They say it happens every year, before the Hasidic New Year. A week before the celebrations begin, numerous buses arrive in Uman with pilgrims from all around the world. All of them are the followers of Nachman of Breslov. They come here to check one of the must do’s of their bucket lists. They come here to visit Rabbi’s grave. Basically, Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for all the Judaic people, but here it’s mostly called “Hasidic”. So, every year they bring heavy rain with them.
That’s what my local friend says, while we are crossing Uman’s central square on our way to one of the checkpoints of so-called “Hasidic district” – this name was given to the Pushkin Street and courtyards nearby because of its position close to the grave of Rabbi and the strong interest of local Jews. There was Lenin’s monument in the middle of the square before it was decommunised. Now, the square is dug, still waiting for its new European future. Meanwhile, its dirt is transported through the city by hundreds of passers. At this moment – by the special forces squad, that heads the same way as we do.
It’s on Saturday. I was swimming in the warm sea one week ago, maybe that’s why I’m not paying enough attention to water in my shoes. I will regret it, I know. But now it’s the time to show my ID to a guy on duty.
“Do you need an escort?”
“Do you need a security person with you? For your safety.”
“Is it unsafe here?”
“Could be. Anyway, we don’t have enough people at the moment. So, if something happens – don’t conflict, just run to the closest police station and hide there.”
Surely I’ve heard all those stories about locals vs hasids conflicts, shootings, fights, etc. But I didn’t expect something like this from the beginning. Prejudice is not the best friend in an unknown and specific community, so I’m not letting these thoughts spread in my head. Instead, I open my eyes wider and get my camera out of the bag. At this moment exactly I’m running into someone’s wet hat with my face and stepping on someone’s foot in the crowd. I apologize and wait for some reaction… Indifference. It wasn’t noticed. I wasn’t noticed. Or they didn’t want to? This will become my question to spend along the next two. They look away, when we see each other, pushing into the back when passing like you’re some kind of door that supposed to open. “Them” – this word is very common here. You know right away about whom it was said. There are a lot of similar words, emotionally and religiously (can I say it like that?) painted, but “them” is an indicating word. The word for “us” and “ours”. For those, who are observing these holidays here in central Ukraine, and not even being a guest, just another function for this multi-thousand pilgrimage to move on.
Jews are going down the street in the rain, holding bags and books, pulling children and suitcases. Rain is running down their paces and waterdrops are flying in different directions, repeating the moves falling on the broken road, freshly covered with trash. Carriers with carts are running among them, answering about their prices on the go, “One bag – One dollar”! Bottles are jingling while being put into the fridges of local marketers. It adds more atmosphere to this image. Music is heard from elsewhere, you can’t understand a word from multiple voices around you. We are approaching one of the dining-rooms, there’s a huge billboard in front of it, saying UMAN LOVES TRUMP.
“Babel..”, says my friend.
Shabbat is almost done. The holiday is coming.
The rules are made to be broken. This was said about today’s morning. It was raining all night long and it stopped right before the sunrise. It’s sunny outside and birds are singing. Apples are bending the branches down, cats are going crazy in bushes. I’ve never had the New Year like this before. But it’s not my holiday too, right?
“Do you need an escort?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Ok, but if something happens..”
“Yeah, I know – run to a cabin and hide inside.”
“Right, there are also a lot of patrols here – you can ask them for help.”
It is a lot more of “them” today, time is coming to afternoon, praying will start soon. Stalls with a merchandise stand on both sides of the road – locals and hasids are into the only form of communication available for them – trading. There’s a difference between regular market and this one. Sellers and stuff on the table are fenced off the street with a thin metal grid. So, no one could steal anything. And what do you know about the customer service?
“How much?”, a finger is pointing at the toy gun.
“Thirty (in Ukrainian) dollars. Roma, how do you say thirty in English?”, a woman asks a man I’m talking to in Ukrainian.
“Thirty”, I’m answering. She’s smiling thankfully.
“And this?”, now he’s asking about the bottle with plastic bullets.
“Ten dollars”, this one was easier
“Okay, twenty for this and this?”
“No, no, no! Forty (in Ukrainian)! She’s showing him fingers with 4 and 0 signs.”
They had a deal on thirty. Now I know, that hasids do have guns, but those are toy guns.
