TEL AVIV, Israel — If you've ever spent time in Tel Aviv, you've undoubtedly encountered the Na Nachs. Sighting a band of the Bohemian ultra-Orthodox Jewish group usually begins the same way.
First comes the unmistakable thump of electronic dance music. The sound grows louder as its source approaches: a brightly painted van, festooned with stickers and crowned with a pair of huge loudspeakers.
The van is full of grinning, bearded, long-haired men, mostly young, wearing an assortment of comfortable-looking clothing and white, tassel-topped yarmulkes. At intervals the van stops and the grinning men pour into the streets, dancing and twirling to the music.
A few decades old, this quirky, happy-go-lucky sect seems to be growing in numbers.
A sub-sect of Breslov Hasidism, Na Nachs follow the teachings of a Kabbalist mystic who lived 200 years ago in what is today Ukraine. His name, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, forms the basis of the arcane mantra they chant throughout songs and prayers and have printed on their yarmulkes: Na Nach Nachma Nachman, Meuman.
Nachman was seen as somewhat outlandish in his day, but as time went by, his followers became more conventional to avoid persecution. Rabbi Yisroel Ber Odesser — a now-deceased mystic who believed that Nachman sent him a note from heaven in the 1920s — revived the fundamentals of Breslov. For a while, he kept it to himself. But by the 1980s, he began picking up followers, and traveled around Israel teaching and distributing Rebbe Nachman’s books. Odesser died in 1994, but left behind money (from donations he had collected) to help print Rebbe Nachman literature. Today, traveling Na Nachs make up the rest with donations and at-cost book sales.
“People form splinter groups all the time,” said Barry Freedman, an American Na Nach who spent the better part of the 80s and 90s in Israel, often cruising around in Na Nach party vans to spread Rebbe Nachman’s teachings. “But eventually, they mellow out and someone else breaks away from the mainstream.”
Freedman has mellowed out, too. He left the itinerant lifestyle of a roving Na Nach and works as a telecommunications salesman in New York City’s Financial District. Now clean-cut, he teaches Rebbe Nachman classes once a week to Ukrainian immigrants in South Brooklyn. But Shaul Magid, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, said that without Israel’s cultural support, Na Nachs aren’t likely to thrive anywhere else.
Contrary to ultra-Orthodox Judaism’s typically conservative image — men wearing black hats and frock coats, women in long skirts, often surrounded by abundant offspring — joy-focused Na Nachs present a laid back vibe.
As a movement, Na Nach is emotional, anti-intellectual, non-hierarchical, and tends to attract a variety of what some consider social misfits. Many don’t have jobs and spend most of their time traveling around Israel in the iconic vans, dancing and selling Nachman books. There is really no standard for what defines a “typical” Na Nach.
The movement’s followers include people who grew up in Tel Aviv’s poor neighborhoods, former clubbers and punk rockers, ex-convicts, and guys who got out of the Israeli army, became Buddhists, and then decided to embrace Judaism. Some people drawn to Na Nach aren’t necessarily interested in becoming Na Nach, but are interested in Rebbe Nachman’s teachings.
“It’s a real Hasidic counter culture, comparable to Harikrishnas and American adaptors of Rastafarianism,” Magid said. “I think they’ve been a punching bag for a lot of groups because they’re not conventional.”
Other religious Jews tend to dismiss Na Nachs as a joke. And secular Israelis view them with a mixture of amusement, interest and mild annoyance. But Na Nachs believe in the spiritual validity of their joyous singing, dancing and praying, whether they’re doing in from a van or out in the forest.
Core beliefs include striving for constant happiness and performing hitbodedut, or praying to God intimately, as if conversing with a friend. The happiness factor makes many assume they’re on drugs (some of them were), as does the yelling into thin air that often accompanies hitbodedut.
Regardless of what others think of them, Na Nachs continue to attract new devotees, though their lack of hierarchy and structure mean that it’s difficult to obtain solid “membership” numbers. Like other Orthodox Jews, Na Nachs have a lot of children, so more and more young follwoers are being raised within the sect.
“Forty or fifty years ago, nobody was Breslov,” said Israel Blumenfeld, an American expat who has dedicated most of the past seven years to manning one of Israel’s fleet of Na Nach vans. “It’s pretty amazing to see the difference today.”