Bratslav's Tower of Babel

Zionist, anti-Zionist, mystical, scholarly, Yiddish-speaking, Hebrew-speaking, ultra-Orthodox and secular - the diversity of the annual gathering at the grave of Rabbi Nachman is something that can only be seen outside of Israel.

UMAN, Ukraine - Three or four passengers lost their tempers while still on Ukrainian soil, in the plane that was about to take off for Israel. With no assigned seats, a loud argument erupted over a seat at the front of the plane. "You Ashkenazis, you think you have everything coming to you," said the fellow - unable to restrain himself - who eventually gave in, igniting a huge ruckus. The Ukrainian flight attendants, about to start their safety demonstration, looked helpless and confused, standing with the oxygen masks in their hands.

"Wait, you wait," threatened someone else, pulling out a cellular phone. "At Ben-Gurion International Airport the police will be waiting for you." And then from one of the seats toward the back came the cry: "Nazi ultra-Orthodox, Nazi Ashkenazis!" "Quite a mixture," commented someone else. A few passengers tried to cool down the main troublemaker, and begged him not to ruin "the unity of Israel."

This was a trivial and localized incident, but at the same time strikingly ironic. A few hours earlier, the passengers on this flight had gathered, together with some 20,000 others, all dressed in white, at the lakeside in Uman for the ceremony of tashlich - the ritual of casting one's sins into a body of water on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It is doubtful that anyone had ever attended such a heterogeneous event in Israel, but on the runway at Odessa, there could no longer be any doubt: What is called "the holy ingathering of Rosh Hashanah," around the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in Uman, could only have happened outside the boundaries of Israel, at a safe distance from the splintered and raucous home court.

But why start at the end of this saga - or, as Rebbe Nachman said: "It's also necessary to know how to tell a story." Indeed, for about a week, this "story" had everyone mixing together, or almost everyone: Mizrahim (Jews from Muslim and Arab countries) and Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern and Central Europe), Zionists and anti-Zionists, traditionalists and secularists, rich and poor, and people wearing all manner of skullcaps and headgear, some with Hasidic slippers and others with fluorescent orange Crocs. Thousands of Israelis and another 1,000 or so Jews from other countries parted with $700 to $1,000, which many of them didn't really have to spare, to get on a plane and sleep in a tent for several days or crowd into a moldy apartment along with 10 to 15 other people for rents that climbed to $150-$350 per person this year.

The story here is about the religious and ultra-Orthodox world, because in Uman there is conclusive evidence of Bratslav's power - despite the scorn for this Hasidic group that is voiced by a number of rabbis, despite the intellectual-traditionalist perception of the pilgrimage to Uman as idolatry, and despite a scandal that broke out not long ago after a rabbi from Safed made a non-politically correct attack on the Rebbe from Uman and his disciples.

The Lithuanian and Sephardic rabbis, as well as the admors (spiritual leaders) of Gur, Satmar, Belz, Tzanz and others, would be surprised if they knew how many of their students and members of their communities had left everything and flown off to Uman on Rosh Hashanah to be with the Bratslav people in their rebbe's "holy Zion." This year so many of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's disciples came, for example, that for the first time a new and large minyan (prayer quorum) was established here - with the Lubavitcher liturgy. In Uman.

And the story here is also Israeli-secular, because many people who come to Uman are for the first time exposed to prayers and to a religious agenda; they define themselves as secularists who have come for "the cultural experience" or for a moment of spirituality or a blessing. There are people here who cling to every conceivable ideological view, and others who have lived ultra-Orthodox lives for years, who bring along children who have never known any other world.

