As recently as two weeks ago they could be seen, at various times, at the Sakharov Gardens near the main entrance to Jerusalem or under the new Chords Bridge. Boys with large, white skullcaps bearing the "Na Nach Nachm Nachman Me'Uman" slogan approach drivers waiting for the light to change; they ask for a donation in exchange for a small book of prayers. The boys live nearby, on the compound of Daniel Ambash, in the abandoned Arab village of Lifta.
Ambash, a well-known figure among the "Na Nachs," the Bratslav Hasidim who are working to spread the "Nachman Me'Uman" slogan, rarely leaves the house. In the past few years, he has surrounded himself with a small, tight-knit, insular community with many children, a handful of men and a few women. During the day, the women and children are sent out to collect donations and sell books at intersections and shopping malls around the country. At night, if the house band is not performing somewhere, the women and children return to the building in Lifta, the roof of which supports a billboard with the "Na Nachman" slogan and a photograph of an old, religious man, hands raised skyward. Under the roof, a patchwork of concrete, corrugated iron and other materials, are two spacious Arab houses with various tacked-on additions. This is Ambash's fortress, where he lives with at least four women and an unknown number of children - at least 13 and perhaps as many as 20.
According to Interior Ministry records, Ambash is divorced and has seven children. Ilana Lugasi, from whom he divorced in 1997, lives with him in Lifta. On Monday of last week, when an uninvited guest came calling in the heat of the afternoon, within seconds four children shot out of the house to ask what he wanted. They disappeared when asked where Ambash or one of his children could be found. Neighbors say that later that day they noticed a flurry of activity in the compound and saw adults and children leaving with suitcases.
The next day, the place was empty. The yard was strewn with garbage and food scraps. A large white dog was left tied up, without water, near the big wooden entryway. Plastic toys were scattered near one of the buildings, next to the main path. "School?" a neighbor laughed dismissively when asked about the children. "No, no. Just yesterday I saw them at the intersection, near the Chords Bridge, begging. Once I saw one of the boys put on a sad expression and go up to a car to ask for money. I felt like it's already their profession, God help them."
Ambash, 53, was born in France as Daniel Mamboush and attended Jewish schools. He married, became a father and divorced. He worked at a Jewish theater in Paris. Shimon Grosskot, a Bratslav Hasid with a thick beard, has a history with Ambash that goes back to France. He explains that the turning point in their lives came in the late 1980s, when they both met Rabbi Yisroel Dov Ber Odesser - the man whose image graces the billboard topping the compound in Lifta.
To understand the background to Ambash's faith, you must go back to Odesser, known as "Saba" [grandfather] to his followers. Grosskot, his eyes shining, is happy to help fill in the details. Odesser was born in Tiberias around the turn of the 20th century. "When he was young he found a book called 'Hishtapkhut Hanefesh' ('The Outpouring of the Soul')," Grosskot related. "The book had no binding and he didn't know who the author was. Odesser read the book and it made a big impression on him. When he was studying at the Rabbi Meir Ba'al Hanes Yeshiva, near Tiberias, one of the students noticed him reading the book and told him that it was a Bratslav book, the teaching of which was forbidden at the time. It was ripped out of his hands, but that only made him want to get even closer to the Bratslavers," Grosskot concluded.
Odesser moved to Jerusalem and delved further into Rabbi Nachman's writings. In an audio tape made by Odesser and distributed now by his followers, "Saba" related that in 1922 he broke the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, eating and drinking before the end of the fast. Afterward, as Odesser said in the recording: "I didn't want to live and I fell into this sadness in which I couldn't speak to or see anyone. I went to the yeshiva and I laid down in the synagogue there like a dead person, I didn't eat or sleep for six days." After six days of fasting, Odesser found, in a miraculous manner, a yellowed piece of paper with a brief text, the center of which was the slogan "Na Nach Nachm Nachman Me'Uman," inside a copy of the collected laws of Rabbi Nachman.
