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Threats Veiled

For hasidim traveling to Uman, lycra’s all the rage

Liel Leibovitz
September 08, 2010
Hasidim on their way to Uman.(Haaretz/Lior Mizrachi)
Hasidim on their way to Uman.(Haaretz/Lior Mizrachi)

When he died more than 200 years ago, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav asked his followers to visit his grave in the Ukrainian village of Uman each year on Rosh Hashanah. A less typical but no less dedicated follower, Rodger Kamenetz—the author of Burnt Books, the upcoming Nextbook Press book about Rabbi Nachman and Franz Kafka—made the trip (check out this animated account of his journey). While Kamenetz didn’t have to worry about such things as in-flight entertainment or scantily dressed women carousing through the airport, for some ultra-Orthodox travelers, these are critical issues, threatening the sanctity of the pilgrimage.

To make sure the righteous travelers catch no glimpse of the iniquitous world outside, a new group of entrepreneurial Bratslav hasidim devised a solution: A dark piece of cloth placed over the face. The ideal fabric, they wrote, was the stretchy and flexible lycra, and the ideal colors black, blue, or brown. The entrepreneurs promoted the veiled look in colorful pamphlets distributed throughout the haredi Israeli town of Bnei Brak, which featured the slogan, “Smiling all the way to Uman.” Wearing a thick sheet of fabric to cover one’s face, they added, may look strange, but “provides a bountiful reward” to those who do it.

By the end of the holiday, more than 14,000 of the late rabbi’s followers will have left Israel for Uman on nearly 100 flights. No word on how many of them will have worn lycra veils, but as you can see from the photograph, the number will be greater than zero.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.