Pushkin Street has been transformed into a holy bazaar, and it’s crowded. Elbow to elbow, fur hat to fur hat, loudspeakers blaring out the chance to redeem your soul, stock up on groceries, or simply dance, dance, dance to the ecstatic music proclaiming God’s—and Rebbe Nachman’s—eternal greatness.If you want any remote chance of getting to the counter at one of the makeshift falafel or shawarma stands knocked together for the benefit of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who’ve just arrived, you’ve got to bore through a morass of people waving shekels, dollars, and hryvnias like it’s 99-cent-drink night at the local dive bar. It’s a jungle out here, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in Uman, Ukraine, the burial place of the 19th-century Hasidic mystic rabbi known as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (in Hasidism, “rebbe” is an affectionate term for “rabbi” that also connotes a strong spiritual leadership). Nachman promised redemption for anyone who visited his grave, and for more than 200 years that grave has been the site of a fevered pilgrimage for Jews from around the world. In the past decade, the atmosphere has grown carnivalesque at times, as the followers of Nachman, traditionally Hasidim from religious upbringings, have swelled with former Deadheads, erstwhile Phish Phanatics, reformed criminals, and recovering (and sometimes not) alcoholics and drug addicts. The operative language is Hebrew, though you hear English, French, Yiddish, and Russian. The only ones speaking Ukrainian are the locals, who are allowed onto Pushkin Street if they can prove they live or work in the area, a measure meant, presumably, to ease crowding, but also to prevent violence between the native population and the tens of thousands of once-a-year religious tourists. As a result, Ukrainians are sparse, but they’re not the only ones: The pilgrims are all men. Here and there I notice posters in Hebrew slapped onto telephone poles and synagogue walls: it is forbidden in places where there are large gatherings of men for women to be found!
Seventy-Two Hours at the Hasidic Burning Man