According to his followers, Odesser was certain that this was a message to him from the rabbi, despite the fact that Reb Nachman had been dead for over a century. Odesser kept the note a secret for decades, revealing it only at the age of 80. The revelation attracted many people to Odesser, who believed that spreading this message among the Jewish people would hasten the Redemption. The dissemination of the slogan is also at the center of the activity of the Na Nachs, who also began calling "Saba" "Ba'al hapitka" ("the one with the note").
In the late 1980s Odesser, already a very old man, went abroad to raise money and recruit supporters. Maurice Shoshan, a student who was close to the rebbi, accompanied him to the United States and then to France. "In Paris, he made a very big impression," says Shoshan. "Ambash was a student in a kollel [a yeshiva for married men] in Paris and was close to another Bratslav rabbi, but when he heard Rabbi Yisroel he became very strongly attached to him."
The encounter with "Saba" convinced Ambash and Grosskot to immigrate to Israel. They were not alone. "At first dozens of families made aliyah and brought their friends with them, so a few hundred people ended up coming here because of him," says Shoshan. Grosskot came in 1991, Ambash in 1992; both friends went to the immigrant absorption center in Mevasseret Zion, right outside Jerusalem. Odesser, by now nearly 100 if not more, stayed in the homes of his followers, including Ambash, who took care of him and thirstily drank in his every word.
Every year the group traveled to Ukraine to visit Rabbi Nachman's grave in Uman, until Odesser told them to stop the practice. Since Odesser's death, in 1994, his disciples have not gone to Uman, to mark the anniversary of Reb Nachman's death in Israel instead.
"Nachman Me'Uman" is familiar to every Israeli, seen on graffiti, bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets. So it's a little surprising when Dr. Zvi Mark, a scholar of Hasidism, says that many Bratslavers "do not have high regard for 'Saba' and claim the note of his is rubbish, sacrilege. Among the Bratslav the norm was that Rabbi Nachman was the only central figure, and this extremist worship of the figure of 'Saba' is viewed as a contradiction to the Bratslav tradition," Mark says.
The estrangement from mainstream Hasidism forced Ambash to find an independent method for spreading Odesser's note. Alei Shoshan, the publishing house he founded in 1993 with Grosskot, began issuing various writings by Odesser and Reb Nachman in which the note was a central motif. Grosskot says that although the company closed a few years later Ambash continued to publish books, including a pictorial album of Odesser from childhood.
Uri Eliav of Moshav Meron, who met Ambash in the mid-1990s, says that in that period he behaved like a rabbi. This is a slightly dubious compliment; Bratslavers are know for their aversion to rabbis, whom they believe are delaying the Redemption. Eliav: "There was a period in the beginning when I spread the message with him. I didn't feel right about it, it was like he was taking over my life. He was always saying things like, 'Why are you doing it this way and not that?' I felt like it was a leadership like the rabbinate and that's why I left him."
In addition to disseminating books, Ambash founded a band, the Bettlers ("beggars" in Yiddish), who perform at various events in honor of "Saba" and Reb Nachman. The band's name is from Rabbi Nachman's "The Seven Beggars" story. In recent years, the band has also played at an annual celebration organized by Ambash to bring together Na Nachs from all the different streams. The Israeli rap singer Subliminal appeared at the last hilula, held in a banquet hall in Talpiot, Jerusalem.
Mark recalls an amusing incident that he witnessed at another hilula, this one at Jerusalem's Great Synagogue: "This guy showed up and said that he had also received a note from Rabbi Nachman. It was a note with a Star of David on it and it totally threw them. It was odd, but they couldn't just say that it was madness for someone to think that he received a note from Rabbi Nachman, so they had this urgent powwow about it and told him that they'd rented the hall for a specific event and couldn't do something else there."
