Hasidic Pilgrims and Ukrainian Sex Workers: Prayer and Pleasure in Uman

It isn’t only Hasidim who travel to Uman for the High Holy Days. Come Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot, prostitutes also pack onto the trains in Kiev, to help local professionals meet demand.

Shimon Ifergen, Mako
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Jewish pilgrims at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman.
Jewish pilgrims at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman.Credit: Reuters
Shimon Ifergen, Mako

Yitzhak, 35, a father of three, first visited Uman three years ago. He prostrated himself at the graveside of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, for the sake of spiritual enrichment and for the mitzvah, hoping to secure a good living, answers to his problems, and a happy life. “When we finished the evening prayer my friend suggested we take a walk and get fresh air,” says Yitzhak. “He took me to a neighborhood at the edge of town. We went into one of the houses. I didn’t think about my wife at all and she knows nothing about this. I know about other Hasidim who go to prostitutes in Uman: married, single – Hasidim of all types.”

Uman is a central Ukrainian city where Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was buried after his death in 1810. Each year, a quarter of a million people, from the decidedly secular to the most fervent of believers, make the pilgrimage to the city because, according to tradition, the rabbi promised to intercede on behalf of anybody praying at his grave on Rosh Hashanah.

Most of the pilgrims to the Uman go there to pray, but about 5 percent, estimates Israel Cohen, a writer for the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar HaShabbat, have something else in mind too. This works out to thousands of johns a year.

Last month, Labor Knesset member Merav Michaeli sparked a Facebook storm when she uploaded a video of herself discussing another Knesset member, Likud’s Oren Hazan (who allegedly used hard drugs and coordinated escort services for clients at the casino he managed in Bulgaria before entering politics). In the video, she also mentioned prostitution in Uman. With that, Michaeli touched on a sore point, which the Hasidic pilgrims tend not to discuss.

Jewish pilgrims walk with a Torah scroll to the synagogue in Uman. Photo by Reuters

“At first just a few dozen would visit prostitutes while in Uman,” says Jacky, a Breslov Hasid. “It might happen at the park, in houses on the edge of town, or in the hostels. Nobody talked openly about it.”

But that drip became a torrent, so much so that special “modesty patrols” were set up to punish errant Hasids, Jacky says (though they didn’t last). As the women throng about them, in the last couple of years rabbis have taken to wearing shawls with which they can cover their eyes.

Israeli crime bosses get involved

The pilgrimage to Uman has become a huge thing for Jews in general and Israelis in particular over the last 15 years. “People break savings accounts to make the trip to Uman during Rosh Hashanah,” says Matan Meshi, a 22-year-old Breslov Hasid who’s already visited Uman 30 times. “It is a great mitzvah, which is rewarded by great successes and miracles. One week in Uman costs $1,700, which is a lot of money for simple people or yeshiva students. But they’ll turn the world upside down, scrape for every shekel in order to win this mitzvah,” he says.

Jewish pilgrims arrive at Uman. Photo by Reuters

Daniel is another Breslov Hasid who’s had to replace his passport twice already because of his frequent visits to Uman, and who admits he visits prostitutes there. “My wife knows nothing about it,” he says. “It inflames and excites me. Then I go home, calm down for some months, and fly out again. For me it’s prayer and pleasure, too.”

Rabbi Nachman-related tourism is big business, turning over hundreds of millions of shekels a year. After the gravesite became a hit, the local authorities fixed it up, helped by Jewish tycoons from around the world. New hotels and hostels were built and even the locals fixed up their houses.

Modestly dressed ladies of the night

That’s the upside for Uman, but there has been a downside too. One is Israeli criminals fleeing the long arm of the Israeli law, some of whom settle down in Uman and resume the lifestyle they know best: pimping. One Haredi who’s been to the city dozens of times claims the prostitution is controlled by Israeli crime bosses in league with Ukrainian pimps.

Ukraine is the second-poorest country in Europe: some 24% of its population lives below the poverty line. Inflation runs at over 10% a year, GDP per capita is $3,900 (compared with $14,600 for Russia, $2,240 for Moldova, $1,500 for India and $36,500 for Israel – all figures for 2013). Ukraine is also suffering from demographic decline: low fertility rates combined with high death rates translates into population contraction. Unemployment runs at about 10% and economic growth is negligible.

