06 October 2005

Visiting the Holy Baal Shem

Night Flight

Stowing beans and pots and gefilte fish and sardines and salt and rice and tomato paste and dates and dried pineapple and tehina and wine and bread and song and longing and prayers and hope.
Airport rolling with Chassidim heading to Uman.
Run into a familiar face - to Uman? No - to LA. Can you mention my name in Uman?

Carrying a list of names to mention, a handful of coins to give, a letter to deliver.

Odessa and on

At the foot of the stairway out of the plane, they set up a tent. Everyone passes through. In the pre-dawn, two men in very Russian looking military attire examine our passports with grim expressions. :STAMP: They pack us on to a circa 1970 Soviet Bus and drop us into a parking lot.

Too many people to bother with procedure, they back up trucks full of luggage and just unload them into the parking lot. Thousands of people are coming in for Rosh Hashannah, and we are pushing the Ukrainian infrastructure to its limits. A good few hundred of those thousands are milling around this parking lot, searching for luggage, praying the morning prayers, digging warm clothing out of their bags, scratching together breakfast, waiting for the buses that will take us 4 hours north to Uman.

When the buses come, people chase them around the parking lot, desperate to get a guaranteed seat. When a bus stops it's a mad rush - I'll load the luggage! Grab some seats! No these are taken! Yes, all of them are taken! Don't sit there! Is this your luggage in the aisle? Can you turn off the music? Here comes a policeman, get out of the aisle, sit on my lap!

The bus starts moving and we are sleeping our way up the highway for hours.

When we pull into the unloading point in Uman, the Ukrainian police, who look every bit like what you would expect Ukrainian police to look like, even down to the dogs, are at the bus doors checking our passports again. But we're about to leave their world, and when we see them again, they look to us like cartoons, bewildered.

Up the hill we go - hundreds dragging luggage up dirt paths. The locals comes out with carts and trolleys. Up a hill around the corner and the air is charged. It's a festival - loudspeakers, music, a crossroads of craziness, familiarish faces I never expected to find in this place.

We'll come back to Uman - but it's on to Mehzbehz for Shabbos. How can we get to Mehzbehz? Where can be drop our bags? A friend pops out of the crowd and points us to the place we're staying. A friend of a friend pops out of the crowd and asks if we're interested in going to Mehzbehz. Drop off, repack, out the door, on the mini-bus, on the road.

On the mini-bus, I see a friend I never thought to see. "We've been waiting here for hours to fill this bus," he tells me, "now I know that we were waiting for you!"


Three hundred years ago, Judaism was on the rocks. It had gone cold. Erudition was the coin of the realm, but the vast majority of the populace was simple, disenfranchised. What would God want with the service of a simple person like me?

Reb Yisrael Ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, came into this cold world like a flaming coal. He taught that every person has a way to connect to God that no other person has. He taught that the prayer of the person who swept the streets was as precious, maybe more precious, than the prayer of the scholar. He reopened the gates of prayer, of song, of stories, of joy, of dancing.

We're going to Mehzbehz, were the Baal Shem Tov lived and is buried.

The Ukraine looks like Vermont - farmland and farm stands, leaves turning. Big ugly metal communist era signs at the entrance to every town in Cyrillic, Cyrillic, Cyrillic. A Mercedes passes a horse drawn wagon. Cows and chickens roam the side of the road. There are no strip malls, no conspicuous capitalism.

We stop at a restaurant to buy some water and use the bathroom. Dollars do us no good here. The local currency is the Unpronounceable, trading at roughly 5 to a dollar. The bathroom is the smelliest of outhouses - a hole in a concrete floor. We wash our hands with the water we bought.

Before coming to the Ukraine, I got a debriefing about the water.
"We'll need to buy water."
"We can't drink the tap water?"
"No, we can't drink the tap water."
"I'll just bring a filter."
"A filter won't help. We'll buy water."
"Filter won't help? I have a good filter, takes care of all sort of stuff."
"A filter won't help you with this water."
"What's wrong with it?"
"It's radioactive."
"We'll buy water."

We're not very far from Chernobyl.


Just outside of Mehzbehz, we stop at a fish market - a full quarter kilometer of fish - dried, fresh, in the open, chasing flies, hanging, laid out, faces of natives from behind the fish, unblinking, in the shell, never had a shell, live, dead with mouth agape, fins, scales. A few fish find their purpose in honoring the holy Shabbos.

Mehzbehz is a tiny little town, a hamlet, a village.

Houses are small, roads are sometimes paved, dogs roam the streets, horses pull wagons. How out of place! A square, a two story building - Jerusalem stone? Jews falling out of all manner of car. A Russian flea market - hats and dolls and trinkets. A shul, a soup kitchen, a small place for guests to stay, the graveyard where the Baal Shem Tov is buried...

