On Pilgrimage with the Hasids

‘Uman has been called the Hasidic Mecca and the Hasidic Glastonbury. Overwhelmingly, however, the pilgrimage is rejected as “un-Jewish”, even by other ultra-Orthodox Jews’

Dispatches Faith
Prayers in Uman: Rabbi Nachman is said to have promised to pull a man out of Hell by his sidelocks if he should come to his grave and repent at New Year (Credit: AFP/Getty images)

The Rabbi would sit cross-legged in the hovels of the Jews and throw greasy morsels and bones from his food to them before reciting the psalms of their ancestors. While he rocked back and forth, they would scuffle for these holy scraps. The Jews were rapt to his hypnotic words, whispering that maybe, just maybe, Rabbi Nachman was their Messiah.

His beard was long and red like his sidelocks, which he curled meticulously. His disciples copied everything they could about their Rebbe, whom they called a tzaddik — a holy man. 

They did this because nobody had seen so many of the swirling dead who invisibly surround us as he had, because nobody had been to the land of Israel, as he had, because nobody, in all Ukraine, told stories in mesmerising Yiddish as he did. 

Rabbi Nachman died in 1810. “Everything the Messiah can do for Israel . . . I can do too,” he sobbed, “only the Messiah can achieve it.” His Hasids, or pious ones, wailed as his eyes glazed over. The tzaddik had seemed poised to make a great revelation to the Jews. Hasids on horseback had galloped through Ukraine, shouting to the villagers that a wonder was about to be revealed. 

Then a curse descended. Nachman’s children began to die. His lungs filled with disease and water. “You see a great tree of wisdom but my roots are in Hell,” he shouted at his scribe. He burnt the mystical scrolls he worked on. He grew weaker. Barely able to walk, Nachman trekked with devoted Hasids to the village of Uman to die. He was 38.

In death the Rabbi was a tragic figure. Blinking out of a broken body, he saw his minions dancing around him. Nachman     believed he had the soul of the Messiah. But he had achieved for his people — both socially and politically — precisely nothing. 

He left behind obsessive writings about the dangers of masturbation, but also fables so enchanting when read in lilting Yiddish they can even induce a state of trance. He left the cryptic, frightening idea that we live in the universe of an “absent God”. Nachman’s writings are so fresh, yet so obscure. Read in a certain light, it would seem the Rabbi died knowing that the innermost secret of the mystical Kabbalah was that there is no God at all — he is merely what they call a “social construct”, that God must constantly be created through chanted confessions and ecstatic prayer.

But then, read from another direction, his texts read like the ramblings of a medieval madman who believed he was the reincarnation of Moses, who lay sobbing, banging on the tomb of his great-grandfather in Medzhybizh, the holiest tzaddik of all, the Baal Shem Tov, demanding he reveal himself and all the secrets.    

It doesn’t even matter who the Rabbi really was. What matters is that in the hours before he stopped breathing, he shouted in the presence of two witnesses that if when the Moon says it is Jewish New Year, a man should come to his grave in Uman and repent, he, Nachman, would pull him out of Hell by his sidelocks.   

What matters is that Hasidic Jews never stopped coming on that day to Uman. Hasids are the mystical Amish of Judaism. They go to extreme lengths to live the Torah’s 613 commandments. Hasids still follow dynasties founded by charismatic Eastern European rabbis whose descendants guard specific traditions. Nachman’s Hasids are different. They have no dynasty. Their tradition is coming to Uman.

Lenin sealed the city to foreigners in 1917; Hasids smuggled themselves in. The NKVD political police banned them; Hasids refused to listen. NKVD commissars were not used to being ignored. So in 1934 its agents laid a trap. They granted Hasids 34 visas. They killed half of them on the spot; the rest were deported to Siberia.

But Stalin could not stop them. Hasids kept smuggling themselves into Uman. Then Hitler invaded in 1941. The 20,000  Jews of Uman were drowned in the lake under the Rabbi’s tomb. This did not stop the Hasids. Rabbis crept in incognito. Soviet refusenik Jews systematically aided the secret pilgrims coming every year. Gorbachev reopened Uman in 1988. 