Roman is forty years old. He and Ira applied for this job to a local businessman to make some money from toys and souvenirs sales during the holidays. He tells me about low salaries and hard life, answering why he was doing this.
“I have 5 children, you know. Everything that I’m dreaming of is to get them and my wife out of this country. I don’t really enjoy doing this.”
“Is that her? Your wife?”, I ask about Ira.
“No, no way. I wouldn’t take her here to these ones”, he’s nodding at clients on the other side of the table, “Never. We’re just working together with Ira.”
Roman also told that most popular products are shockers that look like lighters and the same toy-guns that I saw before. Constructor kits are popular as well, but not that much. I go further.
While I take pictures of one of the numerous garbage stacks, I see that some man in the military outfit is looking at me. He has a dog near him. I approach him to say hello.
“And what’s the dog’s name?”
Mykola is a junior inspector cynologist, looking for explosives and guns. He came here from Zaporizhia. He and Shaman are patrolling this spot and also react to calls if someone had noticed any suspicious objects. They have 4 hours shifts and go to rest after – Mykola goes to a police car cabin, and Shaman jumps into the same car’s trunk.
“Have you found anything dangerous these days?”
“Not much. A bit of pyrotechnics – petards and fireworks mostly. We’re trying to control the sale of it here, but it mostly comes from the city, through the checkpoints.”
Three men are passing by us. Two of them wear the uniform. A few seconds later they change their directions and head into the bushes – there are two guards talking to hasids. Well, trying to talk – they simply can’t understand each other. Few moments after reinforcement arrived, the patrol is leaving, hasids stay. To pray.
Senior inspector of communal service “Blagoustriy” has the same name as the previous character – Mykola. He’s the only one who looks like he knows exactly what’s going on here so far.
“Our inspection is in charge of everything that’s placed on a communal property territory”, he’s pointing at the sheds around us. “You see that two-storey building there, behind the sheds? It has to be a garage instead. They’ve bought this shed from locals and have built something there. It could be used as a storage, or even as a place to sleep for pilgrims, – they make money from this, putting as many as 10 people inside. But they’ve bought a construction itself, not the land under it. In such cases, we’re visiting them with a warning note. If they don’t react, we find them through community representatives, talk, fine them. If they’re completely stubborn we do this – and he’s pointing to a ground, where I see the foundation of something that was demolished and cut off.”
Mykola has two colleagues – Oleksandr and Serhii. Those two are in uniform. Serhii is the only one in the group who knows English and who makes communication happen.
Although you don’t need words sometimes – we go behind a building together and see a few tents, placed under the windows. It’s prohibited, that’s why Mykola, Serhii and Oleksandr silently pull off tents’ holders and fold it on the ground. People around keep silent, they’re just saying that they don’t know who’s the owner of the tent.
“‘They’ have rented apartments here, you see? And these ones come here with tents, shouting, going to the toilet here. This place is popular – there’s a grave of their teacher. That’s why everyone is trying to come here.”
I have this image of an OLX ad – “Apartment for rent with the Rabbi’s grave view”. Not bad at all!
“Blagoustriy” is also in charge of preventing spontaneous trade on the streets and of controlling garbage removal. They say, garbage contractor is in a process of restructuring now, that’s why they’re not able to take everything out now.
Cool story, bro.
Through the trash mountains, I’m coming back to the central street and find myself inside of a human river, that leaves me no chance to choose my direction anymore. At some point, everyone starts screaming around. Later I got that they are singing along to a loudspeaker. It’s afternoon prayer time. I have this thought in my head – “just don’t stop, move on, don’t fall out of this stream”. And now, all of a sudden – everything stopped. I’m in the very middle. Oncoming traffic stopped, traffic on my right and on my left – stopped. People are climbing shops and cars. Doctors have climbed onto an ambulance truck. Everyone is praying and I don’t understand a single word. Incredible feelings. Babel.
A bit later this river will start moving again and kosher vodka store will pop up in front of me. The deal is same: “One shot – One dollar”.
Vadim, the storekeeper, is working here on Rosh Hashanah for the first time. He likes it. He says he lived all his life here in Uman but have never come to this district. It appears everything is not as bad as he imagined. He also says that “kosher certificate” is really hard to get, but his factory succeeded and now we can see a top quality product. I would like a shot for sure, but it’s too hot here. I want to leave this place for a while, to breathe. So I’m heading to the closest checkpoint and to the gas station after, to buy some water and visit a WC.
