Jews are not a people suited for the status quo. We have a rebellious gene. We can’t stand still.
Look everywhere and you’ll see signs of our restlessness.
The Reform movement is debating whether it has gone too far in moving away from halacha (Jewish law). The Conservatives are always going through an identity crisis, so much so that sometimes I think they enjoy it. The Orthodox have so many variations that a neighbor of mine calls Pico-Robertson the Baskin-Robbins of frum neighborhoods — pick your flavor.
We’re a people of paradox: We love the safety and stability of permanence, but we’re always on edge — ready to take off, to break away, to declare our independence.
Often these breakaway dramas are small, local affairs — a few Jews get annoyed with a few other Jews; they meet, they eat, they scheme and another shul is born.
I’ve seen this as often with Ashkenazim as with Sephardic Jews. We love each other, but not enough to pray together if we get on each other’s nerves. But this getting on each other’s nerves has a wonderful side benefit: We get to experience this continuous influx of new shuls, new ideas and new movements.
One of the great movements in recent Jewish history is the Chasidic movement. Over two centuries ago, a revolutionary Jew called the Baal Shem Tov decided that Torah belonged to the masses, not just to the yeshivas, and it should be lived with deep joy, not just deep study. Within several decades, despite major opposition from mainstream Judaism, Chasidic offshoots were branching out in Eastern Europe and Russia, taking on local flavors and each having their own leader, or rebbe.
One of these Chasidic groups was called the Breslovers, originating in a little town in Ukraine called Breslev. Their leader was the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, known simply as Rebbe Nachman — an intense, charismatic mystic who died in his late 30s.
I got a taste of the Breslev world when I traveled in the early ’90s to the Ukrainian city of Uman, where many of Rebbe Nachman’s followers gathered at his gravesite during Rosh Hashanah, as was his wish.
When I visited, there must have been several hundred people at the gathering. Today, I hear the annual number has grown to well over 20,000, with Jews from all over the world and all walks of life coming to soak up the rebbe’s holy vibes.
Among the participants in this worldwide pilgrimage is a small contingent from the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, led by a French-speaking Algerian Jew in the garment business named Sylvain Sellam.
Sylvain runs a little Breslev shul in the hood, at the corner of Robertson and Cashio, called The Breslev Center. I was there on a recent Shabbat, and for a minute I thought I was in the middle of the desert hanging out with Israeli settlers. It was that laid back.
It’s OK at the Breslev shul to wear jeans and sneakers and not tuck in your shirt. You won’t see any sign of a rabbi, but you’ll see lots of men with one eyebrow. You see, the davening is Sephardic, and if you stick around for the Kiddush, you’ll get to taste what may be the only Kurdish cholent in town, a thick, dark concoction made by an elderly Israeli Kurd named Abe.
Now, you might ask, what is so Chasidic about a little shul that looks, smells, tastes and sounds so Sephardic? There are no black hats, no Chasidic melodies, no long beards — so what gives?
Have you heard of these new hybrid cars that combine the traditional engine with an electric one? Well, this is the equivalent phenomenon — hybrid Jews — Jews who embrace a new tradition, but keep a connection to their old one.
Sylvain Sellam is a hybrid Jew.
He is madly in love with Breslev and with Rebbe Nachman, but he hasn’t abandoned his Sephardic roots, which include a direct lineage to the revered mystics of North Africa. He was indeed skeptical when, several years ago, a Sephardic buddy told him about Rebbe Nachman and Breslev. It felt foreign and irrelevant. But he agreed to take a look at Rebbe Nachman’s major book (Likutey Moharan), and it changed his life.
But wait, it gets more interesting. While Sylvain is passionate about Breslev, and he maintains his Sephardic roots, he’s even more passionate about a renegade offshoot of Breslev loosely called the “Na Na Nachmans.” This is the Wild Wild West of Breslev.
They don’t believe in rabbis or any of the trappings of organized religion. They have only one rabbi, and he’s in the other world — Rebbe Nachman. Unlike the traditional mainstream of Breslev, they are not quiet and self-effacing. Their mission is to spread the words of Rebbe Nachman, especially the words of the “Petek.”
The Petek is a mysterious “letter from heaven” from Rebbe Nachman revealed to a righteous Breslev (Rav Israel) many decades ago that followers say holds the key to redemption. In practical terms, the key is the mantra “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’Uman,” a kabbalistic breakdown of Rebbe Nachman’s name that has become the movement’s cri de coeur.
The mainstream Breslovers, including the unofficial leadership in Safed, don’t know what to make of this vocal and free-spirited band of Breslev gypsies who travel around Israel in hippie-style vans playing loud “Na Na Nachman” music and handing out Rebbe Nachman literature. They are the rebels of Breslev — the rebels among the rebels.
The Breslev Center here in the hood is one of the few “Na Na Nachman” shuls outside Israel. If it were up to Sylvain, there’d be a lot more. His enthusiasm for the Petek is obvious and intense. He’ll tell you about miracles he has witnessed just from the act of meditating on the Petek.
What struck me when I was in his shul, though, was how familiar it all felt. Kids were running around making a lot of noise, grown-ups were schmoozing and everyone was reading the exact same Torah portion being read in every shul in the world.
Maybe that explains our rebellious gene — we’re comfortable breaking away because we know that deep down, we’ll never let go.
Breslovers gather in Ukraine. Click the BIG ARROW