Jewish pilgrim dance in the street near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Photo by Reuters

Poor women in rural Ukraine may have few options other than prostitution, and many wind up in Kiev, which has earned itself the soubriquet of the sex capital of Europe. Some 50,000 women are believed to engage in prostitution in Kiev itself (and one of of every five is believed to be a minor); about 30% of them are believed to be addicts; and 20% to carry AIDS. (In the previous decade, thousands of Ukrainian women seeking a living reached Israel, too).

Uman’s whole population is 85,000, including its suburbs. It has five universities, and the visiting Hasidic clients claim that some female students wind up selling sex services to pay tuition. One Haredi who knows Uman well claims some families are so desperate that mothers try to pimp their daughters right by Nachman’s grave itself.

“Some even learned the rules, and wear modest dress in order not to offend the feelings of the Hasids,” says an Israeli who now lives in Uman. He believes the customers for the Uman prostitutes are mainly reborn Jews, at some point in their process of discovering religion. “They go to the girls because they’re weak in character, and fall,” he suggests. “Happily, there aren’t many of them. It’s mainly men coming to Uman for the first or second time, who had not been exposed to things like this before, and they stumble. Ultimately, Haredi men also have base urges and can go wrong.”

Of the roughly 250 Israelis who have taken up residence in Uman, one is Shimon Buskila, who’s been there 12 years and is very active in the local Israeli community. “Even Rabbi Nachman said that a man must be careful not to fall to temptation,” says Buskila. “The people who come here want to become stronger, to reach higher levels of spirituality. It’s a long process.” Meanwhile, the Ukrainian authorities have become concerned about the problem, or at least the image problem, he says, and in contrast to other cities, police do take action, not least because they want the general population of religious tourists to feel safe and comfortable.

Jewish pilgrims celebrate near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Photo by Reuters

S., a freshly-married young man, eschewed sexual services, though his (equally married) roommates did not, and came back to their shared quarters as excited as schoolboys, he says. He personally was worried that somebody would snitch to his family or wife.

Moreover, sometimes what’s done in Uman stays in Uman, but not for the better – S. says he knows of “at least” 10 cases of men who wound up abandoning their families in Israel for local Ukrainian women. “Uman has become a city of sanctuary. It’s very hard to track them down and force them to sign divorce papers and pay child support,” S. says.

The Haredi establishment is not unaware of the problems. Some rabbis have actually banned their followers from flying to Uman, lest they fall to temptation to sin, says Cohen of Kikar HaShabbat.

“Uman is a place with a lot of sanctity,” says Cohen. “But remember that the Breslovs don’t have an admor (or Hasidic rabbi) to guide them, as other Hasidic groups have, like Vizhnitz and Belz. [The Breslov] is a hasidic movement that embraces a lot of reborn Jews and secular Jews, meaning, it has a core of people who come from somewhere else.”

Modesty blasé

About three years ago, less out of concern for the women than the chastity of their men, the Breslov Hasids decided it was high time to curb the phenomenon, and set up modesty patrols.

Buskila says the patrols – paid for mainly by donations from the religious tourists - did a good job in deterring men from visiting prostitutes, though a hard core of customers not deterred by the patrols did remain.

In any case, after a year the whole idea fell through because even though they weren’t asked for more than about a dollar each, the travelers balked at paying anything for the pleasure of being policed by the zealous modesty patrols.

Wait a moment. What do the rabbis say about hiring sex? It turns out that some rabbis over the ages have ruled that a man may have sex with a woman whom he met in a distant country, on condition they not do it openly, and that he wear black throughout the act in order to be reminded of his shame. Some others have ruled that a man may have sex with an unfamiliar woman if they it is done in secret and nobody can see him.

Daniel, the Breslov who admits to hiring women for sex, says he did get caught by patrols. So what. “It wasn’t pleasant but I got over it. I don’t owe any answers to anybody, after all. Only to God.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children play at the lake next to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Photo by Reuters



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