My Pilgrimage Into the Jewish Future: Partying, Praying, Prostitution and Absolution in Uman

A Ukrainian township is home to one of the world’s biggest, and all-male, Jewish pilgrimages. It’s dirty, seductive, raucous, mystical and transgressive. Some rabbis even brand it heretical. But they can't beat it

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Orthodox Jewish pilgrims pray near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman while celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Uman, about 200 km South of Kyiv, Ukraine, 4 October 2016.
Orthodox Jewish pilgrims pray near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman while celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Uman, about 200 km South of Kyiv, Ukraine, 4 October 2016.Credit: Maxym Marusenko / NurPhoto
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

UMAN, Ukraine - On the first morning of the year of 5779, most of the Shacharit prayers in Uman were over. Thousands were streaming out of the synagogues in search of wine and cakes to make kiddush. It was nearly eleven and a few stragglers’ minyanim, huddled from the rain under leaky tarpaulin awnings, were still ongoing around the building containing the tziyun, the cloth-covered slab of marble above Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s grave.

"Where are we? Where are they up to?" asked one late arrival as he stubbed out his cigarette. A bleary-eyed, overhung man, tallit over one shoulder and a wide white knitted kippa pushed back over his stubbly graying hair. Those standing around barely stifled their laughter, but didn’t speak. A shofar was blowing its 100 blasts. To everyone else it was clear at what stage they were.

But nothing is entirely clear in Uman.

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Over 40,000 Jews, nearly entirely men, arrived this week for Rosh Hashanah to gather around the grave of Rabbi Nachman, who died here in 1810, in this poor and nondescript town in central Ukraine. In less than three decades, the site has been transformed into the largest annual Jewish pilgrimage outside of Israel.

It is seemingly an incredible resurrection of the "dead Hassidim" - a once small sect who, during Rabbi Nachman’s life and even more after his death, were relentlessly persecuted, first by their fellow Jews, especially rival Hassidic sects, then by the Russian Czarist and Soviet authorities.

But is this really a Breslaver revival? Only a tiny fraction of those arriving in Uman are descended from the original families who gathered around Rabbi Nachman and his original followers. Others are new adherents of one of the many Breslav offshoots that have proliferated in Israel, but the overwhelming majority do not lead anything coming close to a Hasidic way of life, and are Breslavers for barely a couple of days a year.

Why do they come? The standard answer is: "We came for Rabbeinu" (our rabbi/teacher). "Rabbeinu," as a generic term, has replaced the name place Uman. Most Breslavers will say, "We are going to Rabbeinu for Rosh Hashanah" - echoing Rabbi Nachman’s words: "My Rosh Hashanah is above all."

Sept. 21, 2006, a group of Orthodox Jews pray around the holy Jewish sites of Uman, some 200 km (120 miles) south of Kiev, Ukraine.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

There are hundreds of pages of sayings and exhortations attributed to Rabbi Nachman; most appeared only posthumously. In recent years, besides the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage, the Breslaver custom that has become most widespread among traditional Jews is the Tikkun HaKlali - the General Healing, or Remedy. Ten chapters he selected from the Book of Psalms.

Before his death, Rabbi Nachman promised that, "Whoever shall come to my grave and say these ten psalms there, and give a penny for charity in my name, even if his sins have grown great and mighty, God forbid, I will try and make an effort to the length and breadth [of all creation] to save and redeem him." He committed himself to pulling the sinner "by his side-locks out from the depths of hell."

Elsewhere he said these ten psalms are especially useful for cleansing oneself of the sin of "an impure omission," or, as masturbation (or any other improper ejaculation) is described in Jewish tradition, p’gam ha’brit - defiling the covenant. (Rabbi Nachman also calls it "Lilith," because obviously the she-devil is to blame).

