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God and Uman

Joining the Breslovers—and my cousin—for Rosh Hashanah in Ukraine

Marc Caplan
September 25, 2009
Ahron D. Weiner
Ahron D. Weiner
Ahron D. Weiner
Ahron D. Weiner

I spent Rosh Hashanah in Uman, a city of 90,000 in Ukraine, and there are at least three good reasons why I shouldn’t have. As a secular academic, specializing in Yiddish literature, what could it profit me to spend time with tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, few of whom would understand the specifics of my interest in them and still fewer of whom would care? I am also a “modern” yet religious Jew, who would be expected to observe one of the holiest ceremonies of the year in a Conservative shul or “progressive” Orthodox minyan—with my own family—not packed away to the other end of the earth, under trying circumstances, participating in services untroubled by the role of women in religious law, the reconciliation of traditional biblical interpretation with more recent scholarship, or even the basics of modern Hebrew pronunciation. And most unfathomable of all, why am I, or any of the roughly 20,000 men, and perhaps 150 women, assembling in this Pale of Settlement city, reversing the fundamental imperative of Jewish modernity since the time of Abraham to go west?

We were in Uman at the request of Reb Nachman of Breslov, who lived from 1772 to 1810, and who bid his followers to spend Rosh Hashanah each year at his grave. Though the Hasidim who have claimed him as their spiritual leader were almost entirely obliterated in the Holocaust, the movement began reconstituting itself in the late 1960s, and with the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews have made the trek here. For one weekend out of the year, Uman again becomes an enclave of Jewish observance, with a hotel, dozens of prayer sites—including the courtyards of apartment buildings, streets, and alleyways—and an open-air bazaar catering to the assembled pilgrims.

My guide through this perplexing adventure was my first cousin, Avraham Chaim Bloomenstiel, who at age 30 works as a Hasidic rabbi, Torah scribe, and business consultant in Dallas. Like me, Avi grew up in the tiny, vigorously assimilationist Jewish community of rural Louisiana. Along parallel lines, he and I have created radically different cultures for ourselves, signified in my case by the three-button black suit, only eight years out of fashion, that I wear at academic conferences and religious services, and in Avi’s case by the regalia that hasn’t gone out of style since the followers of the Baal Shem Tov created Hasidism in the 18th century.

Admittedly, I find it curious that Avi has chosen to become a Hasid—and I’m not the only family member to feel that way—yet it is no more outlandish than my decision to study Yiddish and attempt to create a modern Yiddish-speaking family. We have each staked our identity in a culture defined by a distant place and an absent time: his in the Ukrainian shtetl of two centuries ago, mine in Jewish metropolises such as Warsaw and New York only a hundred years later. And yet for each of us, this position is not a retreat from the present; our choices offer a means of self-assertion, and they reconfigure the dislocations we experienced moving from our oddly shtetl-like origins in the Deep South into the world at large. Over the weekend, Avi and I discussed how isolated our upbringing was in some respects yet how much we have carried of that experience in our subsequent wanderings. Though we came of age at the end of the 20th century, vestiges of an older culture and sensibility still characterize small-town life in Louisiana. It comes as no surprise that we now identify with cultures rooted in the past, yet full of Jewish content we had lacked at home. Both Hasidim and academics are rooted in tiny enclaves, just as Jews in Louisiana are; both today are globally mobile and multilingual, as most people in Louisiana are not.

External differences notwithstanding, Avi and I remain affectionately, delightfully mishpokhe: we wax enthusiastic over the newly kosher-certified Café du Monde in New Orleans; we trade unexpurgated stories about our flamboyant, profane relatives; we share many of the same diverse musical tastes; and our speech veers among the Yiddish and Hebrew seasonings of Orthodox discourse, academic English, and native Southern idiom.

Reb Nachman is an appropriate object of our respective devotion: the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, he was a child prodigy—memorizing the Book of Psalms by age eight, mastering rabbinic and kabbalistic sources by his early teens—who seemed destined to galvanize Hasidism as it moved into the 19th century. But by the time of his death from tuberculosis, Reb Nachman had alienated many of his followers with his cryptic teachings and had started turf wars with older Hasidic rebbes. Instead of the unifier of early Hasidism, he was the founder of one of its smaller and more dissident sects, whose members are now known as Breslovers.

