Cohen's Way: A Documentary About Jewish New Year Celebrations in Ukraine
13 November, 2019

The streets of Uman are filling with a black and white sea of ​​people. An ambulance rushes through this sea with howling sirens. It is taking an injured Jew to a helicopter that will transport him to Kyiv. 30,000 Hasidim have officially arrived in Uman this year to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The Jews themselves claim that twice as many came: over the three days of the holiday the central kitchen prepared 250,000 servings of food, and it is not the only kitchen that fed the guests.

"Because a man without food is not a man," smiles Rabbi Hillel Cohen, telling Kolian Pastyko of Hromadske.doc about the intricacies of organizing the largest Jewish festival in the world.

Hillel runs through the streets of Uman explaining everything around him on the go. There are 30 synagogues in Uman, he heads to the central one. The city is busy with the latest preparations for the holiday, which will begin in the evening and will last three days. At 7 p.m. on the dot, Hillel removes our clip-on microphone and can no longer say a single word on camera: every Jew on Rosh Hashanah has more important things to do than to take care of journalists. That is why we agree to meet back in Kyiv so that he can comment on everything that Pastyko records. Hillel does not mind: for the 30 years that he has come to Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukrainian media have told and shown so many unpleasant things about the Jewish New Year in Uman that he does not trust journalists at all, and he is delighted to watch the video before it airs.

Hillel comes from the Cohen family. He is the offspring of Aaron, Moses' brother, and has a special relationship with the Creator. Cohens are not allowed to go to the cemetery, even when it comes to the tomb of Tzadik Nachman, which is precisely the place of power that draws Jews from all over the world to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the Ukrainian Uman, as he is buried there. Hillel has been coming there since 1989, organizing the medical-volunteer infrastructure of the festival, but has never approached the main Hasidic shrine closer than 30 meters. "Only in your video can I see how everything goes on there," he says, looking at the footage, as an endless black and white queue of Hasidim passes by the grave of Tzadik Nachman, and everyone kisses and touches the tombstone.

"Rosh Hashanah is an incredible holiday," says Hillel. This is obvious: it makes you feel alien, and around you — there are tens of thousands of weirdly dressed men and boys praying, singing, dancing, or eating solely kosher food or apples with honey. The extent of fun and seriousness is hard to understand: at times, it is reminiscent of a football World Cup, but with a deep meaning in life — a book of life is being written these days and it is being decided what the next year will be like.

When Hillel first came to Rosh Hashanah in Uman, it was a holiday for 250 people. "At the time, we all knew each other, it was a very small and close-knit community," says Hillel. “Now we might not even find time to meet with people we know. There are more and more people, and next year there could be 100,000.” Hillel says the local authorities have finally realized that everyone is interested in scaling up the Rosh Hashanah Jewish Festival, and have begun to help and support it. The streets of Uman are finally cleaned not after the holiday, but throughout, and this time the Jewish New Year was celebrated in unprecedented cleanliness. This is confirmed by a local cleaner who has been working in Uman during Rosh Hashanah for nine years. "We have cleanliness this year, it’s very good compared to previous years," the woman says, allowing Jewish teens to photograph her broom.

Kolian Pastyko was in Uman during the Jewish New Year, made friends with thousands of merry men and watched the Ukrainians who came "to see the Jews." All this in his documentary “Cohen's Way”.