Checkpoints ring the city. Police officers with Kalashnikovs strapped to their chests block the roads.
Cars are searched. Documents are scrupulously checked.
Every year, at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, thousands of Hasidic Jews converge on the small city of Uman, in central Ukraine, to throw a big party. The war hasn’t changed that — this Rosh Hashana the crowds are expected to be even bigger than they have been in years. And security is tight.
Ukraine’s airspace has been closed to civilian traffic since the war began, so for the past few days, from Moldova, Poland, Hungary and Romania, throngs of men in long black coats and stiff black hats have been pouring across Ukraine’s borders, defying travel warnings — as they did last year — to stay away.
The draw? To worship at the grave of a famous rabbi who was full of life and died in Uman more than 200 years ago.
This rabbi, Nachman of Breslov, a town near Uman, celebrated happiness. He said that expressing joy — vibrant, exuberant joy — was a way to get closer to God. His followers believe that by praying (and partying) in Uman on the Jewish New Year, they will secure blessings for the next 12 months.
So they pump Klezmer music. They grab each other and dance arm and arm in the streets. They drink wine and hang out with their buddies — hundreds of buddies.
Uman’s officials said Thursday that they were ready for all this though they and other Ukrainian officials had tried to warn people from coming this year. More than 30,000 visitors, mostly from Israel and mostly men, are expected.
“It’s hard work,” said Zoya Vovk, a spokeswoman for Uman’s police. “Just look at the volume of people. And don’t forget: We are at war.”
She stood at a checkpoint wearing a freshly pressed uniform and blue baseball cap, her ponytail pulled through the back, eyeing the people streaming past. In the past, there has been some friction between worshipers and residents. But the event is also a huge moneymaker for Uman, bringing in tens of millions of dollars each year, so the city is reluctant to stop it.
The main activities begin Friday evening after sundown, but by Thursday afternoon the party had already started.
“Hey, wait up!” Israel Moyal, a photographer from Jerusalem, yelled to some friends who were disappearing into the growing crowd.
The sun beamed down, a breeze stirred the leaves in the trees and the smell of kosher pizza wafted through the air.
“We pray together, we dance together,” Mr. Moyal explained as he half-walked, half-jogged to catch up. “It’s the unity, man. It’s joy.”