Rosh Hashana 5777: The Uman Quest

Click here to access a video journal of my Uman trip!

In biblical times, there were three days each year on which all Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the Temple: Succos, Pesach, and Shavuos (together, the Shalosh Regalim; literally, “three legs”). A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then: the Temple no longer exists, Jews no longer offer sacrifices, and they are scattered across the globe. Nonetheless, there are three days in modern times when Jews the world over make a pilgrimage: Lag b’Omer (the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, and the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar), to the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (the “Rashbi”), located in Meron, Israel;  Gimmel Tammuz (the third day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz), to the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, located in Queens, New York, USA; and Rosh Hashana, to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, located in Uman, Ukraine. On these days, enormous celebrations occur to honor the life, teachings, and memory of each tzadik, with literally thousands of chasidim in attendance – learning, singing, dancing, praying. To date, I have been privileged to visit the Rashbi’s grave (albeit not on Lag b’Omer) and to spend a Gimmel Tammuz shabbos (and several Gimmel Tammuz weekdays) at the ohel of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. But there has been one grave that has eluded me. That is, until now. Join me as I link up with the Breslav chasidim and embark on what is sure to become a quest of a lifetime: a visit to the grave of Rabbi Nachman on Rosh Hashana 5777.  Na Nach Nachman!

The Arrival: I arrived in Uman late Thursday afternoon, September 29, 2016, to ensure that I would have ample time to orient myself to the surroundings and to settle in prior to shabbos. Even at that point, however, three days prior to the start of Rosh Hashana Sunday evening, van loads of Jews of every persuasion had already started to descend on Pushkina Street (the main thoroughfare leading to Rebbe Nachman’s grave) from Kiev’s Boryspil Airport (the closest international airport and about a three-hour drive from Uman):

The Atmosphere: Just down the road, where the Jewish section began, I encountered what could only be described as the largest Jewish festival I have ever seen. Makeshift booths, selling everything from Sim cards, to toys, to handicrafts, to religious articles, lined both sides of the street for about half a mile. Loudspeakers, both fixed and mobile, were blaring out Israeli and Jewish music, requests for Pidyon Nefesh, and suggestions as to where to stay or eat. I could not help but think that what I was witnessing and experiencing must be what life was like during the days of the First and Second Temple.  The achdus – fellowship, brotherhood, unity – was incredibly overwhelming:

The Accommodations: Accommodations in Uman typically consist of hostels, although tents and other options are not unheard of. I stayed at the Uman Inn, a Solarsh hostel managed by Breslev Israel, located at 25 Perovska Street, about a four minute walk from Rebbe Nachman’s grave. The inn is a gated property with guards at the entrance (I had to present my ID each time I entered) and contains three floors (no elevator), with two suites per floor. Each suite, in turn, contains three rooms with eight people per room housed in American-style bunk beds (of course, I was on the top floor, but at least had a bottom bunk!).  Each suite also has a kitchenette with a refrigerator, kitchen closets, table and chairs, and three bathrooms, one of which contains a shower. Free coffee, tea, and cake is provided 24/7 in a room next to the dining hall in the basement, and this particular hostel has its own mikveh. During each meal (which was quite sumptuous), a guest speaker (usually Rabbi Lazer Brody) would give a drash.

The Food: In Uman, obtaining kosher food was never a problem. Several fixed stores, including Israeli-style supermarkets, pizza shops, falafel stands, and the like, operate year-round and offer a wide variety of kosher food products. For those who stay in a hostel (there are really no hotels to speak of in Uman), meal plans for shabbos and yom tov are generally included. Meal tickets may also be purchased for dining at special facilities. For those who choose to stay elsewhere or who cannot afford meals, and during weekdays, free meals are available at several Hachnasas Orchim (guest welcoming) facilities, which serve delicious chicken, kugel, couscous, and soup (with drinks, hummus, Israeli pickles and salad, and pita on the table).  There is even free Starbucks coffee, tea, punch, and cookies  24/7:

The Joy: An essential element of Rosh Hashana in Uman is the experiencing of joy – the kind of joy that will, according to tradition, last until the next Rosh Hashana. Besides the inherent joy of being in Uman for Rosh Hashana with a multitude of fellow Jews, entertainment was plentiful at every level, whether a concert, dancing in the streets, or trying to see if you can hang on a bar for 90 seconds:

The Spirituality: In the end, though, the real focus of Rosh Hashana in Uman is praying, especially  at the Rebbe’s grave. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and the founder of the Breslover chasidic sect. Rebbe Nachman said that on Rosh Hashanah he was able to help people in certain ways that he simply was not able to the rest of the year (Tzaddik #406). He put so much stress on the importance of his Rosh Hashanah that he exclaimed, “My very essence is Rosh Hashanah!” (id. #403). Consequently, every year thousands of Jews leave their comfortable homes and make the journey to Uman to spend Rosh Hashana with the Rebbe. In this year, 5777, approximately 40,000 Jews attended. In the Kloyz, thousands of Breslover chasidim prayed, with Sephardim on one floor and Ashkenazim on another! There were several warehouses hosting minyanim, a separate tent hosting thousands of Israeli Sephardim, and numerous ad hoc minyanim filled the streets. In the Chabad tent, where I attended services, over 300 people prayed on shabbos and Rosh Hashana (none of the photos below were taken on shabbos or yom tov):

 Click here to access a video journal of my Uman trip!


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