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Adventures in Jewish Studies

The Association for Jewish Studies Podcast

Episode 28: Jewish Pilgrimages


Erin Phillips: Welcome to “Adventures in Jewish Studies”, the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history, and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m one of your hosts this season, Erin Phillips, and today, we’re not just going on a journey. We’re going on a pilgrimage… in fact, we’re going on three pilgrimages around the world.

When you think of a pilgrim, you probably think of a sort of religious tourist – someone headed to a destination with special meaning, like a historical holy site or a grave. Pilgrimages, however, especially the Jewish ones we’ll explore today, are about so much more than the destination. While there’s no one universal pilgrimage at the center of Judaism, Jews have been venturing out on spiritual journeys for as long as Judaism has been around. In fact, back in the time of the First and Second Temple – from about 970 BCE up until 70 CE – three major Jewish holidays were observed through pilgrimages. Every year on Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, Jews would journey to the Temple in Israel to worship and make sacrifices to God. While the destruction of the Second Temple ended the religious requirement to offer up sacrifices, many Jews today venture to the Western Wall or other holy sites in Israel as modern-day pilgrims. And what’s more, Jewish diaspora communities around the world observe distinct pilgrimage festivals and rituals both inside and outside of Israel to this day. From the Armon Hanatziv Promenade in Jerusalem, to the formerly thriving Jewish community of Tlemcen, Algeria, to the war-torn streets of Uman, Ukraine, Jewish pilgrims find religious meaning and social connection by journeying together to holy places, breaking bread, praying, singing, and yes, even schmoozing. Today, we’ll walk with three groups of Jewish pilgrims from around the world, learn the social and spiritual functions their journeys serve, and discover the common elements that tie them together.

Our first pilgrimage journey has many stops along the way – Mount Sinai, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the East Talpiot settlement in Israel – but it begins on a mountaintop in Ethiopia.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: So the Sigd was a special holiday that is part of the calendar of holidays that Ethiopian Jews were celebrating. And it takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Erin Phillips: This is Dr. Adane Zawdu Gebyanesh, a cultural sociologist and Postdoctoral Fellow at The Polonsky Academy of The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. He studies the Ethiopian Jewish community, including their unique pilgrimage holiday known as Sigd.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: It was a moment in which people from different settlements and villages and areas would come and gather together. And usually, each area had its own location. And that location was specifically chosen to facilitate a certain kind of aspect of the holiday. It was a Mount Sinai-like kind of landscape, it was supposed to be. It was kind of meant to serve a kind of a renewal of the covenant with God, a reminder of that transformative moment in Mount Sinai, in which all these people kind of became the people of Israel and received the laws and the book.

Erin Phillips: Sigd literally means “prostration” in the Ethiopian Semitic language of Ge’ez. The holiday represents a moment from the book of Deuteronomy when, after the Israelites have been punished for creating the golden calf and straying from God, Moses returns to Mount Sinai and brings down the second set of tablets to renew the covenant the people made in Exodus. Ethiopian communities would select a nearby mountaintop to represent Mount Sinai, and would climb the mountain. At the top, they would fast and pray for many hours. Then, they would break the fast with a communal meal and festivities meant to remind them of their oneness as a nation. While Sigd was considered a pilgrimage, the destination was metaphorical, a representation of Mount Sinai. The actual, physical sites people visited were only holy because religious leaders and communities chose them. And they didn’t just choose one.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: The exact number is kind of hard to say because people who are in remote areas had their own particular location that would serve the people who live in that area. So, you can think of even dozens.

Erin Phillips: Because of the many different observances of Sigd, it’s hard to say when and why it began. Historians believe it had something to do with social pressures on the Ethiopian Jewish community and a need to reaffirm group identity.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: There's also different historians who speak of the holiday somehow coming out of a historical moment of pressure, of external pressure, and somehow the need to somehow bring holidays and rituals that will help sustain what is being understood as an attack, as a weakening of kind of a group identity, religious identity. Some people take it to the 15th century. Some others locate that moment in different times. It makes more sense to think of it as a process in which kind of the holidays kind of slowly, slowly get consolidated and crystallized into the form that we know today.

