Redemption awaited in a Bulgarian backwater and the departure time had passed, but the rabbi’s chartered 767 idled on the dawn tarmac in Tel Aviv — the faithful praying in the aisles, someone passing out duty-free Johnny Walker in paper cups, the underworld types tucked under their black skullcaps, a handful of young women artfully dolled up and modestly covered brushing their iPhones with painted nails, the all-male flight crew gradually losing their smiles as the passengers grew restless and the cabin air stale.
An hour had passed by the time handlers brought Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto on board, installing him by the First Class bulkhead, and the engines finally whined and roared and bore us all skyward.
Our destination: A small lot near a Soviet apartment block along the Danube where the Wonderful Adviser has been waiting for his flock for the last 184 years.
About 600 people made the trip on Tuesday from Israel to Silistra, a town on the Bulgaria-Romania frontier, to pray at the grave of Eliezer Papo, who died there in 1828.
Tradition holds that before the sage died, he told his followers he had chosen death in a bargain with God in order to avert a plague that threatened the entire community. He urged them to visit.
“Whoever went to his grave after immersing themselves in a ritual bath and prayed there with a broken heart, he would guarantee that their prayers would be received,” according to the introduction to Papo’s most famous book, “Pele Yo’etz.” (The name, a quote from the Book of Isaiah, is usually translated as “Wonderful Adviser,” and Papo has come to be known by that name himself.)
Pinto, 39, who splits his time between Israel and the US and has built a large following of considerable ethnic and religious diversity since beginning his ministry in his early twenties, has appointed the Silistra sage his spiritual forebear. He had the grave renovated, and has led a pilgrimage there before Rosh Hashana every year for the past 11 years. Other Israeli rabbis with claims to mystic powers and aspirations to broad influence — like Yaakov Ifergan, known as the “X-Ray” for his supposed ability to see inside bodies and minds — hold yearly pilgrimages at the graves of important ancestors, events which serve as expressions of faith for believers, valuable networking opportunities for the more powerful of the rabbis’ followers, and demonstrations of power for the general public.
For millennia, Jews made pilgrimages to Israel. Today, in a remarkable reversal, Jews in Israel make their spiritual journeys back to the Diaspora
With the help of personal charisma, the ability to speak in simple parables, and a savvy PR operation, Pinto has become known as a wonder rabbi and a counselor both to the downtrodden and to Israel’s business and political elites. When he holds court at his seaside villa in Ashdod, the living room fills with supplicants looking for blessings or advice: One evening last year, I waited there along with soccer players, wealthy businessmen, at least one figure with what might be politely termed “criminal connections,” and Rita, one of Israel’s most popular divas. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former defense minister, told me he believed Pinto’s prayers had pulled him out of a coma and saved his life.
Another associate, Ilan Ben-Dov, the majority shareholder in the cell phone company Partner, credited the rabbi with steering him away from a potentially ruinous business entanglement. He told me last year that the rabbi possessed “wisdom that is unlimited,” and that “any attempt to describe him falls short of the reality.”
Ben-Dov’s finances have since dramatically and publicly collapsed. He was not present on the pilgrimage this year, and neither were the rabbi’s other high-profile acolytes. The most recognizable face on Pinto’s plane on Tuesday belonged to the amiable Roni Harari, a familiar figure from Israel’s underworld who was charged with extortion earlier this year.
When the 767 was over Turkey, Pinto’s handlers brought me from coach for a brief audience.
Pinto appears slightly disheveled, his beard untrimmed. He uses the plural when referring to himself, and his voice is so soft you must lean close to hear. He held my hand, remembered our meeting a year ago, and told me he loved me. His eyes seem to indicate a man used to the presence of the divine but making a superhuman effort to communicate with mortals.
He spoke of the importance of Papo, the Wonderful Adviser, calling him a “holy Kabbalist, an exalted man, who believed in simplicity and the unity of the people of Israel.”
“In this time of intrigue and war, who is a more fitting rabbi to visit?” he said.
“We discovered the rabbi’s book when we were 13, and we gave a class on him. Within a short time there were 500 people in attendance,” he said. The pilgrims to Silistra would “wake up” the rabbi, he suggested, so he would intervene on our behalf in the heavenly courts before the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, just three weeks away.