About ten drivers are waiting for a client by the gas station, making jokes about Jews, and discussing “European car plates’ law”. It’s important – most of them having cars with European registration. One could also see a monument to the Gaydamak’s riot leaders Maksim Zaliznyak and Ivan Honta on a hill next to gas station. This was the death of thousands of Jews during this riot that became a reason for Nachmann from Breslov to the will being buried here in 1810. “Souls of those who died for their beliefs are waiting for me there”, he said.
Now, the Gaydamaks inheritors are sitting on a pavement at the gas station, smoking and counting the money.
Sasha and his friends are waiters at one of the dining rooms for hasids. It’s their duty to cover the tables and clean dirty dishes when the dinner is over. Sasha is eighteen and he’s studying at the local technical college. It’s his second year working here and he likes this job. He and his friends need money “to relax” he says.
I’m passing by police post and see the guards’ raincoats, drying under the sun. I stop to take a picture and the question comes next – What is this for? Is it a provocation? I give them my ID telling that I also have my raincoat with me but there was no rain – it’s funny, that’s why I’m taking this picture.
I meet Andriy after. He’s twenty two and his business is selling SIM-cards. Mostly Lifecell’s. There are another eight people working with him and he’s their boss. They’re getting forty per cent of what they’ve sold so it could be up to two thousand hryvnias per day. Although he’s studying at local pedagogical college on maths faculty, he’s not going to exercise his profession – he says he’s a businessman now.
From the age of fifteen, he used to work at the restaurant’s kitchen, same as Sasha and his friends. But he got promoted to a manager quickly. Then he decided to try selling SIM-cards. There’s always a demand for them among people and the price is good – ten dollars for one.
Andriy’s friend comes to us and asks about today’s exchange rate.
Exchangers here are putting lower prices for the buying and higher – for the selling, comparing to an average exchange rate which I found on the Internet. The difference was – US dollar – 0.6 hryvnia for selling and 0.25 – for buying, Euro – 1.4 hryvnia for selling and 0.45 for buying.
Pavlo and Andriy – police of communications’ officers were hard to persuade to take pictures of them, but I succeeded finally. They’re serving there as senior lieutenant and major. The main goal of their job is, as they told, preventing conflicts and building healthy communication. There are two of them for more than 30 thousand pilgrims here and their shifts are about 12 hours long. The only foreign language they know is English. When I approached their cabin, the ground around it was covered with yellow plastic bullets – the same as those that Jewish boy bought this morning.
On my way to exit I meet Dmytro, he’s blowing soap bubbles out with some toy that he’s selling. He also got whistling toy-birds on his table. He’s eighteen and he’s sure that earning three hundred hryvnias per day is good for him. “Better than working the whole day at construction works for 250”.
I see two men arguing while talking to Dmytro. One of them is an old pensioner, approaches me with some banknote in his hand. It’s twenty Israel shekels. Old hasid with a plate full of beans follows him. The old man is asking me what kind of money is that.
“It is shekel, it’s Israel currency.”
“And what should I do with this? Tell him that I sell watches for 10 dollars.”
I translate this to a hasid. He knows the answers, forty shekels are equal to ten dollars. He points at me with his spoon and tells to translate. I tell him he should go and change it at the exchange office.
“It is a good watch, it works. Ten dollars is not an expensive price for it.”
He holds a Soviet “Poliot” watches in his hand. Later at home, I checked – taking into account its release date and condition – the price can rise up to one thousand dollars. Meanwhile, the Jew comes back with 10 dollars, giving them to the old man, calling me.
“Tell him to give me 27 hryvnias back – for the strap, I don’t want it.”
“Watches are for sale as they are, or you can leave it.”
He puts banknote into old man’s hand, takes watches and leaves.
“Thank you, thank you so much!”, the old man is hiding money carefully. “It was a really good watch. I have it since 1970-s. It’s not an expensive price for it.”
It’s not, old man. I take a picture of him and leave. Music plays everywhere, people are dancing.
I need some silence.
Text and photo by Sasha Naselenko