Issue 3 - Summer 2006 - The Magic Issue
EVERYBODY DANCE NOW
With their vans blaring trance music, their bouncing street antics, their guerrilla graffiti, their disdain for rabbis, and their transcendental take on Judaism, one ultra-Orthodox sect is taking Messianism to new heights. It's beyond the establishment. A
BY MICHA ODENHEIMER
Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’Uman — it is everywhere in Israel, the most ubiquitous graffiti in the Holy Land. It is scribbled on the sides of neglected buildings, spray-painted in colossal letters onto the rocky bluffs that rise above the highways, and scratched or scrawled on the concrete of army roadblocks. This particular progression of letters and words can be seen glued to the backs of cars, pasted on apartment doors, and slapped on the walls of falafel restaurants and on marketplace stands. Stuck in Israeli consciousness as something between a joke and an incantation, Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’Uman has become an indelible part of the Israeli mindscape, an infectious motto that is a kind of counter-current to the tide of Coke ads and political slogans that daily wash through the Jewish state.
But what does Na Nach mean? Most Israelis have only a vague idea. When they hear the words, some may recall a van festooned with Na Nach stickers, often parked on a bustling commercial city street, with posters plastered to its side featuring a white-bearded elderly man in a blue-and-silver-striped robe, his arms reaching toward the sky, and with a loudspeaker perched on its roof, blasting tinny-sounding Hasidic electronic trance music. Near the van, a little table will have been set up, displaying spiritual and devotional books for sale at cut-rate prices. Five or six young men will be dancing in the street with abandon — men with long side curls, and at least the tufted beginnings of beards.
But instead of normative ultra-Orthodox dress — the severe-looking black suits — they are wearing scruffy jeans and sneakers, and maybe a big white tasseled knitted skullcap with Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’Uman printed around the perimeter. These men are leaping and twirling freestyle, kicking their heels into the cement and flying upward, twisting in the air, inviting passersby to join in, creating a whorl of delirious energy in the asphalt drabness of the street.
I recently caught one of these Na Nach performances in Tel Aviv. At one point, the crazy trance music stopped and a recording of a raspy, ancient voice came from the staticky loudspeaker: “The whole world, the whole government doesn’t know who I am,” the voice said. “I’ll tell you who I am. I am Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’Uman.” And then the voice broke into high-pitched, cackling laughter that continued when almost anyone who witnessed this display thought it would end. It almost felt like it continued after the music, with a sudden blast, rang into the street again and the gangly boys resumed their spirited dancing.
The voice on the tape recording — like the face on the posters siding every Na Nach van — is that of Rebbe Yisroel Odesser. Rebbe Yisroel was born sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century in Tiberias, an ancient city in Ottoman Palestine that hugs the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. His disciples say he was 106 years old when he died in 1995, but his family believes his age to have been closer to 97. He had already passed 80, by all accounts, having lived a hardscrabble life as an unskilled laborer when, as if out of the blue, he was “discovered” living at a senior citizens’ residence by first one young returnee to Judaism, and then a widening circle of them. By the year of his death, his life story, and in particular a single strange incident that he had spoken about only to close friends and family until well into his senior years, had become the focal point of an ecstatic new religious movement with a magical, redemptive phrase — Na Nach — at its core. With adherents in cities spread across Israel (and congregations cropping up in such places as Paris and Los Angeles), Na Nach is a potently Messianic Jewish group that has emerged as a kind of fusion of Israel’s secular, raving youth and the country’s traditional ultra-Orthodox.
With their focus on ecstatic dance and religious experience rather than Torah study, the Na Nachers are an extreme example of a growing trend in Israeli spirituality, in which “the body has inherited the place of the text,” as the academic Avraham Elqayam has formulated it. “It is mysticism as dance, as music, as prayer,” says Elqayam, who heads the Shlomo Moussaieff Center for Kabbalah Research at Bar-Ilan University, “but not prayer as text — textual prayer is being shattered.”
