The battle over Rabbi Nachman’s bones

By Mordechai Beck, September 12, 2008

The campaign to bring the remains of the Chasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, from the Ukraine to Israel


Visitors driving into Jerusalem these days will not infrequently be accosted at major crossroads by young men in Chasidic garb offering them books and CDs of the teachings of their Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, among the most colourful and controversial figures in the 250 years of Chasidism. These enthusiasts are known as the Na-Nach-Nachman Chasidim, a sobriquet they received from Rabbi Yisrael Odessa who claimed to have received not only a visit from Rabbi Nachman, but also a small note bearing this enigmatic phrase. All over Israel the stuttered name now appears on walls, in public spaces, or is utilised as a car sticker.

But the Na-Nach-Nachainites don't stop at publicising their Rebbe's spiritual heritage. They want to transfer his physical remains from their location in the Ukraine to Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

"There is no reason why the remains of Rabbi Nachman should not be moved to Eretz Israel," said Sharone Tel-Tsur, president of the World Council for Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the Land of Israel.

"What use is it having him buried in Uman?" Sharone's assistant, Nadav Etlinger adds: "Ukraine is one of the world centres of prostitution. It is not a seemly place for those who visit the grave on Rosh Hashanah."

Rabbi Nachman (1772 -1810), great-grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov - founder of the modern Chasidic movement - led a tempestuous life, moving from place to place, including a perilous journey to Eretz Israel and finally, weakened by tuberculosis and shattered by the death of his children, reached Uman, a small city in Ukraine, where he declared "Dor is gut tzu leigen," "Here is a good place to die."

His followers took this to mean that his burial place was permanent. There were two pogroms here, the Rebbe had explained, in 1749 and 1768, which had left behind upwards of 20,000 martyrs, mainly, in his words, of "simple Jews."

Rabbi Nachman felt obliged to "rectify" these souls. In addition, he said, Uman was a centre of the nascent Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement. The souls of those caught in this trap also needed "rectification".

Since Rabbi Nachman's demise, the Uman site has attracted many pilgrims, even when reaching it (during the Soviet regime, for example) was dangerous. But about 15 years ago, the Na-Nach-Nachman group, led by Rabbi Odessa, began campaigning to bring the Rebbe to the Holy Land. According to Rabbi Chaim Kramer, of the Breslov Research Centre: "This group is very small,"

His colleague, Rabbi Natan Maimon (deputy president of the World Breslov Centre), states: "Ninety-eight per cent of the Breslov community are against moving the Rebbe's remains."

Despite these denials, statements of support for the move have come from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the late President Chaim Herzog, the first Prime Minister of Independent Ukraine, Leonid Krachuk, Ehud Olmert, and Shimon Peres. Ariel Sharon signed a permit for the group to acquire 15 dunam of land on Har Zion for the purpose of the new grave site.

This last document was also signed by Rabbi Yechiel Dorfman, chairman of the World Council of Breslov Chasidim, who died two years ago, aged 96, and considered a major force in the old guard of the Breslov community: he was initially opposed to moving the grave for all the traditional reasons. "The reason he changed his mind," explains Sharone, "is that he was disturbed by what was going on in Uman itself."

What exactly transpired had to do with the financing of the kloyz, the structure built around and next to the grave site in order to protect the site and to accommodate the growing number of visitors. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and independence of the Ukraine, access to the cemetery was easier. At one point, Rabbi Dorfman instructed his people in Uman to cease paying the contractor Kuznenko, a local builder with contacts in the government.

The structures Kuznenko built would accommodate up to 10,000 people. Coincidentally, around this time - about three years ago - an American named Zinger decided to underwrite the trip for anyone wishing to pray in Uman on Rosh Hashanah. As a result, in the past two or so years, 20,000 people have been arriving at the Ukrainian town. "The results are predictably horrendous," says Etlinger "and a further reason for moving the grave out of Ukraine."

Meantime, according to Etlinger, the contractor sued the Breslover community for $3 million over non-payment for his work. This financial predicament was "solved" only when the current Prime Minister of the Ukraine visited Israel and agreed to cancel the debt on condition that his government could turn the Rebbe's grave into a national historical site - for the Ukraine.

Consequently, according to Sharone, the Breslovers no longer control the site and so have no say in whether the grave stays or is moved. This can only be negotiated with the Ukrainian authorities.

Despite the opposition to the plan by many of the Breslov elders, the Rabbi Odessa group (he died in 1994 aged 100-plus) has been helped by some very fortuitous publicity, in particular a full-length film by director Paul Mazurski (of Enemies: A Love Story, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice fame).

Mazursky, who came to Jerusalem to show his film, explained that he was intrigued by a Breslov Chasid in Los Angeles and went to Uman for Rosh Hashanah to shoot a documentary on the events. Though he left "no more religious than when I came", he had been moved by what he witnessed and his film will be seen by many people outside the Breslov community.

Other people involved in the plans are Susan Roth and her brother Mike Burstyn, both from a famous Yiddish vaudeville family and proven to be direct descendants of Rabbi Nachman. Speaking from LA, Burstyn expressed his amazement that anyone could think that Rebbe Nachman would wish to be anywhere other than in Israel.

"It doesn't make sense," he said. "In fact he's on record as saying that the only reason he wouldn't go to Eretz Israel to be die is because he feared dying on the way, and that, even if he reached Israel, he would have no one to properly attend to his grave site or say the ten Psalms necessary for the rectification of his own soul."

Susan Roth, who refers to Rebbe Nachman as "My Zaidie", has no doubts that the burial site will be moved, and that in Israel hundreds of thousands of people will come to visit it. "And when Zaidie arrives," she says confidently, "miracles will happen."

Last updated: 4:34pm, September 23 2008