Thus thousands of men gather in a foreign city, roaming in groups, sleeping and eating together, praying together and collectively dipping in the mikveh (ritual bath). And although the male atmosphere is somewhat reminiscent of what happens in a city on the eve of an important soccer match, and although even the ultra-Orthodox address one another informally as "brother" - there is little machismo in Uman. How many of the people here would allow themselves to dance wildly at home, embrace friends and also strangers, rejoice, and above all, break down in tears? This is a male event of 'round-the-clock emotionalism. At the rebbe's grave everyone prays, individually and in groups, pouring out their hearts and wailing; wherever you look, at any time of day or night, you will invade someone's intimate moment in which, with closed eyes, he is fighting for his life, sometimes literally. Uman is the place to conduct a fruitful dialogue with the Creator, and no one raises an eyebrow if someone - like the fellow in the crochet skullcap who has just come out of morning prayers - walks down the middle of Pushkina Street, crying out to heaven: "Lord, send me something for breakfast, okay?" Before the holiday begins, thousands crowd into the tomb compound, filling the streets all around and climbing on roofs and fences to recite the "Tikkun haklali" ("General Remedy") - a collection of 10 Psalms edited by Rabbi Nachman. Pilgrimage to the grave on Rosh Hashanah, the recitation of the Tikkun and the giving of charity - that's the deal that Rabbi Nachman offers everyone, even the greatest sinner, so that "I will make an effort and endeavor with all my might to save and correct him. By his earlocks I will pull him out of the depths of Sheol [the netherworld]."

Toward the end, the congregation repeated the words of the prayer leader that came over the loudspeakers, and when they came to "Our Father, our King, bring us to full repentance before you," the subdued groans of the few were replaced by a thunderous wave of clapping and whistling and shouting. It looked and sounded like something was being ripped out of the worshipers' bodies.

Mass migration

There are 90,000 inhabitants in Uman, and once a year, in the fall, they are witness to the migration of the disciples, guarded by hundreds of Ukrainian police who spread out through the residential neighborhood at the edge of town, where Rabbi Nachman is buried. The neighborhood is located on a hill, beyond which rises another hill, green meadows and sloped tile roofs; a river flows in the valley below. The landscape - European, rural and rather forbidding - has most probably not changed much since 1810, the year of Rebbe Nachman's death.

Everyone here believes, and they have proof, that only "our rebbe" - who among other things wrote that "the major part of peace is to join two opposites" - is the one who welds together different groups and circles, which loathe one another in everyday life back in Israel, if only because of unfamiliarity and self-imposed isolation in ghettos.

"Only our rebbe," said one follower, "can bring such opposites here. Anyone you can imagine is here."

Nevertheless, he is asked, who isn't here?

"Those who have two strong an intellect," he explained. "Only someone who can let go of the intellect a bit can go with the flow."

Despite, or perhaps even because of, the fact that women are absent, in Uman there is a rare tolerance that derives not only from Rabbi Nachman's philosophy, but also from the history of his successors as "dead" Hasids - Hasids without an admor. Nearly 200 years after he died, his disciples today are split into at least 20 groups, each of which has an outlook and an identity of its own: Zionist, anti-Zionist, mystical, scholarly, Yiddish-speaking or Hebrew-speaking with a Mizrahi accent. At the heads of these groups there are rabbis, not admors in the full sense of the word, but there are those among them who have adopted some of the marks of an admor.

One such man is Rabbi Eliezer Berland, the head of the Shuvu Banim Yeshiva in Jerusalem, who moves around here with a phalanx of thick-necked Ukrainian bodyguards; another is his student Rabbi Shalom Aruosh, head of the Hut Shel Hessed Yeshiva. In no other Hasidic or ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi stream would a Mizrahi rabbi dream of a place in the first row. The openness is also manifested in the huge percentage - some say majority - of Mizrahi men at Uman. Even those who have adopted a European ultra-Orthodox look do not give up the Mizrahi liturgy, and there are dozens of groups here that worship in the style of the Mizrahi communities.

In recent years, the World Bratslav Committee has collapsed, so there is no umbrella organization or establishment behind the gathering, but rather several dozen organizations that act independently, with a certain amount of cooperation among them. Thus, for example, every year a different group volunteers to set up a clinic, including doctors and equipment that are flown in, and various organizations operate kitchens and dining halls and arrange deals with airlines. Every Bratslav organization also tries to earn money here to support its institutions, via charity boxes, fundraising activities aimed mainly at Jews from the Americas and Europe, and real estate deals in the flourishing apartment market.