Almost entirely made up of formerly secular Jews, or so-called “returnees to Judaism,” Na Nach is unlike other ultra-Orthodox sects, which characteristically sequester themselves in tight-knit communities. Na Nach is rather obsessed with spilling the waters of faith into the most godforsaken crannies of Israeli society. On one of the rides I took in one of their vans, the Na Nachers slid open the van’s doors during a traffic jam on the Ayalon freeway and blasted out their Hasidic trance music, to which half a dozen men began dancing wildly on the clogged highway. If previous versions of Israeli-bred Messianism — such as the religious Zionists, like those in the settlement movement — have been modernist, seeing redemption as an orderly process that began with the founding of the state, then the Na Nachers’ Messianism is postmodern. They are interested not in history but in the spiritual potential of each moment, in disclosing each crack of our broken, seemingly random reality as a portal through which the Messianic light can shine. With their use of graffiti and bumper stickers for their mnemonic, their urban-nomadic lifestyle, and their rave-worthy music, they are keenly attuned to contemporary Israeli culture — and yet can also feel like its very opposite. While Israel has grown increasingly capitalistic and commercial in its orientation since the 1970s, the Na Nachers, as a rule, live from hand to mouth, relying on “miracles,” which in pedestrian terms can mean charity, to feed themselves and their families.
In some ways, the Na Nachers bear a resemblance to one other Jewish group — the Chabad Messianists, who believe that their grand rabbi, or rebbe, is the Messiah, and that his death in 1994 was merely an occultation — that he remains on earth, “soul within body,” hidden from the eyes of man. Though neither the Chabadniks nor the Na Nachers like to have it pointed out, there seems to be a hidden competition between the two groups. Both have inscribed reality-altering phrases at the center of their movements — for the Chabad Messianists, the skullcaps they wear bear the motto “Long Live Our Master, Our Teacher, Our Rabbi, the King Messiah Forever and Ever.” The Na Nachers have sloganeering kippas, too. They have also fashioned a Na Nach amulet, which, when worn around the neck, they believe heals disease and protects from misfortune. Both sects have an all-consuming focus on a Messianic holy man, or tzaddik, who serves as the primary conduit through which God shines light into the world — an idea that strikes many Jews as foreign to Judaism or, worse, as more than faintly Christological.
There are also important differences between the groups. Key among them is that whereas the Chabad-Lubavitch rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had, for forty-three years, been the leader of the massive and powerful movement that has pedestalized him, Na Nach’s Rebbe Yisroel Odesser, at the time of his death, was still nearly unknown, as was the religious movement he founded.
Today, twenty-five to thirty Na Nach vans, filled with dancers, swing through Israel’s towns and cities daily. Over a million Na Nach books have been sold or distributed throughout Israel, largely through the fleet of vans. Youth in
Na Nach is now poised for the next step: an international presence. With the appearance of a few synagogues in France and America, Na Nach activists are hoping to soon fill the world with their slogan, their amulets, and their books. When that happens, they believe the soul of the Messiah will be revealed.
If one of the most typical postmodern cultural narratives is a movement from the margin to the center, then Reb Yisroel’s story can be seen as a classic. It begins with a small book he found in a garbage bin, its cover and title pages torn off. This was somewhere near the early 1900s, and Reb Yisroel was a kid in Tiberias. From a young age, Yisroel, who was born into a poor Hasidic family, yearned with a precocious intensity to serve God, but could not, so he writes in his classic Sipur Hahitcarvut, “find a healing for the wounds of my soul.”
