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Pious Mobilities: Jewish Pilgrimage to Uman During the Pandemic


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This article examines the Breslover Hasidim who attempted their annual pilgrimage to Uman during the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the Ukrainian border closure in August 2020, which was supported by the State of Israel, thousands of Breslovers were stranded in airports, land borders, and even imprisoned in the weeks leading up to the Jewish New Year. This research contributes to an emerging scholarly literature on religion and COVID-19, challenging the religion and science "conflict thesis," as interviews revealed that the choice of Breslovers to ignore public health directives stemmed less from a disbelief in science than from a conflict between state and religious authority. Pious mobilities emerge, I argue, when secular logics fail to contain and properly modify religious actors. The choice to travel to Uman was made according to a Breslover moral universe as informants turned to the spiritual tools and teachings of Rebbe Nachman to guide their decisions, especially his notion of ratzon [willpower], engaging in a form of pious mobility that attempted to transcend nation-state borders. Pious mobilities not only challenged public health initiatives in 2020, but as I demonstrate in the ethnography, Breslovers' insistence on reaching Uman simultaneously threatened the cooptation of Breslov Hasidim within a Zionist narrative, reigniting a debate over the relocation of Rebbe Nachman's remains to Israel. By ethnographically examining moments of conflict between religious groups and state officials managing the pandemic, we might better inform future public health policies and the messaging aimed at religious populations including ultra-Orthodox Jews.



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Link to article (paywalled), Pious Mobilities: Jewish Pilgrimage to Uman During the Pandemic

Bibliographic Information

Feldman, Rachel Z. Pious Mobilities: Jewish Pilgrimage to Uman During the Pandemic. Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. 2022: 107-132.  https://archive.jpr.org.uk/10.1353/sho.2022.0005