The edition of the Tikkun HaKlali which can be found at the gravesite makes it clear already in the second paragraph of its introduction that "the main issue of Tikun HaKlali is fixing the defiling of the covenant, which includes transgressions such as masturbation, nightly emissions, and also thought, words and actions that are connected to adultery."

One Israeli educator who has spent years working in Ukraine insists that, "for many of the men who come to Uman, the fact that you can go to the tziyun, say ten tehillim, and be cleansed from your guiltiest thoughts and deeds is a major motive."

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Of the men I asked at Uman, all were aware of that particular attribute of Tikkun HaKlali, but none admitted that was why they were there. "Sure, it’s in your mind when you say Tikkun," said Gilad, a contractor from Bet Shemesh. "But it’s not like we’re Catholics who go to confession on Sunday and wash away all their sins. It’s simply something Rabbeinu said we need to do. So we do it."

I haven’t believed for many years in the rabbinical concepts of prayer, sin and God, but I do believe in minhag ha’makom - respecting the local custom, which is why when I’m in a synagogue, of any stream or persuasion, I’ll pray. So when in Uman.

Saying Tikkun HaKlali by Rabbi Nachman’s tziyun at any moment of Rosh Hashanah is nearly impossible, unless you wait, and inch forward patiently for an hour at least. The spot in the wall in the main synagogue, where the slab juts out, is constantly surrounded by thousands of people pressed against each other.

I chose my moment with care. As the new year began on Sunday evening, it started to rain in Uman, transforming the unpaved alleyways to channels of mud churned up by thousands of pilgrim feet, and tracked into the synagogue. As Maariv ended, they rushed out to queue for dinner at the massive communal kitchens - and I thought I would have my chance. But there were still hundreds who had the same idea as me.

I picked up a copy of the Tikkun and began slowly saying the ten psalms, pushing in to the scrum, in the hope that by the time I reached the tenth, I would be by the tziyun.

Towards the end of the ninth (Psalm 137 - "By the rivers of Babylon"), I was still a few feet away, and there were at least a dozen bodies between me and the wall. A tiny gap opened, not wide enough to get through, but as I reached in, I managed to grasp the smooth marble edge just as I was reciting "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock."

I managed to say the entire last psalm of Tikkun HaKlali (150 - "Halleluya, Praise God in his sanctuary"), holding on to Rabbeinu for dear life, as all around me men swirled, shoved and pushed to reach, frantically, his grave. Trying to stay on my feet, saying the psalm's six short verses, I had my moment.

I’ve been to every kind of Jewish ritual gathering you can imagine, but never been engulfed by such a disparate and diverse range of Jews. I could literally feel it. So many different fabrics and skin colors touching me at once.

I can recall to my right, elbowing me in the ribs, a stocky Hassid in a white silk bekitshe. In front of him, with his pelvis contorted backwards, a young guy in a stylish blue linen suit, weeping tehillim in a French accent. Pressed up against my face - an Ethiopian-Israeli, with a hassid’s ringlets and a shiny new black synthetic kappote, swaying devoutly back and forth, and crouching right beneath me, nearly-prostate and touching the tziyun with his fingertips, a teenage boy in a denim jacket.

Ultra orthodox Jewish men pray close to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the Ukrainian city of Uman September 20, 2006.Credit: REUTERS

I’ve got stuck in similar human compressions before, when thousands tried to reach out and touch their rabbi, or rabbi’s shrine. But they were always of the same color, dressed uniformly and praying or singing in indistinguishable accents. Now I was hearing the same words in every possible pronunciation of Hebrew.

I realized that I may be standing by the grave of a Hasidic rabbi, in a dreary backwater of what was once the Jewish Pale of Settlement, but most of the Jews surrounding me were not Ashkenazim. They were descended from families who had lived not long ago in the Maghreb, Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran and Iraq and every other non-European diaspora that ever existed. If I was writing for one of the more enlightened American Jewish publications, I would say that a majority of pilgrims at Uman are Jews of color. Jews of every color.

