11 min read

On the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Uman.

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Hello, all! I've had the week off and have been engaging in a little staycation in Baltimore, which has been relatively uneventful. I spent most of my time reading the news and watching documentaries like Whose Is This Song, which is dated but delightful if you enjoy the absurdity of nationalism in the Balkans.

One of the most dramatic moments in the documentary – in which a Bulgarian woman tries to discover the origins of a song that's popular in Turkey, Greece, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, and Bulgaria – is in my Serbian home of Vranje. 😬

I recommend the film to anyone interested in "the region."

This week I'm bringing you a very special interview with a dear friend named Sam (surname omitted for privacy).

Sam grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in Stamford Hill, London, which currently has one of the highest rates of Covid in the world. However, Sam began to question his faith and slowly drifted towards a more secular lifestyle as he came of age. I met him in London in 2013 when a mutual friend introduced us.

We spent long nights and weekends on my rooftop in Hackney, regularly debating religion, life, and philosophy with a small group of friends. It was a heady, magical time during which I learned so much about what it's like to grow up in a closed religious community where theology is a central part of your existence.

I learned about the courage it takes to break from the only community you have ever known. But I also got a small taste of what we miss when we go through life without asking deeper theological questions about our human experiences (I say this as someone who grew up with almost no knowledge of or experience with religion).

In recent months, Sam has been spending time in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Ukraine that always intrigued me.

Uman is a city of roughly 80,000 inhabitants that each year for Rosh Hashana hosts tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews who come from around the world to visit the grave of  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. From what I've been told, the men dance and revel in the streets during that time of year, bursting into spontaneous displays of ecstatic religious devotion. In all honesty, it sounds like a blast. And one day, I hope to gain admission to these events as an official interloper.

But since that won't be possible this year, Sam and I sat down to talk about his experience living in Uman during the pandemic and how he navigates life with one foot in Jewish religious communities and one foot out years after he began questioning his faith.

Cristina: So, how are you doing? How are you faring in Uman during the pandemic?

Sam: You really don't feel it here. I'm kind of living in a bubble in the Jewish community. It's like there isn't a pandemic over here. Life is pretty much normal.

If you leave the area, you notice it because you have to wear a mask in the shops. But in the Jewish area, no one wears a mask in the shops. So you only notice the pandemic if you travel outside of the area.

Cristina: Why is that? Do people not believe in the pandemic? Have there not been many confirmed cases?

Sam: People here are very into conspiracy theories. A lot of people don't believe in vaccines. Some people don't think the coronavirus exists. I don't know what the percentage of people is, but I've come across that a lot.

It isn't shocking to me that they don't believe in it. It goes hand in hand with the fact that these people believe in many other conspiracy theories, like a New World Order. They think the coronavirus is a plot to destabilize the world, so it fits into that narrative. So there's a general sense of distrust.

Part of the central belief of this specific Hasidic sect, Breslov, is that the whole world outside of their beliefs is a false reality.

Some people do believe in the pandemic, but the anti-vaccine sentiment is prevalent. That said, a lot of these people are anti-doctors and anti-science. But they'll run to a doctor if they really need one.

Cristina: I'd love to hear about your decision to move to Uman. Why did you leave England for Ukraine?

Sam: It's not a very grand story. I had a friend here in Uman, and I wasn't doing much in England, so he invited me to come over.

There's a pilgrimage every year. It's coming up in under a month, and I've been coming almost every year for the past five years. So that's why I visited initially.

Every year, it's been growing, but there are usually around 30,000 to 50,000 people who come for the pilgrimage.

Last year was a little different. Because of the pandemic, Ukraine shut the borders. So people traveling to Uman ended up getting stuck in no man's land between Belarus and Ukraine. So it was basically a humanitarian crisis because you had thousands of people trying to get into Ukraine.  

For the Breslov sect, to be here at the Rabbi's grave for the Jewish New Year is the most important thing. The Rabbi said they would be saved and redeemed if they come to him. So people will risk their lives to be here.

Cristina: Is it mostly men who go? Are there any women who attend?

