Rabbi Nachman was such a profound presence that his followers did something unique. They decided to stay together as a group committed to his teachings, but without a Rebbe. A Chassidic dynasty built on ideas rather than people. This concept was so dissonant to the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe that they called the Breslover Chasssidim the "toite Chassidim" the "dead Chassidim." The Breslovers themselves have seen Rabbi Nachman as being very much alive spiritually, in accordance with the Talmudic dictum that "the Tzadddikim are greater after their death than in their lifetime" (Chullin 7b). Breslover Chassidim still refer to Rabbi Nachman as "the Rebbe," studying his writings and endeavoring to follow his teachings in their day-to-day lives. In this sense Rabbi Nachman is still the leader of Breslover Chassidim.
In the years since Rabbi Nachman's death, the Breslover movement has grown throughout the world, with the main centers being New York and Israel. Institutions include synagogues, yeshivot for all ages, kollelim (post yeshiva learning institutions), and numerous communal social and aid facilities.
Rabbi Nachman was insistent that his followers should come to Uman to celebrate Rosh Hashana. This request has been honored through the years since his death, although it has been tempered by political considerations which have caused fluctuations in the numbers attending. In recent times visits were stopped by World War II and then Uman was made virtually inaccessible by the Soviets. When the Iron Curtain came down in l989, a couple of hundred Breslovers came from Israel. The numbers have increased dramatically since then. More on the numbers later.
So I, a guy from Beverly Hills whose first Rebbe was Edgar Magnin and who has been through some religious changes since that time, found myself drawn to Uman this past Rosh Hashana. Why? This is a question asked of me by people I met in Uman as well as friends and acquaintances since I came back. To the first person who asked me in Uman I replied, without really considering the reply, "Because Rabbi Nachman wanted me to come." I must admit that I was quite surprised with the immediate acceptance this answer elicited. So much so, I decided that there was probably something to it, especially as it continued to play well. And all the more when, a couple of months after my return, I found myself strolling home from shul with a Rabbi I know and actually rather like despite his sharp tongue. I told him I had been to Uman for Rosh Hashana, and perhaps the third question out of his mouth was why I had gone there. "Because Rabbi Nachman wanted me to go," I said.
"Oh," he said, "does Rabbi Nachman talk to you often?"
"I didn't say that he talked to me," I said, "I just said he wanted me to go."
Which brings us back to the numbers. How many people usually feel so summoned? For some reason many Breslovers like to think big and bandy about numbers in the 7,500 range, but I did my own reckoning and came up with number closer to 4,000. I checked out my calculations with the webmeister of the Friends of Breslov internet site (http://www.breslov.com) whom I happened to have met at the airport in Kiev on my way back from Uman. He pretty much concurred. Still, that is a lot of people to descend upon a town of 100,000, and especially one without a convention center or even a Holiday Inn.
As a matter of fact, the logistics of this pilgrimage are quite impressive. There is a Breslov Vaad in Israel that coordinates the arrangements. This includes charter and group flights from Israel and New York (probably eighty-five percent of the participants come from Israel) and bus transportation from either Odessa or Kiev. Uman is about half way, or one hundred and ten miles either way, between Odessa and Kiev. At forty passengers per bus we are talking about one hundred bus loads. Then there is matter of lodging and feeding the multitudes.
The duration of the stay in Uman is quite short. The idea is to go to Uman for Rosh Hashana....period. It is almost a matter of pride among Bresslover Hassidim as to how little time one can spend in the journey. This year the holiday fell on Saturday and Sunday. Most people arrived on Wednesday or Thursday (as did I) and started leaving Sunday night and Monday. I stayed on until Tuesday, by which time there were few people left.
Local citizens who live near the synagogue move out of their apartments and houses and stay with friends or relatives. They put three or four beds in each room and rent them out for $5 - $10 per night per bed. In this way they accumulate several months rent at the lower rates they pay. The houses and apartments are spare and I was struck by the lack of appliances or gadgets. The Vaad acts as a registry for lodging.
