Yippee: Paul Mazursky’s Docu about Uman and Chassidim

Paul Mazursky first became intrigued by the story of Uman when he was getting a new pair of eyeglasses. David Miretsky, a Russian, now living in Los Angeles, and the owner of an eyeglass shop, told Mazursky about the annual gathering of Jewish men in that small Ukrainian town in.

Miretsky explained that in 1810, a revered spiritual leader named Rabbi Nachman was buried in Uman. Before he died, he asked his followers to come to his gravesite every Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) to “throw away their sins”, and insure themselves of a spiritual renewal. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of men who made the pilgrimage had grown each year. This year, said Miretsky, there will be over 25,000 mostly Chassidic Jews from around the world who will spend three days praying, singing, dancing, and approaching God by experiencing joy.

“Take your camera and go to Uman. You cannot believe what you will see there”.

Mazursky is a secular Jew, having grown up in Brooklyn, often poking fun at the Chassidic boys in his neighborhood. But Miretsky’s words, and the image of such a gathering–the sight and sound of 25,000 joyful Jews–aroused Mazursky’s instincts as a filmmaker. He decided to make the journey, with two video cameramen and David Miretsky as their guide.

Before leaving Los Angeles Mazursky shot interviews with Miretsky and two other men who were annual participants in Rosh Hashanah at Uman. One, Shmuel Levy, is a Moroccan-born composer and rock musician living and working in LA, and the second, Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, is an important scholar, author, and spiritual leader in the Los Angeles community. These interviews gave the filmmaker a sense of the history and philosophy behind the upcoming events, and almost – but not quite – prepared Mazursky for what he was about to experience.

The trip began at LAX with cameras already rolling, continued through Munich, where a six-hour layover allowed the team to film an afternoon at the Oktoberfest, and ended at 3:00am in Kiev, where hundreds of Chassids were collecting their baggage, and making a three hour drive to Uman.

Unlike most Hollywood productions, where the director travels first class and has everything pre-arranged by studio travel agents, this was a new experience for Mazursky. He and his crew had to scramble to find a place to stay and were lucky to find an apartment to rent, although six men had to share a single bedroom.

Over the next three days, Mazursky and his cameras witness an amazing series of events, ranging from quiet moments of prayer at sunrise, to thousands literally dancing in the streets. They meet a wide variety of men from many countries, interview them, share meals with them, and enjoy more than a few moments of laughter.

The filmmakers take several side trips during their stay. They go to the marketplace in the non-Jewish center of town, where they talk to local Ukrainians about their reaction to the massive influx of Chassidim. They witness a colorful parade celebrating Uman Day. They make a four-hour drive to Medzibush, where they visit the gravesite of Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman’s grandfather, who founded the Chassidic movement. They explore Sofia Park, a beautiful Uman landmark, in which Rabbi Nachman used to meditate.

The most impressive moments of the journey–and the film–take place on the final day and evening of Rosh Hashanah, when 25,000 men literally surround the town lake. It is an amazingly moving sight, filled with human energy and spiritual ecstasy. It is truly a celebration of God and man, life and joy.

On the final night, while thousands sang and danced in the streets before leaving Uman, Mazursky and his team go to interview Rabbi Tauber. They come upon on Dr. Julian Unger, a British neurologist, who delivers a charming, candid, and extremely funny interview, but then surprises Mr. Mazursky with a description of two events in the past that occurred in Uman. Both of them involved the massacre of the local Jewish population with death tolls in the thousands. This adds an emotional depth to the already powerful spectacle of thousands of men dancing in the streets that once ran with the blood of Jewish martyrs.

The entire experience had a strong impact on Paul Mazursky. While it may not have transformed him into a religious zealot, it opened his eyes, mind, and heart, and instilled in him a new level of tolerance and even affection for the men whose world this film documents.