Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
The Uman we know is part of Cherkasy oblast (province), central Ukraine, on the Umanka River. The first written mention of this city is in 1616. The origin of the name comes from the river Umanka. It dates from the Middle Ages and was incorporated in 1795. Mentioned in 1659 as a strongpoint, Uman was the seat of the wealthy Potocki nobility until 1834. In the late 17th century, it was an important fortress for protection against Crimean Tatar attacks on the right bank of the Ukraine. In 1768, the city was the scene of a Ukrainian peasant and Cossack uprising that resulted in a general massacre. Uman passed to Russia in 1793, during the second partition of Poland.
Uman is listed as an industrial center specializing in scientific instruments, with some engineering, food, and building-material industries. It has teacher training and agricultural institutes with an estimated population of 95,000. Nevertheless, like the many cities, towns, and villages around it, Uman remains for the most part a backward agricultural area.
The main tourist attraction is the Sophia Park, often referred to as “Sofiyivka.” It has been more than 200 years since the work of laying out this park commenced. Sofiyivka is one of the most beautiful parks in Europe, originally built by the leading architects and park engineers of Western Europe for one of the richest magnates of Poland, Count Potocki or, rather, for his Greek wife Sophia. Later, it was rebuilt to match the tastes of the new owners, the Imperial family of Russia. The park has happily survived the ravages of wars, revolutions, and neglect. Sofiyivka is a preserve and is spread over the territory of more than 300 acres on the outskirts of Uman.
Visitors are fascinated by the park’s wonderful landscapes, numerous sprinkling fountains, artificial grottoes, exquisite antique sculptures, and pavilion designs. The constructors created a sophisticated hydro-technical system, supplying water to the upper and lower park ponds, all its sites, and vast other areas. It is here that Breslover Chassidim and all Rosh Hashanah visitors converge for Tashlich. Tens of thousands of Chassidim come together to recite Tashlich at the water’s edge. Initially, Uman’s regular population assumed that the Tashlich event was actually some convention ceremony for doctors.
And Running Water
With an anticipation of more than 35,000 observant Jews arriving for Rosh Hashanah this year, organizers have gone to great lengths to make everyone as comfortable in Uman as possible. Many individuals have bought into several newly built timeshare condominiums. Some of the condominiums are categorized as luxurious in that they have tiled bathrooms and running water!
Organizers had to arrange and pay in advance for enough electricity for the duration of the High Holy Days. The influx of so many people that are accustomed to unrestricted usage of electricity and water is a real demand on Uman’s very limited resources. For instance, water ordinarily runs only three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening. Going to the bathroom, for bathing or otherwise, must be a scheduled event. During the week of Rosh Hashanah, at great cost, water runs day and night without interruption.
And Street Signs
Until the influx of Jewish visitors, no street or thoroughfare was identified. At a price, street signs have been arranged so that visitors will have some idea of where they tread. Just a few years ago, streetlights were an unimaginable luxury. Now, for the Jewish High Holy Days, streets are lit up through the entire night. In order to prevent tragedies, a staff of doctors has been arranged and retained by Hatzalah to serve throughout Rosh Hashanah. Again, the price tag is steep but necessary.
In addition, extra police personnel, including Israeli police working together, have been hired to provide enhanced security and protection. Petty thefts are common in Uman. Organizers realized what was needed to protect the possessions of visitors. Up until a dozen years ago, an arriving visitor would go looking for a wagon to carry his luggage to his sleeping quarters. However, when returning with a hand-truck or wagon, the luggage was usually long gone, never to be seen again. In response, security stations have been positioned where luggage may be left under guard until one’s arrangements are complete and luggage retrieved. A lost-and-found, too, has been established.
Hotel Shaarei Zion, located in Uman, is now poised to serve observant visitors all year round. The hotel is well appointed and serves Breslover Chassidim and all other visitors with equal attention and professionalism. Compared to years ago, the present Uman Rosh Hashanah is a truly spiritual ecstatic experience without the severe discomforts that were an inherent part of the trip.
An increasing number of incidents involving visitors and locals are being reported. The episodes have included serious injury and at least one death, possibly a murder. Blame has been cast on both sides for causing friction. Just two months ago, unidentified persons erected a large cross at the exact location on the banks of the lake in Sofiyivka where Breslover Chassidim have held their Tashlich event for more than 20 years. Those who erected the cross have positioned video cameras to monitor any movement nearby, probably hoping to record irresponsible Chassidic vandals provoked into damaging the cross. The placement of the cross appears to be a deliberate provocation.
Breslover leaders have contacted Ukrainian and Uman officials at all levels requesting that the cross be temporarily moved to an alternate location, explaining that they cannot guarantee that irresponsible youths won’t unfortunately respond to the deliberate provocation. Consequently, an increased police presence was formally requested.
Should their request be denied, the leaders have chosen an alternate location for this year’s Tashlich event, safely away from where the cross has been erected. The new location would be officially announced over loudspeakers at the conclusion of the early morning (3 a.m.) erev Rosh Hashanah Selichos. Almost 20,000 Chassidim participate in that session, in the huge Uman Kloiz, probably the world’s largest shul.
‘Top Bunk, Third Floor, Available’
As of this writing, Uman circulars had very few lodgings for rent. Some that are listed read “top bunk bed in kosher apartment on third floor available.” A grand total of more than 35,000 Jewish pilgrims are expected in Uman. This number is closing in on the once pre-recession numbers of years past, but those in Uman will tangibly feel the upsurge. In spite of large buildings having been designated as dormitory space for Rosh Hashanah, private, or at least semi-private, sleeping space continues to be at a premium and in demand.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
Though no appreciable impact has been discerned, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in one of his weekly motzaei Shabbos shiurim in 2007, suggested that Uman need not be visited, especially when yom tov adjoins Shabbos for a total of three days. Rabbi Yosef stressed that tombs of the great sages of the Talmud are found in Israel, as well as those of our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so one should remain in Israel. After a storm of controversy, and dozens of meetings between Rabbi Yosef and Breslover leaders, Rabbi Yosef seemed to backtrack when he later agreed, in his following weekly shiur, that Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, zt’l (1772–1810), was indeed a great tzaddik. However, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi had not rescinded his suggestion that husbands and fathers refrain from going to Uman. 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. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.