The Vaad has also taken over a former factory and turned it into a dining hall. Sit-down meals are served over Yom Tov. On the days before and after there are tuna fish sandwiches, fruit and vegetables available in abundance. The quality of the Yom Tov meals is quite good and the beef is schected (ritually slaughtered) locally. The dining hall seats close to 3,000, but it is also possible to get "take out," which is the same meals packed in bulk. Many people who travel together take advantage of this service so they can dine where they are living. It is especially handy if they have a teenage boy in their party whom they can send down to pick up the food (this seems a good time to mention that this pilgrimage is strictly for men.) People also bring a lot of their own food for some of the following reasons: (a) to be able to eat something other than tuna fish sandwiches before and after Yom Tov. (b) to supplement the Yom Tov meals or (c) because they would rather eat home cooking altogether. Many people bring their own water, mostly because they have the idea that Chernobyl (which is 150 miles away, north of Kiev) has contaminated the local water, and that if they drink it they will glow in the dark.
The Shul, built by the Vaad only three years ago and already falling to ruin (not through any fault of the Vaad but rather because it is classic Soviet construction), seats 1,700 people. Another three hundred people stand in the aisles. Outside on both sides of the shul there are benches and the windows are kept open ...about four hundred people sit on each side. Then about five hundred people daven at the Tzion (the site of the grave of Rebbe Nachman). This gives us 3,200 and the remaining eight hundred or so gather for various "private" minyonim.
The Vaad placed me at what appeared from the outside to be a charming cottage at 32 Pushkin Street. Pushkin Street is the main street of the activities that comprise Rosh Hashana in Uman. Inside, the house had simple furniture and extra beds in the one bedroom and the living room. I had a "room" more or less to myself. It was the vestibule and the main venue into the two other rooms. During low traffic hours it had a certain sense of privacy. There were various kinds of bugs resident in the house, most of which were beyond the grasp of my humble knowledge of entomology, although I did recognize the cockroach. The plumbing arrangements command attention. There is a toilet with no seat. One is enjoined from placing toilet paper in the toilet, there is a special bin for that. And then the toilet does not flush in the way that Americans normally think of how a toilet flushes. Rather there is a large cauldron of water with a bucket which one fills and then empties into the toilet to flush it. Sometimes the flushed toilet seems to enter into a drain and sometimes it seems to rise up in the adjacent bath, which is a bit off-putting in terms of personal hygiene.
It was the job of our landlord, who repaired with his family to the garage while we stayed in his house, to replenish the cauldron, empty the toilet paper bin and take care of the bath when the sewer didn't do its job. This may have been why the landlord and his family seemed intoxicated during all of their waking hours.
I assumed that my housemates were typical pilgrims. They were: Mordechai, a first grade Rebbe from Flatbush, Avraham, a kollel learner in Jerusalem, Yitzi, from Far Rockaway, an internet consultant and his father, Yehuda, who was in the business of manufacturing motion platform simulator rides (you figure that one); Leo, who learns at kollel in Jerusalem and his ten year old son, and Yaakov, who also learns at kollel in Jerusalem.
You have probably heard of the "Mafia" in Russia. The Russian Mafia is not a bunch of Sicilians who decided to go north and ply their trade in the stepes, but rather Russians who emulate Sicilians through protection and extortion. This exists throughout the former Soviet Union and the Ukrainians are actually quite good at it. In order for the Uman experience to work, the Vaad was obliged to hire a unit of Ukrainian paratroopers to maintain a presence for the purpose of protecting the Jews from the Mafia. The irony of the situation was not lost on the paratroopers whose affect was appropriately dour and humorless. Still, there was a sense of comfort in their presence.
I HAVE TOLD YOU about Rabbi Nachman and I have tried to give you a flavor of the lifestyle of the visitors to Uman. What is it like to actually daven in Uman with 2,800 people.
