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High Holidays Feature in Ukrainian City with Few Jews, Little Israel Helps Support Economy

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Even though only a few hundred Jews live in this city, the residents of Uman don’t need to travel great distances to get a taste of Jewish culture. They have their own Little Israel.

That’s what the local residents nicknamed the part of the city that each year draws thousands of Chasidic pilgrims who come here to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and pray at the grave of their beloved rebbe, Nahman of Bratslav.

Each fall, the High Holiday season offers a definite change of pace for this otherwise provincial Ukrainian city of almost 100,000 people, located some 120 miles south of Kiev.

Uman is the resting place of Nahman, who died here in 1810. The great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidic Judaism, Nahman sometimes referred to himself as the Messiah. He is greatly revered by his followers, known for their fervent dancing and singing.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Uman has again become the main gathering place for Bratslavers living in Israel, the United States and more than a dozen other countries.

Each Rosh Hashanah the devoted pilgrims become a conspicuous part of the Uman landscape, wearing white prayer shawls over their coats, dancing enthusiastically in the streets and chanting “Uman, Uman, Rosh Hashono!”

It took locals, including Jews who still call Uman their home, some time to get used to the annual pilgrimage.

When the first large groups of pilgrims became to arrive during the last years of communism, as Soviet religious restrictions were being loosened, “many locals laughed at these men in black suits and hats,” recalls Lyudmila Muratova, the director of Hesed Nahman, the local welfare center for impoverished Jews.

“Back then, the only thing they were buying from the locals was bottled water, and they camped in tents,” she said.

Times have changed.

Today pilgrims can rent an apartment from local residents or stay at Sha’arei Zion, a Jewish hotel that also houses a supermarket which sells local and imported kosher food.

Kosher goods can also be picked up at kiosks, displaying signs in both Hebrew and Ukrainian, that sell locally produced beers and soft drinks — all with kosher certification — alongside teas, instant coffee, cookies and pasta imported from Israel.

“Eventually we got used to them,” Muratova says. “Today this is part of our town, and we have now our own piece of Israel,” she says of the neighborhood where Bratslavers bought many apartments and rent many others for the duration of the pilgrimage.

Some members of the Bratslaver group now maintain a permanent presence in Uman — running the infrastructure that helps Jewish pilgrims arrange their accommodations and meals and overlooking the maintenance of newly built properties, including the hotel, the huge synagogue and the mausoleum that shelters the rebbe’s tomb.

In fact, some locals say it would be difficult to survive economically were it not for the pilgrimage. Several Uman residents have landed jobs with the Bratslavers; others earn a steady income by renting out their homes, working as drivers in their private cars, or selling souvenirs — nesting dolls and medallions with Rabbi Nahman’s portrait — to the foreign visitors.

“At first, this all looked so ridiculous to us,” said Vasiliy Bubnovsky, a non-Jewish worker at the local electrical plant, Megometr, which is located next to the Bratslaver complex of buildings and which still uses some space in a former synagogue confiscated by the Bolsheviks.

“But year after year, we got used to them,” said Bubnovsky. “They celebrate their holidays with such joy. There are many lights everywhere, and I like their melodic songs.”

Local officials also have good things to say about the pilgrims and their impact on the city’s economy.

“In 1988, there were only 200 pilgrims; last year, we had some 11,000,” said Svetlana Lipinskaya of the Uman mayor’s office. “The authorities feel their responsibility toward pilgrims, and we always try to be friendly with them.”

Despite the reputation of Ukraine, there have been few cases of anti-Semitism during the pilgrimage in recent years, said Michail Kogos, the leader of Uman’s indigenous Bratslaver congregation.

But not everyone is happy with the annual influx of Chasidic Jews.

A local Russian Orthodox priest, Father Sergiy, is not shy about telling people his attitude toward the annual visitors.

“I have a negative attitude toward Chasidic pilgrims,” the priest says. “What they celebrate isn’t a Ukrainian state holiday. And they make much noise and do not let our women go out in the streets.”

Indeed, in Little Israel, which is located between Puskin and Belinsky streets, women are asked to stay at home when the procession is under way.

Other than dealing with those who provide goods and services to them, the pilgrims rarely interact with the locals, some Uman residents observed.

“They rarely contact with any of us, aside from those who they rent apartments from,” Muratova said.

For Vladimir Torchinsky, a native of Uman, interest in his city’s heritage propelled him to Machon, the Moscow-based institute for para-rabbinical leaders run by the Russian Reform Jewish movement.

Torchinsky, 29, said it was quite natural for him to be interested in Judaism, having come from Uman. After completing his training in Moscow last year, he headed a new Reform congregation in the Far Eastern Russian city Khabarovsk.

Raised in an assimilated Soviet Jewish environment, he said it was no coincidence that his older sister also adopted a Jewish lifestyle and is now living in Israel as an Orthodox Jew.

“Blame it on Uman,” he said with a smile of his family’s newfound interest in religion.

JTA correspondent Lev Krichevsky in Moscow contributed to this report.

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