Cutting family ties
Ambash settled in Lifta about 10 years ago, at first renting three adjacent houses for about $2,000 a month in total. He had to give up one of the houses a few years ago, when the owners decided to move back. "One of them offered to pay any price to be able to stay there, but the owners insisted on returning," a neighbor says.
At around the same time he met Asa Mirbash, who is now 40. A relative of the latter says he was born into a non-observant family in the center of the country but became religious while still a youth. He attended religious schools, served in the army and later became involved with Bratslav Hasidism. He married Dorit-Liat Biran, who was from an ultra-Orthodox family. And then he met Ambash.
Mirbash lives with a different group of "Ambash Hasidim" in an apartment in Jerusalem's Givat Shaul neighborhood. His wife is one of the women living in Lifta. One of the houses there belongs to Zehava Akrai. According to Akrai, the lease was signed by Ilana (Ambash-Lugasi), who sometimes delivers the rent, but sometimes Dorit (Mirbash) makes the payment. Akrai says she has never seen Daniel Ambash: "The last time I was there I asked to see the ground-floor apartment and they said, 'No, they're sleeping now,' as if to get out of it."
After he met Ambash, Mirbash cut himself off from his family almost completely, and now sees them about once a year. "It's a matter of dependence on Ambash," Mirbash's relative says. "Somehow they cause them to not speak with their parents. Dorit's family used to send them a thousand shekels a month in the hope that maybe they'd let them see the kids. It didn't help and now they say that everything is from God."
What do they do there?
"They work all the time and give the money to them. I know that Dorit goes into the coffee shops and asks for donations and Asa stands at the cemetery and asks people to give a donation or to buy a book. It's an industry. They also made Asa sell his home in Bnei Brak and they took the money. Asa and his wife believed that this was what they had to do, from a religious standpoint. His mother went to the police and was told that since her son is not a minor, there's nothing they can do. Daniel told her straight out at the time that her son wanted to donate the money from the apartment and that he was going to take the money."
Sima Cohen, 28, from Jerusalem, met Ambash about five years ago and now lives in the Lifta compound. Sarah, her mother, is a devout woman whose home in Ramot is decorated with pictures of eminent rabbis. She says her daughter was not an observant Jew until after her army service. "On the holidays she would go to give out packages of sweets at the hospitals," Sarah relates. "About five years ago she met a woman on the way there who suggested that she come to her home, because there were some needy children there. This Esther roams the streets looking for girls like her to bring to Lifta. My daughter went with her, saw the children and became attached to them.
"She started going there every day but still came home at night. She didn't tell very much about what they did there, just that it was a kind of a seminary, that the girls also took care of the children and that they distributed all kinds of Bratslav books. She said there was this man, not a rabbi, who taught them things. Once she told me that they cleansed her of her impurity and that she was unconscious for two days and foam came out of her mouth." After a few months, Sima began sleeping over at Lifta, and then, like other followers of Ambash, she changed her first name - to Simha ("Joy").
"On the Shavuot holiday a few years ago," says her mother, "they invited me to cook for them. I went there and saw some strange things. For example, all the girls, even the ones who look to be the same age, look alike. When I asked which ones were sisters, they looked at my daughter and she said to me angrily, 'Stop asking questions! What is it to you?'"
How many children were there then?
"When we were there, there were 13.
And how many women?
"Six: Sima, Ilana, Esther, her daughter Rachel, Dorit and two young girls whose names I don't know."
Can you describe the house?
"It's huge but it doesn't look like a home. In one room there are lots of computers, I don't know why. The neglect is just awful. There are boxes of food, fruit and vegetables, just lying around. My daughter told me that they take turns and go to the market to collect donations. There are children of all ages, from three up to 14 or 15. You don't see any men, not even Ambash himself. The children are neglected, the place is a shambles. My daughter told me the women take turns teaching them. When I started trying to ask the children who their parents were I didn't get any answers and then they hustled me out of there.