Pinto’s journey to Bulgaria is one of an array of new pilgrimages that are a growing part of popular religion in Israel — a phenomenon that sees thousands travel every year from Israel to visit the house of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Crown Heights, for example, and to the graves of dozens of lesser-known rabbis across Europe. There are travel agencies that specialize in pilgrimages and grave tourism.
‘The secret of pilgrimage is not only the destination — it’s the old magic of a journey, of crossing borders’
The coming week will see the beginning of the pilgrimage to Uman, in Ukraine, the burial site of the mystic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslev. The Uman pilgrimage draws thousands for the Rosh Hashana festival and has crossed sectarian lines to become one of the central events on the Jewish spiritual calendar in Israel.
The pilgrimages — enabled by cheap international travel and the increasing number of Israelis with disposable income, as well the growing pull of the mystic Judaism of miracle-working rabbis and holy graves — have taken the classic direction of Jewish pilgrimage and flipped it. For millennia, Jews made pilgrimages to Israel. Today, in a remarkable reversal, Jews in Israel make their spiritual journeys back to the Diaspora.
“The secret of pilgrimage is not only the destination — it’s the old magic of a journey, of crossing borders,” said Yoram Bilu, a Hebrew University sociologist and psychologist. In a country the size of Israel, he said, “that’s hard to do,” so believers look to sites farther afield.
The need to travel elsewhere to experience a spiritual revelation is hardly the property of Judaism; in the 14th century, Chaucer famously suggested it was as natural for humans as the seasons. “When April with his showers sweet with fruit,” goes one translation of the Canterbury Tales into modern English,
The drought of March has pierced unto the root…
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
But Bilu suggested a particular need might be implanted deep in Jewish tradition. Jewish history begins with God’s command to Abraham to leave his home for somewhere else, he noted: “The idea of home for Jews was always ambivalent – we’re nomads.”
If once a pilgrimage involved weeks or months of perilous travel — indeed, this was an important part of the experience, if not the very experience of pilgrimage itself — today a believer can reach his destination within hours with no more hardship than some jostling at the check-in counter. The Silistra pilgrims, for example, leave early in the morning and are back in Israel around midnight the same day. Depending on one’s point of view, this either happily removes the inconveniences of a religious journey or completely misses the point.
Asked about the oddity of Jews making pilgrimages to the very places in the Diaspora they had dreamed of leaving, Pinto replied, “That is where these righteous men are, and we must not forget them.”
Pinto’s ministry, Shuva Yisrael, includes yeshivas and charities across the world, and he has attracted wealthy donors in Israel and the US. The villa in Ashdod was purchased by Jay Schottenstein, an acolyte and the owner of the apparel chain American Eagle.
In recent years, Pinto has attracted media attention because of allegations of financial improprieties on the part of some of the people close to him; most recently, a former aide was arrested by the FBI and a US congressman came under scrutiny for possibly illegal donations arranged by Pinto’s people in New York.
Yossi Elituv, an ultra-Orthodox journalist in Israel and one of the rabbi’s close associates, told me the rabbi has no possessions of his own — the house, the money, and the institutions all belong to the organization. The rabbi, he said, has neither a wallet nor a bank account. “These are standards of fairness and honesty that exist nearly nowhere else,” he said.
When our bus stopped at a gas station, the faces of a middle-aged attendant and a van driver at one of the pumps indicated that we were not the kind of thing this part of rural Bulgaria sees often
Pinto has a keen grasp of the importance of the press, and his PR team makes sure to bring reporters on the pilgrimage, all expenses paid. (The Times of Israel covered all expenses for my trip.) On the plane, Shalom Yerushalmi, a well-known political analyst for the daily Maariv who has been close to Pinto for years, defended the rabbi as a “good and innocent man” whose troubles were due to questionable people who had attached themselves to him. “Any place where there is a lot of money draws negative elements,” he said.
Pinto’s plane touched down at the small airport in Varna, on the Black Sea coast, and the pilgrims were hustled through passport control. Another pilgrimage plane, a full 747, had already landed. A fleet of 12 buses spirited the pilgrims northeast on a two-lane highway though cornfields and occasional clumps of red-brick homes toward the Romanian border. When our bus stopped at a gas station, the faces of a middle-aged attendant and a van driver at one of the pumps indicated that we were not the kind of thing this part of rural Bulgaria sees often.
