UMAN, Ukraine — Like many Jews who visit this city regularly, I have lost track of how many times I’ve traveled here.
As a journalist covering Jewish affairs in Europe for over a decade, I must have come to Uman at least a dozen times.
Sometimes it was to report on the arrival here of about 30,000 Jews each year on Rosh Hashanah to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman, an 18th-century luminary whose writing inspired the Breslov Hasidic movement.
My first visit to Ukraine in 2012 was to investigate rumors that prostitutes had traveled to Uman ahead of the pilgrimage — the largest Jewish one outside Israel, comprising mostly of Israeli men working blue-collar jobs (my finding: some sex workers were, but not in any great numbers).
I returned on calmer occasions to look into different aspects of this fascinating and sometimes-charged intercultural event, such as the involvement of the Ukrainian mafia in it, or what the small permanent Jewish population of Uman thinks about the pilgrimage.
Yet I had, prior to this Rosh Hashanah, never actually visited the focus of the pilgrimage: the shrine built around Rabbi Nachman’s gravesite, known as the Tziun, Hebrew for “the mark.”
I confessed this to a fellow traveler, a pilgrim named Uriel Kaizerman, as we were heading to Uman from Moldova in a long and arduous trajectory forced by the war between Russia and Ukraine, which shut down commercial air travel in that country (but did little to dent turnout at the pilgrimage, which had some 32,000 participants).
His eyes widened in genuine incredulity. “So you’ve been to Uman a dozen times to cover a pilgrimage, but never bothered to see the whole point of it?” demanded Kaizerman, who serves as both the class clown and the leader for the group of friends with whom he regularly comes here.
I was always busy covering some tangible story – the Uman clinic, or the new traditions that pilgrims are inventing around the journey – I said in defense of my choices. Kaizerman pulled down on the lower eyelid of his left eye, a Mediterranean gesture of dismissive disbelief, and said: “Sure, bro.”
He had a point.
I have been agnostic ever since I formed my opinion about God (or, rather, refrained from forming it). And I had better things to do than to squeeze through a mass of people to touch a dead rabbi’s grave, even if his writings are wise and have inspired a rare devotion in thousands of people.
There’s no shortage of worthwhile activities in Uman for a Jewish world reporter. The whole place turns into an unlikely hybrid of Bnei Brak, Burning Man and some Hollywood director’s hallucination of a 21st-century shtetl — the Jewish villages that used to dot Eastern Europe before the Nazis and their collaborators wiped them out.
Merely observing the crowd is a fascinating and telling activity. There are Shasniks – devout Sephardic Jews — French-speaking Jews, American Ashkenazi Jews, ex-convicts, ravers, Ethiopian Jews, and the sort of secular Israelis one meets often in India. The scent of marijuana is not uncommon, nor is the smell of meat being barbecued.
Dozens of kosher eateries line the main street on Pushkina, the name of the neighborhood around the shrine. During the pilgrimage, Israeli toy vendors, opticians and greengrocers ply their trade along with sales representatives of several Ukrainian phone companies, selling sim cards in this bubble economy, which runs on shekels and dollars and whose prices are many times that of the Ukrainian shops.
Many children are deprived of screens during the holiday – watching them is also forbidden, not to mention costly on budget data plans – and they scamper about, sometimes on rooftops and on the street. One of them, a boy who presented himself as Yoseleh, was raking in shekels for busking with his clarinet, on which he played Hasidic tunes in a transparent yet effective throwback to shtetl nostalgia.
There are hundreds of medical emergencies, and it’s not uncommon for people to die during the pilgrimage. This year, a 55-year-old man from southern Israel died of cardiac arrest in Uman.
The pilgrims were largely oblivious to the discussion going on about them during the holiday on X, both in Israel and Ukraine, where videos of filthy buses and streets left by the visitors provoked a storm of condemnations. “The problem with the trash in Uman is that it returns to Israel after the pilgrimage,” one user quipped in Hebrew.
Leonid Nevzlin, a former president of the Russian Jewish Congress, wrote in Russian on X that he is “ashamed” of his coreligionists’ conduct.
Some of Uman’s non-Jewish residents have an emotional approach to the matter. “They bring money into this economy when no one else does,” Volodymyr Savela, 36, told me. “Some behave like pigs. Some are quite well-educated and well-mannered. The same goes for locals here in Uman.”
Yohai Elharar, a 37-year-old pilgrim from Dimona, was barbecuing with his friends from Israel when I entered the yard of their rented flat to ask about the littering problem. He pointed at a cleaning lady that he and his nine friends said they’d hired for $200 to clean up the place. “We keep it clean here, on the bus and everywhere,” Elharar, who has one son, told me.
He then exposed his arms and chest. “I also cleaned my body because of Rabbi Nachman. It was full of tattoos. Then I came here, found the rabbi and cleaned up my act. And you think I’d now behave like a filthy animal and litter?” he said.
Yair Weitzmann, another pilgrim from Dimona, chimed in. “Israelis are dirty at home, and they’re no cleaner here. But Ukrainians aren’t exactly behaving like they’re Swiss. The infrastructure is poor and when you have 30,000 people in one small place, you’re going to have littering.”
Pilgrims paid a $50 city tax this year, which is meant to cover cleanup and other expenses.
Elharar asked me how I felt when I visited the shrine this time around. When I told him I never had, he said: “Better get to it, then. The holiday is almost over.”
I decided to take his advice. Not only to check the box but also because certain chinks have begun to form in my agnostic armor in recent years. I might as well avail myself to the persuasiveness of Rabbi Nachman, whose followers I have seen walking on the street with tears in their eyes after visiting the Tziun in Uman.
Armed with a copy of the Tikun Klali – a compilation of verses from Psalms that Rabbi Nachman strung together for prayers by his followers – I negotiated my way through the alleyways toward his gravesite, taking a shortcut I had discovered two years ago across a stream that runs through Pushkina.
The leaves are still green after a rainy summer, and their uniform lushness amplifies how the forests around Uman and beyond seem to stretch endlessly in this vast country. But the chestnuts are already yellowing – a reminder that soon, the harsh Ukrainian winter will strip, grip and freeze these expanses. Many Ashkenazi Jews have no difficulty imagining it. We’ve heard many Holocaust survival and death stories set against that unforgiving backdrop.
The gravesite, which Nachman allegedly chose as his final resting place because it was the mass grave of pogrom victims, wasn’t as crowded as I had anticipated. But it still seemed to vibrate with the prayers that the 500-odd people inside recited incessantly. Noticing I was wearing the Tikun Klali on my head in lieu of a kippah, one worshiper, a Hasidic Jew with a shtreimel, a traditional fur-lined hat, lent me his without interrupting his prayer.
I circled the grave, which is inside the prayer hall and to which all worshipers turn, as one does toward the Torah ark and Jerusalem. I felt none of the elation that gripped Keizerman on his first visit (he told me he burst into tears). I did feel a general sense of affinity toward my brethren and enjoyed their diversity. I also inhaled a heady mix of aftershave and flatulence. I recited the Tikun and left.
“Never mind,” another fellow traveler, Raphael, who used to be secular but became devout 17 years ago, told me when I recounted the experience. “For some, it’s like a time-delay mechanism. I also didn’t feel anything the first time. But I kept coming back until I did,” he said.
“I’m guessing you will be coming back, too.”
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