"You were hit by Uman’s achdus," a friend who I described my experience to later, and who has been on many a pilgrimage, said to me, using the Yiddish word for unity, rather than the Hebrew one. And he was right. Because Uman on Rosh Hashanah is a unique place of Jewish unity (if you overlook the fact that it’s only men), and as one American businessman described it to me on the flight over, "a non-judgmental zone. A place where any Jew can come and be accepted."

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If you want a picture of the Jewish future, head to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. It’s a hellish place - where Israeli and Ukrainian organized crime gangs and cults of violent rabbis have staked out their fiefdoms along the dank Pushkina Street, leading to the gravesite. A town where Haredi politicians, convicted rapists, dark money and blind devotion hold sway, and stories of miracles mix with rumors of rank prostitution, abandoned exploited teenagers and the whiff of low-grade weed. Uman is every progressive Jew’s nightmare.

But look beyond the filth, and there’s also a more optimistic vision of the future. A blurring of divisions and breakdown of hierarchies. Uman is a place where the power of the rabbis, who tried to prevent their followers from participating, has waned. Where there is no longer any distance between Ashkenazim or Mizrahim, ultra-Orthodox and secular, Israel and the Diaspora.

At times it seems that in Uman, kedushe and tumeh, the sacred and profane, have combined - and you can see why rival Hassidic leaders in the nineteenth century tried, and failed, to brand Rabbi Nachman and his followers as Sabbatean heretics. And why his vision has become such a popular alternative to the other forms of Jewish life.

I've been writing about the different strands of Judaism in Israel and abroad for the last 21 years but have always turned down any offer or opportunity of going to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. Other colleagues went, but I thought (and hoped) that it was a passing phase, just like the craze for certain holy men in Israel. I was wrong.

The passion for mekubalim [mystics] and other alleged miracle-makers has weakened somewhat, as some died, and others were revealed as tax-evaders and sexual predators. But Rabbi Nachman is already dead and therefore can’t be diminished by scandal. The cult of Breslav has endured and the Uman pilgrimage has become a year-round industry.

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Entering Uman, just off the Kiev-Odessa Highway, it looks like just any other dirt-poor Ukrainian township, but go up a side-street just before the town center, and you find yourself in a Hassidic Diagon Alley.

Every available bit of land on Pushkina has been bought up by shell companies, and the street is lined with synagogues in various stages of construction, small kosher hotels and hoardings offering holiday apartments and time-shares "right next to Rabbeinu."

Thousands of ultra orthodox Jews stand around the lake and hold the Tashlich prayer next to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the Ukrainian city of Uman September 24, 2006.Credit: REUTERS

Facing the street are squalid eateries offering burekas baked in rancid butter, and rolls filled with questionable meat masquerading as Jerusalem mixed grill. The shops offer a wide range of Breslav-themed trinkets, knock-off Judaica and cheap jewelry for the "wife of valor" waiting back home.

For some original Breslavers, including the descendants of those who risked their lives trying to make the pilgrimage during Soviet times, and who rushed here the moment the Iron Curtain came down, the crass commercialization of Uman is too much. They now stay away. Rabbi Nachman may have exhorted his followers to come to Uman on Rosh Hashanah, but he also said that "all my being is the land of Israel," providing a useful loophole for those who prefer venerate him in Zion. But there are many who complain - and continue to come.

Natan Geffen, a lifeguard from Tiberias who has been coming on and off since his ultra-Orthodox parents brought him twenty years ago as a child, says: "I don’t like way it’s become a mass event, so I stay at a hotel outside the main area. I still feel connected to Rabbeinu, though I’m no longer Haredi, and to his teachings - that all you need is one moment for teshuva [repentance]. I find one moment to go to the tziyun and that’s enough."

A walk down Pushkina also shows Breslav has won out, for now at least, against other streams of Orthodox Judaism which sought to deride it. Rabbi Nachman’s inclusivity and the Uman experience has drawn in so many members of other groups that their formal leadership have been forced to join as well.