Sam: It is primarily men, but some women do come. It's always been a tradition that women don't come, or even aren't allowed to come. But increasingly, more and more women have been coming each year with their families.

Even so, you don't see them much. It's hard for women to navigate on the streets because it's just packed with men. I don't think most men would say anything to the women if they were there in the streets, but you never know.

When the festival isn't happening, there are only between 100 to 1,000 people living here in the Jewish quarters at any given time.

Cristina: I know you grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in London, and then you drifted away to become more secular. But now you're living in Uman. What does it feel like to be surrounded by such a religious community again?

Sam: It's definitely triggered a little bit of trauma. But the community here isn't as rigid as the one in which I grew up.

In some ways, this community is more extreme, but it's also more free-flowing. The people over here know how to have a good time. The atmosphere in Uman is celebratory and joyous, and ecstatic.

I can't compare this place to living in other Jewish communities partly because it's so small here. But it's also a real mix of people from different backgrounds who haven't all grown up in the same way. People come from all over and are friends with each other.

There are also more single people here, which isn't common. There are a lot of single guys living on their own here. You don't have so many single people living on their own in other ultra-Orthodox communities. Usually, people live with their parents until are they are married.

The people who live here are die-hards for their Rabbi. But different social groups exist within the community, and there are sub-sects within the Breslov sect.

The group I've been hanging out with is a sub-sect of Breslov, called Na Nachs. If you've been to Israel, then you probably know them. They drive around Israel in vans and stop at traffic lights and start dancing.

Cristina: I do know them. They're the Hasidic ravers.

Sam: Yeah. They believe in the same teachings as everyone else. But they also believe in something slightly different.

They believe in this thing called the Petek, which is a piece of paper that came down from Heaven from their Rabbi, who died in 1810. He sent the Petek to someone who was very pious and lived for a long time. So it's essential to them.

Cristina: Do they still have the Petek?

Sam: No. They have a copy of it. But allegedly, someone burned the original copy.

Cristina: And what is the philosophy behind the dancing?  

Sam: Another of their core tenents of being a Na Nach is dissemination. They want to spread the word and light of their Rabbi. They want to spread it to all of the jews and even to the world.

That's a big part of it. They want to make people happy, so they blast music and dance. They go around to people and engage. They hand out information with the teachings of their Rabbi.

Cristina: Do they proselytize through dancing and raving in Uman too?

Sam: They don't have to do it here to the same extent. All of the Jews in Uman are already converted. They're there for a reason.

There might be a few Jews in Uman who aren't connected to Breslov, like Ukrainian Jews. But the people in this area around the Rabbi's grave – that's the community's epicenter– have already converted.

But people here are welcoming to people like me who aren't in their sect because they're very into proselytizing.

Cristina: Do people there expect you to participate in their religious traditions or activities? Are they OK with you being secular?

Sam: A lot of people don't know that I'm secular. If they see me here, they assume I'm here for a specific reason. They assume I've come for religion. It's a natural assumption.

Only the people close to me know my beliefs. But even they expect that I not necessarily participate but avoid rocking the boat or causing problems. And I've gone along with that to a certain extent.

So on Friday and Saturday during Shabbat, I've been disengaged, and I let go of technology for 24 hours. It would create a problem if I didn't go along with that. They would see it as hugely disrespectful. But I'm happy to do that and go along with it. I don't want to disrespect anyone.

But there's no expectation for me to pray. People do try to proselytize to me, of course.

Cristina: Are all of your friends in Uman real believers?

Sam: Yes, very much so. But it doesn't cause problems. I think deep down. They believe that I will ultimately adopt their lifestyle. They hold onto hope that I will change my mind.

Their belief system is that there is no other way. That Rabbi is your only hope and your only redemption. A lot of people say that this Rabbi saved their life. If it weren't for the Rabbi, they would be dead.

In a spiritual sense, they are very much in contact with the Rabbi. They hug the grave and kiss the grave, and cry by the grave. They believe his spirit is by his grave, and that maintains the relationship with him.

Some sects have a Rabbi who is alive, and others have a Rabbi who is dead. But for Breslov, their Rabbi died in 1810, and no one can replace him.

