Signs Point Young Jews to the Na-Nachs
In a post-modern, post-Nietzschian world where God, apparently, has supposedly been dead for decades, many young American Jews have not given up on spirituality or the hope of finding that elusive sense of “meaning,” a connection to something larger than themselves. In recent decades, increasing numbers of young Jews are finding that sought-after spark in the writings and communities of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. He has acted as a symbol of meaning, driving them to make personal decisions that can change their lives.
Violet Gurian is a former punk rocker with pale skin, bright red lipstick, and jetblack hair, cut straight with bangs. From a secular Jewish background, she first explored her Jewish identity in college at Brown University, where she took a class on Hasidic literature out of pure academic interest. Then she visited friends who had a sticker on their wall of a smiley face with sidelocks and the words, “Don’t worry, be Breslov.”
“I said, ‘What is that?’ ” Gurian recalls. “They said, ‘These people, you would love them. They drive around and start dance parties in the street for Rebbe Nachman.’ ”
When Gurian returned home, she searched YouTube for videos of the dancing Hasidim. She was enthralled. “I felt this pure light that even thousands of miles away in Providence, R.I., via YouTube—it pulled me.”
Gurian, 25, decided to buy a ticket to Israel, though she had no plans and knew no one in the country. By her second day in Israel, she found the “Na Nachs,” the followers of the teachings of Rabbi Yisroel Ber Odesser— a 20th-century follower of the namesake of the Breslover Hasidic movement, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who lived in Ukraine in the late 18th century. Unlike other sub-sects of Breslover Hasidim, the Na Nachs fervently work to spread knowledge of their sub-sect, most publicly by using the chant developed by Rabbi Odesser, “Na Nach Nachman MeUman,” and plastering it on walls and car bumpers throughout Israel.
“I believe in signs in a huge way,” says Gurian. “The world is filled with them. For me, there were neon signs pointing straight for Rebbe Nachman, and the whole time I was there [in Israel] I was just carried through.”
Back home in Providence, Gurian’s room is covered in Na Nach stickers.
“They remind me of that pure unadulterated simcha (happiness),” says Gurian. “That really calls me, the idea and the goal to be happy always.”
She also loves the idea of foregoing her intellectual connection to religion.
“You can intellectually justify anything, but the real truth that I know comes from my soul,” says Gurian. “Intellectually there is no real truth. Intellectually everything is up in the air and flexible and can be manipulated. But there is something more profound than the abilities of the intellect.”
Now religiously observant, Gurian dreams of one day moving to Israel and joining the Na Nachs. Gurian is part of a growing number of young American Jews today who have found their connections to Judaism and Israel through the teachings of Rabbi Odesser about Rabbi Nachman.
Efraim Geltman, 38, was raised in a Reform community in Massachusetts. He spent much of his adult life searching for a spiritual path in Judaism, Chinese Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and then back to Judaism.
“I felt like I was doing all this Jewish stuff and it was a pain in the butt,” says Geltman. But when he found the Na Nachs, he felt his Jewish practice had been replenished with meaning.
Even the laws of modesty and sexual purity held by the Na Nachs seemed less oppressive and more joyful to Geltman.
“People are very obsessed with sex, and with Rebbe Nachman it’s not negotiable: it’s supposed to be about making babies and connecting with your partner,” says Geltman. “It’s really kind of simple.”
Gurian also was attracted by the sexual purity laws.
“In the universe of punk rock, nothing is taboo, nothing is sacred. Sex is violence and violence is sexual, and there is no separation between anything,” she says, adding that joining the Na Nachs has helped her reclaim herself as a “sacred object.”
Geltman now lives in Jerusalem. Like most Na Nachs, he wears a large knit yarmulke with the Na Nach Nachman MeUman inscription.
As a doctor of holistic medicine, he seeks to incorporate Rabbi Nachman’s teachings in his practice of healing.
“Rebbe Nachman was big on showing the connections of sexual purity and the evolution of your health and mind,” he says. “Rebbe Nachman is light years beyond all this.”
Simcha Chochbaum, 36, was raised in an Ultra-Orthodox family of rabbis in Toronto. He came across Rabbi Nachman’s teachings at age 24 while studying in yeshiva in Israel. By the time he was 28, he had fully adopted the Breslov Hasidim ethos, accepted Rabbi Nachman as his personal rabbi, and changed his dress from all black to all white.
“[Nachman] is about living a life with complete faith and happiness and not figuring everything out, letting Hashem figure it out for you,” says Chochbaum.
Barya Schachter, 29, reembraced observant Judaism through the Na Nachs during his schooling at Oberlin, where he played football. He says that one can communicate with God alone, but that the experience can be deepened through a tzadik—a righteous person—or, as Schachter describes tzadik in reference to Rabbi Nachman, “the thing that goes through every ingredient of existence and binds it together to be capable of relationship with something greater.”
Today, Schachter lives in Jerusalem, where he plays football with his Na Nach yarmulke and sidelocks tucked into his helmet.
Shifra Mincer graduated from Harvard College where she wrote for the Harvard Crimson. She loves writing, meditating, and exploring Jewish spirituality.