Uman is a Hasidic magnet. When Ukraine first reopened, 250 made the pilgrimage to the Rebbe’s tomb. By the late 1990s, more than 5,000 were making the trip. Now almost 30,000 pilgrims come every New Year. Since Ukrainian independence 400,000 single pilgrimages to Uman have taken place. This has made Nachman’s tomb Europe’s largest — and only — Jewish mass pilgrimage. I had to see it for myself.  

Nazi extermination nearly made Hasidism extinct. When it revived, it was even more extreme. Hasids now make up over a tenth of the Jewish communities in Britain and Israel. A patchwork of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic enclaves, many of them Yiddish-speaking, now covers a third of Jerusalem. Israeli Hasids have raised “modesty patrols” that harass women that displease them. Warning sirens announcing the Sabbath have been installed. These are not always peaceful people. Hasids throw stones, brawl with the police and agitate for men and women to be segregated on public transport.   

Extremist rabbis explain the Holocaust as “divine wrath”. The old holy ways had been catastrophically deviated from. For the fury to abate, they decreed “true” Jews must speak Yiddish and refuse to learn “secular” subjects like mathematics. Then they must father as many children as possible. Devout Hasids must not work but study as long as possible in state-funded yeshivas (seminaries). Nor should they serve in the Israeli army. 

Uman has thrived on the fanaticisation of Hasidism. But it attracts every kind of fanatic. Nachman’s Hasids splintered into a dozen warring courts. Some are breathtakingly pious. A few are riddled with child abuse and organised crime. Some offshoots wear all-white and are into marijuana and New Age trance music. Others, whose rabbis have Ivy League PhDs, are rigorously intellectual. Talk of Uman miracles and rumours of magical cures have spread throughout Israel, especially among the poor. My estimate is that Uman pilgrims are 90 per cent Israeli but only 70 per cent Hasidic. The remaining 30 per cent contains every imaginable Jew. They are mostly from Israel’s Sephardi underclass: Moroccan cooks, Yemeni stallholders or Iraqi plumbers. But there are busloads from London and Paris and planeloads from New York. However, one kind of Jew is informally banned — women.

Uman has been called the Hasidic Mecca and the Hasidic Glastonbury. Overwhelmingly, the pilgrimage is rejected as “un-Jewish”, even by other ultra-Orthodox Jews, because men abandon their wives and home rituals. Mainstream rabbis have accused it of escapism and even of “smacking of Christianity”. Fringe blogs warn of Hasidic gay parties. Uman thrives regardless. 

I began packing. Uman, I thought, sounds like a nightmare. Twenty thousand exuberant Hasids taking off from Tel Aviv clapping their hands, heading back to Ukraine to flickeringly recreate a shtetl on soil filled with dead Jews. In transit, I checked Twitter for news. Overexcited Hasids had rioted before takeoff. Inexplicably they had hurled the drinks trolley at an El Al stewardess. 

I woke up in Uman. In a white knitted skullcap, a Talmudist from Barnet was rocking back and forth, bellowing Cockney-accented Hebrew. He had paid £750 for a week to rent a room in a mite-infested Brezhnevite apartment block without electricity, but with ripped wallpaper and cockroaches. 

This room was crammed with rickety bunk beds going for £65 a night. The authorities had set aside three streets. Locals nicknamed it “the ghetto”. Police ensure non-Jews (without passes) do not enter. For extortionate prices whole housing estates are rented out to the Hasids. The rest sleep in gigantic temporary dormitories, or tents. 

I woke up to the sound of bugling rams’ horns. These were hundreds of ritual shofars, blown by Jews since they were Mesopotamian nomads. The Talmudist stopped chanting. He sighed: “Everybody is tripping the fuck out.” 

I closed the door. Electricity was dead in the stairwell. The stairs had turned into a health hazard. Hasids were leaving litter everywhere, from food packaging to popped juice cartons. Little boys etched Stars of David into the wall, blind to the Russian message scratched above them: “When You Litter Our Home Don’t Forget To Honk, Piggies.” 

I was shocked to see Jews — whom I knew as lovers of degrees and certificates, accountancy courses and MBAs — rejecting every piece of modernity. I had always thought Jews a people who would do almost anything to send their daughters to Harvard. These men would disown their sons for wanting a degree.  

