On New Year, thousands flock to Rabbi Nachman's grave in Ukraine
Rosh Hashanah pilgrimages to the city of Uman have become increasingly popular, and prices are soaring.
UMAN - A sad-faced man, about 60 years old, stood opposite the offices of the Derech Hamelech association in Jerusalem, watching people come to pick up their tickets to Uman. The group was distributing the tickets, priced at only $200, to those who had won a lottery. The man had not won. "The tzadik (righteous man) doesn't want us with him on Rosh Hashanah," he muttered, "he wants the young people."
The tzadik, also known as Rabbeinu (our rabbi), is Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who is buried in Uman, Ukraine. To the thousands crowding into the city ahead of the holiday - most of whom have paid full price, from $700 to $1,000 - it is clear that "the tzadik sent me a ticket."
A number of airlines operate in the service of the tzadik: El Al sent 18 special flights, plus several charters in which both the passengers and the flight attendants were all men. The in-flight service director asked passengers not to smoke in the bathroom so that "Heaven forbid, there will be no desecration of God's name." The food is strictly kosher. The in-flight movie: a new film about the pilgrimages to Rabbi Nachman's tomb, produced by the world committee of Bratslav Hasids. The plot: dancing praying, singing and more dancing.
Buses from the airports at Odessa and Kiev have been streaming to Uman for the past four days and nights. Organizers estimate that by Rosh Hashanah eve, there will be a record crowd of almost 20,000.
We get off the bus and join a great frothing human wave. Some break out in spontaneous dancing to familiar hymns, others start looking for a place to sleep. Still others head straight for the "main course" - a visit to Rabbi Nachman's tomb.
Even at 4 A.M., the tomb is an island in a sea of penitents. One of the highlights will occur this afternoon, when the whole crowd will gather together at the tomb to recite a prayer by Rabbi Nachman.
"Let no one be absent," Rabbi Nachman wrote when inviting his disciples to join him. Some 200 years later, everybody is here: Hasids from almost every sect, and also anti-Hasidic ("Lithuanian") ultra-Orthodox Jews; Ashkenazim and Mizrahim (Jews of European and Middle Eastern origin, respectively); Zionists and anti-Zionists; knitted skullcaps of every size and style, like that of Rabbi Moti Elon, head of Yeshivat Hakotel, or the white kippah adorning hip-hop artist Fishi the Great. Traditional and Orthodox Jews from Monsey, Manchester, Marseilles and elsewhere are also on hand.
The pilgrimage to Uman also reveals the extent of the return to Orthodoxy movement in Israel. Who if not Rabbi Nachman understood the souls of sinners and those seeking redemption? "If man does not have an evil inclination, his worship is not at all complete," the rabbi wrote in his major work, Likutei Moharan. There are also those who describe themselves as utterly secular, who pick up their kippahs - inscribed with the mantra Na Nach Nachman me'Uman - on the way, and who paid their $1,000 "just for the experience."
"You're from Haaretz newspaper?" asks Shimon Abizmil from Netanya. "Haaretz in gematria (numerology) is twice Nachman. You see? Rabbi Nachman is everywhere, even with you."
A conversation with Abizmil requires tuning in to two channels simultaneously, because he sees himself as both a Lubavitch Hasid and a Bratslav Hasid. He has come to Uman with some of his students, who are becoming Orthodox. When he asks who attracts young secular people more, former Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson or Rabbi Nachman, he answers immediately: "Rabbeinu. First of all, his book speaks to those who are in a low place spiritually and aren't necessarily studying Torah. But what turns on the young people about Rabbeinu is his joy, and I'm talking about the guys of army age and older. Becoming Orthodox is hard, it's a burden, and Rabbeinu says that what true tzadiks should do is be happy, enjoy worshiping God."
In recent years, with the increasing popularity of pilgrimages to Uman, accommodation prices here have skyrocketed. Those who come every year (and there are many) worry about how much more expensive it might get. A bed in a room shared with others, with only the most basic amenities, cost $50 for the whole holiday three years ago; now, it goes for $150 to $200. Some people are paying $450 for a bed in a shared room. No wonder that even in private gardens - and not always with the consent of the residents - tents brought from Israel pop up. Philanthropists have pitched in: American businessman Israel Singer built a tent city where people can stay for $55 to $65.
People are begging on every street. "Brother, help me get into the mikveh [ritual bath]," says one. For the whole holiday, entry to the mikveh costs $10. Moments after the plane took off, people brought out tin boxes inscribed with the words "for repayment of travel loans to Uman."