About a century after Reb Nachman created a religious movement, he became a folk hero to many secular Jews. His struggles with revelation, truth, and religious authority placed him in an unlikely pantheon with such figures as Shabbtai Zevi and Spinoza, whose company the actual Reb Nachman would never have welcomed. The erratic content of his preachings, veering between ecstatic embrace of nature and existential anxiety over God’s silence, offered an equally unlikely religious imprimatur for Jewish agnosticism. And his fragmentary, fantastic stories provided a blueprint for Yiddish and Hebrew modernists such as Y.L. Peretz, Der Nister, and S.Y. Agnon.

My journey to Uman began on the Thursday afternoon before Rosh Hashanah, in the Zurich airport, where a handful of observant Jews gathered awaiting the flight to Kiev. The matter-of-fact character of traditional Jewish culture, in which the boundary between sacred and profane is routinely trespassed, seemed on first contact to be absent among most of these Breslovers, who as baalei tshuvah—Jews who, like Avi, became religious as adults—are not traditional: for them, every act of prayer or religious devotion is an existential confrontation, a potential spiritual drama. It was going to be a long weekend.

After a two-and-a-half hour flight, we arrived in Ukraine. During the three-hour taxi ride from Kiev to Uman, the driver entertained himself with contemporary Slavic pop—my cousin recognized a Ukrainian cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry”—laced with English-language hip-hop interjections more profane than would be broadcast in America. When we arrived in Uman, we walked down Pushkin Street, a main drag for visiting Hasidim, to our rented apartment; already dense crowds of young men had gathered to dance ecstatically to Hebrew-language Breslover disco, which would have merged seamlessly with what we had heard on the radio. After unpacking, my cousin took me to the promenade to look at books for sale—“nothing new this year,” he said, disappointed—and to recite evening prayers at the main synagogue, near where Reb Nachman is buried. Though there were enough jetlagged men congregated to make the requisite quorum, the vast sanctuary, filled with rows of light-brown desks and pews, but otherwise pristinely white, seemed deserted yet expectant of the fervent celebration to follow the next day. This would be the last time we could find a seat there.

On Friday morning, my cousin pointed out a relatively new custom at Uman: a mass recitation of tikkun ha-klali, a liturgy of 10 psalms that Reb Nachman designated as effective for penitence. The spectacle from our balcony of thousands of Jewish men swaying and responding to scriptural verses recited by loudspeaker offered a panorama of groups represented: young, white-draped charismatics chanting “Na-Nach-Nachman” at slightest provocation; sober, black-yarmulked men otherwise indistinguishable from any other Orthodox congregation; and decked-out Hasidim like Avi.

Given the size and diversity of crowds represented at Uman—old-school Breslovers mingling freely with Satmars and Lubavitchers, Yemenites, Ethiopians, French-speaking North Africans, Na-Nach hippies, and even historically anti-Hasidic yeshiva types—nearly all of whom conduct their own prayer services in addition to gathering at the main shul and at Reb Nachman’s grave, it seems that Reb Nachman’s teachings and Breslov Hasidism have never been stronger in the Orthodox world than they are today.

Moreover, given its diversity the Uman pilgrimage offers a model for intergroup cooperation: rival movements like Satmar and Lubavitch live harmoniously one weekend a year, without having to sacrifice their individual identity to do so.

Later Friday morning I plunged into the panorama while shopping at the makeshift kosher mini-market: not even 15 years of studying Yiddish descriptions of the shtetl marketplace prepared me for the chaos at the checkout counter. Sensing my outsider’s bewilderment, the cashier apologized to me in Hebrew for the disorder. I was touched by his gesture. Outside, a frail, one-armed Jewish octogenarian dressed in festooned military uniform stood in the middle of the road describing his heroic deeds on behalf of Stalin’s army to Israeli Hasidic teenagers who offered him blessings in Yiddish while placing American dollars in his hand. Dollars were indeed the universal currency last weekend; no one accepted Ukrainian Hryvnias—the five-hryvnia note bears an image of the 17th-century pogromist Bogdan Chmelnitski—or even euros, currently more valuable than American money. Yet all the local shopkeepers could haggle in rudimentary Hebrew more readily than in English.