Nightfall in Uman. The orange glow around the street lamps was brought out by the drizzle. I stumbled, psychologically. Uman hit hard, like time travel. The Yiddish child-beggars darting around my legs. The white-haired and wild-eyed Kabbalists mumbling magic incantations as they shuffled to the synagogue. The wild, rippling excitement filling the hour before Rosh Hashanah — our New Year. 

The walls were plastered with Hebrew posters and Yiddish notices in the antique script that Babylonian rabbis called “the alphabet of flames”. Fools hawked madman’s literature on street corners while tubby rabbis threw out cartons of chocolate bread for the poor.

The hour was coming. I felt tingly and I felt lost. Under the bare bulbs of a makeshift prayer house I tried to ask what texts were being whispered. “Yiddish, Yiddish . . . Speak no Yiddish?” I shook my head. They shook theirs back in disgust. For a calming half-second I thought I had found another rationalist. Samuel was a watch salesman from Florida wearing cryptic Levantine amulets. His beard was a ketchup red. He stank of weed. But he gasped: “Uman is a taste of Messiah.” 

I tried to talk to a portly Hasid with a skin disease about his utter rejection of modernity but all he wanted to talk about was the exchange rate. I strode, sweating and confused, towards a stream. Hundreds of tents crammed its edge like a Jewish refugee camp. Someone tugged at my jacket pocket. It was a child, visibly disturbed. He wore a white dressing-gown. He shrieked: “Are you . . . Jewish? Are you . . . Jewish?”

I nodded.

“Can you . . . kick me in the stomach! I want to fight . . . Karate!” 

Ringing laughter rushed past me. Little boys with shaved heads and shoulder-length blonde sidelocks raced their fathers to the synagogue. I struck up conversation with two Yiddish-speaking hoodies from Brooklyn’s most fanatical enclave, the dominant one comically thin, his friend grotesquely overweight. They let me in on the subtext in exchange for a promise to help them track down 60 cartons of Marlboro Lights. 

“This whole fucking thing is the most fun a Hasid gets all year. It’s the furthest he gets from his wife he was forced to marry at 18. It’s the furthest he gets out from his community. It’s the furthest we get from our moms.” The fat one butted in. “Is this what a festival  is like?”   

They swore me to anonymity before a Canadian neurologist engaged me. Between answering calls from his clinic in Toronto he made it clear it was time I faced up to “the Rebbe”. We passed giant corrugated-steel warehouses turned into mega-synagogues lined with hundreds, thousands of plastic garden chairs laid out for pews. The three of them together, fleetingly, turned into the biggest synagogues in the world. 

The neurologist was exulting: “Not since the Temple have so many Jews prayed in one place.” The hour was here and he left me at the gate. Hebrew letters curled round the curved arch one must pass through to the Rebbe’s tomb. Inside, the believers were speaking rapidly to each other as if the Rebbe was still alive: “The Rebbe is to the left.” “The Rebbe is waiting for you.” “May the Rebbe help you, my friend.” 

I do not believe in the Rebbe. Yet at the hour when Galilean seers warned not only does the Moon mark New Year but God himself decides to destroy or remake this world anew, I was afraid of him. 

In the first prayer hall hundreds of Hasids in black beards and black coats twirled round a Tel Aviv Yemenite, resplendent in a white hoodie, pushing his crippled Falasha schoolmate to the parading Torah scrolls. Wild circle dances formed between Jews from different worlds: Russian physicists, Hasidic furriers, Tel Aviv locksmiths, New Jersey accountants and shivering junkies, all calling to Nachman to pull them out of Hell. 

Round behind the wall that separates the outer sanctuary from the Rebbe a hundred men in white dish-dashes were jumping, all chanting, with rhythmic power that frightened me, over and over the same syllables.

“Na-Nach-Nachma-Nachman of Uman. 

“Na-Nach-Nachma-Nachman of Uman.”

A bearded wild thing grabbed me. “Say . . . Na-Nach!” 

I clapped. I chanted. It happened quickly. The heat met the loss of self in rippling energy out of hundreds of thumping feet, swallowing me up. 

“Na-Nach-Nachman!” 

