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In Ukraine’s Uman, locals predict war won’t keep all Jewish pilgrims away

As Ukraine and Israel try to deter worshipers from Rosh Hashana trip, locals expect reduced turnout but for many to still show up — and hope for better behavior

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A Hasidic Jewish pilgrim reacts as he joins others, in front of Ukrainian border guards at the checkpoint Novaya Guta near Novaya Guta, Belarus, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. (AP)
A Hasidic Jewish pilgrim reacts as he joins others, in front of Ukrainian border guards at the checkpoint Novaya Guta near Novaya Guta, Belarus, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. (AP)

UMAN, Ukraine — Residents of the central Ukrainian city of Uman have grown accustomed to hosting tens of thousands of Jewish worshippers during the annual Rosh Hashana pilgrimage. Many work in Jewish-owned businesses come September, some have learned more Hebrew than one might expect, and most speak with some measure of pride about their hometown’s fame and status as a sacred site.

Now, with a five-month-long war between Russia and Ukraine still raging, the pilgrimage is very much in doubt. Israel and Ukraine have issued warnings to deter the worshippers, but it is unclear how much of an effect they have had.

Locals in Uman told The Times of Israel this week that they expect thousands of Hasidim and others to make the journey anyway.

Even before the war, the annual pilgrimage, a major economic driver for the city, had been badly disrupted by the pandemic. In 2020, with COVID-19 travel restrictions still largely in place globally, thousands of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims tried to enter the country.

Only 3,000 worshippers made it through before Kyiv closed its borders to avoid an outbreak, while others spent the holiday camped on the side of the road near the border begging to be let in.

“I know that they will come,” said Dmytro, a local construction worker enjoying a beer and a cigarette by a pond below the Jewish district. “We think that their security will be taken care of.”

Dmytro (L) enjoys a drinks and a smoke by a pond in Uman, July 25, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Dmytro, who was eager to show off his knowledge of Hebrew curse words, worked for nine years at a store on Pushkin Street in the heart of Jewish Uman.

“Because Rabbi Nachman’s bones are here, we think that they are going to come,” he said, referring to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. an 18th century Hasidic leader whose gravesite draws the pilgrims every year.

Others are anticipating a far more modest showing.

“We expect it to be like two years ago in the first year of the pandemic,” said Sergei, a driver. “Around 2,000 people who usually come in earlier, they’re going to come in and stay here for a little while. But we don’t expect a huge influx of people.”

‘Everyone benefits’

Non-Jewish residents were unanimous in their opinion that in the absence of pandemic or war, the pilgrimage is a boon for their city.

Alina Turkolova, 25, at a Kosher pizza shop in Uman, Ukraine, July 25, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“In normal times, it’s totally fine,” said Sasha, smoking a cigarette next to a Judaica store. “Everyone benefits from it, the local economy benefits from it, people make money, the city thrives when people come in. It’s business as usual, we are happy to have them here.”

“It’s good for the city,” concurred Alina Turkolava, 25, who works at a kosher pizza store on Pushkin Street. She decided to study Hebrew for a year at university after meeting Israelis every September.

“In this way we can speak with different people and meet them, and also people from Israel can visit our city and I can ask about their experiences in Uman,” she said.

Jewish men in the street near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, on eve of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, September 6, 2021. (Flash90)

The pilgrimage to Uman dates back hundreds of years. During his life, Rabbi Nachman exhorted his followers to spend Rosh Hashana with him, and on his death in 1810, they began making the pilgrimage to his grave.

Jews have seen their fortunes vary widely in Uman. While it was an important center of Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment movement, the city was also the site of bloody pogroms in 1749, 1768, 1919, and 1942.

Despite the economic benefits for the city, tensions between locals and Jewish pilgrims have persisted in some quarters, and some residents expressed misgivings over how the Jewish visitors act when they come.

A crucifix faces the Jewish district in Uman, Ukraine, July 25, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“Most don’t behave well,” Dmytro lamented. “They put themselves like they own the place. We would hope that they would understand that they are guests here and they should respect that.”

Sasha felt the same way. “It’s true a lot of them are not very well-behaved. We would prefer for them to be better mannered.”

Brawls between Jewish visitors and locals, which have escalated into stabbings and other disturbances in the past, have become so commonplace that Israeli police now send officers for the duration of the holiday to help local authorities maintain order. Some blame the problems on rowdy youths and others who travel to Uman for the party atmosphere rather than a purely religious experience.

Street scene in the Jewish ‘ghetto’ at Uman, Ukraine, Rosh Hashana 2014. (Yaniv Salama-Scheer/The Times of Israel)

“Every year there are many incidents with passengers traveling to Uman,” a senior source at Ben Gurion airport told the Ynet news site in 2018. “There are passengers who arrive to the plane drunk, or even drugged; there are those who arrive with plastic bags instead of suitcases. Some travelers arrive for the flight without tickets and ask for ‘generosity’ from other passengers; and many of them arrive for the flight literally at the last moment, as if it were a bus.”

Even war refugees now being hosted at kosher hotels have already heard about the frustrations locals have with some of the visitors.

Alyona, a refugee from Kherson, found a job working with Jewish children in Uman. “The kids tell me about the culture and different stories. We heard good things and we heard bad things. We heard that when many people come in, they feel entitled and that they’re not guests but are in charge here, and conflicts arise.”

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