic 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 rejoice their spiritual vacation. We perceive all that.”
However then Ms. Hordiyenko lit into the pilgrims for forsaking “horrifying” quantities of litter and making undesirable advances on girls, saying, “They misbehave.”
Resident-pilgrim relations is a wealthy subject. Some pilgrims complained equally bitterly concerning the Ukrainians, accusing them of being chilly and suspicious.
One among Mr. Bernfeld’s mates proposed on the dinner desk that Rebbe Nachman’s grave ought to be excavated and flown to Israel. It sounds far-fetched, however the Israeli authorities has lobbied to do exactly 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 occasions? Being right here is like an abused particular person going again to their abuser.”
One other man on the desk laughed. “So, what are you saying, Shlomo?” he requested. “Folks 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 via the honey and chewed thoughtfully.
“However Rebbe Nachman stated challenges are vital, and it’s a problem getting right here,” Mr. Bernfeld stated. “And greater than that, I like this vibe. I don’t need to change it.”
Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting from Uman.