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“Whoever comes to my gravesite [in Uman, Ukraine], recites the Ten Psalms,* and gives even as little as a penny to charity in my name, then, no matter how serious his sins may be, I will do everything in my power— spanning the length and breadth of creation—to save and repair him. By his very payos [sidelocks]I will pull him out of the lowest pit of hell! Only now, he must take upon himself not to return to his foolishness.”  ~ Rebbe Nachman of Breslev

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev made this declaration before his passing in 1810. This promise has since echoed throughout the generations, compelling tens of thousands of Jewish men from every continent except Antarctica to leave their wives and children and undertake a costly, difficult pilgrimage to Uman, a small town in Ukraine, to celebrate the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah.**

To understand why this happens, one needs first to understand Uman’s history and the biography of the unique individual who made this promise.

In the mid-18th century, Uman was a walled city languishing under Polish rule, and host to a sizable Jewish population. In 1768, with an army of anti-Semitic Haidemack pogromists advancing toward Uman, thousands of additional Jews from the surrounding countryside fled to the seeming safety that Uman’s walls provided. The Haidemaks laid siege to the town and demanded that all the Jews be turned over, or else they would massacre the town’s entire population. Uman’s governor refused to turn in the Jews.

When the Haidemaks breached the town’s walls, they erected a cross and demanded that the Jews convert to Christianity, on pain of death. Rather than give up their faith, every single Jew in the town chose to “sanctify God’s name”. Over a three-day period, the streets of Uman ran red with blood as the Haidemaks massacred over 20,000 Jewish men, women, and children. The victims’ bodies were buried in two mass graves.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev was born in 1772, in the Ukrainian town of Medzeboz. He was the great-grandson of the famed Baal Shem Tov—the spiritual giant who founded Chassidism—a Jewish movement that focuses on connecting with God through focused prayer, and an elevation of the spirit.

Difficult and yet also aloof as a child, Rebbe Nachman developed into a profound Kabbalist and Chassidic leader, who communicated complex concepts cloaked in unaffected yet inventive stories. Through parables, song, and homiletics, he taught his disciples to live with simplicity and joy, and encouraged them to develop a strong personal relationship with God through conversation and meditation.

Following stints in northern Israel (then Palestine) and various towns throughout the Ukraine, Rebbe Nachman moved to Uman only six months before his death from tuberculosis at the tender age of 38. He viewed the victims of the Haidimak massacre as the most righteous of Jews, and so his disciples honored his wish to be buried in the same cemetery as Uman’s 20,000 victims.

Unlike other Chassidic movements that operate on a dynastic principle, with a son or lead disciple assuming the mantle of leadership upon the passing of the founding Rebbe, Breslev has only ever had one leader—Rebbe Nachman. Before his passing, he told his followers, “My light will burn until the coming of the Messiah.” This was interpreted to mean that they should continue following his teachings and not appoint a new leader. This distinction earned Breslev adherents the derisive nickname, “The Dead Chassidim,” and Breslev followers were much maligned by other Chassidic sects throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Devout Breslevers started visiting Uman to pray at Rebbe Nachman’s grave in 1811, the year after his death. While they came at different times of the year, Rosh Hashanah, in the early fall, soon became a focal point for the pilgrimage.

To be close to their Rebbe, a group of Breslevers established a community in Uman, amid a much larger gentile population. Years passed, and control of the region shifted from Poland, to an independent Ukraine. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, they massacred 17,000 local Jews, throwing many of them into a nearby pond. Following the Holocaust, a small group of Breslev Jews returned to Uman to live there under Soviet rule. Since the open practice of religion was forbidden during Communism, they practiced in secret, inviting fellow Soviet Breslevers to come pray for Rosh Hashanah using coded letters and word of mouth.

Under Soviet rule, Uman was not a town where tourists were allowed to travel on account of a nearby military airport. This fact did not deter Breslev Chassidim from Israel and the United States from visiting Rebbe Nachman’s grave. They bribed officials, they made deals, they snuck across borders and risked their lives, all to present themselves at the grave of their leader.