That is until he opened the coverless book he had rescued from the rubbish heap. Although he did not yet know it, the book was Outpouring of the Soul, by Rabbi Alter Tepliker, a third-generation follower of the Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, one of the most original and controversial of the early Hasidic masters, who died in the town of Uman, in Ukraine, in 1810. Written in simple, heartrending prose, Outpouring is a meditation on one of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s key teachings: that pouring one’s heart out to God regularly in passionate sessions of personal prayer, preferably late at night alone in the wilderness, is the one guaranteed method of rising to new levels of spiritual awareness and achieving closeness to God. Reb Yisroel read the book obsessively. He writes that he felt its pages emanated “a new light” that had “changed him completely.” But when a curious friend in his yeshiva had a look at the book, and realized that it was Breslov literature, the friend wrestled it away from Reb Yisroel in order to destroy the text completely.
Being Breslov literature is what had landed the book in the garbage in the first place. Until a few decades ago, Breslov Hasidism was scorned throughout most of the ultra-Orthodox world. First and foremost this was because of Breslov Hasids’ claim that Rebbe Nachman surpassed in spiritual greatness all the great masters of previous generations, and that his teachings alone could usher in the Messianic era. In addition, Breslov’s leaderless structure — after Rebbe Nachman’s death no one inherited his mantle — and its emphasis on unrelenting, spiritually intense personal ritual rather than communal prayer in the synagogue, gave it a reputation for anarchy, even madness. Even on their home turf in Ukraine, Breslov Hasidim were a tiny group and were often harassed by other Jewish sects. When they reached Palestine, where they were even fewer, they were spurned and despised as crazy counterculturalists even more.
Rebbe Yisroel, who encountered the word Breslov for the first time when his found book was commandeered away, prayed to encounter a teacher from the sect. And, miraculously — or so he experienced it — the teacher appeared, in the person of Reb Yisroel Karduner, a mysterious Hasid who had immigrated to Israel from Ukraine and who spent most of his time praying and singing in the woods. From their first meeting in 1914 until Karduner’s death six years later, the two men, both generally outcasts from the greater ultra-Orthodox community, were nearly inseparable. Odesser moved with his wife, Esther Mind’l, to Sfat to live near his teacher, whom he described in later years as “like no one I ever saw … a person for whom this world had no existence at all … a person whose face shone with the charisma of holiness.”
The summer of 1922 brought the crucial event in Odesser’s life — and in the Na Nach movement. On the seventeenth day of Tammuz, an important fast day on the Jewish calendar, Odesser awoke with an uncontrollable urge to eat and to drink. He satisfied his uncommonly strong craving and then fell into an inconsolable depression. For several days, he lay in the synagogue of the yeshiva in which he studied, shrouded in his sin, speaking to no one and eating nothing, his despair compounded by the comments he overheard: Yisroel’s gone mad! This is what happens in the end to all Breslovers! Eventually, Odesser found it in him to pray to God for forgiveness. He then experienced what he calls “a compelling thought, found as if someone had entered my head … it said to me, ‘Go to your room, open the bookshelf [which Odesser locked because his Breslov books would otherwise have been vandalized], place your hand on a book, take it from the shelf and open it — there you will find a healing for your soul.’”
Odesser opened one of his books, and found a slip of paper between its pages. At first, he thought it was a bookmark, but then he saw that there was something written on it:
About twenty-seven years ago, Aharon Patz was a thirty-one-year-old bureaucrat at the Israel State Income Tax Authority. A spiritual seeker who had become interested in deepening his Judaism, he had heard about a Breslov Hasid who resided in an old-age home in Raanana, not far from Kfar Saba, where he lived. Today Patz, 58, still lives in Kfar Saba. When I visited him, a bedecked Na Nach van was parked outside his modest home. “On a hunch,” Patz told me of the day he met Reb Yisroel, “I paid the old man a visit. As soon as I walked in, Reb Yisroel, who was confined to a wheelchair because of ailing legs, said to me: ‘I see you have ants in your pants. You are a man of action, not a philosophizer. I need people like you.’” Patz found the assessment to be preternaturally accurate. Soon afterward, Reb Yisroel told him about the note he had received some fifty-seven years beforehand.
