No, I’ve never been there nor do I plan to go, but I love Uman at Rosh Hashana. You know Uman, that tiny Ukrainian town where Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav is buried.
Ever since the fall of communism, Uman has become the place to spend the Jewish New Year and for good reason. Centuries ago, Rabbi Nachman invited his followers to “visit” him on that day promising to exert his not inconsiderable influence to pull them out of gehenom (the Jewish hell) by their peyos.
It seems plenty of folks need peyos pulling, even folks who hardly seem to have peyos, because as I write these words, thousands of them are packing bags and boarding planes including my own kids. Why?
About a decade ago the late film maker Paul Mazursky visited Uman for Rosh Hashana. Back then it wasn’t as popular as it is now (20,000 men as opposed to almost 100,000). Mazursky wasn’t an observant Jew but Uman touched him. When he returned he made a film called ‘Yippee — Authentic Jewish Joy.”
Mazursky got it. He captured the spirit of the place, the brotherhood, yes Uman is a men’s party (sorry, but having women around would change the energy in the wrong way), the easy camaraderie between people who would have never connected anywhere else. Uman is about joy. It’s about the joy of being alive, the joy of being Jewish, the joy of being a child of Hashem. What could be better than that?
I wasn’t always a fan. When I first heard about Uman on Rosh Hashana, my innate cynicism kicked in. Surely there were other holy spots on the globe and so many right here in Israel. Why shlep to the Ukraine with its Nazi and neo-Nazi past and present, I asked, but then my own kids started to go.
I didn’t send them. They just went; the first was taken along with his entire yeshiva. He had no expectations, but he came home in love. The following year, he brought his older brother along. This year, a third brother is joining them, and I’m thrilled.
Here’s why. My sons are very different. Some do well with the regular Rosh Hashana drill, sitting in the synagogue for six hours straight, and others don’t. That’s where Uman comes in. Uman is an opportunity for the non-shul goers, the disconnected, the disenfranchised to take back the holiday, to start the new year in a holy place surrounded by Jews who are trying to come close to Hashem.
Of course Uman has its dangers — just yesterday, Ukrainian neo-Nazis vandalized the main welcome tent, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage — and Uman has its trashy side, but show me a place that does not. Still, unlike most other places, Uman is about striving for holiness. Think about it, the town’s main attraction is Rabbi Nachman’s grave. Without Rabbi Nachman, there’s no Uman.
Sure, many visitors say they’ve come out of curiosity, but poke a bit deeper and you’ll find a genuine desire to connect to the holiday and to G-d.
And that does happen in Uman. In Uman, Rosh Hashana is cool, being Jewish is cool and being Jewish is fun. In 2015, that is huge and that alone is a reason to make the trip. So I kiss my sons goodbye, hoping G-d will protect them, and that they will be able to pray and eat and dance and sing and hear the shofar and carry the joyful spirit of Uman into the coming year.
Hurray for Uman.