Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rosh Hashanah: Me & 25,000 Hasidim arrive in Ukraine

"The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak," my mother always used to say -- and I agree. I just love to travel but whenever the time to actually take off on a trip actually approaches, my entire body starts to go on strike, including my brain. Everything just starts to shut down.

"But this time I'm leaving for RUSSIA," I tell myself. "This trip is going to be FUN." But to no avail. A dark cloud of dread always starts to follow me around. Why? Because I hate airplanes.

My doctor gave me some Ativan to take for this flight but the side-effects listed on the print-out were so horrendous that I didn't dare to take any. "Watch out for the paradoxical effect," I was warned, "wherein the medication enhances the very anxiety it was designed to prevent." Great. Suppose I take the freaking pill, have an accelerated anxiety attack in mid-air, run up and down the aisles of the plane stark naked and then get locked away forever for being a terrorist? No thank you.

But I finally did find something that would help -- Jin Shin Jyutsu. "When you get worried," an expert on the subject told me last week, "just hold one thumb for three minutes with your other hand. And when you get fearful, take a hold of your index finger for three minutes. Then switch hands. And if that doesn't help, then just SIT on your hands for three minutes." And it worked.

When we hit some turbulence over the Atlantic that was so strong that the plane snapped, crackled and popped, there I was, sitting on both hands. And it worked. It looked a little bit weird but it DID work.

Then I was on layover in Paris for a whole hour and a half, and then I got on another plane for Kiev and it was filled with Hasidic Jews. "I didn't know so many Jews lived in Ukraine," I said to the man sitting next to me wearing a yarmulke and peyots.

"We don't," he replied. "We are going on a pilgimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman. For Rosh Hashanah. Approximately 25,000 Hasidim make the trip every year." Oh. Rebbe Nachman was one of those wonderful eastern European rabbis during the 18th and 19th centuries who, if I remember correctly, performed miracles and practiced Kaballah. And then our plane landed in Kiev and suddenly I found myself awash in a sea of davening Jews, mostly from Israel and Brooklyn, wearing prayer shawls and black hats and gabardine overcoats -- approximately 150 of them.

And the customs officials took two hours to open their counters, and me and the Hasids stood there and stood there (and I sat) for all that time while we waited. Good for us. Maybe some of the blessings of their holy journey will rub off on me too.

And after I finally made it out of the customs blockade, there was nobody waiting for me, no one holding up a sign reading "Stillwater". I'd been forgotten. I did run into a herd of gun-toting Italians, however. "Where are you off to with all those guns?" I asked them.

"We are off to reenact the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Crimea."

PS: The question of who has the right to control Rabbi Nachman's grave, like the question of who has the right to control Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, is also the subject of a big dispute. According to the Jerusalem Post, "The hassidic rebbe's grave, the focus of mass pilgrimages, is a major tourist attraction and moneymaker. Last Rosh Hashana, 24,000 Jews -- secular and religious, Sephardi and Ashkenazi -- descended on the town of Uman, Ukraine, to pray and be near Rabbi Nachman's grave."

And there have been recent troubles with regard to this Holy Land too. "Pietro Pavlivich Kusmenko, a building contractor and a member of the Ukrainian parliament with extensive political connections, won a court case against the Breslav World Center, which owns the grave site and surrounding buildings.... Since Breslav has backed out [of its deal with the BWC], it must now pay [a] fine. However, in lieu of payment, Kusmenko might put a lien on the site, effectively taking control."

PPS: On my flight from SFO to Paris, I sat next to a Frenchman who kept me nicely entertained with stories about this year's Burning Man festival. And another man in our row gave me a copy of William Wiser's book, "The Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930s". It's all about American ex-patriot writers such as Hemingway and Miller. And now I'm an ex-pat writer too!