Until then, the news of the note had been kept mainly within a close circle of Reb Yisroel’s family and friends. His grandson, Uri Kreuzer, a Jerusalem high-school teacher and carpenter, recalls his grandfather showing him the note when he was a child. During the years preceding the Holocaust, Reb Yisroel had also sent the note by mail to a group of Breslov Hasidim in Poland who had heard about it and asked to see it. It was passed from hand to hand and, remarkably, given the fate of most of the Polish Hasids, returned safely to Palestine in the middle of World War II.
To Patz, Odesser began to disclose what he felt was the true significance of the note, something he had meditated on deeply over the years. Odesser told Patz that he had chosen to work lonely night jobs — as a baker, or as a night watchman at a factory for kerosene heaters — occupations where he could slip in some study or prayer as he worked. He showed Patz the note, and Patz took it away, and then brought it, along with samples of Odesser’s handwriting, to a graphologist in order to ensure that Odesser himself had not written the note in some liminal state. The note checked out.
Odesser told Patz that the key aspect of the note was its intriguing signature: Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’Uman. First one letter of Rabbi Nachman’s name — n — then two — cn — then three — mcn — then four — Nmcn — and so on. Odesser recalled a precedent for this kind of unfolding of a name in the Tiqunei Zohar, a thirteenth-century kabbalistic text. At the time of the redemption, the medieval text said, a new song would awaken in the world. The song would be a single, double, triple, quadruple song — the progressive unfolding of God’s unpronounceable name, the tetragrammaton, as y; hy; vhy; h-vhy.
Odesser surmised that the fourfold signature in the note indicated that Rabbi Nachman’s name, the name of the true tzaddik, was the fourfold song that would awaken the world to redemption.
Rabbi Natan of Nemerov, Rabbi Nachman’s closest disciple, had already explained that “the name of the tzaddik is united with the name of God” — and that pronouncing the names of tzaddikim was a segula, or white magic. The magic worked because the staggered name of the tzaddik contained within it the essence of God’s constant renewal of the world. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s note indicated a way out of a catch-22: if the condition of Jewish exile was characterized by God’s absence from this world, and if the unholy state of the world meant that Jews were commanded to impose strict restrictions on the writing and pronouncement of God’s name, how was redemption to be called up? Rebbe Nachman’s answer was: through the name of the tzaddik, that is to say, through his own name, which could be pronounced freely, even as a mantra, and sung in a thousand tunes, and written anywhere.
Odesser had also decoded a more obscure fragment of the note: Full and heaped up from line to line. He told Patz that he believed this meant that Rebbe Nachman wanted him to fill the earth — from one end to another — with his books and teachings. Everyone should reap magic from a book, just as Odesser had.
“What were you praying for?” Reb Yisroel had once asked his own teacher, Reb Yisroel Karduner, after watching him pray a standing prayer for four hours straight. “I was praying,” Karduner answered, “that the whole world become Breslov.” Odesser realized this was an extraordinary, even revolutionary idea: though amply present in the teachings of the biblical prophets, the notion of the Jews actively spreading their message — even to the gentiles — had been suppressed during centuries of exile and minority status.
By the early 1990s, he had even become distanced from the tiny Breslov community (whose center had moved to Jerusalem from Eastern Europe after World War II) by convincing the president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, to arrange the transfer of Rabbi Nachman’s remains from Uman to Jerusalem’s Mount Zion. Odesser believed that this was an essential step toward Messianic redemption. But when Herzog, unaware that Odesser was a maverick, announced the transfer, there was a huge outcry from the Breslovers, for whom the pilgrimage to Rebbe Nachman’s grave was an entrenched ritual. The agreement was cancelled, but Saba’s relationship with mainstream Breslovers remained strained: posters went up all over Meah Shearim, the Jerusalem neighborhood where the Breslov institutions are based, denouncing Odesser and impugning his note from heaven as a practical joke played on a naive youngster.