They began to scream — deep male, ungodly wails. Before sound left my mouth I imagined a hook inside my head and called it my reason. I pulled onto it. Screwing up my face, I tried not to let go, then ripped myself into the next room — the tomb itself.

The Sephardic wail of the silver-bearded cantor rushed through me. A hundred or more men crammed into small pews rocked back and forth. These were Aramaic prayers. I saw a man with pupils horrifically dilated. I saw a man in such ecstasy I thought he was convulsing. I saw a man collapse back, overcome, from the tomb. I saw sobbing men rip each other back by their shoulders just to touch it. 

I tried to imagine who they were in their everyday lives in Baltimore or Eilat. But they had ceased to be those things. Behind the wall, behind the tomb, the men in white were thumping and wailing and howling out through the stone to the Rebbe. Howling that could wake the dead. Trance overcame me. Then the name of the Rebbe. In the enormity of that space I found inside me I named every family name for-whatever it was— to bless them. Then, red-eyed and tearful, I pulled myself outside. Terrified of collective hysteria. This was not my Judaism. 

An old friend was sitting unfazed on the bench outside — a miserable and depressed sacked Russian diplomat. He liked to remind people he had “worked with the President himself”, but I knew his attaché position in the Delhi embassy had mostly involved dealing with the visa problems of mad Russian Hari Krishnas refusing to leave ashrams.

“This is nothing compared to India. Very mild.” 

We scrabbled round a corrugated-steel fence and ran for it, out of the delirium and the filth of “the ghetto” like our great-something grandfathers had done — mine to Berlin, his to Moscow. 

“These are the Hari Krishna of Judaism.” 

We cursed the rejection of Herzl and Einstein around us. We longed for blonde girls and beer and a world without beards. But before we got there we were cornered by three beefy Hasids in prayer shawls. They shoved a magic plant in my face. “Repent! Repent!” 

We hunted for booze. We passed Uman’s forlorn concrete Lenin. We made eyes at a few local ladies in shellsuits loitering by an open car. “What’s up?” they laughed, making a Hitler salute. I had forgotten to take off my black crocheted kippah (skullcap). We grabbed some beers from a roadside kiosk. We met Igor, a typically verbose nocturnal alcoholic. “Those dirty Yids are an absolute disaster.” 

We found a club called XY. It was all strobe lighting and miniskirts. The sacked diplomat wanted pepper vodka, which triggered an argument about whether Israel should make territorial concessions. We calmed down with a beer and tried our luck. Two beauties to our drunken eyes recoiled in horror. “You’re really Hasids!” The redhead who seemed up for it at first quickly turned out to be a prostitute. “Buy me a packet of cigarettes . . . at least . . . if you want to dance.”

My friend insisted he had diplomatic skills that could salvage the evening. Chitchat was initiated smoothly with a drunk blonde holding on to the bar for support. “Merry Christmas,” she said. “Merry Jew Christmas.” 

“How did you know we were Jews?” shouted the diplomat into her ear as the turbo trash beat dropped.

 ”How did I know you were Jews? Because . . . Jew is written all over your fucking face.” 

I will never forget this about Uman. The muddy streets packed with every kind of Jewish man I could have imagined: tattooed Ethiopian barmen, Hasidic dandies in white cloaks and shtreimel fur hats, buzz-cut Israeli surfers in T-shirts and leather jackets, exulting rabbis in white tasselled prayer shawls, trembling ginger settlers in knitted kippah and tie-dyed ponchos, emaciated old Hasids in white fur bushy kolpik hats and ultra-Orthodox teenagers in fox hats and rags. 

The 20,000 filled the muddy crossroads, climbed atop kiosks, crammed the long and dreary Soviet streets, lined by dilapidated housing estates. Hasids came out on to every rickety balcony of every grey, drab block as fathers lifted fidgeting little sons in skullcap yarmulkas on to their shoulders. The Jews trembled. Israeli rude boys in hoodies waved leaflets of psalms and climbed telegraph poles and street lamps. At the front there was one unremarkable, medium-sized loudspeaker. Each and every eye was fixed on it. 

The machine clicked alive, then hissed static at a high decibel until the voice of the great Rabbi moaned, liltingly, out. The Hebrew language and Assyrian semantics piercing the damp greyness of Ukraine.  