Erin Phillips: Because Sigd is all about community and identity, pilgrims each year would first need to choose where they would observe the holiday. The actual site, unlike with many pilgrimages, was less important – all of them represented Mount Sinai in the same way. More important were factors like distance, social and family ties, and the languages fellow participants spoke. Once a pilgrim selected their destination, they would have to prepare well in advance for the journey.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: And again, the distances in Ethiopia, it depends on which location you were in, people were in different proximity to the sites of the Sigd holiday. So, people had to make sure that they could make it but because it was an event that kind of involved a lot of people, and it was also an opportunity for people to meet their relatives from other areas, so, people might also make it even earlier in to a relative that is more nearby to the site, making sure that they can make it as early as they can.

Erin Phillips: Once pilgrims arrived near the site of the festivities, though, their journey had just begun. The day of Sigd started at dawn. Pilgrims would trek up to the chosen mountaintop carrying a rock on their back to begin hours of fasting and prayer.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: There's a lot of practices and rituals within the holiday, such as when people climb to the top of the mountain. People in certain areas and certain times used to have rocks on their back to symbolize their relationship to that kind of moment and God. And the rock’s supposed to somehow communicate like a humble bodily disposition. And during the fasting, there was also praying taking place and reading from the Torah, or from the Mäṣḥafä Kedus, which is like the Holy Scripts, as it's being said in the Ethiopian languages. Mäṣḥafä Kedus is in Geʽez, which is kind of, in English is called classic Ethiopic, which is kind of the language in which the religious rituals are being conducted. So, while people, kind of ordinary people, were fasting, they were also listening to the priest or to the, to the qäsis reading from the Torah. And the particular chapters and parts of the Torah that they were reading were those who either spoke about kind of the Mount Sinai moment of ancient Israelites or other chapters that are associated with that particular event.

Erin Phillips: Following the prayers and fasting, community members would prepare food to begin the second half of the holiday, a ritual feast and celebratory social gathering that began with the literal breaking of bread.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: The kind of distinction between the first half and the second half was being enacted through the bread, the special bread that was being baked specifically for that. That bread was being kind of ritually cut by the religious figures. And that symbolized that everyone could start eating. The second half is one in which like the soundscape of the site is changing, and people started to kind of socialize with others. And socializing with others might be a very dramatic event. People might meet their relatives that they didn't met for a long period of time. It might be, also, a moment in which people can share all different news, exchange information – information from people who are about to get married, of babies who were born recently. Any kind of information that's relevant to kind of sustain these communal and familial ties.

Erin Phillips: But as the Sigd holiday allowed the Ethiopian Jewish community to reconnect and celebrate, it also carried a deeper, more melancholy significance.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: One of the main symbols that were part of that day was the longing for Jerusalem. And that’s something that was kind of – I mean the longing for Jerusalem, in many Jewish communities, and particularly in the context of Ethiopia was something that was part of many of the religious holidays. But for the Sigd Holiday, it was even more central.

Erin Phillips: By the 1970s and 1980s, that longing for Jerusalem would take on a new meaning among the Ethiopian Jewish community, as political conditions forced many to immigrate to Israel.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: And from the moment in which people started to kind of migrate in small numbers, it also affected the holiday. It meant that familial structures, extended families, were being weakened, in which certain members were migrating to Israel. It meant that some of the people who kind of facilitate certain roles in their area for the holidays might not have been available.

Erin Phillips: Meanwhile, in Israel, new immigrants used Sigd as an opportunity to gather with the community, with less emphasis on the symbolic pilgrimage aspects, and more emphasis on re-formulating necessary social networks.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: If you think of those early years, it also meant that those who came to Israel didn't necessarily knew the state or didn't necessarily knew as much those who were in Israel, kind of Ethiopian Jews. And the event became also a place and a time to gather, and to meet, and communicate and exchange information of relatives, for those who came recently and had much more information than those who came much earlier.

