Yosef Chaim Bernfeld, a young New York businessman trying to get his life on track, traveled to Uman this weekend for a “spiritual solution.”
Every Jewish New Year, even this year during a raging war, thousands of Hasidic pilgrims turn this city in central Ukraine into a mini-Jerusalem.
They wander around in large groups, hoovering up Coca-Cola Zero and kosher pizza, paying in shekels. They pump out Hebrew hip-hop and dance hard together in the middle of the street.
They exchange blessings – “I ask God to give you a sense of belonging, to give you stability, to grow your business this year” – and drink copious amounts of red wine, long after the war.
Mr. Bernfeld, a tough 33-year-old who said he has struggled with his faith and substance abuse, has attended the meeting 11 times. But this year he was clean and his verdict was: “It’s different, maybe not as fun.”
But then his face lit up. “No man,” he said, “it’s amazing. It feels like a reset.”
This year, even Europe’s biggest war in generations and extensive travel warnings couldn’t stop the pilgrimage. More than 35,000 people, almost all of them men and boys, showed up this weekend, upending stereotypes of Hasidic Jews, who often had an austere image with their black hats and long black coats. Many of the Hasidim who came to Uman came to party.
But Uman serves as evidence of something even deeper. Once a year it becomes a thriving Jewish community in a place where Judaism was virtually wiped out.
The fact that one of the largest Jewish New Year celebrations in the world is taking place in Ukraine, the site of some of the worst atrocities of the Holocaust, and in particular in Uman, where the Nazis shot a thousand Jewish children and threw their bodies into a pit , illuminates a resilience is very appropriate at this time. After all, these are the High Holy Days, a time of joy but also of painful memory.
“It adds meaning,” said Yitzy Gradman, another of the many New Yorkers who flocked to Uman. “The greatest tribute I can give to the people who suffered here is to walk through the streets today and say, ‘We are proud of who we are, and we will never be exterminated.’”
The Uman pilgrimage dates back more than 200 years. It is based on Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who died in Uman in 1810 and was a great-grandson of the man widely considered the founder of Hasidic Judaism.
Rebbe Nachman was a deeply spiritual, charismatic figure in his own right. He encouraged people to express their happiness and communicate directly with God, as a friend.
He asked his followers to be with him on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and before he died he promised that if even the worst of sinners would pray at his grave in Uman, which is near Breslov, and give a little to charity, he would do what he could to save them from hell.
While Jewish tradition contains a variety of interpretations of the afterlife, Rebbe Nachman’s followers believe deeply in his power of redemption. Even in Soviet times, when organized religion was effectively shut down, Jews sneaked into Uman, risking being sent to the Gulag. After Ukraine gained independence in 1991 and religious freedom returned, the crowds at his grave grew steadily.
The pilgrimage remains pious, but also wild. The Breslovers, as followers are called, are known for the exuberance with which they worship. Dozens of arrests have been made in Uman in recent years for drug possession, drunkenness and fighting. This week, Ukrainian police said they had seized illegal drugs from several pilgrims and planned to deport others for “aggressive behavior.”
But Breslovers are also known for being open-minded. Men in black hats and side locks bathe next to men in tight T-shirts and tattoos. Most came from Israel, with the second largest contingent from the United States.
Before the war, some even came in from Kiev, the capital, about 200 kilometers away.
But with Ukraine’s airspace closed, most made overland journeys from Poland, Moldova, Hungary or Romania that were long, tiring and expensive.
“People go all year long for this,” said Mr. Bernfeld, who goes by Bernie. “But it’s beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much unity.”
As a young man growing up in Rockland County, New York, Mr. Bernfeld said he chafed at the strictness of his ultra-Orthodox community and turned to speed, cocaine and acid. It wasn’t until he saw Rebbe Nachman’s followers dancing ecstatically on YouTube that he realized that “there is also a nice Judaism.”
“It helped me a lot,” he said. “It may have even saved my life.”
He recently moved to Israel, and on Friday evening he sat in a tent with fellow Breslovers with a feast: plates of salmon and fried chicken, vegetable broth, salads, baked potatoes and chunks of freshly baked fragrant challah that they swept through bowls of thick Ukrainian honey.
The pilgrimage lasts about a week, and while there are some planned events, it’s a lot of hanging out and breaking bread.
During the day, pilgrims circulate on Pushkina Street, the main thoroughfare in Uman’s small Jewish quarter. They search for friends they haven’t seen since the last pilgrimage, visit rabbis for blessings, listen to motivational talks and squeeze into the small building that houses Rebbe Nachman’s grave. The smell of sweat, pizza grease and cigarette smoke hangs in the air.
At night, music blares from speakers and men throw their arms around each other and turn Pushkina Street into a dance floor. Later they retreat to rented apartments to uncork drinks. Even after the midnight curfew, loud music – and loud laughter – wafts through the city through open windows.
The locals don’t really know what to think. Before the Holocaust, half of this city was Jewish. Today, of the 85,000 people, only a few hundred Jews remain. More than 2 million Jews once lived in Ukraine. Now there are about 200,000, maybe less, although one of them, Volodymyr Zelensky, is president.
Mr. Zelensky did not visit Uman this week, but a small contingent of Ukrainian Jews took part in the festivities, which have fueled a vibrant economy. Entire ten-story buildings are rented out, taxi drivers get dream rates and vendors do a mean trade in T-shirts, books, amulets and other Breslov merchandise.
Officials at City Hall said the pilgrimage brings in more than $20 million a year, and businesspeople are clearly grateful. Still, some residents don’t like it.
“Because of all this, there is disorder in our city,” said a resident, Natalia Hordiyenko.
“I have nothing against them,” she added. “They came here to celebrate their religious holiday. We all understand that.”
But then Ms Hordiyenko attacked the pilgrims for leaving behind ‘horrific’ amounts of rubbish and making unwanted advances towards women, saying: ‘They are misbehaving.’
Relations between residents and pilgrims are a rich subject. Some pilgrims complained equally bitterly about the Ukrainians, accusing them of being cold and suspicious.
One of Mr. Bernfeld’s friends suggested at the dinner table that they dig up Rebbe Nachman’s grave and fly to Israel. It sounds far-fetched, but the Israeli government has been lobbying to do just that.
“It’s a shame we’re still here,” said Shlomo Ettlinger, an accountant, as he put down his glass of wine. “Why are we holding this event in a city where Jews have been slaughtered not once, not twice, but many times? Being here is like an abused person returning to their abuser.”
Another man at the table laughed. “So, what do you say now, Shlomo?” he asked. “People don’t like us? Tell me something new.”
Mr. Bernfeld then intervened and said, “Shlomo, you know how much I respect your opinion.”
He dragged another piece of challah into the honey and chewed thoughtfully.
“But Rebbe Nachman said challenges are important, and it is a challenge to get here,” Mr. Bernfeld said. “And more than that, I love this atmosphere. I don’t want to change it.”
Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting from Uman.