As I wrote here, I am quite interested in the stories of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht) and other parts of the Hasidic and Jewish mystical traditions. I also enjoy the stories of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great grandson of the Besht.
I am sure most of my Israeli readers and most of those who have visited Israel will be familiar with the ‘Na Nachs’, the lively, off-shoot of Nachman Hasidism. Wearing their memorable woven white kippot, they drive around in colourful vans on missions of haftza. They dance to techno and trance music, upon which has been recorded their slogan: “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’uman”.
I first encountered the Na Nachs in person during my Once In A Lifetime trip to Israel last summer. I was having a strangely magical afternoon already. While waiting to meet for my friend Elan Miller on Ben Yehuda Street, I popped into a bookstore. I bought myself a book about the IDF volunteer scheme called Sar-El. I sat down outside to read it and a woman sitting next to me on a bench introduced herself and told me she was a Sar-El regular featured in the book.
Elan and I enjoyed a glorious shawarma and he then popped into a nearby synagogue to pray. While I waited outside (he had invited me in but I felt it appropriate to wait until he had finished praying) the Na Nachs pulled up. Straightaway they put a huge smile on my face and it is no exaggeration to say that they changed my life forever.
I’ve never witnessed such joy and love emanating from a group of people. They danced out of their van, set up a stall and danced around it as their trance music pumped out. They smiled at all who passed by, and offered the most beautiful of hugs to anyone who wanted one. It was lovely to watch them and to watch the effect they had on passers-by. Some gleefully joined them for a dance and a hug, others moved from a frown, to a reluctant smile, to an un-reluctant smile and moved upwards from there.
I had a lovely chat with the Na Nachs. I still read the books they gave me and listen to the music they gave me to this day. The books are particularly great, but every time I think of the Na Nachs I feel happier.
I understand that a lot of people disapprove of them. I am not Jewish so I make no claim on how representative they are or should be of any aspect of the faith. I know their habit of stopping their van in traffic to dance around on the road can be infuriating and dangerous. Jerusalem traffic is hardly a joy at the best of times.
But joy and light is what they gave to me when I met them. As I read their writings, follow their fascinating, uplifting website and so on they continue to do so. The video below is one of my favourites. This is when they took their haftza all the way to the north of Israel during the 2006 defensive war against Hezbollah. Watching them giving such love and fun to the IDF soldiers and the besieged northern communities warms my heart.
I do love them. Long may they dance.