Erin Phillips: Sigd celebrations remained much smaller over the ensuing decades, even as most of the remaining Ethiopian Jewish community immigrated to Israel. In 1983 and 1984, as the situation in Ethiopia and neighboring Sudan deteriorated, activists used Sigd as a political organizing tool to demand Israeli government assistance. But this revival was short-lived. Finally, in the 1990’s, a group of Israeli Non Governmental Organizations set out to shine a spotlight on Sigd.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: And then we see somehow a revival of the holiday in which different Ethiopian NGOs in the 90s start to organize in this demand to recognize the holiday as an official holiday in the national Israeli calendar. And they succeed, and in 2008, the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews managed to lobby in the Israeli parliament to get the holiday recognized as an official one.

Erin Phillips: The official designation of Sigd as a state holiday had many impacts on its practice – while it reinvigorated attendance numbers, it also made the ceremonies and proceedings much more secular affairs. With time, though, the community has managed to preserve many of the pilgrimage elements, selecting new central gathering sites in Israel for the festivities.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: In the early years, you see people moving between different locations. There is documentations of trying to find a place in the north of Israel, Haifa, for example. So, we see all these different changes until Jerusalem, Armon Hanatziv, is starting to acquire this kind of this fixed place for the Sigd holiday for some community members, especially those who came from a region, Amharic speaking Ethiopian Jews. But the second location in which the Sigd is also been celebrated is the Kotel Ma’aravi, the Wailing Wall. And that's the place in which people who speak Tigrinya, who come from Tirgin in Ethiopia, tend to go there. And they do that since kind of the early 80s.

Erin Phillips: Today, Sigd is celebrated by various groups of Ethiopian Jews at Armon Hanatziv, at the Western Wall, and in cities and towns throughout Israel. And while many feel the holiday has lost some of its original religious meaning, the journey for Sigd pilgrims has always been more important than the physical destination. However short or long, easy or difficult, the pilgrimage of Sigd, the act of traveling to a shared space and making it holy through imagination and ritual, is the part of the holiday that has always brought the community together.

Dr. Zawdu Gebyanesh: And I think we're living in a time in which the conversation about the importance of community is being talked about throughout the world. So, I think that we should somehow appreciate those holidays and practices that somehow foster our sense of kind of membership, of belonging and social ties and and celebrate it.

Erin Phillips: The next stop on our pilgrimage tour is Algeria.

Dr. Silver: Tlemcen was one of the places in North Africa that was known as a little Jerusalem. So in this case, it was known as the Jerusalem of the West.

Erin Phillips: This is Dr. Chris Silver, the Segal Family Assistant Professor of Jewish History and Culture at McGill University. He’s studied Jewish pilgrimages from across North Africa and the Middle East, including a popular one to the Algerian city of Tlemcen.

Dr. Silver: It was to the tomb of a figure that became known as the Rab, or master, the Rabbi Ephraim Anqalua, who was a Toledo born rabbi, born in 1359, and who would eventually flee Spanish persecution there. And let's say long story short, he becomes responsible for sort of re hyphen, forming, reestablishing, the Jewish presence in this important Algerian city known as Tlemcen. And he's associated with a number of sort of miraculous happenings. So, he sort of, in some ways, he's typical of the figure of the tzaddik, the sainted person in the North African context, in that he's a figure of erudition. So, he’s known for his erudition and he's also known for his miracle making.

Erin Phillips: Stories of Rabbi Ephraim Anqalua taming and riding tigers, or healing the Sultan’s daughter drew many followers and supporters to him. After his death, Jews across North Africa came to his grave site in hopes of attaining good luck, healing, and wisdom.

Dr. Silver: Annually from centuries earlier, well through the 20th century, including after Algerian independence in 1962, in which the Jewish community disappears, people annually or biannually would make the pilgrimage. The visiting of saints’ tombs is a break from the mundane in every way. So, you know, it's a break from just sort of regular practice. And it's also at the same time – you know, the tombs of the sainted figures become sites, not just sort of breaking the mundane, but when the sort of not-mundane happens to someone, then they seek out sort of answers or help in such sites. And so, the other piece of this is that people would seek out the blessing of these tzaddikim in times of distress, as well. So, sort of going back to this idea of sort of breaking free of the mundane. And this was often if a woman wanted to bear children, but couldn't, they would seek out the blessing or the power of the tzaddikim. And also, just if someone was ill and needed treatment.

