I bumped into my good friend John Flavin last night.
Well, John, I said. Did you take any pictures at the Ballinasloe horse fair this year?
I certainly did, he said. The second I got back from Ukraine, I shot straight up to Ballinasloe. You couldn’t miss it.
Excuse me? I did a little double-take. The second you got back from where?
Ukraine, he grinned, in his impish way. I was over there this last two weeks.
Well, that’s John for you.
So, I said, did you bump into any interesting people? The Russian army, maybe?
Christ no, said John. Jesus they’re away off in the East, at Donietsk and the like. We only made it as far as Kyiv.
Yeah, we drove down from Lviv, down through Vinnytsia on into Odessa, but come here till I tell you. Did you ever hear of Uman?
I did, as it happened. The place where the orthodox Jews go every year?
That’s it. Christ, you couldn’t believe it. The authorities close off Breslov, this whole area of the town, for the Jewish New Year and all these lads turn up.
Jesus, no. These lads don’t mix with the women. It’s all men and young fellas. It’s all around the tomb of a fella called Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. The local rabbis even put out a statement telling women to stay away.
What did Rebbe Nachman do?
Well, he intercedes for you after you die.
Yeah. If you’re for the hellfire, Rebbe Nahman steps in and says No God. This lad is ok. Sure, didn’t he come and pray at my grave? And God spares you from the eternal fire and damnation and all that.
Wait a minute. You’re telling me that all these people get together for the New Year to pray at this lad’s grave because he’ll pull a stroke for them in the afterlife if they just turn up here?
That’s right. Before he died, he said that he’d get anyone at all off the hook no matter how bad a sinner they are, if they’ll only make the pilgrimage to Uman and visit his grave.
That’s brilliant, I said. He’s like the Blessed Virgin and all the Saints rolled into one. And they don’t even have to go to confession like the Catholics. They can stay sinners.
You’d want to see the security, said John. Cops everywhere. I suppose they’re afraid some nutcase will let off a bomb in the middle of it all.
I suppose. Would there be a lot of pilgrims from Israel?
Most of them, I’d say. The cops won’t even let the locals into the area. You have to have a name badge .
How did you get in?
Well, the cops spotted my mate and they could see he was Ukrainian, so while they were busy with him, I ducked through the gate and got a few snaps. I was laughin’ out at him through the fence.
I suppose it’s all very religious, is it?
Not a bit of it, said John. There’s a lot of trouble with drinking and fighting. I think there was a few stabbings last year.
Fighting and drinking, I echo. But that’s all right. After all, since you’re on a pilgrimage to Rebbe Nahman’s tomb, you can do whatever drinking and stabbing you like. He’ll put in a good word for you. It’s no wonder so many Israelis are going there. Visit the grave. Get plastered and go back home certain of your place in the afterlife, no matter what you might have done in the past.
Somehow, it just doesn’t fit in with my preconceptions about Hasidic Jews, all this drinking and fighting, but there you have it. The Breslov rabbis seem to be making a determined bid to dominate a sort of Jewish Caliphate, so much that, in many ways, the Uman trip seems like a bizarre mix of Medjugorje and Mecca with a bit of Islamic State thrown in for good measure, but with liquor and without the guilt.
Now that’s a great deal by any standards.