On the bus was David Goldwasser, a businessman from Boca Raton, Florida, who was on his third pilgrimage to the gravesite in Silistra. Goldwasser said he had seen the power of the advice or blessings of a rabbi in his own life, and believed in the spiritual importance of visiting the graves of righteous men. “He was someone who led a life we can emulate. And if he’s intervening for me in heaven, that can’t be bad,” he said.
“Some people will tell you it’s a waste of time,” he said, but leaving home and traveling somewhere else made the experience particularly valuable: “You know you made your trek — you won’t spend your time texting your friends instead of praying. If you’ve made the effort to get somewhere, when you’re there you’ll do what you have to do,” he said.
The bus entered Silistra, passing straight streets of crumbling buildings and worn storefronts before arriving at a quiet residential street a short distance from the Danube; an outlying part of a remote town in a country on the poorest fringes of Europe.
Pinto got off the bus and hundreds of followers who had already arrived mobbed him like a movie star, crowding around him and snapping cellphone photos. A singer with a keyboard launched into a few ecstatic Hasidic favorites over a loudspeaker as the crowd advanced from the bus to the grave, located in a small lot beside a 15-story Soviet apartment building. On the roof, two Bulgarian police lookouts peered down at us through binoculars.
Other policemen, in navy blue uniforms and in plainclothes, ringed the site, and two police cars blocked off the road — new security measures taken in wake of the July 18 suicide bombing at Burgas, which killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver.
Some of the pilgrims listened to a speech by Pinto and prayed fervently, while others sat on plastic chairs and smoked. A few women opened packages of food they had brought from home and picnicked in the middle of the street outside. Clumps of Israeli men in jeans and sneakers talked loudly in Hebrew with each other and on cellphones, the wonder of cellular roaming services having ended the necessity of disconnecting from one’s daily routine to undertake a spiritual quest to a foreign land. There were ultra-Orthodox men speaking Yiddish, and teenagers in the current fashion of Israeli street toughs — skinny jeans, aviator sunglasses, shaved heads, and the odd neck tattoo — all effecting the rather bizarre transformation of this corner of a Bulgarian neighborhood into a temporary colony dominated by the faith and manners of the Israeli working class.
On the fringes of the event, elderly women in flowered smocks and young men in T-shirts, residents of Silistra, took in the strange horde with an impassive gaze. Their expressions seemed neither friendly nor hostile.
“We’re warm people, and lots of Israelis come to Bulgaria,” said one, Vasily Nyedev, a taxi driver. “We don’t differentiate between different visitors — we welcome everyone.”
In Papo’s time, the Jewish community was located here and the lot was a cemetery, said Stelian Georgieff, a Jew from Varna who looks after the site year-round. Under Communist rule, the graves were transferred elsewhere, he said, but Papo’s was identified as particularly important and left in place. (According to a legend recounted in the introduction to Papo’s book, workers tried to move the grave but the stone miraculously would not budge.) The community’s abandoned synagogue still stands nearby.
The pilgrims, for their part, paid no attention at all to the locals or to the landscape around the grave, with the possible exception of several men who urinated on trees. Organizers did not explain to the visitors where they were going or offer any introduction to the residents or their town; the gravesite was divorced from its surroundings, this corner of Silistra briefly annexed instead to the religious landscape the pilgrims had brought with them from home. Barely 12 hours elapsed between our arrival in Bulgaria on Tuesday morning and our disorderly departure that evening, which involved pushing and cursing at the Varna terminal, some fighting with Bulgarian airport officials, and the general sense that for at least some of those present the meaning of the pilgrimage and the rabbi’s exhortations to treat others kindly had been in vain.
By the gravesite, Pinto was speaking into a microphone. The Wonderful Adviser, he was saying, was “a righteous and holy man who gave his life for the people of Israel. All of his Torah is simple, and all of his Torah is written in the language of the people.” Pinto, who presents his own version of Judaism to his followers in simple stories, might have been describing himself. The crush of men around him appeared rapt.
Outside the gravesite was Shmaryahu Cohen, a thin man from Haifa in jeans and a white baseball hat. He said it was his first time here. “This is something little that I can do for my soul,” he said, “a bit of belief.”
A friend told him about a rabbi and a place with power to help people with trouble in their lives, he said, and he decided to come along.
“My family has had a hard year, and a few blessings won’t hurt,” he said.