In Ukraine, a Rosh Hashana Party Not Even War Can Stop

Yosef Chaim Bernfeld, a younger businessman from New York who’s making an attempt to scrub up his life, journeyed to Uman this weekend for a “spiritual fix.”

Every Jewish New Year, even this one throughout a raging warfare, 1000’s of Hasidic pilgrims flip this metropolis in central Ukraine right into a mini Jerusalem.

They roam round in massive teams sucking down Coke Zero and kosher pizza, paying in shekels. They pump out Hebrew hip-hop and dance exhausting collectively in the midst of the road.

They alternate blessings — “I ask God to give you a sense of belonging, to give you stability, to grow your business this year” — and drink copious quantities of purple wine well past the wartime curfew.

Mr. Bernfeld, a sturdy 33-year-old who stated he has struggled along with his religion and substance abuse, has joined this gathering 11 instances. But this yr, he was clear, and his verdict was, “It’s different, maybe not quite as fun.”

But then his face lit up. “No man,” he stated, “it’s amazing. It’s like a reset.”

This yr, even Europe’s greatest warfare in generations and intensive journey warnings couldn’t cease the pilgrimage. More than 35,000 individuals, practically all of them males and boys, confirmed up over the weekend, upending stereotypes of Hasidic Jews who typically minimize an austere picture with their black hats and lengthy black coats. Many of the Hasidim who got here to Uman got here to social gathering.

But Uman serves as a testomony to one thing even deeper. Once a yr, it turns into a thriving Jewish group in a spot the place Judaism was just about worn out.

The incontrovertible fact that one of many world’s greatest Jewish New Year’s celebrations unfolds in Ukraine, the location of a few of the Holocaust’s worst atrocities, and in Uman particularly, the place the Nazis gunned down a thousand Jewish kids and threw their our bodies in a pit, illuminates a resilience fairly apt for the second. It is the High Holy Days, in spite of everything, a time for pleasure but additionally painful remembrance.

“It adds meaning,” stated Yitzy Gradman, one other one of many many New Yorkers who flocked to Uman. “The biggest tribute I can give to the people who suffered here is to walk these streets today and say, ‘We are proud of who we are, and we will never be extinguished.’”

The Uman pilgrimage goes again greater than 200 years. It is cemented on Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who died in Uman in 1810 and was a great-grandson of the person extensively thought of the founding father of Hasidic Judaism.

Rebbe Nachman was a deeply religious, charismatic determine in his personal proper. He inspired individuals to indicate their happiness and commune immediately with God, like a pal.

He requested his followers to be with him on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and earlier than he died, he promised that if even the worst sinners would pray at his grave in Uman, which is close to Breslov, and provides just a little to charity, he would do no matter he might to save lots of them from hell.

While Jewish custom comprises a wide range of interpretations of the afterlife, Rebbe Nachman’s followers deeply consider in his energy of salvation. Even throughout Soviet instances, when organized faith was basically shut down, Jews sneaked into Uman on the danger of being despatched to the Gulag. After Ukraine gained independence in 1991 and non secular freedom returned, the crowds at his graveside steadily grew.

The pilgrimage stays pious, however additionally it is wild. The Breslovers, as followers are referred to as, are recognized for the exuberance with which they worship. Dozens have been arrested in Uman in previous years for drug possession, drunkenness and brawling. This week, the Ukrainian police stated that they confiscated unlawful medication from a number of pilgrims and deliberate to deport others for “aggressive behavior.”

But Breslovers are additionally recognized for being open-minded. Men in black hats and sidelocks prayed subsequent to males in tight T-shirts and tattoos. Most got here from Israel, with the second greatest contingent from the United States.

Before the warfare, a number of even choppered in from Kyiv, the capital, about 120 miles away.

But now that Ukraine’s airspace is closed, many made overland journeys from Poland, Moldova, Hungary or Romania that had been lengthy, exhausting and costly.

“People put away all year for this,” stated Mr. Bernfeld, who goes by Bernie. “But it’s beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much unity.”

As a younger man rising up in Rockland County, N.Y., Mr. Bernfeld stated he chafed on the strictness of his Ultra-Orthodox group and turned to hurry, cocaine and acid. It was not till he noticed Rebbe Nachman’s followers dancing ecstatically on YouTube that he realized “there’s a fun Judaism, too.”

“It helped me immensely,” he stated. “It might have even saved my life.”

He just lately moved to Israel, and on Friday night time, he was kicking again with fellow Breslovers in a tent laid with a feast: plates of salmon and baked rooster, vegetable broth, salads, fried potatoes and hunks of freshly baked redolent challah that they dragged by means of bowls of thick Ukrainian honey.

The pilgrimage lasts a couple of week, and whereas there are some scheduled occasions, it’s a number of hanging out and breaking bread.

During the day, pilgrims flow into on Pushkina Street, the principle drag in Uman’s tiny Jewish neighborhood. They search for associates they haven’t seen for the reason that final pilgrimage, go to rabbis for blessings, take heed to motivational talks and squeeze into the small constructing housing Rebbe Nachman’s grave. The scent of sweat, pizza grease and cigarette smoke hangs within the air.

At night time, music blares from audio system and males throw their arms round one another and switch Pushkina Street right into a dance ground. Later, they retreat to rented residences to uncork drinks. Even after the midnight curfew, loud music — and loud laughter — wafts by means of open home windows throughout city.

Locals usually are not positive what to assume. Before the Holocaust, half of this metropolis was Jewish. Today, out of 85,000 individuals, just a few hundred Jews are left. More than 2 million Jews as soon as lived in Ukraine. Now it’s round 200,000, maybe much less, although a type of, Volodymyr Zelensky, is president.

Mr. Zelensky didn’t cease by Uman this week however a small contingent of Ukrainian Jews joined the festivities, which have fueled a bustling economic system. Entire 10-story buildings are employed out, taxi drivers get dream fares and distributors do a imply commerce in T-shirts, books, amulets and different Breslov merch.

Officials at metropolis corridor stated the pilgrimage brings in additional than $20 million a yr, and businesspeople are clearly grateful. Still, some residents don’t prefer it.

“There’s disorder in our city because of all this,” stated one resident, Natalia Hordiyenko.

“I have nothing against them,” she added. “They came here to celebrate their religious holiday. We understand all that.”

But then Ms. Hordiyenko lit into the pilgrims for forsaking “horrifying” quantities of litter and making undesirable advances on girls, saying, “They misbehave.”

Resident-pilgrim relations is a wealthy matter. Some pilgrims complained equally bitterly concerning the Ukrainians, accusing them of being chilly and suspicious.

One of Mr. Bernfeld’s associates proposed on the dinner desk that Rebbe Nachman’s grave needs to be excavated and flown to Israel. It sounds far-fetched, however the Israeli authorities has lobbied to do precisely that.

“It’s an embarrassment we’re even here,” stated Shlomo Ettlinger, an accountant, as he put down his glass of wine. “Why are we having this event in a town where Jews were massacred not once, not twice, but many times? Being here is like an abused person going back to their abuser.”

Another man on the desk laughed. “So, what are you saying, Shlomo?” he requested. “People don’t like us? Tell me something new.”

Mr. Bernfeld then stepped in, saying, “Shlomo, you know how much I respect your opinion.”

He dragged one other hunk of challah by means of the honey and chewed thoughtfully.

“But Rebbe Nachman said challenges are important, and it’s a challenge getting here,” Mr. Bernfeld stated. “And more than that, I like this vibe. I don’t want to change it.”

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting from Uman.

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