Tuesday, October 01, 2013

On Pilgrimage with the Hasids

I had never heard of the Hasidic pilgrimage to Usan in the Ukraine, the "Hasidic Mecca", before reading this article, and it's a fascinating topic. But over & above that, this is a truly magnificent bit of writing.

The Hasidim travel to the burial site of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who in the hours before he stopped breathing, shouted in the presence of two witnesses that if when the Moon says it is Jewish New Year, a man should come to his grave in Uman and repent, he, Nachman, would pull him out of Hell by his sidelocks..

Intense religious madness. Read & enjoy.


On Pilgrimage with the Hasids
Ben Judah
Standpoint Mag October 2013


In death the Rabbi was a tragic figure. Blinking out of a broken body, he saw his minions dancing around him. Nachman believed he had the soul of the Messiah. But he had achieved for his people — both socially and politically — precisely nothing.

He left behind obsessive writings about the dangers of masturbation, but also fables so enchanting when read in lilting Yiddish they can even induce a state of trance. He left the cryptic, frightening idea that we live in the universe of an "absent God". Nachman's writings are so fresh, yet so obscure. Read in a certain light, it would seem the Rabbi died knowing that the innermost secret of the mystical Kabbalah was that there is no God at all — he is merely what they call a "social construct", that God must constantly be created through chanted confessions and ecstatic prayer.

But then, read from another direction, his texts read like the ramblings of a medieval madman who believed he was the reincarnation of Moses, who lay sobbing, banging on the tomb of his great-grandfather in Medzhybizh, the holiest tzaddik of all, the Baal Shem Tov, demanding he reveal himself and all the secrets.

It doesn't even matter who the Rabbi really was. What matters is that in the hours before he stopped breathing, he shouted in the presence of two witnesses that if when the Moon says it is Jewish New Year, a man should come to his grave in Uman and repent, he, Nachman, would pull him out of Hell by his sidelocks.

What matters is that Hasidic Jews never stopped coming on that day to Uman. Hasids are the mystical Amish of Judaism. They go to extreme lengths to live the Torah's 613 commandments. Hasids still follow dynasties founded by charismatic Eastern European rabbis whose descendants guard specific traditions. Nachman's Hasids are different. They have no dynasty. Their tradition is coming to Uman.

Lenin sealed the city to foreigners in 1917; Hasids smuggled themselves in. The NKVD political police banned them; Hasids refused to listen. NKVD commissars were not used to being ignored. So in 1934 its agents laid a trap. They granted Hasids 34 visas. They killed half of them on the spot; the rest were deported to Siberia.

But Stalin could not stop them. Hasids kept smuggling themselves into Uman. Then Hitler invaded in 1941. The 20,000 Jews of Uman were drowned in the lake under the Rabbi's tomb. This did not stop the Hasids. Rabbis crept in incognito. Soviet refusenik Jews systematically aided the secret pilgrims coming every year. Gorbachev reopened Uman in 1988.

Uman is a Hasidic magnet. When Ukraine first reopened, 250 made the pilgrimage to the Rebbe's tomb. By the late 1990s, more than 5,000 were making the trip. Now almost 30,000 pilgrims come every New Year. Since Ukrainian independence 400,000 single pilgrimages to Uman have taken place. This has made Nachman's tomb Europe's largest — and only — Jewish mass pilgrimage. I had to see it for myself.


I woke up to the sound of bugling rams' horns. These were hundreds of ritual shofars, blown by Jews since they were Mesopotamian nomads. The Talmudist stopped chanting. He sighed: "Everybody is tripping the fuck out."

I closed the door. Electricity was dead in the stairwell. The stairs had turned into a health hazard. Hasids were leaving litter everywhere, from food packaging to popped juice cartons. Little boys etched Stars of David into the wall, blind to the Russian message scratched above them: "When You Litter Our Home Don't Forget To Honk, Piggies."

I was shocked to see Jews — whom I knew as lovers of degrees and certificates, accountancy courses and MBAs — rejecting every piece of modernity. I had always thought Jews a people who would do almost anything to send their daughters to Harvard. These men would disown their sons for wanting a degree.