Perestroika resulted in a loosening of travel restrictions and an increase in the number of pilgrims. In 1988, 250 people made the pilgrimage. The following year, over 1,000 people participated. In 1991, a group of Breslevers started to work with the Ukrainian government to build a local infrastructure in Uman that would support the increasing number of pilgrims. This proved to be a prescient move, as the ranks of pilgrims swelled with each passing year, from the initial group of 250 to over 25,000 by the year 2009. As the pilgrimage grew, there was a tremendous resurgence of interest in Breslev Chassidut. Currently, it appears to be the single fastest growing group of Chassidic Jews in the world. Uman’s annual rite has grown to the single largest Jewish pilgrimage made outside of the Land of Israel.

This massive pilgrimage supports the local economy, with Ukrainians renting out their homes, making enough money to carry them through the year. This economic boom has resulted in nicer cars, better clothing, and a higher standard of living for Uman locals.

I first heard about Uman from my father, who had a connection to the Breslev movement through friends, and had traveled there twice in the early post-communist years. He returned, regaling me with stories about taking ritual baths in freezing ponds, sleeping and praying in an unfinished warehouse, and fascinating encounters with Jews from all over the world, as well as with Ukrainian locals.

YEARS PASSED, and I was fortunate enough to move to Prague with my wife and sons from 2001 – 2004 (where I worked in the advertising industry). I returned to America, and found myself so “homesick” for Eastern Europe that when my father invited me to join him in Uman in 2004, I jumped at the chance. I found it far less rustic, and far more moving, than I had expected. With dancing, singing, eating, drinking, and the spirit of communal prayer, the festival-like atmosphere seemed equal parts Woodstock and Mount Sinai. Of course, I felt an eerie dissonance traveling to pray in the Ukraine sixty-five years after the devastation of the Holocaust, but this only intensified my spiritual and artistic commitment to the experience. As a photographer, I brought a camera along to capture what I saw, with no particular goal in mind. When I returned to the United States and developed over twenty rolls of film, I was gratified to find that my images hearkened back to the lost era of the shtetl, and echoed the famous images captured by Roman Vishniak in his journeys across pre-war Poland—but updated, given a 21st century post-Soviet flair. I returned each year, and continued to document this uniquely moving and increasingly spectacular event. I’ve traveled the world, but Uman has been the only place where I’ve ever seen Jews of every stripe: sefardim, ashkenazim, religious, non-religious, and different sects of chassidim gathered in peace, harmony, and singularity of purpose. I forged new friendships. I gained a newfound respect for the religious experience. I experienced an unprecedented awakening of my artistic spirit.

As a devoted husband and father, it is difficult to leave my wife and sons for the Jewish New Year. Fortunately, they have been incredibly supportive of my trips, for which they have my deep and eternal gratitude.As a religious Jew who is also an artist, Uman presents formidable personal challenges. While it is an incredible opportunity for me to exercise my spirituality and art, it is restrictive in the sense that I can only shoot on certain days. My faith dictates that I cannot take photos on a holiday or on the Sabbath. I cannot be a part of a spiritual community and also break its laws. Because I cannot shoot on certain days, I feel that I am constantly shunted between these two identities: me, the Artist, and me, the Jew.

While I felt for a while that these were opposing identities, I came to feel they are actually quite complimentary. During the time I was shooting, I could see myself, the communities I grew up in, and the rituals I was raised with, from the outside. I saw how these things might look to an outsider, who wouldn’t have the background to comprehend why some 25,000 Jews would undertake an annual trip to this forlorn Ukrainian outpost. This provided me with a distance that allowed me to see the event “from above” as it were, to capture its universally emotional moments, and relate this story to the broadest possible audience.

On the holiday though, when I had to put my cameras down, I was able to experience the event from the inside. This experience gave me the intimacy I needed to live in myself, to experience a more self-reflective emotion, and to make a genuine connection with my faith. As a result of my trips to Uman, I have become a deeper person, a better husband and father, and ultimately, a better artist.

*The ten chapters from the book of Psalms that comprise the Tikkun HaKlali are: 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, 150.
**Rebbe Nachman’s promise is effective not only during Rosh HaShanah, but any time during the year, whenever someone comes to his gravesite and fulfills these conditions.
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