Cristina: Are there spiritual leaders of Breslov?

Sam: In Breslov, there are many leaders. But in the particular sub-sect I'm staying with. They are not a fan of leaders. They believe the Rabbi is their only true leader. So they don't want another intermediary.


Thanks to Sam, both for his time and for always being so willing to share his experiences and perspectives with me, a complete outsider.

This is random:

True Fruit Smoothie created a new smoothie flavor for every political party running in Germany's upcoming election. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What I'm reading:

• State-owned Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz signed a memorandum with Germany’s RWE to “explore mutually beneficial cooperation opportunities” to produce green hydrogen in Ukraine and export to Germany.

• Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy imposed sanctions on Andriy Derkach, the Ukrainian parliamentarian accused of being a Russian agent and interfering in U.S. elections, Reuters reports.

• Russia's FSB claimed it detained a Ukrainian man caught “red-handed” trying to steal state secrets about its small arms industry in the city of Tula, Reuters reports.

• China appears to be launching a trade war with Lithuania over its Taiwan embassy dispute. The Baltic Times reports that Beijing stopped issuing new permits for Lithuanian food exports.

• Lithuania says it will complete the new wall it's constructing to keep migrants from entering the country from Belarus in September 2022.

• Several dozen migrants have been stuck at the Poland-Belarus border, Politico Europe reports.

• The European Court of Human Rights asked Latvia and Poland to give Iraqi and Afghan migrants stuck on the Belarus border food, water, clothing, medical care, “and, if possible, temporary shelter.”

• Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven will step down as Prime Minister, and as the leader of the Social Democrats, Politico Europe reports.

• The Washington Post reports that CIA Director William Burns, an experienced diplomat, held a secret meeting in Kabul with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar.

• Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai is staying in Kabul to coordinate a peaceful transition with the Taliban. However, the New York Times reports that he left his home after the Taliban disarmed his guards and took over the security at his compound.

• Albania, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Mexico, Poland, Qatar, Rwanda, Ukraine, and Uganda made generous offers regarding the relocation of at-risk Afghans, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.

• Spain will not be able to rescue all Afghans who served alongside its troops due to the “dramatic” situation on the ground, Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles said. The U.S. and the U.K echoed this sentiment.

• Russia has evacuated more than 500 people from Afghanistan, including citizens of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine, Reuters reports. Meanwhile, Russia is holding a month of military exercises in Tajikistan and has reinforced its base there.

• South Korea designated Afghans who supported its operations in Afghanistan as “persons of special merit” instead of refugees in an attempt to quell anti-migrant sentiment, the Guardian reports.

• Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping about stepping up cooperation in Afghanistan, according to a statement from the Kremlin.

• Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, some resistance has emerged as ex-government troops gather in the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, Al Jazeera reports.

• Resistance forces in the Panjshir Valley are “surrounded,” a Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement. AFP reports that Amrullah Saleh, vice president of the now-fallen government, and Ahmad Massoud, son of a renowned military commander who fought the Soviet Union and the Taliban before his 2001 assassination, are among the fights in Panjshir.

The Taliban asked Russia to convey an offer to negotiate with Afghan leaders in the Panjshir Valley, the New York Times reports, citing the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan. The Taliban met with the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan on Wednesday and agreed to stop fighting until the next round of talks, Afghanistan's Tolo news reports.

• The Taliban’s most radical and violent branch, the Haqqani network (which has links to al-Qaeda and which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization since 2012), has assumed a public role in Kabul since the Taliban took over the country, the Wall Street Journal reports.

• Clashes on the Gaza-Israel border wounded at least 24 Palestinians, including a 13-year-old boy who was shot in the head, the Associated Press reports.

• In the West Bank, officials said a 15-year -old Palestinian was killed in a clash with the Israeli military in a refugee camp near Nablus, Al Jazeera reports.

• The U.S. imposed sanctions on an Eritrean defense official – Filipos Woldeyohannes, the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) chief of staff – over serious human rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

Police in Thailand tortured to death a 24-year-old suspected of drug trafficking, according to Human Rights Watch.

As always, please send comments, questions, complaints, corrections to c.maza@protonmail.com

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