(The transfer of the body remains an issue to this day. In the past decade, there have been several attempts to steal it from Uman. At present, one of Na Nach’s stalwart followers, Sharon Talzur, is set on bringing it to Israel by diplomatic means — he runs a one-man parliamentary lobby devoted to that end.)
In any case, now at odds with most of the Breslov community, Saba had evolved into a true free agent, as evidenced by his odd nomadism. He would rarely stay more than a few days in any one place. Though confined to a wheelchair, he was known to ask his disciples to drive him all over, in a kind of endless sojourn, its significance a mystery to all but Odesser. From Jerusalem to Tiberias to Ashdod, he would often stay with people he hardly knew. Sometimes it would be for a few hours; sometimes a few days. And then he’d move on to a new place.
One effect of Odesser’s wanderlust was that it prevented any kind of formal, institutional community from developing around him, which kept this movement underground, pretty grassy in its roots. Uri Eliav, a man of Iraqi descent who had grown up in Tel Aviv and was around thirty when Odesser began gaining speed in the 1980s, was the first of the Rebbe’s followers to actively spread the five-word Na Nach mantra. “After I returned to Judaism I began to think about the advertising slogans that were plastered everywhere in the streets in Israel,” says Eliav. “I thought: why can’t something holy — something that brings joy and hope — be spread like that? Like commercials?” Eliav met Saba, and, on his own, began to fashion giant banners painted with the Na Nach motto and hung them on freeway overpasses.
“But then I got discouraged and felt that what I was doing was meaningless,” says Eliav. “Saba told me to continue. He said what I had done had caused great delight and amusement in the higher worlds.” Soon after, the graffiti began and Israeli society noticed. Several years ago, Eliav says, a convention of advertisers decided to award “Na Nach” with their “commercial of the year” prize. Given the illegalities of defacement of public property, “No one came forward to claim it,” he says.
The whole world, the whole government, doesn’t know who I am. I am Na Nach Nachma Nachman from Uman. A few weeks before his death in 1995, Odesser’s followers recorded him speaking these words that are today played from the Na Nach vans. Before his death, the mythology around Saba grew along with the Na Nach movement. With Saba’s prodigious age — maybe in his late nineties; maybe past his centenary — as proof, his followers began believing that Odesser, the recipient of a “note from heaven,” was destined to live to see the coming of the Messiah. Many followers decided that Odesser had received into himself the soul of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, in order to prepare the world for the Messiah’s birth. “For does it really matter,” as one pamphlet expressed it, “who is Na Nach Nachma Nachman from Uman, Rebbe Nachman or Rabbi Yisroel Odesser? For they shine forth together, with one light, the full and complete redemption.”
“If he hadn’t said, ‘I am Na Nach Nachma Nachman’ before he died, I would have gone crazy!” says Aharon Patz. “In declaring it, he was saying ‘I’ve done the job. I’ve brought Reb Nachman’s light into the world.’”
Some of the Na Nachers go so far as to believe that Rabbi Yisroel Odesser, united with the soul of Rabbi Nachman, is the Messiah, period. They no longer travel to Uman in pilgrimage on the Jewish New Year, instead praying at Saba’s gravesite in Jerusalem.
It remains unclear which of the Na Nach followers tried to steal Reb Yisroel’s body at his funeral, whether the culprits were of the group who believe he is the Messiah or those who think he is just the precursor. Uri Kreuzer, Odesser’s grandson, says he had been forewarned of the plan to nab the corpse: some of his grandfather’s followers were claiming that he had expressed a wish to be buried in Tiberias, beside the grave of his teacher, Reb Yisroel Karduner. As the funeral procession turned down Meah Shearim Avenue before heading for the cemetery, a big Chevy GMC station wagon backed suddenly toward the casket, and two young men jumped out of the car prepared to grab Saba. Kreuzer tried to block them with his body, and one of Saba’s sons-in-law began to scream bloodily. The coffin-snatchers retreated, but left a whiff of the idea that Saba’s penchant for unexpected travel extended beyond the grave.