Part of the drama of our preparations for the holiday was Avi’s effort to go to one of the city’s two mikvehs, ritual baths, before services begin; each time we went, it was too crowded for us to make the requisite immersion, a fact that frustrated him more than it did me. (He eventually went Saturday morning.) At the main sanctuary that afternoon the crowd was standing-room-only and we found ourselves pushed against the pews by another row of participants standing between us and the seats behind, like in a New York subway at rush hour. The next morning we tried a different synagogue, which again disappointed Avi because this group didn’t sing the traditional Breslov melodies. It was crowded there, too, but at least there were seats for us during the roughly seven-hour service. On Sunday I went with another of Avi’s friends staying in our apartment—there were nine of us, including three young boys, crowded into a three-bedroom space, a typical arrangement here—to the Lubavitch services, which met in a tent and attracted perhaps 100 people. The single mystical moment that I experienced during the weekend occurred there: although blessings over the Torah are auctioned off at most services, a typical custom among the ultra-Orthodox, I don’t bid on the first blessing. Yet when the time came for cohanim, members of the priestly caste, to bless the whole congregation, a man looked at me and motioned to come wash our hands in preparation for the ritual. Later I asked him how he knew I was a cohen. “You just had that look about you,” he said.

Sunday night, after Rosh Hashanah, Avi explained from our window how Breslov culture constitutes itself: on the main drag, the Na-Nachs dance to Breslover pop until they wear out; in front of the main synagogue the older Hasidim and their disciples dance to traditional klezmer music before commemorating the destruction of the Temple with tears and psalms, then recite the morning liturgy at the earliest permitted moment. What worries Avi about the new enthusiasts is their pursuit of frenzy to the point of exhaustion. Not only do they risk an inevitable disenchantment with religious observance when they outgrow the culture of techno dancing, but the physicality of their jubilation seems to leave little time for study of the traditional sources. In Europe before the war, he remarked, Breslovers were known as “the silent Hasidim.” The noisiness of the new celebrants threatens to make a caricature of the movement. Yet Avi admitted that the young hipsters have moderated their exuberance over the past decade while expanding the ranks of the main synagogue during services, so that the two wings of the movement seem to be moving closer to one another, rather than breaking apart.

And in terms of spectacle, the pilgrimage to Uman is now one of the great mass performances of contemporary Judaism, along with Simchat Torah on the Upper West Side, the 19th of Kislev—which commemorates the release of the founder of Lubavitch Hasidism from a czarist prison in the early 19th century— in Crown Heights and Lag B’omer at the grave site of the Talmudic sage Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, Israel. Unlike these other places, however, Uman is more isolated from the rest of the Jewish world, there is no community here except at Rosh Hashanah, and the holiday is more significant than these other occasions. These factors insure that no one comes to Uman casually; it seems impossible that one could observe the performance without participating in it.

Despite Avi’s disappointment with what he sees as the intellectual degradation of the Breslover movement, it seems as unlikely that he would cease coming to Uman every year as it is that I would return. “When a person chooses to be committed to a religious way of life,” he told me, “he can’t be dissuaded by one disappointment. My faith in Judaism comes from my devotion to Reb Nachman’s teachings, along with the Torah, the Talmud, the halacha. That can’t be shaken. If your commitment to Judaism can be disrupted by disappointment with a single experience, it wasn’t a real commitment.”

As I told him over the course of our weekend, however, a harmonic convergence has brought the two of us together in Uman that probably will not recur any time soon. The paths we have chosen for ourselves happened to have intersected this Rosh Hashanah, but what characterizes these journeys is the distance we have each taken from where we began, not an ultimate destination that might bring us together again.

Marc Caplan is a professor of Yiddish literature, language, and culture at the Johns Hopkins University.