Next Year in Uman: A Journey to the Ukraine
Photographs by Ahron D. Weiner
Through August 15, 2011
The Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, Congregation Rodeph Shalom
615 North Broad Street, Philadelphia
At first glance, the chassid in Ahron Weiner’s “In Memorial” looks like he may be wearing an earring on his right ear, which is framed by his dark brown side curl. Further inspection reveals the ear is in silhouette, and the “earring” is indeed white light cast by one of the many memorial candles he contemplates – tributes to the tens of thousands of Jews of Uman murdered in the 18th century and nearly two centuries later by the Nazis.
The ear of the chassidic man with the white knitted kippa is not literally pierced, but it might as well be. The photograph is one of 29 by Hewlett, N.Y.-based artist Weiner, who first visited Uman, the central Ukrainian city and burial place of chasidic master Rabi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), with his father in 2004. Weiner, who was raised modern orthodox and “borderline yeshivish,” says he was a teenager when his father took an interest in Rabi Nachman’s teachings and traveled to Uman twice in the 1990s.
In Memorial. Ahron Weiner. Courtesy of the artist.
A lover of travel and curious to see what the Umani scene was like, Weiner agreed to accompany his father in 2004. “The experience was nice,” he says. “I didn’t think I was planning to go back until I developed my film and saw images that echoed what Vishniak shot in his travels across pre-war Eastern Europe.” He returned for Rosh Hashanah pilgrimages for the next five years and documented his trips. Weiner’s gallery titled “Next Year in Uman: A Journey to the Ukraine” on his website contains 129 photographs.
Weiner has described the pilgrimage experience as “”Mount Sinai meets Woodstock,” and his photographs corroborate that characterization.
“Overhead” shows about 75 people packed into the picture frame like sardines. Umani pilgrimages, it would seem, are not for the claustrophobic. But they are for just about any other type of person, as Weiner explained to Ezra Glinter and Nate Lavey of the Forward. In the picture, Weiner said, all sorts of Jews can be found, from those wearing black hats to baseball caps to those with bare heads. (One has to take his word for it; everyone in the photograph seems to have at least some kind of head covering.)
Overhead. Ahron Weiner. Courtesy of the artist.
Weiner’s perspective, quite literally and figuratively, is laden with religious meaning. Some of his bird’s-eye-perspective photographs were taken from an enclosure meant to keep Kohanim safely away from tombstones. Weiner and his camera were peering out from a space reserved to keep priests holy into places of death and sad memories. Talk about echoing the works of Roman Vishniac!
He also framed the project with a quote from Rabi Nachman, said to have been delivered on his deathbed. “Whoever comes to my gravesite [in Uman], recites the 10 Psalms and gives even as little as a penny to charity,” he translated the chasidic sage, “then, no matter how serious his sins may be, I will do everything in my power – spanning the length and breadth of creation – to cleanse and protect him. By his very payos [sidelocks], I will pull him out of hell!”
Pastoral. Ahron Weiner. Courtesy of the artist.
“This promise has since echoed throughout the generations, compelling tens of thousands of Jewish men from every continent except Antarctica to leave their wives and children and undertake a costly, difficult, annual pilgrimage to Uman,” he writes.
If “Pastoral” is any indication, those men encounter stunning scenery. But as the men and boys lounge on the riverbank and glide in a rowboat, there is an ominous reminder that the Jewish presence in Uman has not always been a joyous one. A young boy on the far left holds a toy gun, and faux weapons can be found in other photographs in the series.
Weiner explains that it’s a Breslov custom for fathers to bring their young sons. “The Ukrainians sell lots of plastic toy guns, so yes, there are lots and lots of kids running around with plastic replica guns, shooting plastic BBs at each other,” he says. “All in good fun.”
“Dance” is certainly an image that is all fun, however intense the dancers’ gaze is. Four men lock hands and dance, though it’s worth noting the asymmetry of their dance. One dancer holds a prayer book in his hand, which sets the tone for the other dancers – more of a single file chain than a circle. The fourth man might not even be dancing.
Dance. Ahron Weiner. Courtesy of the artist.
Though the dancers’ movements are blurred, the shadows they cast are clear. One gets the sense that what Weiner is after – and perhaps all the pilgrims too – lies in shadows rather than solid form.
William Rimmer’s gorgeous and troubling painting, Flight and Pursuit (1872), which is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, shows a man with a cloak and dagger running through what the MFA website describes as “shadowy and mysterious labyrinth of a chimerical Near Eastern temple or palace.” Although it initially appears as if the man is fleeing his reflection (which appears in the middle of the canvas), there is a large and ominous shadow cast by a form outside the picture frame. One shadow is chasing a second shadow which is chasing a man.
The same formula might work for Weiner’s Uman. The shadows in “Dance” are sharper than the dancing figures, and the same is true of other photographs in the series. For the period of high holidays, tens of thousands of Jews descend on a land of shadows. Like Vishniac, Weiner has done a masterful job of negotiating the boundary where the shadows end and the people begin. Often, it seems, the shadows are cast by such monumental sources that they seem to take on a life of their own, and promise to outlive those who cast them.
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.