hidden europe 4

Out of Gehenna: a Ukrainian portrait

by Nicky Gardner


hidden europe follows the trail of one Jewish sect to Uman' in Ukrainian Podillya

Whoever comes to my grave, and there recites the Ten Psalms of the Tikkun K'lali, and gives even as little as a penny to charity for my sake, then, no matter how serious his sins may be, I will do all in my power - spanning the length and breadth of Creation - to cleanse and protect him. By his very payot (sidecurls), I shall pull him out of Gehenna (purgatory).

from Rebbe Nachman's Wisdom 141

Heading south from the Ukrainian capital Kyjiv on the main highway to the Black Sea port of Odessa and the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, on a bright summer day, the countryside seems like one giant field that mimics the Ukrainian flag. A great horizontal strip of gold below and a slice of azure blue above.

It is all too tempting to rush across this region of central Ukraine which is called Podillya. This is a land of rich black soils, blue skies and golden fields of wheat. Podillya is the Ukraine of our imagination, a place where you can drive for miles across an endless landscape that undulates gently and where every slight rise in the highway reveals yet another onion domed church. It is easy to see how migrants from this Ukrainian heartland felt at home when they finally settled in the high prairies of Alberta in Canada.

Podillya is farming country, an earthy sort of region, where the townscapes evoke mixed memories of influences from Poland, Turkey, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire. But Podillya's little towns have a less well known claim to fame - they spawned one of the most remarkable religious revivals of modern times. Hasidic Judaism traces its roots to this region.

hidden europe followed the trail of one Hasidic sect to Uman' in Podillya.

On 19 August, the Feast of the Transfiguration in the calendar of the eastern churches, Podillya stops for a day. The harvest, not yet quite complete, is suspended for the solemnity known as Preobrazhennia Hospodnie. In the smaller places, the whole village gathers at the church. Look carefully, and you will see that some of the faithful are wearing a bracelet of braided wheat, an easy reminder that Podillya is one of Europe's great bread baskets. The morning celebration of Holy Mass in the Greek Catholic church just outside the provincial centre of Uman' concludes with a little ritual that is reserved for this day: the first of the season's apples are blessed, along with some freshly gathered local honey.

A few weeks later, thousands of Hasidic Jews will converge on Uman' to celebrate the Jewish New Year. Once again, apples and honey are the culinary icons of the moment in the solemn celebration of Rosh Hashanah.

Uman' attracts few visitors, except during this one brief spell each autumn, when the town becomes the very centre of the world for Jewish pilgrims who devoutly converge on this little town. The first and second days of the month of Tishri in the Jewish Calendar are celebrated as Rosh Hashanah, more commonly known as the Jewish New Year. So in September Uman' braces itself for its annual pilgrim influx. The first Hasidic Jews will arrive this year in the third week of September, and all who can will ensure that they are in Uman' by the eve of the New Year, Erev Rosh Hashanah, which this year will fall on Monday 3 October. By mid October, the great majority of the pilgrims will have left, returning to their homes in Israel, Europe and the Americas. But how is it that some fifteen thousand holy men come to gather once each year in a relatively unknown town in Podillya?

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