Erin Phillips: Jews would typically travel to the tomb of the Rab during Lag Ba’Omer, a popular time to make pilgrimages throughout much of the Jewish world. Unlike with Sigd, however, pilgrimages to Tlemcen – and many of the North African pilgrimages in honor of sages – were not limited to just one day.

Dr. Silver: People would decamp for this site for a number of days, sometimes up until a week's time. And this was a pilgrimage like others that was full of food, drink, and music and music-making as well.

Erin Phillips: For early pilgrims traveling by foot, many of these communal activities began on the road. Like the Sigd pilgrimage, the experience was often just as much about the journey as it was about reaching the actual site.

Dr. Silver: Many of these sites in North Africa until sort of, I would say really the 40s, were quite difficult to get to and so that heightened sort of religious experience is imbued in it from the get go, like, how are you going to arrive there? It requires a considerable amount of planning, and there's even a little bit of a question mark like will you arrive there safely? You almost need the protection of the saint along the path in order to reach your destination safely.

Erin Phillips: Difficult as these pilgrimage journeys were, Jews were not alone on their path. They were often joined by Muslim counterparts hoping to do business and sometimes even join them on the pilgrimage.

Dr. Silver: In the North African context, the entanglement of the Jewish-Muslim relationship really sort of comes to the fore, through either sort of sites of pilgrimage, hillula, ziyara, where tzadikim are buried that Muslims would visit, as well. Or the fact that in some cases, Muslims sort of outfitted these pilgrimages. So, food water, the provisions necessary to do sort of the social that we spoke about earlier, was felt to sort of the domain and realm of the Muslim community in the area.

Erin Phillips: The resources the Muslim community offered became even more important in the 20th century. As technology advanced, pilgrims began taking on longer and more arduous journeys to reach sites they previously thought were inaccessible. But while pilgrims often bravely took on the dangers of the road to reach tzaddikim, over time, the dangers at home would permanently alter the landscape of North African Jewish life, driving many out of their home lands. And yet, pilgrimages persisted.

Dr. Silver: You know, there's the reality that exile, migration is part of the story of North African Jews in the second half of the 20th century. In some places, that pace of departure is quickened, is hastened. So, Algeria is, of course, a really important case in point where at the moment of Algerian independence in 1962, you know, the vast majority of the community will depart for France at that time. The Algerian Jews, because of a number of complicated historical processes, had been for the most part, French citizens since the end of the 19th century. So, legally speaking, they were repatriated in 1962. But of course, it's much more complicated than that – repatriated to a place that many had never, in fact, been to, Metropolitan France. All of that being said, for some decades, after, you know, as the majority of the population departs and settles anew in Metropolitan France, there were quite a few who continued to return to Algeria in order to make those pilgrimages, including to Tlemcen, to the tomb of the Rab. And so, you know, what you get a sense of is sort of the lengths that people are willing to take, in order to visit these sites, and the risks as well.

Erin Phillips: It’s easy to see how important sites like Tlemcen throughout North Africa continue to be to this day, especially as governments, Jewish diaspora communities, and Muslim locals work together to restore pilgrimage sites.

Dr. Silver: The Moroccan government in particular has been quite good, especially of recent, of working to sort of rehabilitate some of these pilgrimage sites and the cemeteries which surround them. And so, you know, you get to this fascinating phenomenon of sort of Jewish sites of which, you know, there are no longer Jewish communities there, except for, you know, for a week a year when many sorts of former residents or descendants of those who once lived there return to these places, again, that are very much sort of off the beaten path. And as well, North African Jews who often finance the preservation and the upkeeping of these sites.