The services started at 6:30 A.M. and went until 3:30 P.M. But it did not seem long. There was an intensity which can perhaps best be explained by the number of people who were involved in davening. Look at it this way: Say that the average minyan anywhere else in the world, on an average Rosh Hashana day, at an average size shul, is one hundred and fifty. No matter how devoted and frum these people are, let us say that probably at any given moment ten percent are davening with complete kavana. So you have fifteen people around you that are really with it. That's good. Up the ante to 2,800 and now you are in an energy field with two hundred and eighty people pouring out their hearts to Ha Melech (the King) at any given moment during the nine hours of davening. If you consider that the time spent davening Rosh Hashana in Uman is probably fifty percent longer than most Rosh Hashana davening, then you could say that this is a twenty-eight fold (280 15 = 18.67 x 1.5 = 28.1) increase in what you would get if you stayed at home and that doesn't include the X factor.
The X factor goes like this: Everyone prepares for Rosh Hashana in the month of Elul. Each person does so in a way that is unique, but there are certain themes which are universal and one of those is that people examine the role of gashmius (the material) and ruchnius (the spiritual) in their lives, usually with the aim to increase the latter at the expense of the former. Those people who go to Uman have another layer of clarity as they make travel plans and logistical arrangements for being away from home. Once in Uman one's focus tends to get to be almost pure ruchnius. The beds are adequate but not comfortable. The food is good but not delicious. The weather is raw. One will not have the inspiration of one's wife. (It is probably true that many, if not most, men of leave the ruchniustic aspect of their lives in the care of their wives. It sort of gets taken care of along with the laundry.) The X factor therefore is that high degree of ruchnius which is the real payoff to making the trip and which, when combined with the twenty-eight fold increase in kavana, makes for the aforementioned givaldik spiritual experience.
If the X factor sounds a bit to fuzzy, how about this: About 3,000 men shouting at the top of their lungs "Y'hei Shmei rabba" when Kaddish is said. My first impression was that this was no more than interesting, a bunch of fellows finding a way to let off some steam, until I read recently that the Gemora tells us that: " When someone responds 'Amein, Y'hei Shmei rabba mevorach' with all his might (e.g., his full concentration), they rip up his evil decree" (Shabbos 119b). In the still silence following this mighty roar it is almost possible to hear the paper shredders in the Heavenly Court.
My wife has just peered over my shoulder at the computer screen and she has a complaint in regards to this article. It goes like this: She says that when I came back from the trip and told her about it, I spoke in terms of spirituality and told her that it was the first time that I had ever had such an experience. Now she thinks that I should try to convey some of this feeling. I was going to ask her for some hints, but the bell on the dryer is ringing and she has to change a load in the washing machine, so I am left on my own.
I have not mentioned the little boys. Another dictate of Rabbi Nachman concerning Rosh Hashana in Uman was that fathers should bring their sons before the age of eight. He felt that this would make an important impression on the lads. So it is that many fathers make an effort to bring their sons in their seventh year. These boys are absolutely and without exception amazing. They come to davening and sit still (relative to how still anyone can be over such a long period of time), they are tuned to what is happening most of the time. Nor do they kvetch, nor do they run around. They also have a great deal of attention from their fathers. It is a wonder to behold.
SO THERE one is. Surrounded by close to 3,000 Jews who have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles for no other reason than to fulfill the wishes of a Rabbi who has been dead for almost two hundred years. Friends, strangers, fathers with their sons. And the wish of the Rabbi who has been dead for almost two hundred years is that these friends and strangers and fathers with their sons should dedicate themselves to Ha Melech, the King, that they should reach down into the depths of their souls and reach out to Hashem. Having made a difficult journey and having left their gashmius behind, that they should disregard their day to day concerns and cry out, and strive...without rushing, without an agenda, without concern for comfort...to connect fully with the out of touch ruchnius part of themselves.
It happens and it is a spiritual experience.
Copyright (c) 1997 Jewish Spectator; published quarterly, sponsered by the Center for Jewish Living and Values, a non-profit educational corporation, POB 8160, Calabasas, CA, 91372-8160, 818-591-7481, email JewishSpec@aol.com (Note: Jewish Spectator presents views from many perspectives, including reform, conservative and orthodox)