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On one large hoarding, there is a sign dedicating a communal kitchen in the memory of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, founder of the anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidic sect, rather aptly, right next to large pictures of Donald Trump and Mike Pence and the slogan "Uman Loves Trump." Nearby is a synagogue named after Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who during his lifetime was one of the greatest opponents of the pilgrimage. "Every good Jew, who has sense, dedicates the night of Rosh Hashanah to his family," he said, scathingly, in 2007. "Everyone eats and drinks together. That’s the chag [festival]. What do you do on a chag? You have to rejoice. So do you rejoice - or go to a cemetery?"

Eleven years since Rabbi Ovadia gave that sermon, his visage smiles benevolently down on the revelers on Pushkina. As does that of another old rival of Breslav, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. His Chabad movement, with its ironclad hierarchy and cerebral theology, was always diametrically opposed to Rabbi Nachman’s anarchic ways. You can hardly find two more opposite ideologies within Hasidism. But now there’s a Chabad House on Pushkina as well.

Another stream trying to gain a foothold in Uman are the religious nationalists, who have their own minyan and shiurim [lectures] here through Rosh Hashanah. The settlers’ ideological camp prefer, of course, to focus on Rabbi Nachman’s teachings on Eretz Yisrael, and many of its leading rabbis have also spoken out against leaving Zion for the pilgrimage, but they don’t want to miss out either.

According to Breslav lore, Rabbi Nachman visited Israel in 1798, though strangely, he left after six months and never made it to Jerusalem. Breslav’s relationship with Israel remains complicated. One of the oldest Breslav groups, based around the old "Shul" in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim quarter, are still members of the anti-Zionist Old Yishuv. Their presence was felt in the leaflets advising yeshiva students on how to avoid IDF service, but they are a small minority.

Over three-quarters of the pilgrims are Israelis, though there were large contingents from the U.S., Britain and France. This year’s airlift from Ben-Gurion Airport consisted of over 80 flights; at one point I counted ten El Al jets on the tarmac at Kiev’s Borispol airport.

Ultimately, this was about large numbers of "ordinary" Israelis leaving the holy land just before one of the holiest days on the calendar. And just as with many new mass religious movements and events, the motivations of the participants are highly disparate, and often far more earthy and escapist than mystical.

"I’d say that roughly only half of those who come to Uman do so for religious reasons, and the other half are simply the dregs who come to get drunk, take drugs and visit prostitutes," says an Israeli diplomat who has dealt with the darker side of the pilgrimage.

As Rosh Hashanah ended on Tuesday night, in a small temporary office set up by the Israeli embassy in Kiev, a consul sat at one table dealing with a long queue of pilgrims who had managed to lose their passports. At another, two superintendents summed up the list of casualties. Twenty uniformed Israeli police officers, along with more discreet members of other security services, were deployed this year to Uman, to help keep order along with hundreds of their Ukrainian colleagues, some of whom, carrying Kalashnikovs, manned road-blocks at the entry-points to the area around the tziyun. In a nearby clearing, emergency vehicles and a Medevac helicopter were ready.

The official Israeli report mentioned "a number of assaults, stabbing, theft, missing persons found, entries denied and lost passports." One of the diplomats told me, "all in all, we came better prepared and it wasn’t as bad as last year, when one stabbing nearly ended in a death."

Eight years ago, an Israeli Breslav Hassid was stabbed to death in an anti-Semitic attack. Three years ago, the body of 28 year-old Amir Ohana was found three days after Rosh Hashanah in one of the ponds near the tziyun. The cause of his death is still unclear. This year, a 23 year-old American citizen died in Uman of advanced terminal cancer, and one of the handful of Israeli women, who remained on the sidelines, gave birth on site.