Erin Phillips: Though political tensions have driven much of the Jewish population out of Algeria, Morocco, and other North African countries, centuries of Jewish pilgrimage traditions have left their mark on the region. Just as Ethiopian Jews continue to connect through pilgrimage rituals after their immigration to Israel, North African Jews continue to connect through pilgrimage with each other, and their Muslim counterparts, even in exile.

Dr. Silver: It’s sort of a reminder of just how entangled, of course, Jewish history was with its environment. And in this case, you know, how embedded the Jewish community was in a majority Muslim milieu. And so, you know, we can see that through sort of thinking of shared sites of pilgrimage, in which not just that sort of, you know, Jews and Muslims coalesced around the same sides, but that Muslims in North Africa understood tzaddikim as possessing certain curative or spiritual powers.

Erin Phillips: North Africa is far from the only place, however, where pilgrimage journeys have been reshaped by war.

Alexandra Mandelbaum: In order to understand what is Uman for the Breslov Hasidim, we can see how during the COVID or during the war, a lot of them tried to come come there, despite the physical risk.

Erin Phillips: This is Alexandra Mandelbaum, a Maskilot fellow at the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Leadership, and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Jewish Thought at Ben Gurion University. She studies Breslov Hasidism, a movement of Orthodox Judaism deeply committed to the spiritual and mystical ideas of the Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Each year, thousands of Breslov Hasids attempt to make a pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman’s grave in Uman, Ukraine.

Alexandra Mandelbaum: Basically, Hasidim of Breslov try to follow Rebbe Nachman’s commands saying that each person that will come to his grave after he will pass away will get a redemption, will get his soul clean, will get a renewed connection to God. So, they want to follow it and they come on Rosh Hashanah.

Erin Phillips: Uman has long held spiritual significance to the Breslov Hasidic community, even during Rabbi Nachman’s life, in the early 19th century. When Rabbi Nachman first traveled to Uman, he decided that the place was holy, and that he would be buried there.

Alexandra Mandelbaum: He got to Uman in a certain stage of his life. And when he got to Uman, he remembered. And he remembered a pogrom that actually happened 40 years before Rebbe Nachman was born. The pogrom that was called pogrom Gunta happened in 1768. And we don't know the exact amount of people that were killed during the pogrom but it was a big amount. The number is talking about 30,000 people. So, that's a lot of people getting killed. And they were buried there. And Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, when he came to Uman, he said that he feels that this place is sacred, because of those people who died because they were Jewish. So, Rebbe Nachman felt this place had a certain holiness. And he says the phrase – I kind of liked this phrase – he says, “It's good to lie down between them…” He kind of had the sense or the feeling that he's going to be buried there and this is a good thing.

Erin Phillips: Shortly after his death in 1811, Rabbi Nachman’s student, known as Rabbi Nathan and sometimes called Rebbe Nosson in Yiddish, established the pilgrimage to Nachman’s gravesite. Nosson chose to time the pilgrimage around Rosh Hashanah based on the teachings of Rabbi Nachman during his life.

Alexandra Mandelbaum: Another thing that Rebbe Nachman said is that it's good, it’s a good thing to come to tzaddikim, to their graves, before Rosh Hashanah, before New Year. So Rebbe Nathan, when Rebbe Nachman passed away, he kind of collected all those things together – the idea of Rosh Hashanah, the idea of coming to tzaddikim and the fact that Rebbe Nachman promised that he will help his Hasidim after his death.

Erin Phillips: Like the Jews of North Africa, Hasidic Jews use the Hebrew word tzaddik, or tzaddikim, to refer to sages. And both groups visit the grave sites of tzaddikim on holy pilgrimages. And like in Algeria, the pilgrimage to Uman comes with challenges that heighten the deep spiritual nature of the journey.

Alexandra Mandelbaum: In Breslov, in general, you have this idea that Rebbe Nachman left of meniot, meniot meaning maybe obstacles. And it could be spiritual obstacles, physical obstacles, things that prevent you from developing in your spiritual path. And one of the things that Rebbe Nachman was talking about is those meniot. those obstacles in a way imaginary obstacles that try to test your inner will.

