(This is a continuation. See "On to Uman" for the big picture, "Visiting the Holy Baal Shem" for the first part of the trip, and "From Mehzbehz to Uman" for the second part of the trip.)
Uman - Two Days to Go
For one week a year, thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people descend on this small city. We dump a few million dollars into the hands of the local inhabitants (and the mob) and then we leave. A group of about 15 of us associated with Bat Ayin decided to stay together. The first ones in found a suitable apartment. For the week, we each pay $100. As best we can figure, in the space of this week our landlord makes just a little bit less than his annual salary.
We come in from Bat Ayin, from Jerusalem, from Tzfat, from Sharon, MA. Some people I haven't seen in years. Smiles, handshakes, people keep coming in - via Odessa, via Kiev, weary from the road.
We take over the kitchen. Everybody brought something. Two big pots, coffee, tea, beans, rice, gourmet organic chocolate, dates, tuna, tuna, tuna, salami, salami, candied pecans, dried dates, almonds, peanuts, banana chips, sardines, wine, oil, spices. Locally we find tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, water. The beans go in to soak, the rice gets checked for bugs and stones, and I ask permission to leave, "I have some urgent prayer needs."
On the street. Pass through the local shuk - cheap toys, Russian hats, shoes, knick-knacks, Coca-Cola, water, what-not. Pass through the holy shuk - books, tzitzit, music, kosher food.
The real center of action is Rebbe Nachman's grave. You can't get next to the grave. Everybody here, tens of thousands of us, wants to get close to the grave. I squeeze in, find a place to stand, take out the pocket pamphlet Tikkun Clali (see "On to Uman") that came with my plane ticket. I have a list of people to pray for, but I figure it's like in an airplane - first you take care our your own Oxygen mask...then the mask of others...each in its time...
The history of Rosh Hashannah in Uman seems to be the history of more people than there is space to daven. Recently a huge building - "The Kloise" was erected. On the top floor, where the Ashkenazi minyan is, there is seating for 1600. Today, for Maariv, it is almost empty. The evening winds down.
Uman - The Day Before
Breslovers are fanatic about the day before Rosh Hashannah. Wake up call is about 3am. Slichot prayers go until just before sunrise. The Kloise in packed to overflowing (but will get even more packed later.) There's a custom to make a confession in front of the Rebbe's grave. The old who-am-I-talking-to question comes up again - am I praying to God in the presence of the Rebbe, or talking to the Rebbe in the presence of God? Either way, I stand in front of the grave and wring out my soul. There's a custom to give a little bit of charity, as a Pidyon Nefesh ("Soul Redemption.") In the holy shuk, some of the stands are dedicated entirely to collecting Pidyon Nefesh charity, and compete with each other over loudspeakers.
Back in the apartment, the cooking has begun. Bean stew and couscous. More friends stumble in. The apartment was only set up for 10 people, but who can turn away a friend? We find space for everyone.
You can't go into Rosh Hashannah without going to the mikva. In fact no one in Uman can go into Rosh Hashannah without going to the mikva. We all go to the mikva, tens of thousands of us. Luckily, the builders of the Kloise anticipated just this occurrence, and the Mikvas are spacious, modern, and packed to overflowing with men in various stages of undress. I've often wondered how this would look from the outside. How is it, the Ukrainian police man guarding the door must ask himself, that I have become a Mikvah attendant?
A touch of a nap, a trim of the nails, on with the Shabbos clothes, out on the street, an hour before sundown.
Uman - Rosh Hashannah
I find a space on the bench outside the Kloise. I can't hear the service, but I have a small space I can call my own. I pray, facing across the river, a river of tears.
Why did Rebbe Nachman come to Uman? He spoke about the thousands of Jews who had been massacred here, how his presence (and his death) would be a fixing for their souls.
The first evening of Rosh Hashannah is somber - by design. Breslovers speak very little. It's the beginning of a court case. The evidence is against you. You've come to be with the best lawyer. It's best if you keep your mouth shut.
We cast our best intentions into the coming year - a pomegranate, some dates, some fish, bean soup. Sleep.
The Kloise is packed. Packed. Every seat is taken. Every spot to stand is taken. The aisles are packed. The stairways are packed. If you leave a spot, it's gone.