"Sima began cutting off contact with us and stopped coming home to visit. She was very, very wary. Now our only contact is by phone. At one period she completely disappeared and we didn't know what was going on, if she was alive or dead. Once she came to visit us on Purim, dressed as a fat clown. We asked her if she was hiding a little Nachman in that belly and she said, 'Pray for me. If only.' After that we didn't see her for about a year. I don't know if she was pregnant or not."
The family knows about the children's activities. "I saw Esther and the children begging," says Sima Cohen's sister, and her brother adds, "They go from car to car and beg." Sima's suspension of contact with her family was accompanied by complaints of violence. Three years ago Sima went to the police and said that one Friday night her father came to Lifta, broke the windows of the house and threatened to set it on fire. She also claimed that he physically attacked her when they ran into each other at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market. Charges were filed against Yaakov Cohen; he denies the allegations and the case is still pending. Sarah and Yaakov Cohen, as well as another eyewitness to the second incident, said in a deposition that it was Sima who behaved violently.
The case file contains a memo indicating that the police have a prior interest in the goings-on in the Lifta compound. "There is a file [on] what occurred in Lifta at House Number 119," investigator Dana Eliahu wrote. "A number of women and the husband of one of the women reside at the location. The names of the women are Ilana Lugasi, Dorit Biran, Sima Cohen and there may be others. The husband is the husband of Ilana Lugasi, his name is not known.... I want all of the adult women who are found in the house in a future visit brought in to the station and for all their details (address, ID number, telephone numbers) to be fully recorded. Ilana's husband should also be brought in for questioning."
The day after the memo was written, two police officers were dispatched to Lifta, but they found the house completely empty due to renovations. Apparently no additional police action has been taken on the matter. A Jerusalem police spokesperson confirmed only that Sima Cohen's complaint against her father was investigated and that he was charged in the case.
Mind your business
Ambash may be divorced according to Interior Ministry records, but when Ilana Lugasi gave a statement to the police, during its investigation of Sima Cohen's complaint, she said that she was married to him. Among the Na Nachs, Ambash is rumored to be married to at least one other woman. According to one, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Frank conducted his second wedding.
Frank, who lives on Mea She'arim Street in the capital, is known as a mohel (ritual circumciser) for the Na Nachs. He does not deny that he married Ambash more than once.
How many times?
"I don't recall exactly."
I've been told that he is married to several women.
"Nu, nu, so what? Is that any of my business? Everybody should focus on his own little corner and no more than that."
"I'm not interested in talking about that. It's forbidden. There are prohibitions in the Torah against talking about it. There are whole discussions of the laws of lashon hara [harmful speech and gossip]."
Doesn't it go against Rabbi Gershom's edict against polygamy?
"The edict applied to a particular period."
And it's no longer valid?
"That's what the Rabbi [Nachman] from Bratslav thought, too."
S., a young rabbi who is active in the Jerusalem Chabad community, heard about Ambash's group about two months ago, when the director of the Israeli Center for Cult Victims, Ayelet Kedem, asked him for help. S. decided to investigate. "One day I dressed up like a Bratslaver, with a big skullcap," he recounts.
"I saw the children, aged 12 to 14, collecting money at the intersection at the entrance to Jerusalem. I came to them, as if I wanted to join the band. They met with me and explained their beliefs, and you see how everything there revolves around money, you can actually smell it. There were a few men there and three women. Afterward I asked to meet with Daniel. They called him and after a while they said that I could come.
"They put me in this room, like a reception room, in the front of the house. There's a refrigerator and a big table and that's it. Every few minutes, a woman would pass by and peek in through the window. There's a concept in kabbala of something that's impure, something terrible, that's called shin-daled [the Hebrew letters spell the word shed, or "demon"]. His whole teaching is that except for him and the rest of the Na Nachs, the whole world is shin-daled."