Erin Phillips: Beginning in the early 20th century, these meniot, these obstacles, became a lot more serious. But nothing could stop the most dedicated Breslov Hasids from reaching Rabbi Nachman’s grave, not even the rise of the Soviet Union.

Alexandra Mandelbaum: We have to remember that it wasn't always easy. After the Soviet regime started, Uman was closed. So, a lot of people in Poland, for example, couldn't arrive to Uman. We have a story about a Polish Hasid that got married, and two or three days after his marriage, he decided that he wants to go to Uman. And then he was stuck there for a few years. And it's a very tragical story in which his wife was obviously left alone in the situation. And it was a kind of a radical idea of connecting to the tzaddik at any price.

Erin Phillips: After the fall of the Soviet Union, the journey got much easier for Breslov Hasids. But despite the wide availability of commercial airline flights and the relative political stability of the region, there were still meniot in the way for some.

Alexandra: I was talking a few years ago with the woman that worked in the airport in Tel Aviv, in [place name?], and in Israel. And she said that there’s a lot of mess during those days, because a lot of people actually come to the airport without a ticket and maybe without a passport. And they come and they say, I know that Rebbe Nachman wants me there, he called me, I know it, I feel it, and everything will be fine. And actually, in a very interesting way. A lot of people help each other, arriving to Uman, so they kind of buy the last minute tickets, people donate money for each other in order they will be able to come to Uman. Also, we have a question: what would we do when Hasidim look at the resistance of their family to go to Uman as a spiritual obstacle? So, we might get also people who go despite their family or they look at it as just meniot.

Erin Phillips: Mandelbaum notes, it’s worth mentioning that this pilgrimage is taken by men only – while women’s groups make the journey other times of year, the Rosh Hashanah festivities are a boys’ club, which is why some may encounter resistance from their families. For those who can complete the journey, however, and arrive in Uman, the rewards are great and the atmosphere is electric.

Alexandra Mandelbaum: The atmosphere is very, like – I wouldn't say Woodstock – but it has a sense of a festival and gathering together. So, what you have is a lot of tents or a lot of holes in which just you have the regular prayer of New Year's eve, of Rosh Hashanah. So, that's a very long prayer. So, majority of time people pray this kind of prayer. But of course, because we have the Hasidic tradition of praying with kavanah, kavanah meaning intention. So, the Hasidic prayer is different because they do use a lot of songs, a lot of connections, people connect to each other, hold hands, a lot of jumping and also screaming – not bad screams but just screams of, you know, gevalt. And also you have a beautiful minhag of Tashlich, Tashlich meaning when people come to the to the lake and do some kind of ceremony with their pockets and kind of spiritually throw their sins into the water and purify them.

Erin Phillips: While many men arrive each year to pray, dance, shout, and cast off their sins, few get to do so at the actual gravesite of Rabbi Nachman.

Alexandra Mandelbaum: The amount of people is so big, majority of people can't access the actual grave. Of course, the grave is changed throughout the years. And it was just one small stone behind a building and then a whole complex was built upon it. And you can't actually access the actual grave.

Erin Phillips: Nevertheless, the site carries such spiritual power that even being near it is a holy experience. And not just for Breslov Hasids, either.

Alexandra Mandelbaum: When I visited in Uman, I noticed something beautiful: that the tzaddik’s and the sage’s grave there is very important to the local community of non-Jewish people in Ukraine. They look upon it in a few ways. From one perspective, it’s a financial perspective. It gives them wealth and growth and tourism once a year. This is very, very important to them. They appreciate it. But they also appreciate it in a spiritual way. Some of them actually say the tzaddik, the sage, is also our sage. He’s a local sage, Ukrainian sage, and he helps us. This is very interesting and beautiful from my point of view.

Erin Phillips: Like each of the pilgrimages we’ve explored, the Hasidic journey to Uman has also shaped the non-Jewish community there. And Mandelbaum notes that connection was highlighted by last year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine, and more recently, a direct attack on Uman.