The fact that there is no program or umbrella organization here creates Jewish anarchy in the streets, so any phenomenon, no matter how odd, is accepted here as an everyday act, or is received at least with forgiveness. Pushkina Street, the main artery of the Jewish shtetl, is one big rave of people worshiping the Holy Name, where anyone can set up a table with a loudspeaker and broadcast sacred trance music or a Torah lesson, or sell sausages, shakshouka (a dish of eggs with vegetables) or anything: discs, books, silver rings with the familiar motto "Na Nach Nachman of Uman" on them, skullcaps with pom-poms, fringed ritual garments, amulets and blessings.

Sofia Park

It is a 20-minute walk from Rabbi Nachman's grave to the gates of Sofia Park, an ancient park with a large lake at its center. Lush trees, their branches heavy with green and reddening leaves, arch over paths, statuary and fountains. Masses of Jews come here because of the recommendation by Rabbi Nachman - who said, "In Uman zeyn un in Sofia nit?" (meaning in Yiddish: "To be in Uman and not in Sofia?") - and the legend that the park is named after the governor of Uman's daughter, who was murdered because of her father's efforts to protect the Jews of the city. Visitors come to stretch out on the grass, enjoy "solitary meditation" in the woods or go rowing on the lake.

Aharon and Yisrael, Ger Hasids, one from a city in the center of Israel and the other from an ultra-Orthodox locale in the north, sit on a bench, chatting and getting their pictures taken. What are Ger Hasids doing in Uman, at a time when their fellow sect members at home are gathering in Jerusalem to celebrate Rosh Hashanah together with their admor? The answers in this case very much resemble those given by people educated as religious Zionists who have come here, by people from the Lithuanian stream or by people who have had a secular education: They come to "connect," to belong, and also to disengage. It seems as though everyone wants to some extent to be Hasidic, and even Hasids from other sects talk about a longing for an "authentic" Hasidism.

"It's not just the belief in paradise that Rebbe Nachman promises," explained Yisrael, who is in Uman for the third time. "This morning, when I prayed, I experienced the half hour that I wait for all year long. Suddenly you feel a connection to something. You come, you unload baggage, not only the everyday difficulties, but also there's the desire to get closer to the Holy One, blessed be he."

Strange as it may sound, the trip to Uman is also a vacation. Not because of the rush to the duty free at Ben-Gurion airport or the Ukrainian prostitutes who drum up work for themselves and for the "modesty squads," but a kind of holiday freedom that touches upon the religious world, the freedom of not having to control emotions. And in Uman there is something that defies conventions and breaks down barriers between worldviews and groups of people.

"I came here for the first time three years ago," related Yisrael. "I suddenly found myself with nonreligious Jews, people 'growing stronger' in religion, and this lifted me up entirely in a spiritual sense."

Aharon, his friend, says he finds it "hard to describe the inner feelings that accompany me here. For me it is a great joy to meet Jews of another sort, it's something that in Israel would be irrelevant to what happens to me. I already felt this at Ben-Gurion, where suddenly the barriers begin to fall. You're a Ger Hasid and all of the sudden you can look someone straight in the eye and talk with someone like you never did before in your life. And this can happen only here. On the one hand, you look around you at this town and you wonder how it could have been that our grandfathers and grandmothers were in such a disgusting place. On the other hand, it is clear to me that this disgusting place is the only place where this unity of Israel is possible nowadays. It is clear to me that if Rabbi Nachman were buried in Netivot, what happens here couldn't happen there."

"The fact that an ultra-Orthodox boy goes to the mikveh here," continued Yisrael, "and sees people with tattoos is a very good thing, in my opinion. Maybe he gets the shock of his life here, but I don't see a negative side to this. He sees reality; you must get to know all of Israel. Because of the fact that I bathe with other people, and in future years I will want my son to come here with me - I feel that I am contributing something to the ultra-Orthodox public. Maybe it's a drop in the ocean, but it is important to come in contact with all kinds of Jews."