Ambash's neighbors also describe a strangeness and alienation that has steadily grown over the years. "In the beginning, everything was fine, but now they don't speak with anyone anymore. They think that anyone who doesn't believe in Nachman is not a human being," one says. "They all have multiple names. Some also have double names, as if they want to hide something."
Another neighbor says that a few months ago, one of the women came to her and went through four different names when introducing herself until she remembered her current one. Last Purim, according to neighbors in Lifta, the group held a party on a nearby hilltop. In defiance of religious custom, the men dressed up as women and men and women celebrated together.
Even among the Na Nachs, Ambash's group is considered odd. "His group is called 'Rabbi Nachman in Jerusalem,'" says one. "To them, Odesser, who is buried in the Har Hamenuhot emetery in Jerusalem, is actually Rabbi Nachman himself," one related. He also said that at a convention of the Na Nachs held at a Jerusalem hotel, "Ambash was the only one who didn't sleep at the hotel, but returned with his women to the house." Uri Eliav says, "They're very much apart from the rest, they really keep to themselves. I see him from time to time, and I'm familiar with this thing that he's always with the women, I know that he married another woman, but I try not to get involved."
Mark says there is no obvious religious explanation for Ambash's behavior. "The Bratslavers are actually considered exceedingly strict. For example, it is said that some of them don't wear glasses in order not to see women, or to only see them blurred. I've never come across anything in the opposite extreme."
Some of the Na Nachs, however, see a possible explanation right in Reb Nachman's own writings: "There's a discussion by Rabbi Nachman that says one must abandon everything for the sake of the tzaddik [holy man]," Shoshan says. "Some people interpret this in another, more radical way. Rabbi Nachman's sayings have multiple meanings, and anyone can take them as they want."
When Grosskot is asked about the lifestyle of his friend Ambash, he says, "I don't want to get into those things. All I can say is, from what I've read in the books of Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Yisroel [Odesser], when you try to live in accordance with what is accepted among the Jewish people according to halakha, you don't succeed in everything. But I've heard a lot of stories about a lot of people, and in the end it wasn't true. From what I know of the children, they don't look like children without an education. I know a lot of children in Tel Aviv who aren't in a regular framework."
All our attemps to meet or speak with Ambash failed. In repeated visits to his home, no one answered the door even when voices could be heard inside. There are five cell phone numbers listed in his family members' names; most were disconnected and there was no answer on the others. His followers did not answer their phones, either. It was only possible to speak briefly on the phone with one of his grown sons, Moshe-Michael, about the family's band. Any attempt to expand the conversation to other topics was thwarted.
I'd like to meet with you all.
"What for? Which message do you want me to give you? We have one purpose: We go to all kinds of places in all kinds of ways in order to spread the word about the note and the owner of the note. The best thing would be for you to just write, 'Na Nach Nachm Nachman Me'Uman.' It's a charm for all the blessings and that's the best thing as far as we're concerned. That's what our band does, it spreads the Na-Nach. What we're seeking is the best way to spread the Na-Nach message in the world."
Do you live in Lifta?
"We go all over the country. There may be someone there at the entrance to the city. It's not us."
I know you all live there. Why say that you don't?
"Why is it important? Why are you going into that? We don't want people to know us. We want to spread the Na-Nach message."
Is it possible to speak with your father?
"What do you want? If I see him, I'll tell him that Haaretz newspaper is looking for him."
I understand you have a group that lives together at the entrance to Jerusalem.
"Why don't you tell me about it? I'm not as well-informed as you."
It is said that Daniel has gathered around him women and men who are very devoted to the cause.
"I've never heard about that. Who told you about this? I don't know what you're talking about. I must go now."
The next attempt to call him led to an even briefer conversation.
May I speak with Michael?
"He's not here."
With whom am I speaking?
"You're speaking with Yaakov. Or Shmuel."
I'm a reporter from Haaretz. I would like to speak with Michael or Daniel.
"Don't know them. Maybe you have the wrong number."