Prayer, Techno Music and Skinny Dipping: Celebrating Jewish New Year in Ukraine

Over 20,000 Jews flooded the drab Ukrainian town of Uman to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, by the grave of their spiritual leader.

Fellows 2014

By Amie Ferris-Rotman

September 27, 2014

Also published by NewsFixed InSight

Rabbi Nachman, founder of the Hasidic Breslov movement, taught his followers to vanquish sadness through private prayer and celebration. On his deathbed in 1810, he asked that Jews visit his grave annually to mark Rosh Hashanah. After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, what had been a trickle of pilgrims exploded into tens of thousands.

“Coming here is a way to take a break from it all, to pray in a special, spiritual place,” said economist Noam Orr, who made the trip from Jerusalem – his tenth – with his six-year-old son.

The conflict raging in eastern Ukraine failed to dampen the celebrations. Uman was filled with the din of techno music and the roar of the traditional shofar horn. Devout Yiddish speakers and marijuana-smoking hippies danced together, chanting the name of Nachman.

Some camped on the grass; others rented dilapidated Soviet flats at extortionate rates. Local shops accepted Israeli shekels as currency, selling kosher pizzas, yarmulkes and a constant flow of cigarettes and vodka.

Locals welcome the business but are quick to pass judgement on the revelers. Religious tensions often run high in Uman and Israeli soldiers now guard a large cross, erected last year close to Nachman’s grave,  which promptly became a target for graffiti.

Photo: Joel van Houdt

Two Hasidic Jewish pilgrims stock up on cigarettes at a local shop in Uman before Rosh Hashanah festivities kick off. Business in the central Ukrainian town of 90,000 undergoes a mini boom before and during the pilgrimage, when its population temporarily increases by a quarter.

Photo: Joel van Houdt

Pilgrims gather on the outskirts of the one kilometer square enclosure sealed off for the Jewish New Year. While Jewish pilgrims visit Uman throughout the year, Rosh Hashanah attracts the biggest crowd. At least 20,000 arrive from Israel on chartered flights to Kiev and Odessa, and then take a bus to Uman.

Photo: Joel van Houdt

A pilgrim gets his head shaved ahead of the Jewish New Year. It is customary to shave the head, but to leave the hair on the temples, before the New Year begins. Makeshift barber shops for this purpose were set up across the enclosure where the Jewish pilgrims stayed for four days.

Photo: Joel van Houdt

A pilgrim in the Jewish enclosure blows the shofar, a ram’s horn traditionally played at Jewish New Year. They are standing on Pushkin Street, the main drag within the Jewish enclosure. The pilgrimage is turning into a steady business for many, and shofars were on sale by the box load for as little as $10 each.

Photo: Joel van Houdt

A Jewish pilgrim walks along Pushkin Street. The Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage attracts Jews from all strata of society, including dedicated party-goers. With cannabis and alcohol in abundance, street parties with techno music continued until late at night.

Photo: Joel van Houdt

Men drink beer at a street party by the entrance of Rabbi Nachman’s grave. Groups of pilgrims spontaneously break into dance throughout the four-day pilgrimage. Local residents say pilgrims drink too much alcohol and have made several complaints to local authorities about what they call “disturbances” and “chaos”.

Photo: Joel van Houdt

Jewish men pray on the grave of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of Breslov Hasidism. On his deathbed, Nachman urged Jews to visit his grave on the new year. The grave is off limits to women and non-Jews during Rosh Hashanah, when it is constantly thronged by pilgrims.

Photo: Joel van Houdt

A father prays with his young son at the synagogue containing the grave of Rabbi Nachman. Makeshift synagogues dotted about the Jewish enclosure overflow with pilgrims. There are plans to build a permanent, two-storey synagogue opposite, but organisers said they are yet to secure funding.

Photo: Joel van Houdt

Hasidic men pray by a lake near Rabbi Nachman’s grave as the sun sets on the day of Rosh Hashanah. Some swim and fish in the lakes, which they believe hold special significance due to their proximity to the grave. Tradition dictates that boys make the pilgrimage before they turn seven.

Photo: Joel van Houdt

A pilgrim walks through a playground with his hat box in the Jewish enclosure. Soviet-built high-rise flats such as these near Rabbi Nachman’s grave can fetch up to $2,000 for the week, meaning locals count on the annual pilgrimage to make ends meet. Israelis have started to buy property here in recent years.

Photo: Joel van Houdt

Two adolescent pilgrims walk past a cross near Rabbi Nachman’s grave. The cross was erected last year by Uman city officials, much to the annoyance of many Jewish pilgrims, who saw it as an act of provocation. It was later vandalised with Hebrew graffiti. On Rosh Hashanah, Israeli and Ukrainian guards now protect it against further attacks.

Photo: Joel van Houdt

A pilgrim relaxes after skinny dipping in the lake by Rabbi Nachman’s grave. Some men chose to swim naked in the two  lakes in the Jewish enclosure, in what they said was a purification of their souls for the New Year. For Jews, this Rosh Hashanah marked the year 5775.

Amie Ferris-Rotman reported from Ukraine as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP)Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman (@Amie_FR), photos by Joel van Houdt (@joelvanhoudt). Editing by Jack Watling (@Jack_Watling) and Paul Raymond (@Paul_A_Raymond)