It's all a metaphor for life. You stand in a certain spot for a while, then for some reason you move on - maybe you're no longer comfortable in that spot, maybe you need a different situation, maybe you just have a wanderlust. Once you leave, you can't return. It takes faith to pick up and move. You're left in between. Maybe someone leaves their old spot just as you pass, maybe you find a spot nobody noticed, maybe you see a friend and he makes room for you - somehow a spot opens up for you where you need to be.
I spend 9 hours wandering in prayer.
By the time we finish, get home, and eat lunch (more bean soup), it's time for the afternoon prayers...and tashlich. Tens of thousands of people file down to the river along narrow roads and paths. Staggering presence of humanity. Now we are all out here in the open, roaring, rumbling crowds. Breslover's clap and cry out (like a shofar) when they pray. The air of the valley vibrates.
For the evening meal, we make rice and fry salami and put some water into the bean stew to bring it back to life.
Second day Rosh Hashannah I'm at the sunrise Sephardi minyan at the grave. Askenazim put all sorts of additions into the Rosh Hashannah prayers that the Sephardim don't. I figure that the full service by the Sephardim will be about 4 hours. I didn't realize that this minyan is dominated by the newly religious. Hours of unstoppable-runaway-train singing, standing on chairs and desks and banging the wall, hours of excited banter and blessings. In any event we're done a good 3 or 4 hours before the Ashkenazim.
I'm comparing the two services - the old school Askenazi and the young Sephardi. I figure it's like this:
The king tells his servants to make a goblet in a particular way, and gives them wine to put into the goblet.
One group of servants study the king's command, develop a rich tradition of ornamentation that echoes and reflects the command of the king, take hours and hours creating the goblet in just the right shape, in just the right way. When the time comes to pour in the wine, some people are ecstatic, but most have left, fallen asleep, gotten bored, or forgotten that there is such a thing as wine at all.
The other group of servants also study the king's command. Their depth of comprehension is no less, but they set to making the goblet with little or no added ornamentation. Before they finish - someone opens a bottle of wine and starts pouring it into the goblet! Someone drinks it! Another person joins in! Now they're all drinking right from the bottle! When the goblet is finally finished, everyone has wine all over their shirts, but there's no wine left to pour in the goblet.
Interesting thing that most of the people who come out here to the Ukraine are Sephardi.
Second day lunch. I'm aiming for fish and salad, but if you'd like there's still some bean soup...
Breslovers love to talk to God. The Rebbe teaches to pour out your heart to God like you're talking to a friend. It's a conversation, it's a meditation, it's called 'hitboddedut', and it's best done in a private place. Uman is famous for having a world class place for hitboddedut - Sophia Park.
I come to an overlook into the park and it's huge and beautiful and calling my name. I wind my way down to the entrance. Some Jews are sitting on the benches outside, and I walk past them and into the gate, and a woman puts her hand out, 1 dollar, but it's Rosh Hashannah!, I turn out my pockets, and a policeman turns up to stand in front of me, and I turn around.
Luckily there's an undeveloped piece of land nearby, and this is clearly the Jewish park, every few trees there's a Jew pouring out his heart, and I pace and talk and pace and pray and pace and gesticulate and pace and wonder and pace and pour out my pain and pace and sigh and pace and smile and pace and sing.
It's late afternoon. The gates are closing. I go back to the grave for one more Tikkun Clali.
Uman - And Home
Night hits and - Bam! - we're off. Our plane is scheduled to leave Odessa in the middle of the night. Quick! Pack! Where's my passport? You're leaving later, can you take care of the dishes? Thank You, and good too see you, and here's a word to remember each other by. Bus? Taxi? Van. Buy water, on the road, through the night, drifting in an out of dreams, rolling along a Ukrainian highway.
Odessa, police, mob, standing in a parking lot in the chilly evening, Israelis arguing with Ukrainians in no common language. Finally in the airport, no clear order, no computers, bag searches by hand, plane tickets like bus tickets, no particular seats, long wait, now late into the night. On a bus, up a staircase, on the plane, asleep, awake, dreaming awake. They drop food in front of us just as the fast is about to come in...
We return to Israel just after sunrise, pray in the baggage claim. A van takes us back to the hallowed hills of Bat Ayin...
Looking Forward, Looking Back
What am I carrying from Uman? What stays with me?
Somehow, somehow, only with God's help, I'm carrying a vision for the year and a huge reserve of strength. It's different than any other Rosh Hashannah.
People ask if I'm becoming a Breslover. I'm not entirely sure what that means. I tell them I'm becoming myself.
People ask me if I'll go back. I smile and shrug.
I think I'll be back.