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Regarding prostitution at Uman. I’ve heard all the stories, including from Israeli diplomats and law-enforcement officials. And I’ve spent enough of my career reporting on the ultra-Orthodox community to have no illusions that they are any less inclined to vice than any other community. But I walked and drove around Uman for two and a half days, and didn’t see anything to indicate much prostitution was going on. Uman isn’t a sex-tourism destination like Kiev or Odessa, where it’s pretty much out in the open.

Law professor Yuval Elbashan, who in the past headed the legal clinics and a program against sex-trafficking at Hebrew University, spent Rosh Hashanah this year in Uman and wrote on Facebook: "I did not see any prostitutes or women being sold anywhere. And I didn’t stop looking."

He based his conclusion, that the rumors are either baseless or greatly exaggerated, also on the sheer scale of the number of pilgrims, packed closely together. "It’s too public, too exposed to your own community," he wrote. And on the economics of Uman, where even the most basic plane tickets, lodgings and food will cost a pilgrim at least 1000 dollars altogether. "During this period, to go to a 'cheap' prostitute when there are (sadly) so many much cheaper and discreet opportunities," Elbashan concluded, "is a bit illogical."

I have never met an Uman pilgrim who admitted going to a prostitute there, but some have told me they know others who have. I agree, though, with Elbashan, that the image of "a sin city filled with Haredi whoremongers" is greatly exaggerated, and there is certainly no reason to believe it happens any more than with any other group of men traveling to Ukraine.

From what I’ve been able to glean, whatever prostitution that does take place in Uman is out-of-sight, in discreet apartments hired for the pilgrimage’s high-rollers, members of Israeli crime families who control many of the businesses on Pushkina and are rumored to have a stake in the chartered flights cartel, which keeps the prices of a round-trip at over 700 dollars. And of course there are those who spend a day or two on a stopover in Kiev or Odessa, but most of the pilgrims are bussed straight from the airport, to Uman and back again.

Ultra orthodox Jews carry food supply for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the Ukrainian city of Uman September 20, 2006.Credit: REUTERS

"Why write about the ugly things here?" so many people asked me in Uman. "You should write about the incredible uplifting moments here. About thousands of people shouting "Barchu" ["Let us bless…"] at the start of the first Maariv prayer, and "HaMelech" ["the King"] at Shacharit. About the sound of shofars from dozens of minyanim blasting simultaneously. And what about the tashlich [a symbolic ‘throwing away’ of sins] on the river? Some young men even threw their iPhones into the water.”

And yes, all that does go on in Uman, but I’m a recovering addict of religious ecstasy - and suspicious of spiritual highs that are so often followed by despair.

And I met so many Jews in Uman who admitted that they didn’t come for spirituality, and barely went to any of the prayers.

Some admitted they were just there to hang out with friends, or to see for themselves what all the fuss was about. "Just like I went to India to see Hindu pilgrimages, I decided why not see a Jewish pilgrimage," one Israeli told me. Others wanted "just a moment on Rosh Hashanah with Rabbeinu," and some simply felt so out of place in their own communities, they just wanted to be somewhere on the holy days where they wouldn’t be judged for dressing differently.

"I grew up in a religious family but I don’t keep mitzvot anymore,” said Nerya, a former special-forces soldier and currently a computer sciences student. “I come to Uman and here I’m religious for one week each year. Here I feel somehow connected, this is where all the barriers between the groups collapse."

"Everyone here has some kind of Jewish PTSD," says Chaim, who was born in to a Haredi family in Bnei Brak, and is today a secular winemaker living in Ramat Gan. "It’s like one long group therapy session. This is the one place where you can believe, pray, speak to God. Out of choice."

Tuesday night, as Rosh Hashanah ended, there was a rave on Pushkina. After two days of prayers, hundreds of pilgrims were dancing in a frenzy to electronic music and lasers, while the more staid ones packed or shopped for souvenirs and gifts at little stalls set up by local Ukrainian residents, anxious for their piece of the action. Young men and boys, some looking no older than 12, begged for tzedaka, money for their ticket back home.