Nightfall in Uman. The orange glow around the street lamps was brought out by the drizzle. I stumbled, psychologically. Uman hit hard, like time travel. The Yiddish child-beggars darting around my legs. The white-haired and wild-eyed Kabbalists mumbling magic incantations as they shuffled to the synagogue. The wild, rippling excitement filling the hour before Rosh Hashanah — our New Year.

The walls were plastered with Hebrew posters and Yiddish notices in the antique script that Babylonian rabbis called "the alphabet of flames". Fools hawked madman's literature on street corners while tubby rabbis threw out cartons of chocolate bread for the poor.

The hour was coming. I felt tingly and I felt lost. Under the bare bulbs of a makeshift prayer house I tried to ask what texts were being whispered. "Yiddish, Yiddish . . . Speak no Yiddish?" I shook my head. They shook theirs back in disgust. For a calming half-second I thought I had found another rationalist. Samuel was a watch salesman from Florida wearing cryptic Levantine amulets. His beard was a ketchup red. He stank of weed. But he gasped: "Uman is a taste of Messiah."

I tried to talk to a portly Hasid with a skin disease about his utter rejection of modernity but all he wanted to talk about was the exchange rate. I strode, sweating and confused, towards a stream. Hundreds of tents crammed its edge like a Jewish refugee camp. Someone tugged at my jacket pocket. It was a child, visibly disturbed. He wore a white dressing-gown. He shrieked: "Are you . . . Jewish? Are you . . . Jewish?"

I nodded.

"Can you . . . kick me in the stomach! I want to fight . . . Karate!"

Ringing laughter rushed past me. Little boys with shaved heads and shoulder-length blonde sidelocks raced their fathers to the synagogue. I struck up conversation with two Yiddish-speaking hoodies from Brooklyn's most fanatical enclave, the dominant one comically thin, his friend grotesquely overweight. They let me in on the subtext in exchange for a promise to help them track down 60 cartons of Marlboro Lights.

"This whole fucking thing is the most fun a Hasid gets all year. It's the furthest he gets from his wife he was forced to marry at 18. It's the furthest he gets out from his community. It's the furthest we get from our moms." The fat one butted in. "Is this what a festival is like?"

They swore me to anonymity before a Canadian neurologist engaged me. Between answering calls from his clinic in Toronto he made it clear it was time I faced up to "the Rebbe". We passed giant corrugated-steel warehouses turned into mega-synagogues lined with hundreds, thousands of plastic garden chairs laid out for pews. The three of them together, fleetingly, turned into the biggest synagogues in the world.

The neurologist was exulting: "Not since the Temple have so many Jews prayed in one place." The hour was here and he left me at the gate. Hebrew letters curled round the curved arch one must pass through to the Rebbe's tomb. Inside, the believers were speaking rapidly to each other as if the Rebbe was still alive: "The Rebbe is to the left." "The Rebbe is waiting for you." "May the Rebbe help you, my friend."


They began to scream — deep male, ungodly wails. Before sound left my mouth I imagined a hook inside my head and called it my reason. I pulled onto it. Screwing up my face, I tried not to let go, then ripped myself into the next room — the tomb itself.

The Sephardic wail of the silver-bearded cantor rushed through me. A hundred or more men crammed into small pews rocked back and forth. These were Aramaic prayers. I saw a man with pupils horrifically dilated. I saw a man in such ecstasy I thought he was convulsing. I saw a man collapse back, overcome, from the tomb. I saw sobbing men rip each other back by their shoulders just to touch it.

I tried to imagine who they were in their everyday lives in Baltimore or Eilat. But they had ceased to be those things. Behind the wall, behind the tomb, the men in white were thumping and wailing and howling out through the stone to the Rebbe. Howling that could wake the dead. Trance overcame me. Then the name of the Rebbe. In the enormity of that space I found inside me I named every family name for-whatever it was— to bless them. Then, red-eyed and tearful, I pulled myself outside. Terrified of collective hysteria. This was not my Judaism.

An old friend was sitting unfazed on the bench outside — a miserable and depressed sacked Russian diplomat. He liked to remind people he had "worked with the President himself", but I knew his attaché position in the Delhi embassy had mostly involved dealing with the visa problems of mad Russian Hari Krishnas refusing to leave ashrams.

"This is nothing compared to India. Very mild."


No comments: