Chris Occhicone


Uman, Ukraine – Rosh Hashanah During Soviet times a few devout Jews guarded the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. A handful of pilgrims would make the trek to visit the city of Uman, Ukraine and pray at his tomb. The founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement promised to intercede on behalf of those who visit his grave at Rosh Hashanah, say the proper prayers, and make a charitable offering. In 1989,after the fall of Berlin Wall, 1000 visited. The pilgrimage has steadily grown. Now, despite the growing crisis in Ukraine, over 30000 Jews primarily from Israel and the New York area descend on the city for the holiday.

The Uman pilgrimage has developed into an industry. There are extra flights to Kiev, tour buses, and extra security provided in a joint effort between Ukrainian and Israeli police. Wealthy sponsors from New York organize food for thousands of people. The area around the tomb is cordoned off and Ukrainians need a specially issued ID to enter a district in their town. The pilgrimage is unique in that it attracts Jews from across the spectrum of religiosity; from the secular looking to be “born again”, to Israeli Zionists in track suits, to hippy Na Nachs in white robes, to the most devout Hassidim. In a rare instance of harmony across the spectrum of Judaism, politics are put aside and they pray, eat, and dance together. Relationships with the local are generally positive but at times strained. The unemployed and students flock to get day work shlepping luggage, working in one of the dining halls, or selling toys and souvenirs in a makeshift market. They express mixed feelings about their guests; at once happy to put a few dollars in their pockets, reflective about the long history between Ukrainians and Jews, resentful of the takeover of their city. However, most express pride in the overall amicable atmosphere. They are painfully aware that the pro-Russian separatists have portrayed them as Fascists and are concerned about their reputation, remaining vigilant against groups of neo-Nazis who have come to town to instigate trouble in past years.

Over the course of the week the atmosphere is always changing. In the tomb itself you will find the devout lost in personal prayer, men crying with both joy and sorrow, groups lost in conversation and study, pilgrims soliciting donations to pay for their next meal or their ticket home, music and dancing – all happening at once. A festive atmosphere leads up to the actual holy day. On Rosh Hoshanah itself, the atmosphere fluctuates from charged and frenzied, as 30,000 pray in unison in the street, to contemplative, as many wander off to pray in small groups in the forrest. The party picks back up once Shabbas is over. Then, the city explodes; expressing joy in the fact that Rabbi Nachman has interceded on their behalf and the knowledge that their sins will be forgiven on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.



Based in New York, Chris graduated from the Documentary and PJ program at the International Center of Photography and participated in the Eddie Adams Workshop and the Missouri Photo Workshop. A regular contributor to Newsday, he has also done projects in Libya, Ukraine, Poland and Cambodia. His work has been featured on Time Magazine’s Lightbox, Al- Jazeera and LensCulture. His project Fringe was a finalist in the LensCulture Magazine Visual Story Telling Awards, was screened at the Visa Pour L’image photojournalism festival, and was featured in the 2015 alumni show at the International Center of Photography which he also co- curated.

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Chris Occhicone

7 thoughts on “Chris Occhicone – Uman”

  1. So let me get this straight… a bunch of ridiculously superstitious people travel great distances to pray to a dead religious nut in order to get goodies from heaven?

    In the immortal words of Buffy: “Note to Self, Religion Freaky”

    Though I’d be tempted to substitute “Scary” for “Freaky.”

    Of course there’s nothing wrong with documenting events such as this, and done the right way it could be a valuable exercise, but the text here comes off more than a promo for the Hasids than a search for meaning, much less understanding.

    The photos, imo, are representative of that critique, for the most part, but I think the one with the orthodox guy and the homeowner giving each other a wary look over the fence is excellent. Illustrates the subtext about the relations with the local people, and speaks to much larger issues as well. Lots of story in just that one pic.

  2. I have mixed feeling about your comment.

    First, I agree that the photograph you mentioned speaks to the nature of the relationship between the locals and the pilgrims. The relationship is complicated. There is definitely a curiosity on the part of the locals. I spent a good amount of time speaking to local students who were working for the pilgrims and heard a variety of opinions. Most wee genuinely curious, most also appreciated the opportunity to make a few dollars. Many people rent out their apartments and are able to almost double their annual income in a week. However, there was also dismay at the way the town was treated. They were not happy that they had to have a security pass to enter a zone in their own town during the pilgrimage but understood the security threat. There was also tension. Some locals erected a crucifix in a popular prayer spot. In past years the crucifix was destroyed, thus the armed guards. While I heard some of the pilgrims suggest they should tear it down again, most understood they would be the ones who looked bad. Also, in the past, skin head groups had come to uman to fight. Many locals were vigilant against this because they were also compelled to project Ukraine in a positive light.

    What I find sad is your lack of open mindedness for the parts of the Hasidic culture which I experienced. To call them nuts and freaks is, in my opinion, misguided. I’m a Catholic and I was almost universally accepted. I was spit in twice. Both times, groups of orthodox intervened immediately. Several Ukrainian photographers had told me I wouldn’t be label to shoot on certain days and times. Instead, I was thanked for shooting. The idea behind the thanks was that at the most holy times, they can’t use electronics. But, as a non-Jew, I could, thus documenting a time that they were unable to. Moreover, I was encouraged to continue documenting Hasidic life back in NY with the thought that it is interesting to them to see what an outsider found interesting. I find that to be an insightful point of view.

    In summary, I found them to be open, friendly,and generous. By no means am I promoting their religious practices. Like I said, I’m a catholic. But, I found them to be enthusiastic, joyous, and pious. Should I not show what I found because it was overall very positive? Should I have searched for negative? I guess what I want to say is that while you may not find a search for meaning in the work, this is the meaning I found. After doing the work, what I found is that now, back in NY, when I have an encounter with an Orthodox Jew, I have a different outlook. Instead of seeing a closed off, mysterious culture, I see the prayers, I hear the song, and I see them for what they are – a complex culture like any other, a culture that has positives and negatives as far as what would work for me, a culture with good and bad people like any other.

    I hope you take another look with my comments in mind.

  3. Well, I have mixed feelings about my comment as well. The best theory I’ve heard for why some people are religious and others are not says its a genetic trait. Have no idea if that’s true, but it would explain a lot.

    For example, it would explain why this, which is like pretty much any much any religious pilgrimage to pray to some kind of demigod for special favors in this world, strikes me as just plain silly, if not just a grift, whereas it makes perfect sense to many, if not most. Then when you consider that Judaism is supposed to be monotheistic, yet is peopled with numerous super beings who can be called upon to perform magic in exchange for money, or sometimes just extreme flattery, it rises to another level of silliness. Not to pick on Judaism, as those things are true with pretty much all major religions, at least major branches of them. Catholics and their virgins and saints; same thing. And I consider anyone from any religion who thinks God is going to grant them super powers if people pray to them after they die is a religious nut. That’s taking it quite a few steps further than being a mere believer.

    Anyway, I’m not the least bit surprised that Orthodox Jews treat people kindly and that their culture has positives and negatives like any other culture. I lived in Midwood for several years, so they are not all that mysterious to me. Whether there’s something wrong with documenting only some good things in isolation when there are serious problems within a culture is an important question, and I tend to lean towards thinking it’s generally not a good thing, but each case is different. I wasn’t bothered by the lack of that here.

    My critique, really more of of a wish, is that we’d take a more anthropological approach to writing about these kinds of events. Neither negatively critical, nor uncritically positive, but with much more socio-historical context that finds larger meanings along with the smaller.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to imply that yours was in any way over the top. It’s well-written comes off as neutrally descriptive and is inline with generally acceptable journalistic practices. Overall, I like the photo essay and the story about the tensions with the townspeople and consider it a significant accomplishment.

  4. It’s good to have Burn back up. I don’t know if this happened all over, but here, yesterday, whether I tried to access from my computer online over my internet cable connection or from my iPhone over the AT&T signal, I got a “data base” error telling me the site could not be opened because the data base could not be accessed.

    As to the discussion above, I agree with both that the photograph of the pilgrim and the local is exceptional and tells a powerful story – not just about those two individuals, or the communities they come from, but about the relationships and divisions of different peoples, coupled with the ongoing struggle between mistrust and curiosity with the desire to learn and understand more.

    I enjoyed all the photographs and I learned something about the life of this particular people unfolding in this part of the world I did not know before.

    I was born into and grew up in the heart of a very tight religious community, but was raised in various enclaves of that community out in the non-believing where we had to interact with everybody else on common ground. I no longer hold to any faith but recognize the deep need for faith that underlies so much of humanity and I never challenge or criticize anyone’s belief up to the point where some turn their faith as weapon against me or others.

    Once closely exposed to other ways of life, most people, even true believers, seem to be able to rise above their prejudices and to accept others. Not all, as so much of the turmoil we now see not only in the world but even right here, in the United States of America, makes so painfully clear.

    I am struck by Mike’s comments about taking a more anthropological approach. Perhaps at one point in my life I saw it that way, and I still do pay attention to the anthropology and the journalism, but in my own work the spirit and feelings of those I work among means much more to me. There are plenty of good anthropologists out there to do the anthropology. Plenty of journalists, too, though I most often find journalistic coverage of those I know best to be shallow and superficial and to fall back on mainstream tropes. Not always. But most often.

  5. I suppose this should not bother me—I’m a big boy now, after all, and on a scale of one to ten of life’s little annoyances this should not even register as a blip—but I am not sure when Christian eschatology became an appropriate subject for men’s room graffiti. I am a firm advocate of the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech and religion, but I also believe that there is a time and a place for everything, and reading that ‘THE END IS NEAR’ while I am standing in front of a urinal relieving myself is, to my mind, neither the time nor the place for such a message. At such a time, I do not want to think deep thoughts about the Day of Judgment nor do I wish to pass the time it takes to pass water contemplating my sins; I simply want to finish the business at hand and get out of the men’s room, especially the men’s room that is the star of this particular screed, which is unnecessarily noisome, even by the very low standards that most people judge rest rooms by. If I didn’t absolutely positively no—two—ways—about—it did not need to use this rest room, I wouldn’t, but nature has its own purposes, as it is wont to do, and while I am attending to those purposes I do not wish to think about eschatology or the soteriological train of thought that inevitably arises from it.

    This was not always the case, of course. In the history of Christianity, there are any number of great theologians who have thought their greatest thoughts while attending to the necessary. The great fourth century heresiarch Arius, unless he was the great fifth century heresiarch Arius—I’m not sure if I’ve got the right dates here—first thought that Jesus was not consubstantial with the Father while sitting in the men’s room, and no, I don’t have any idea what Arius was talking about, either. Understanding the details of his theology was apparently not a requirement, as Arianism became wildly popular without anyone really knowing what Arius was going on about. Arius was sort of like the Stephen Hawking of the fourth (or fifth) century; everyone bought his books but no one really read them. But fashion rules all, as someone much smarter than me once said, and back in the day everyone who was anyone wanted to be an Arian, and so Arius started spending a lot of time in the men’s room trying to think of the next big theological thing. This was unfortunate, because one day while Arius sat doing his business and thinking deep thoughts about the nature of the Trinity, some non-Arian Christian—I have not ascertained whether this person was Orthodox, Catholic, miaphysite, or Nestorian in his theological orientation—ventilated Arius’ guts from below with a sword. Besides being an extremely painful and more than a little embarrassing way to die, one cannot help but wonder how the assassin knew which of the rumps above his head belonged to Arius. All human faces are different, but everyone’s backside looks pretty much the same. There are differences in size and shape, of course, but the basics don’t really vary that much. Butts are butts.

    Martin Luther was another habitué of the theological outhouse, a man who suffered from such severe chronic constipation that he tore Western Christendom apart trying to relieve the gastrointestinal pressure on his body and soul. Why Luther suffered from such chronic constipation is lost now to medical science: as an Augustinian friar he may have suffered from the poor monastic diet—bread, water, and wine do not a balanced diet make, no matter how positively biblical this trinity might otherwise appear—and so it is not difficult to imagine that Luther’s guts revolted when confronted with the occasional bratwurst. Indeed, given the vehemence of Luther’s denunciations, it is not difficult to imagine that Luther found Johann Tetzel’s selling papal get out of purgatory bubble gum cards less objectionable than the lack of a strong laxative in Tetzel’s peddler’s sack. Getting out of purgatory is all well and good, but it is sometimes difficult to contemplate the mysteries of the divine when your guts are in a knot. Something had to give, and in 1517, something finally did; Luther posted the 95 Theses, beginning the Protestant Reformation. Whether the Reformation did anything for Luther’s need to relieve himself is still a subject of debate among historians and gastroenterologists.

    Still, the most interesting of the restroom theologians was, to my mind, St. Edwin of Nobbish, an English saint who wanted to be a desert hermit like Simeon Stylites, an Egyptian saint who lived on top of a pillar for forty years to demonstrate his piety. This posed a bit of a problem for St. Edwin, given the lack of suitable pillars, posts, and deserts in his native England, but not one to give up easily, Edwin compensated by standing on top of a chamber pot on one foot while he contemplated the nature of free will. St. Edwin, an otherwise orthodox Catholic theologian, held the view that God must exist simultaneously at all levels of possibility, in what happened and what did not happen, reconciling, he thought, the question of free will with the omniscience of God. The Church found his theory more than vaguely heretical, but could not come out and say so without denying the omnipotence of God, which is not vaguely heretical at all; it’s the real thing. People who know about such things tell me that while St. Edwin of Nobbish’s theory may not be entirely orthodox theology, it is fairly good string theory, and that the story that he died because he turned an ankle and fell off the chamber pot he’d stood on for fifty-two years and cracked his skull is exactly that, a story. St. Edwin died in the late 1340’s, yet another victim of the Black Death that killed nearly half of the population of Europe.

    It also occurs to me that the graffito ‘The End is Near’—remember ‘The End is Near’, it’s what I was complaining about before I wandered off into the tangles of Christian theological history, for which digression, I must beg your pardon; I know I shouldn’t go off-topic but sometimes I can’t help myself—that this might mean that the user’s end is near the urinal, in which case they are standing in the wrong stall. They should be sitting on the commode in the stall next to the urinal. This, though, sounds as farfetched as St. Edwin of Nobbish’s theory of simultaneous ubiquity. Why would someone who knows what a urinal is for attempt to use it while facing away from it? Even a woman compelled by necessity to use the men’s room would know better than to use a urinal in this fashion. So, whose end is near and why is this end in this particular urinal? I don’t know. What I do know is that there is a reason why tradition limits the subjects on men’s room walls to scatology, obscenity, profanity, slander, and sports, and this is it. No one wants to think about ultimate things while they are attending to the necessary. We just want to go.

  6. Long piece goes over like a lead zeppelin crashing down the stairway to heaven. Ah well, such is the scribbler’s lot, I suppose.

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