Beneath the large portrait of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, I met Gad Shushan, a 29 year-old scribe of Torah scrolls, who made contact with me through Twitter. Gad is on his third pilgrimage.

Like most religious Sephardi Israelis, he abides by Rabbi Ovadia’s rulings but says that, "many Sephardim like me, who don’t have a natural community, feel at home here." He came for the first time eight years ago, but says that in the intervening years, he stayed away. “I was in a period of overload, worshipping God beyond my capability. Coming here was too much."

Like so many in Uman, he has also been on a religious journey, which led him to leave the Haredi township of Beitar Illit in the West Bank and move south to the Negev town of Arad, where he prefers to live in a secular neighborhood.

This time he came with his brother Avraham and friends. "I came less for spiritual strengthening and more for rest. Besides praying, we spent our time eating and drinking together. There’s a special atmosphere here, and around Breslav in general. They don’t care how you dress or look.

"As someone who grew up in a hardcore Haredi environment but left that environment, though I’m still religious, that’s the key. Other Haredim, the moment you start looking different, they have a problem with you. Breslav doesn’t. It’s religion without rabbis, without rabbinical authority. I think that’s much better."

Breslav Hassidim's energetic outreach to IDF soldiers serving on the Gaza border, 2018

Maybe that’s why 40,000 Jews left their families on Rosh Hashanah and flew to Uman. The other traditional or modern brands of Judaism have become too stultifying. None of them offer a similar sense of acceptance. Most Jews leave Uman and don’t become Breslavers in their daily lives, but they return for something that’s unavailable anywhere else.

Despite coming to Uman mainly for a vacation, Gad still felt uplifted in one place. We walked away from the raucous main strip on Pushkina to the Kloyz.

In eastern Europe, a "kloyz" was a synagogue and place of learning that was privately-owned and functioned independently from the main Jewish community, usually belonging to a separate Hassidic sect or other religious group, operating by its own customs. In the nineteenth century, the Breslav Kloyz in Uman was shunned by most of the local Jews who despised Rabbi Nachman’s followers. It was destroyed by the Soviet authorities.

While for many, the synagogue over the tziyun is the focal point of Uman, the Kloyz, nowadays a large prefabricated structure packed with hundreds of long wooden synagogue benches, is where the traditional Breslav niggunim [Hassidic melodies] and minhagim are observed in full.

Despite being recommended to me by connoisseurs as the best place to pray in Uman, I steered clear of the Kloyz for most of Rosh Hashanah. In recent years it has been the scenes of fights between various Breslav factions, chiefly the violent Shuvu Banim sect, led by Eliezer Berland, who was convicted in 2016 on three counts of sexual assault against wives of his followers.

Rabbi Berland’s prison sentence was cut short last year due to bowel cancer, but despite being shunned by many in Breslav, he still retains a considerable following and last Rosh Hashanah, a fight broke out as they forced his way in to the Kloyz. This year, the 80 year-old Berland was there again.

To preserve a tense ceasefire, none of the Breslav rabbis was honored with an aliyah, so the Shuvu Banim thugs couldn’t claim Berland was disrespected. At one point in the prayers, Berland began singing a particular niggun. There was shushing from other parts of the Kloyz, as others tried to drown him out, but finally his tune was allowed to catch on, just to preserve the peace.

But now, with Rosh Hashanah over and Berland gone, all was sweetness and light in the Kloyz. The benches had been moved back and smiling Hassidim were dancing in a circle. In the center an improvised klezmer band, with a fiddler in a white kittel, was playing niggunim, and the clarinet-player was perched atop of the bima.

No synagogue in the world, no matter its religious persuasion, would ever allow someone to defile a bima, the place where the Torah scrolls are read from, with their shoes. Nowhere else. But here in Uman, it made perfect sense.

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