Tel Aviv - The monotonous din of traffic permeated the air on Tel Aviv's Sheinkin Street on a recent Friday afternoon, when, suddenly, a large white cargo van whipped around the corner, blasting music from a pair of huge roof-mounted loudspeakers. A few people walking on the crowded sidewalks stopped to stare as five bearded young men wearing white-knit, tassel-topped yarmulkes leaped out, dancing to the thud of electronic bass beats. Some people smiled. Soldiers driving past waved out the windows and cheered. A cyclist cut through the group, her face set in a grimace. A man screamed above the din that his baby was sick.
It's a scene increasingly common in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other Israeli cities where the loud, brightly painted Ford cargo vans associated with Israel's hottest new Hasidic sect have become a recognizable sight. The vans are plastered with large Hebrew letters and larger-than-life stick-on portraits of a laughing, bearded old man in a fur hat, his arms cast jubilantly skyward. Religious-themed Hebrew techno tunes blast from the rooftop speakers.
The Bohemian clothing of the dancing young men seems unusual for Hasidic Jews. So does their belief that screaming, singing, and bellowing joyous prayer are the best ways to connect with God.
They are known as the Na Nach - a recently emerged subgroup of the 200-year-old Breslover Hasidic sect. Like other Breslover Hasidim, they follow the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a kabbalist mystic who lived 200 years ago in what is today Ukraine. More established Breslov groups were once seen as an eccentric, vaguely countercultural element in the Orthodox world. But members of the Na Nach sect now stand out as the new radicals, as the older tradition of Nachman study assumes a newfound respectability within the ultra-Orthodox world.
"[Na Nach] are seen as sort of an embarrassment in Israeli society, and held up as a circus sideshow," said Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Indiana University and an expert on Hasidism.
The sect's name is a stub of the phrase Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me'uman. Repeated often by followers as a kind of mantra, it spells out in Hebrew, adding one letter at a time, the name of the members' revered teacher, who died and was buried in the town of Uman, Ukraine. Nachman's great-grandfather, known as the Baal Shem Tov, established what was then seen as wild, spiritual Hasidism in response to the increasingly bookish rabbinic Judaism of the early 18th century. Nachman's version of Hasidism was a back-to-basics campaign of sorts, and not at all popular with the Hasidic dynasties that had established themselves over the previous century.
Na Nachs sport the beards, sidelocks and yarmulkes favored by other ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews, but often eschew traditional black trousers and frock coats. The Na Nach movement lacks a definable hierarchy, and its followers maintain that their connection with God is more personal than anything the authority of a rabbi can deliver. Instead of relying on the direction of a living rebbe, Na Nachs go straight to Nachman's texts for spiritual guidance. Though the Na Nachs are seen in many cities across Israel, the lack of hierarchy makes it hard to count the number of followers.
The Na Nach van patrols - the movement's charismatic but often ridiculed public face - are only part of what Na Nachs do. Nachman encouraged self-seclusion and meditation, during which his followers talk to God in an intimate manner. Bellowing, yelling and enthusiastic singing are the norm during group prayer.
Criticism of the Na Nachs by other Orthodox Jews - even from other Breslovers - stems from their unusual habits. "As far as mainstream Breslov is concerned, Na Nach has no validity whatsoever," said Rabbi Chaim Kramer, a leader in the Breslov community. "You can't just sit back, close your eyes and say a mantra; you have to study, you have to fill your heart with prayer, you have to have the Torah and perform the mitzvot."
Secular people tend not to take them seriously, either. Many greet the grinning, dancing street revelers with incredulity and with questions about what mind-altering substances they may be using.
"I think they view their goal as trying to make people happy - to cause people to smile and create a good atmosphere - but I don't find it funny anymore, and I don't find it entertaining," said Shaked Shtigel, a 28-year-old secular resident of central Tel Aviv. "They stop in the middle of the intersection, cause and create traffic, jump into the street, and don't consider their surroundings."
But the Na Nach world goes beyond raucous street parties in Tel Aviv to a spiritual realm rooted in Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical text. It is in sharp contrast with the secular party scene many of them left behind. Some took drugs, others came from nonreligious backgrounds and, Magid says, a few found their Na Nach calling while in gangs or prison yards. Whatever their pasts, they evince strong commitment to their current path.
"Rebbe Nachman said he wanted his people to be like wild animals, out in the woods, screaming and talking to God," said Israel Blumenfeld, 29, an American expat who used to follow touring punk rock bands around the United States and Israel. Now he devotes his time to praying, studying Nachman's teachings, and traveling around in vans with other Na Nachs.
Far from Tel Aviv, in the mountains near Meron in the Galilee, a group of Na Nachs assembles every Friday evening, at Uri Eliav's pastoral home, to celebrate the Sabbath. Eliav is the patriarch of an ever-growing Na Nach family. His bright blue eyes twinkle as he smiles warmly at visitors to his Sabbath table. Most of them are young. Few have regular jobs. They live off donations, odd jobs and welfare, and do what they can to make ends meet. Some have wives, and some have families. Things get tight, but somehow they scrape by.
"Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me'uman!" a grinning, bespectacled man shouts in a piercing tenor, one of the many times that line is uttered during the evening prayers. He calls himself Moshe Nanach, and he once appeared on the Israeli version of "American Idol." Although he caused more than a few participants to cringe when he sang a devotional song horribly out of tune, he won over the program's audience with his bellowing laughter and unwavering cheeriness.
Everyone at Eliav's Sabbath table is male. Women occupy a separate, parallel niche, separate from, and supportive of, the men. The barrier relaxes a little after the meal concludes, when everyone lounges around the table in satisfied, semi-recumbent poses, chatting idly. First, a timid-looking young girl pokes her head out from behind the curtain that divides the dining room from the part of the house where the women ate their meal. A few moments later, the girl's mother, Neta, Eliav's wife, strides into the room, beaming. She is clad in a long, plain dress and a white head wrap reminiscent of 18th-century Poland.
"So how do you like it here?" she asks a newcomer, a visitor from America. "This is a holy life. Why not join us?"
Eliav's farm was a favorite haunt of Rabbi Yisroel Ber Odesser, founder of the Na Nach version of Breslov Hasidism. Known to his followers as Sabba ("Grandpa" in Hebrew), Odesser passed away in 1994 at the age of 106. The journey that led him to spawn the Na Nach movement began in the 1920s, when he was attending a yeshiva in his native Tiberias. At the time, other Hasidic groups frowned upon studying Nachman's works, but Odesser found one of the books in a trash can at the yeshiva and began reading, against the advice of his rabbis. One day, he found what Na Nachs believe to be a letter from Nachman stuck between the pages of one of the books in his room. The cryptic note included the phrase "Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me'uman," which his followers believe has numeric correlations to parts of the Torah. Odesser's discovery of the letter began a lifetime of dedication to learning and teaching Nachman's works. It has also led to plenty of skepticism from some Hasidim, who believe that the note was placed there as a prank by a classmate.
According to Na Nach lore, Odesser suffered persecution by other religious Jews throughout his lifetime. It wasn't until the 1980s, when he was confined to a wheelchair, that he began to spread Nachman's teachings.
Living in a manner similar to today's young van crews, Odesser traveled around Israel, praying, singing and living off charity. He stayed with supporters and attracted new followers, whom he never really organized, from as far afield as France.