Uri Eliav is dozing in the back of a Na Nach van parked on a corner of Sheinkin, Tel Aviv’s hippest street. There is a plan to later drive to Haifa to “distribute” — Nach lingo for dancing and selling books. Eliav, today in his mid-fifties, has long, elegant, silky side curls and beard, and blue, otherworldly eyes. “It’s all divine providence,” he says when he wakes up. “That’s what the new song — ‘Na Nach’ — is about. Seeing the light of divine providence. And we see it all the time, but we never know where we are going to end up.”
The other young men around the van are young, in their twenties. They are drumming and leaping in the air, with seemingly inexhaustible energy — one Na Nacher told me he had once danced an impossible twenty-four hours straight. Eliav is their elder, their living patron saint. He places great emphasis on “throwing away the mind,” a concept from Rabbi Nachman’s teachings, and one which will not be unfamiliar to students of other mystical faiths, from the meditative Buddhism to ecstatic Sufism. I ask one of the younger men — Yaniv Na’ar, who got aboard a van six months ago on an impulse, and never got off — what it means in the Na Nach context.
“We follow the tzaddik,” he says. “We throw away our mind in order to gain a much greater mind, the mind of the tzaddik.”
Eliav provides a somewhat different explanation. “It means not to care that I seem like a clown, dancing on the street, or even in clubs and parties when people invite us, thinking we are fools.” For Eliav, as for many of the Na Nachers, following Saba means rejecting not only secular life, but also rabbinic authority. Although the Na Nachers follow Halacha, Jewish law, they reject rabbinic spiritual leadership. “The tzaddik allows you to listen to your own unique inner point of godliness — the rabbis try to take this away, to grab it and enslave it for themselves,” says Eliav. “There are many rabbis in Breslov [Hasidism]. They forget that Rabbi Nachman’s Torah is something new, totally new. We, Na Nach, are the only ones without a rabbi.”
As I watch the young men going wild on this most secular of Israeli street corners, I ask myself whether this strange amalgam—ultra-Orthodox, anti-rabbinic, trance-dance Messianic universalistic Judaism — could have originated anywhere but in today’s Israel. Many, perhaps a majority, of Na Nach’s adherents are Sephardic Jews whose parents emigrated from Islamic countries. To some extent, the same is true of the Chabad Messianists — who, while marginal as far as Chabad groups go in America, are the dominant Chabad faction in Israel. The Israeli Chabad Messianists have a Sephardic majority so prominent that some of their detractors have nicknamed them “the Hezbollah.”
Is it just coincidental that in Israel — where Jews no longer feel the need to defend themselves psychologically and spiritually against the influence of the non-Jewish majorities of their former lands — urges long repressed have risen to the surface? The impulse toward magic, largely taboo after the Enlightenment, no longer seems to scare. And the taboo about preaching, especially to gentiles, seems to be coming down as well.
Earlier this year, in the Times Square subway station in Manhattan, I saw two young Chabadniks handing out pamphlets. They were giving them to blacks and whites, Hispanics and Chinese. Here in Israel, Chabad Messianists have sent pamphlets in Arabic to every resident of East Jerusalem. Now, Aharon Patz is on the same page. He says that through practices such as the distribution of Na Nach amulets, gentiles can be introduced to “the truth of Reb Nachman” without having to learn anything about Judaism. In the week I spoke with him, he said he was waiting for news of a giant business deal involving oil fields that several American Na Nachers — people whom Patz had introduced to the faith — were involved in. Seventy percent of the profits, they had promised, would go to translating, printing, and distributing the books. The American Na Nachers spoke of a new kind of printing technology that could produce half a million books a day. Within several years, they said, the whole world could be covered. &