“Naaaaaaaaa-ch-maaaaaan soooon of Feeeeei-ge, 

“Buri-eeeeeed heeeeer in Uuuuuu-Man    . . . Askeeeed us to saaay.” 

The excitement quickened and built as the loudspeaker clunked out, then on again, until the holiest prayer of all boomed. The prayer that every Jew, from the Yiddish-speaking fanatics of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem to the assimilated graduates of Oxford colleges, knows. The microphone moaned, calling out beyond the Rabbi. 

Sheeeeeeeeema Israaaaaaa-el.“ 

Hear O Israel.

Adonaaaaaaaai Elo-hainuuuuuu.” 

The Lord Is Holy. 

Adonaaaaaaaai Ech-aaaaaaaaaad.” 

The Lord Is One. 

The Jews roared the words. Every Jew roared-from the sparkling-eyed little Orthodox beggar child on my left to the weeping Afro-haired hipster in orange sunglasses on my right. The 20,000 looked heavenward, covering their eyes with their right hand lest they be blinded by His light. 

Shema Israel. The prayer Jewish children are taught to say before going to bed. The prayer Jews shout out in agony. The prayer Jews have sung for ever as their last words. Now, the roar, echoing through the post- Soviet slums. Shema Israel. My every plane takeoff. My fear before exams. My pain in dimly-lit NHS waiting rooms. 

Shema Israel. The only words that Adolf Eichmann knew in Hebrew. The words Eichmann during his terminal flight to Tel Aviv asked his Mossad captors to explain. Because when he stood outside the gas chambers they screamed those words every time. 

The roar curled up, hummed and ended. For those seconds we had all been one. This was the closest you could come to Mount Sinai, to the charge of Solomon’s armies into Bashan, to the exodus from Egypt. The loudspeaker clicked out for good. There was no more need for it. The entire street jumped and waved in dance, ultra-Orthodox young and old, throwing their fedoras and kaftans into the air in a raw joy.                       

The street turned into a mosh pit of circle dances as pale Talmudists, desperate drug addicts, French boys in suits and bearded extremists in breeches locked arms and swirled around.

Then their chant began. Ten thousand feet thumping and beating to the rhythm of true words:

Am Israel Chai.

The People Of Israel Live.

The People Of Israel Live. 

Ukraine has only a few thousand observant Jews left. In 1939 1.5 million Jews lived here. But in Vinnitzia, two hours away through the thick oak forests where Nachman would wander through the night speaking to the ghoulish dybbuks in the trees, I found a working synagogue, the only one in the old marches of Nachman’s Hasids.

It was a small, dimly-lit hall with cigarette ash on the floor and popped pink and yellow balloons left pinned up on the walls from the holiday. I talked to Isaac, its ageing moustachioed guardian. As I shook his hand I saw they were covered in Russian prison tattoos — stars, numbers and faded blotches between thumb and forefinger. 

Isaac cleared his throat. “We have maybe ten oldies who pray here once a week.” 

His eyes were fixed on a framed congratulatory note, signed and stamped in his honour by the Israeli ambassador himself.

“But this is nothing. This used to be a Yiddish city. Not a 0.001 per cent Jewish city.”

Suddenly, there was a thump at the door. But we smelt the intruder first. The drunk was in a brown suede jacket and a smeared T-shirt — “MIAMI Pros”. He stank of vodka. He was sweating vodka. His eyes were bloodshot from vodka. He was panting. 

“I am looking for God.” He screwed up his puffy Slavic face. “But where is he? Where is he? I went to the mosque . . . I went to the Poles, I went to the Russians . . . But he’s not there . . . He’s not there!” 

Isaac flinched into the doorframe, his hand hovering inches from its knob. His spine straightened. 

“Come back tomorrow. I’m sorry but  you’re drunk.”

The Ukrainian suddenly became angry.

“Why?” he was shouting now, “why do you believe . . . all this shit? Do you believe this? Why?” 

Isaac looked frightened, then insulted. “Because it is written in our holy book.”

The drunk staggered but held his gaze. 

“But how is . . . that book  . . . different from all other books?”

He left in a great commotion, crying.