Alexandra Mandelbaum: There were actually missiles coming to Uman. And also, I think, 23 people got killed. And that was the first time during this war that they attacked Uman, because it's quite rare, because it's more inside the country. It's not in the areas that we saw before. And one of the things that happened after, there was a kind of, also, attack on the Russian side. And somebody in Ukraine mentioned that the attack happened because of kind of spiritual reasons that connected to the fact that the Russians messed with Uman. So, I think that the theology, it's not only a Jewish theology of this place as sacred, but also something that is now, right now, common to both Ukraine and the Jewish people living in Uman.

Erin Philliips: Something else Mandelbaum believes pilgrims have in common, within and beyond the boundaries of Jewish identity, is a desire to connect to something in between God and their everyday life – holy people, places, and experiences.

Alexandra Mandelbaum: I think that actually this pilgrimage shows us the drive, the inner will of people, their subconscious wish to have kind of a certain figure that they can connect to, which is not only God. I think that God in monotheism is such an important – is not such – he’s the one, right? What can you say about him, right? After Rambam, one of the Jewish philosophers and big rabbis from the Middle Ages said, you can’t talk about him, right? You can just describe what maybe he's not, but you can’t actually say something about him because he's everything. And I think, in a way, it was a bit difficult for the Judaism, and especially maybe for the people connected to Hasidism, because when you talk about connecting to God, about intention, about the heart, but then you don't have a figure that says, “Come along, I love you.” And I think in this place, the tzaddik is a kind of intermediate, or a figure that helps us to feel this religious connection with the infinity is possible. Nobody thinks that Rebbe Nachman is God in any sense. But still, I think it helps us as human beings to imagine ourself. And I think this is something which we can learn from this pilgrimage.

Erin Phillips: Whether pilgrims are seeking to connect with a tzaddik, or with a historical and religious moment from the Torah, like the renewal of the covenant on Mount Sinai, these moments Mandelbaum mentions are the crux of pilgrimage. From Israel to Ethiopia, Algeria to Ukraine, the holy pilgrimage sites represent, for pilgrims, something in between the divine and the everyday. And for many, the difficult, physical journeys can deepen spiritual experiences, religious commitments, and cultural identities. Which is why it’s no wonder Jews around the world take great risks and make great sacrifices to reach these destinations. It’s all part of the journey.

“Adventures in Jewish Studies” is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation and from the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. I’m the lead producer for this episode.

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Episode Guests


Alexandra Mandelbaum

Alexandra Mandelbaum is a fellow in the Maskilot program at the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Leadership. She is writing her doctoral thesis in the Department of Jewish Thought at Ben Gurion University and her research focuses on Breslov Hasidism and the ideological fluctuations within Jewish society. Over the years, she has been involved in leading and coordinating projects in the field of Jewish and Israeli culture. As part of the “Cultural Brigade” she wrote, produced, and created two plays that dealt with Russian-Israeli identity.


Christopher Silver

Christopher Silver is the Segal Family Assistant Professor in Jewish History and Culture in the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill University. He earned his PhD in History from UCLA. He is the author of numerous articles on North African history and music, including in the International Journal of Middle East Studies and Hespéris-Tamuda. He is also the founder and curator of the website, a digital archive of North African records from the first half of the twentieth century. His first book Recording History: Jews, Muslims, and Music across Twentieth-Century North Africa was published in June 2022 with Stanford University Press.


Adane Zawdu-Gebyanesh

Adane Zawdu-Gebyanesh, PhD, is a cultural sociologist who focuses on how categories of difference structure our social and political experience, with a particular interest in ethnic and racial categorization. He was the 2020-2021 Jonathan Shapiro postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University, and is currently a Polonsky Fellow at the Polonsky Academy for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences, based at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

Episode Host


Erin Phillips

Erin Phillips is an audio producer, communications professional, and Jewish educator from Alexandria, Virginia. She has a BA in Social Innovation and Enterprise from George Mason University. Erin has produced thought-provoking stories for popular shows like Out There and the Duolingo English podcast, as well as local community radio.

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