Why you should care
Because traveling to your family’s homeland doesn’t always feel familiar.
Amie Ferris-Rotman is a London-based journalist and, last year, was awarded a Knight Journalism Fellowship from Stanford University.
When not praying, reading the Bible from a blinking iPhone screen, they were dancing, frenziedly shaking their ringlets into a blur. Sometimes, they managed both simultaneously. This past Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, I traveled deep into the Ukrainian countryside for four days, joining 20,000 Hasidic Jews for the world’s largest Jewish pilgrimage.
Besides the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, who knew Jews even did pilgrimages? Turns out, they do. As someone with Ukrainian Jewish heritage, the pilgrimage sounded fascinating and folkloric. My hope was to find symbiosis with an ancestry I knew little about, but instead there I was, feeling very much the outsider.
I came here for the party. I prefer Ibiza, but Uman is also cool. I just ignore these religious types.
Ofer, a 19-year -old Israeli
When Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Hasidic Breslov movement, lay dying in 1810, he made a requirement: all Jews must visit his grave on the New Year. And so they came. In long black silhouettes and dressed in gold satin caftans, the Hasidic followers known as Na Nachs have been making their way to the drab town of Uman, 120 miles south of Kiev, ever since. But while only a trickle managed during Soviet times, the pilgrimage has now exploded, attracting tens of thousands from all over the world, mostly Israel. And almost exclusively men.
Jews of all ages packed into the half-square-mile territory around Nachman’s grave, into what pilgrims have chillingly dubbed the ghetto. Inside the bustling, open-air quarters, whose borders are marked with rudimentary fencing, there is a miniature Jewish world, with shoe-shiners, kosher pizzas and barbershops. On the first day of the pilgrimage, I climbed onto one of the makeshift shops selling yarmulkes and Nachman key chains to get a better look. Below me swirled a constantly moving mass of men. Some carried frying pans and vegetables, while others chatted with each other over beer. Groups would sporadically break into dance to Israeli techno music blasting from large speakers. An aroma of marijuana wafted throughout. “I came here for the party,” 19-year-old Ofer, from a town near Tel Aviv, told me, his pupils dilated. Spiky black hair framed his face, which had a spray of pimples. This was his second pilgrimage. “I prefer Ibiza, but Uman is also cool. I just ignore these religious types.”
But for most, coming to Uman was about prayer, which they did on and off throughout the four days, either davening in the crowds, or at one of the massive makeshift synagogues. Nachman, who was enormously popular in his lifetime, was also the great-grandson of Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement 50 years previously, in Poland. Nachman’s followers believe they must show the world happiness as loudly as possible, so they dance, sing, howl and scream: Once their message has spread, the Messiah will come, or so they say.
The Hasids are only good for one thing — bringing us kopecks
Yechiel, a 43-year-old from Jerusalem, was one of the few Hasidic men who would talk to me, a woman. (I spent most of the pilgrimage being shooed away.) “Nothing can get more sacred than this,” Yechiel told me beside a group of drummers. Another man started to blow into the shofar, making Yechiel shake his hips and snap his fingers. He was then swept into the crowd, and I watched his black hat get smaller and then disappear.
What struck me most about the pilgrimage was its eerie step back into history, when Jews strolled through Ukrainian villages, living side by side with Slavs. Hearing Yiddish in Uman and seeing men in their shtreimels (a wide hat made of fox tail) brought me to a place that otherwise no longer exists. The pogroms at the turn of the last century saw many Jews flee Ukraine, including my great-grandparents. Around 900,000 Ukrainian Jews were later killed in the Holocaust, and others eventually immigrated to Israel and the U.S. Here in Uman, the past was recreated, if only for four days. A one-way window into my great-grandparents’ world.
Even old hostilities remained, I realized, as I approached a group of older Ukrainian women. They rent out their cramped, Soviet-built apartments to pilgrims each year, at extortionate rates. “The Hasids are only good for one thing — bringing us kopecks,” said one woman dressed in a thick wool ensemble and sporting a bright red kerchief. Swarms of men, several who were clearly inebriated, headed toward the lake near Nachman’s grave. “They’re drug addicts and bums,” her friend hissed. “They come here to repent, but I don’t think it works.”
A strange and unwanted feeling of familiarity washed over me: I felt more at home with these women than the pilgrims. To me, this Ukrainian-Jewish past was as alien to me as an Amazonian tribe. I thought Uman would make me come full circle, but I only made it halfway.