Rabbi Nachman’s grave in Uman, Ukraine.
Ha’aretz’s Yair Ettinger reports from Uman:
…We get off the bus and join a great frothing human wave. Some break out in spontaneous dancing to familiar hymns, others start looking for a place to sleep. Still others head straight for the “main course” – a visit to Rabbi Nachman’s tomb.
Even at 4 A.M., the tomb is an island in a sea of penitents. One of the highlights will occur this afternoon, when the whole crowd will gather together at the tomb to recite a prayer by Rabbi Nachman.
“Let no one be absent,” Rabbi Nachman wrote when inviting his disciples to join him. Some 200 years later, everybody is here: Hasids from almost every sect, and also anti-Hasidic (“Lithuanian”) ultra-Orthodox Jews; Ashkenazim and Mizrahim (Jews of European and Middle Eastern origin, respectively); Zionists and anti-Zionists; knitted skullcaps of every size and style, like that of Rabbi Moti Elon, head of Yeshivat Hakotel, or the white kippah adorning hip-hop artist Fishi the Great. Traditional and Orthodox Jews from Monsey, Manchester, Marseilles and elsewhere are also on hand.
The pilgrimage to Uman also reveals the extent of the return to Orthodoxy movement in Israel. Who if not Rabbi Nachman understood the souls of sinners and those seeking redemption? “If man does not have an evil inclination, his worship is not at all complete,” the rabbi wrote in his major work, Likutei Moharan. There are also those who describe themselves as utterly secular, who pick up their kippahs – inscribed with the mantra Na Nach Nachman me’Uman – on the way, and who paid their $1,000 “just for the experience.”
“You’re from Haaretz newspaper?” asks Shimon Abizmil from Netanya. “Haaretz in gematria (numerology) is twice Nachman. You see? Rabbi Nachman is everywhere, even with you.”
A conversation with Abizmil requires tuning in to two channels simultaneously, because he sees himself as both a Lubavitch Hasid and a Bratslav Hasid. He has come to Uman with some of his students, who are becoming Orthodox. When he asks who attracts young secular people more, former Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson or Rabbi Nachman, he answers immediately: “Rabbeinu. First of all, his book speaks to those who are in a low place spiritually and aren’t necessarily studying Torah. But what turns on the young people about Rabbeinu is his joy, and I’m talking about the guys of army age and older. Becoming Orthodox is hard, it’s a burden, and Rabbeinu says that what true tzadiks should do is be happy, enjoy worshiping God.” …
And this is what experts who follow the ba’al teshuva movement in Israel note as well. Breslov may not have Chabad’s slick PR and fundraising infrastructure, and it does not have Chabad’s array of outposts, but it has the hearts of the majority of Israeli penitents, eclipsing even Chabad’s messianic faction in growth. Many of these penitents consider themselves to be an amalgam of Breslov and Chabad. In practice this often means a pro forma affiliation with a Chabad center and some study of Chabad text combined with a passion for and identification with Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. How this will play out in the coming years bears watching.