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Who's this Nachman from Uman?

Have you heard of Nachman from Uman?

This year, thousands of his Hasidic followers were stuck at the border,

barred from entering the Ukraine. Here's the full story.

* Photo credit: Flash 90

This has been a challenging year for all of us, especially for the ultra-orthodox community, which has struggled to maintain cohesion in the face of the Covid 19 pandemic. Known in Israel as the Haredim, the community is roughly divided into 3 main streams: the Hasidic movement, the Misnagdim (opponents), and the Sephardim.

This month’s Snippet is about the Breslov branch of the Hasidic movement, whose male followers like to celebrate Rosh Hashana at the grave of their movement’s spiritual founder, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, in Uman.

Rabbi Nachman was the great-grandson of the founder of the Hasidic movement, Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov. Rabbi Israel was born in 1698 into a poor Jewish family in western Ukraine and became an orphan at the age of 5. As a young boy he would wander between the Cheder and the nearby forest. He finished his studies at the Cheder, became a Melamed, and developed an extensive level of Jewish knowledge. As the Baal Shem Tov, he became famous during his lifetime. 

Baal Shem Tov went backpacking through Europe and couch-surfed in Jewish communities. En route, he introduced new virtuosic ideas of how to be Jewish and connect with God: Forget the long days of Torah studying in a yeshiva. Instead, focus on your heart and soul, practise your enthusiastic love to God through your heart and not your brain. How? by dancing, singing, and clapping. His followers literally cried out their souls through song.

By the late 18th century, hundreds of Hasidic groups popped up like mushrooms after the rain throughout Eastern Europe. These Hasidic groups basically functioned like mini dynasties. A dynasty was generally named after the town, and started with a rebbe who formed the group. Leadership was transferred from father to son and occasionally there was no successor.

If you know how to read a little Hebrew and have travelled in Israel, you would have noticed a very common graffiti, on bus stations, highways and other very unexpected spots.

In Hebrew: נ-נח-נחמ-נחמן מאומן.

In English that is: Na-Nach-Nachman from Uman.

This Nachman became very popular by the end of the 18th century, but not because of his famous great grandfather. Nachman viewed himself as the right man at the right time and set about to reinvigorate the movement, which he considered had lost its original impetus.

Influenced by Kabala and his great grandfather, Nachman offered an avant-garde approach to youngsters seeking a refreshing change: If you want to be close to God, then speak with him as if he's your mate. And another of his revolutionary ideas was the practice of Hitbodedut (self-seclusion).

Here's one of his quotes that says it all:

"Find a day for yourself-better yet, late at night. Go to the forest or to the field, or lock yourself in a room ... You will meet solitude there. There you will be able to listen attentively to the noise of the wind first, to birds singing, to see wonderful nature and to notice yourself in it ... and to come back to harmonic connection with the world and its Creator."

Nachman died in 1810, promising his followers that he would be with them even after his death, so no successor has ever been appointed. The Breslov Hasidim are called the “dead Hasidim” in that, unlike all other groups, they have no living master. Since Nachman’s death in Uman, his followers, the Breslover, make a pilgrimage to pray at his tomb every Rosh Hashana, to celebrate the holiday that Nachman himself considered strongly spiritual.

About a century later, a rebbi known as Reb Odesser or Sabba, claimed he miraculously found a note written by Nachman. On it was written the famous graffiti I mentioned above.

This rabbi sparked an interest in Nachman in the early 20th century in Israel. This note became a song, and a new directive for the Hasidic followers that is practiced until today: enthusiastic followers drive around Israel in big vans with speakers on top, singing, dancing to their trance music, and trying to draw even the hard core atheists in Tel Aviv into their ideology. This Hasidic group, unlike others, expresses their love to God by bringing it right into secular hubs, and by making it attractive to secular Jews to join their party, literally.

This year’s pilgrimage to Uman was pretty much thwarted, as a result of Israel’s spiralling rates of Corona infection, especially amongst the ultra-orthodox communities. Prof. Gamzu, Israel’s Corona tzar, called Ukrainian officials and begged them to not let the Hasidim in to their country, for fear of rampant spread of the virus. The Ukrainian government closed its borders to foreign nationals and sent an army unit to the border of Belarus, where thousands of Breslov followers gathered to try and reach Uman by road, despite having been advised that the borders would remain closed. An estimated 1,000 pilgrims slept on the road, waiting in vain to get in, no matter what. By the end of this fiasco, the border area was completely trashed and relatively few pilgrims managed to get to Uman.

* Photo credit: Haim Yosef Gabay

So, what is the moral of this story? While a big part of Nachman's approach was self-isolation, thousands of his followers wanted to gather at his tomb, even during the Corona pandemic. Nachman is either thrilled to be so popular or flipping in his grave.

G'mar Chatima Tovah.



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