The Mikveh Bomb Shelter at Uman, Ukraine
by Alastair Lockhart
On 24 February 2022, the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Times of Israel reported the Ukrainian government ordering the evacuation of civilians from the city of Uman in central Ukraine. The city was the scene of vicious fighting during World War II, and is said to be particularly dangerous today as it is surrounded by weapons depots.
The city has an ancient Jewish heritage, punctuated by attacks on the Jewish community which reached grim nadirs with massacres of the Jewish population in 1768 during the Koliivshchyna Rebellion, and under Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944. Rabbi Nachman, the founder of Breslav Hasidism, moved to Uman and died there in 1810 where – at his request - he was buried alongside the victims of the 1768 massacre. Before his death, Nachman told his followers that he would ‘pull out from the depths of Gehinnom [hell]’ those who visited his grave, gave a coin to charity, and recited a specified set of Psalms (Goodman 2018, 510). Following his burial, the gravesite became an important pilgrimage site for Hasidim, continuing in secret under Soviet suppression, with significant growth in international visitors – most from Israel and the USA - following the end of the Cold War (seeing tens of thousands of pilgrims in recent years) (Marchenko 2018, 230).
The Breslav tradition has experienced significant growth in recent years, as ‘one of the primary sites for welcoming secular Jews “back into the fold” of observant Judaism’, and as such new members bring unfamiliar perspectives, usually associated with new age and new spiritualities, into the movement: ‘dispositions and preferences of (post-) modern Western culture, and with that the thirst for expressivist and experiential religion’ (Persico 2014, 99, 100). Tomer Persico has suggested that the characteristic Breslav meditative-prayer practice of hitbodedut in particular has provided a mechanism and locus for innovation and creativity.
In 2007, Zvi Mark, at Bar-Ilan University, secured the permission of the movement to decipher and publish the text of a scroll that had been kept secret for 200 years: the Megilat starim, Scroll of Secrets – which Moshe Idel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has referred to as ‘the most esoteric document in the entire history of Hasidism’ (in the book’s promotional material, see Academic Studies Press). The deciphered text suggests a very close association between the Rabbi himself and the figure of the Messiah. The introduction to Mark’s book, by Shaul Magid, says that Nachman ‘viewed his role as the culmination of this seismic change serving as the messianic figure who would close the circle of Jewish, and world, history’, but that ‘unlike many other would-be messiahs, Nachman came to the realization that he was not, in fact, the messiah’ (Magid 2010, 8). Nonetheless, the Rabbi was in some sense a model for the messiah who would come: ‘the messiah as a tzadik made in the image of R. Nachman himself’ (Mark 2010, 65). Nachman would come to see himself as a prophet of the messiah, and that his words and teachings were to spread and enlighten the world in readiness for the arrival of the messiah: ‘My flame will burn until the messiah comes’ (Mark 2010, 72).
Alongside his displaced messianic position, Nachman presents a vision of the end of days free from struggle and strife: ‘No wars, acts of violence or natural disasters are needed to change the face of humanity’ (Mark 2010, 167). Though there will be spiritual struggle, Mark’s analysis indicates that the apocalypse of Nachman’s vision is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, gradual rather than sudden: ‘Rather than tearing down the old, the messiah improves upon it – making everything “much more pleasant than before”’ (Mark 2010, 168).
In the midst of the war in Ukraine, only about 30 of Uman’s pre-war Jewish community of 600 are said to have remained in the city which has seen shelling from Russian forces. Sam Sokol has reported in Haaretz that the underground mikveh ritual bath in the city’s synagogue has become a bomb shelter and a resort for refugees - whether Jewish or not - from other parts of Ukraine who pass through the city in search of safety.
Academic Studies Press. ‘The Scroll of Secrets’. Accessed 15 Mar 2022. https://www.academicstudiespress.com/referencelibrary/the-scroll-of-secrets-the-hidden-messianic-vision-of-r-nachman-of-breslav
Goodman, M. 2018. A History of Judaism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Marchenko, A. 2018. ‘In the Eyes of Uman Pilgrims: A Vision of Place and Its Inhabitants’. Contemporary Jewry 38(2): 227-247.
Magid, S. 2010. ‘Introduction’. In Z. Mark. The Scroll of Secrets: The Hidden Messianic Vision of R. Nachman of Breslav. N. Moses (trans.) Academic Studies Press. pp. 7-11.
Mark, Z. 2010. The Scroll of Secrets: The Hidden Messianic Vision of R. Nachman of Breslav. N. Moses (trans.) Academic Studies Press.
Persico, T. 2014. ‘Hitbodedut for a New Age: Adaptation of Practices among the Followers of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’. Israel Studies Review 29(2): 99-117.
Sokol, S. 2022. ‘In the Ukrainian Jewish Pilgrimage Town of Uman, a Synagogue Becomes a Bomb Shelter’. Haaretz. 13 Mar 2022. Accessed 15 Mar 2022. https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-the-ukrainian-jewish-pilgrimage-town-of-uman-a-synagogue-becomes-a-bomb-shelter-1.10672258?v=1647367736647
‘Ukraine Begins Evacuating Uman, Site of Annual Hasidic Pilgrimage’. Times of Israel. 24 Feb 2022. Accessed 15 Mar 2022. https://www.timesofisrael.com/ukraine-begins-evacuating-uman-site-of-annual-hasidic-pilgrimage/
‘Uman’. The Untold Stories (Yad Vashem) website. Accessed 15 Mar 2022. https://www.yadvashem.org/untoldstories/database/index.asp?cid=1089
Alastair Lockhart is CenSAMM Academic Co-Director and a Fellow of Hughes Hall in the University of Cambridge. His recent book Personal Religion and Spiritual Healing: The Panacea Society in the Twentieth Century (SUNY Press) uses the archives of the Panacea Charitable Trust to examine the religious ideas of spiritual seekers around the world from the 1920s to the 1970s.