At the broadening end of the street, from where the steep road runs down to the Odessa highway, encircled by prefab blocks with Hebrew inscriptions, there are kosher pizza stalls, Hebrew bookshops, pilgrim centers, fur cap sellers around, and between the buildings, marching to and fro in large flocks, white-clad Hasidic men in fur caps accompanied by their charming little sons with long earlocks, Hasidic women in black scarves, chirping all together like starlings, resolute pilgrim groups from Israel or Moscow, the former in very traditional, the latter in very alternative clothes, young Hasidic people with guitar or books under their arms on their way to the community house, yeshiva students in long black coat, round hat and many-dioptre glasses going in and out from the school house, in whose middle there stands, covered with black velvet embroidered in gold, the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.
Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810), great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, was born in the Podolian Medzhibozh, where his great-grandfather’s tomb is still revered. From there he went to the nearby Bratslav – in Yiddish Breslov – as a rabbi, and after the burning of the Jewish quarter there, further to Uman, where he himself designated his tomb in the cemetery of the twenty thousand Jewish victims of the Khmelnytsky uprising of 1648. As the founder of the Breslover branch of Hasidism, he stressed the importance of a simple and joyful relation to God, and of dancing and singing. He taught the practice of hitbodedut, the importance of retiring at least one hour every day to the forest or the field, and to speak in one’s mother tongue and in informal language to God, to pour out one’s heart to Him as “one’s best friend”. And that instead of the hereditary Hasidic dynasties, every Hasid should look for the best tsaddik for himself. In fact, he never appointed a successor. His followers still go on pilgrimage to his tomb from the whole Russia, Israel and America.
I look around with uncertainty in the large community room. A little, dumpy, old, but energetic Hasid hastes to help me. “From Budapest? Do you read Russian? Well, then I present you with a Tikkun HaKlali.” The prayer for cleansing was composed by Rabbi Nachman himself from the verses of ten psalms. He takes me into the school house, where some fifty young Hasids are studying the Talmud without looking at us, and after rummaging a bit on the shelf next to Rabbi Nachman’s tomb, he pulls out a paper printed in Hebrew and Russian. “You won’t believe how effective it is. Before coming here, I had two heart attacks, but since I recited it here at the Rabbi’s tomb, I live in clover.” I promise him that I will study it.
A great break in the century old Uman pilgrimage was when, after the Polish-Soviet war, Uman became a border land of the Soviet Union, a closed city, where entrance was forbidden to foreigners, and any assembly to the locals. Nevertheless, the Hasids kept coming here in secret, even taking the risk of execution on the spot or deportation. However, since the 90s pilgrimage is free again. Since then a several thousand strong permanent Hasidic community has been established around the tomb of Rabbi Nachman, and a growing number of foreign pilgrims return for every New Year on the feast of Rosh Hashanah, marked as the biggest feast of Breslover Hasids by Rabbi Nachman himself. Last year there were twenty-six thousand people here in addition to the locals, and the number of those arriving yesterday will be known only in the next few days. In the meantime, let us see a photo report by Oleg Stelmakh from Kiev on the Hasidic pilgrim feast of Rosh Hashanah in Uman.