Machberes: Inside The Chassidish
And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
What happens in Uman does not stay in Uman. Rosh Hashanah events are relished and animatedly relived and retold by the tens of thousands of participants all year long. An otherwise sleepy backwoods village suddenly comes alive with tens of thousands of Jews from all streams of observant lifestyles intermingling. Many knitted colorful yarmulkes are seen amidst black hats, shtreimels, spudiks, and Yerushalmi knitted white yarmulkes (that look like sleeping caps with pom-pom tops), and almost every type of hat and head covering available.
This past Rosh Hashanah had a number of incidents that most would prefer to forget. In one incident, three Israeli police officers who were sent to Uman to help safeguard the estimated 35,000 expected there reportedly scuffled with locals while off-duty (allegedly in a bar). A fire caused extensive damage, according to Alexander Gorobech, a firefighter who was stationed in Uman on special deployment for Rosh Hashanah. He told the Ukrainian ICTV television news station that chassidim started the fire inside their rented apartment to have an indoor barbecue.
On erev Rosh Hashanah, September 24, Ukrainian police divers rescued a chassid who had fallen into a flooded quarry, using it as a mikveh, according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. The drowning man was unconscious when divers pulled him up from the water. Thankfully, he regained consciousness following emergency resuscitation procedures.
After Rosh Hashanah, representatives of the Uman Jewish community paid the city approximately $15,000 in fines for erecting an unlicensed tent city for Rosh Hashanah visitors. The payment was part of a compromise reached by city officials, the Rebbe Nachman International Charitable Foundation, and local activists who lobbied to have the tent city dismantled, according to Rabbi Shimon Buskila of the World Breslov Center. “There were legal issues with a tent city for 2,500 people, which we operate on Rosh Hashanah,” said Rabbi Buskila, who oversees Breslov’s visiting and permanent Jewish presence in Uman. This year’s Rosh Hashanah gathering was the first since the ousting of the government of Viktor Yanukovych in February. “The mayor was also replaced,” Rabbi Buskila said, “and the change in government has produced an eagerness to bust corruption and lawlessness. So activists targeted the tent city, which didn’t have all the necessary permits but didn’t bother anyone.”
The yearly gatherings create friction between visitors and locals, many of whom resent the special treatment and the cordoning off by police of neighborhoods for the visitors. Another issue is internal trade among the visitors, which some locals say eliminates the benefits that come with conventional tourism. On the other hand, Ukrainian business owners in Uman overcharge pilgrims as a matter of policy. While Ukrainian customers pay 70 cents for a dozen eggs, pilgrims are charged $10, according to several reports.
The city of Uman is located in central Ukraine, 170 miles from Odessa. Its current population is 87,000. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, a small but growing Jewish population in Uman has developed around the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, zt’l (d. 1810), on Pushkina street. The local Jews are mostly involved in the annual pilgrimages of Jewish tourists, as well as in optical machinery, a vitamin factory, a sewing factory, a footwear factory, and other industrial enterprises.
A large Jewish community lived in Uman in the 1700s and 1800s. In 1768, a Cossack Ukrainian uprising resulted in the massacre of as many as 20,000 Jews. From 1726 through 1832, Uman was owned by the Potocki family of Polish nobles. Avraham ben Avraham, zt’l Hy’d (1700–1749), the Jewish convert alongside whom the Vilna Gaon, zt’l (1720–1797), is buried, was Valentine Potocki of that Polish family of nobility.
Religions were suppressed after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Soviet regime made every effort to stifle Jewish religious life, and in 1937, after years of persecution, the authorities finally closed the Breslover synagogue in Uman, converting it into a metalwork factory. In 1941, the German army encircled Uman and “deported” the entire Jewish community, murdering more than 17,000 Jews. They destroyed the Jewish cemetery, including the burial place of the victims of the 1768 uprising as well as the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Rebbe Nachman was buried on October 17, 1810, having chosen to be in the old cemetery in Uman, amidst the massacred Jewish martyrs who had died al kiddush Hashem 42 years earlier.
After WWII ended, no one could even contemplate restoring the cemetery. Nevertheless, a few dedicated Breslover chassidim were able to find traces of two poles which had stood at the head and foot of Rebbe Nachman’s grave. When the local municipality commenced a housing development on the old cemetery grounds, the chassidim acquired the immediate property and a house was designed in such a way that its exterior wall would run alongside it. The grave was thus inconspicuously protected within the private yard of the house. The house became the home of a non-Jewish family, which has maintained residence there ever since.
The phenomenon of pilgrimages to the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman actually began immediately after his passing. After the Rebbe’s funeral that Sukkos of 1810, his chassidim returned to their hometowns. Rabbi Noson, zt’l (1780–1844), the leading disciple of the Rebbe, hired a carriage and journeyed from village to village collecting Rebbe Nachman’s followers for their first pilgrimage to the Rebbe’s resting place on Rosh Chodesh Shevat (January) 1811.
Since the early 1990s, thousands of chassidim have come to Uman to pray at Rebbe Nachman’s graveside on erev Rosh Hashanah. The number of pilgrims has been increasing from year to year. As noted, a number of chassidim have chosen to remain there all year long and have established homes and businesses there. This is in spite of Uman not necessarily having electricity and water available all day. Others have acquired high-rise condominiums and time-shares there.
For Shabbos Chanukah 5775, December 19–20, 2014, thousands of chassidim were in Uman. Mostly from Israel and Europe, a sizable number came from the United States. Traditionally, Breslover Chassidim gather in Uman three times a year, as instituted by Rebbe Nachman himself. They are Rosh Hashanah, Shabbos Chanukah, and Shavuos. After the passing of Rebbe Nachman, this tradition continued and is maintained by his chassidim to this very day. Of course, the pilgrimages for Rosh Hashanah are the most renowned.
The chassidim that came for Shabbos Chanukah were warmly received. Though the weather was bitter cold, the gravesite compound, including the separate facility for kohanim, was heated and all amenities were available. The mikveh complex, which is open all year, was fully functioning. For Rosh Hashanah, with the challenge of tens of thousands of men using the mikveh, difficulties always arise. The showers not having enough hot water is almost standard at that time. Sewage backup is just another of the many problems that arise.
However, for this Shabbos Chanukah, everything in the mikveh complex worked perfectly. The Uman health clinic that serves visiting chassidim was open full time, with a paramedic stationed there 24/7. Warm food was plentifully available before, during, and after Shabbos. The Ohalei Tzaddikim Hachnosas Orchim welcoming facility was fully staffed and supplied. In addition, the nearby facility sponsored by the Anshin brothers had its doors wide open. Simultaneously, the beis midrash had tefillos and shiurim all around the clock.
This year, for the first time, a trip was organized from Uman to the gravesite of the Rebbe’s daughter, Rebbetzin Sarah, a’h, and her ohel (mausoleum) has been repaired and upgraded. Rebbetzin Sarah passed away on the third day of Chanukah and is buried in Kremenchuk, 175 miles east of Uman, a four-and-a-half-hour bus ride away. Several of Rebbe Nachman’s students are also buried there. The trip was organized to leave Thursday afternoon. The local municipality had released its plan to build a neighborhood of luxury villas on the grounds of the old cemetery. The trip to the gravesite, in spite of the current political turmoil and present danger in Ukraine, was a demonstration indicating that the cemetery has not been forgotten. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.