A woman makes her living here translating between Hebrew and Russian. She finds a place for the lot of us. We follow our new landlady down a dusty road and up another. Our accommodations are luxurious - covered in oriental rugs and antiques - and primitive - no running water. The well and outhouse are out back with the chickens, newborn kittens, and dog.

I go to the Mikvah and then to visit the grave site of the holy Baal Shem. Immediately I'm wrestling - who do I address my prayers to? To God, of course. But how do I acknowledge the presence of the Baal Shem Tov? I'm not used to their being two presences. These questions become a constant refrain over the course of these days. I pray to God that I not make mistakes in his honor.

The Baal Shem Tov is buried among a host of his students and descendents, including Reb Wolf Kitzes, Reb Baruch of Mehzbehz, The Degel Machanei Ephraim, and The Ohev Yisrael - Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt. I ask those buried here for permission to tell their holy stories...

Shabbos morning we walk out of the main square, down a road, and to the left, and another left, and right, and around and into the Shul where the Baal Shem Tov prayed.

Strong. Rich. An upwelling. A soaring.

I don't want to leave the place. I stay for a long time after davening, after most people have left, just walking around the place, warm, talking to God, praying, learning.

I leave slowly, wanting to savor it, wanting to let the presence of this place settle in my soul. I walk out while facing in, paying attention to the wood, the windows, the books, the beams, the light, and to the Mezuzah that testifies to the presence of God in this place...


MC Aryeh said...

What was the presence of the place that made you want to linger? Can you define it?

Do you have a better sense of the Baal Shem?

My favorite line: "I ask those buried here for permission to tell their holy stories..."

I want to hear them all. Waiting with great anticipation for the further adventures of 'laizer in Uman...

'laizer said...

It's not easy for me to put it into words.

During davening, I felt like I was present. It was not that I was singularly focused in prayer. Though the focus was good, there were times of distraction.
It's that I somehow felt like my whole self was there, like each piece of me showed up and was accepted, and we all sang and danced together with love.
There were places in the shul that as I walked in to them I was moved to pray, to spontaneously call out.

I didn't want to leave. When I found out that my traveling companion didn't want to leave eaither, I was relieved, and we stayed for an hour or more.

Did I get a better sense of the Baal Shem Tov? Maybe. It's all still bubbling through. To be in his place, to pray where he prayed, to stand in front of his grave, maybe to feel the touch of his presence.

Whatever it was, it wasn't intellectual....

A Simple Jew said...

I agree with MCAryeh. I look forward to reading more of your adventures.

I know what you mean about Medzhebuz and being by the kever of the Baal Shem Tov and his grandsons, I had the privilidge of visiting there in 2001 during my trip to Ukraine.

I wrote a little about it here:

A Simple Jew said...

...one more thing. I just added a link to your site on my blogrolling list. :)

torontopearl said...

Thank you for giving us glimpses into this phenomenal experience/trip. I LOVE the way you've depicted everything with the brief, staccato-like sentences.
I hope that all your prayers will be answered and I wish you a g'mar chatimah tovah.

yitz said...

Thanks for sharing this with us, Laizer! My son just returned from his second visit to Uman, though he has yet to make it to Medzibuzh. I hear echoes of some of his stories in some of yours!

The Rav of my shul, Rav Gershon Kitzes, is a direct descendant of Rebbe Zev Wolf Kitzes [he has a son Zev], and has a picture of himself davening in between the Tzion of the Baal Shem & R. ZW Kitzes! Awesome!

I noted from your profile that you like both Modzitz and Carlebach music, which makes two of us! In fact, you might find my blog, "Heichal HaNegina", worth visiting - and of course, all comments are welcome!

In addition, please daven for today's Modzitzer Rebbe, who after composing 19 new niggunim for Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur, has been hospitalized in Tel-Aviv for the last 2 weeks, in very serious condition. His name is Rebbe Yisrael Dan ben Rivka Zlata, and more about his condition can be found on my blog, or at modzitz.org

yitz said...

PS - I found out about your blog from our mutual friend, A Simple Jew! Thanks, SJ!!!

Rachel Tova said...

What a beautiful experience and expression of your journey. As everyone else wrote... I too am looking forward to the next entry about your trip. If this was only the first day, I can't imagine what the rest of the week brought to you!

I also have to say that I was especially moved by what you wrote in the comments. What a beautiful thing to feel completely present, with your mind, body, and soul completely connected. May you be blessed with that feeling all year round!

'laizer said...

SJ - An awesome experience - thank you for sharing it. And thank you for blogrolling me; it's clearly made a difference.

TP - Thank you for the complement. May God bless you with perfect vision - soon! ;)

Yitz - Glad you enjoyed it. Has your son written out his stories? Are you planning to make the trip? Thanks for the links - it sounds like I'll dig your blog.

Everybody - daven for the Modzitzer Rebbe.

Rachel - Thanks for stopping by, and Amen to the bracha!