A Visit to Rebbe Nachman’s grave in Uman.
From the minute I started, at the age of 38, to read about the life and work of Rebbe Nachman, I had a faint idea or dream to go to his grave in Uman in the Ukraine. I had learned about him from a book translated into English which I had purchased from in an old book shop in Meir Shearim, but it seemed unlikely I would actually make a trip like that happen. It was as unlikely as making a trip to China to the Great Wall and to visit and learn with the great masters of art and calligraphy. But I got to do that, with Hashem’s loving kindness.
Rebbe Nachman made me feel good about myself.
It was okay to daven in a forest or near trees, all alone and in your own language and with words you needed to say. This was more my style than going to a synagogue, unfamiliar with the procedures and language and rules.
I would usually end up in the park anyway, as I could not find any meaning or understanding in the services. This happened so often because we usually got asked to move out of someone’s seat in synagogue, no matter where we sat.
I bought every book, small and large, in the next few years and tried to attend classes on his teachings whenever that was available.
I loved the idea that it was a “Mitzvah to be happy always.”
Yes – always. Even when things looked bleak and tough and unforgiving.
He also said that it was ok to clown around and be foolish if it helped a person fight off their despair.
Oh, I knew how to do that one.
I should have a PhD in clowning around to make others happy.
Many times over the years I was invited to join groups travelling to Uman, but it was never the right time, because of work schedules and responsibilities.
When I moved to Israel, thirty years later, a whole new generation of young Breslovers, followers of Rebbe Nachman, had sprung up.
These were the youngsters who danced in the street, danced on top of vans and cars and twirled around wearing white knitted kippot and long tzitzit.
By then I must have been the oldest Breslover in existence. I felt so grateful to have found these teachings, when most of my age group, friends and fellow searchers, had no idea what that was all about. Songs were written or adapted, and it became almost mainstream in Israel – everyone had heard of Rebbe Nachman by then.
Synagogues and yeshivas were opened for these “happy “people, and the most famous saying became well known, and soon there was a constant stream of visits to the Ukraine to visit the Rebbe’s gravesite.
At Rosh Hashana time the numbers grew and grew, until today tens of thousands of Breslover men young and old make the journey to Uman to do what he asked them to do.
What did Rebbe Nachman ask them to do?
He asked them to come to his grave on Rosh Hashanah and he promised he would intervene for them. He would beseech the heavens for anyone who would come. He said to crawl there if necessary.
One hot day in July I was having a hard time trying to get our building painted and decorated because of lack of interest and criticism from some of the residents.
As I walked into my apartment, feeling a bit rejected and unappreciated, the phone rang and the voice of Yehudit Bell, from a Breslov organization, said,
“Do you want to go to Uman this week? We have a trip going. The vehicle will pick you up outside your door?”
“Oh yes,” I said! “I do!”
* * *
It was time to go.
Outside my door was a white van. I popped my head inside. They looked like a bunch of school kids or teenagers. Is this a school bus?
No, they chuckled, we are off to Uman. Jump in.
It was a very old rusty bus, but it got eight of us there with only a few bumps. The destination was Ben Gurion airport.
The Rebbetzin who accompanied us was so excited, and we all felt ready for this adventure. Some of us had waited a long time for the big day.
The three-hour flight to Kiev was smooth enough. The airport was cold, grey, austere and empty. It was three o’clock in the morning. The tall thin looking Ukrainian soldiers checked our passports.
All I could think about related to Kiev was “Chicken Kiev” whatever that is. I’m sure it’s not kosher.
In contrast to the vehicle that picked us up in Israel, this was a huge van. It looked like something celebrities or generals would travel in. There were at least six or eight huge cream leather swivel executive chairs in the van, fun lights and music. All our favorite Rebbe Nachman songs played. We sped along the black highway at great speed. We arrived in Uman after another three hours driving. We hardly slept at all.
The guard on duty let us into the hotel, more of a hostel really. It was interesting to see the Russian writing on the street signs. He opened the gates and showed us in.
It was very clean and neat and tidy. We found three rooms with enough room to sleep a few at a time because it was a bunk bed situation. The Rebbetzin and I chose the room for us. Obviously, we picked the low bunk bed each, and within minutes she said, “Don’t waste time, we are not sleeping anyway the next few days. Don’t even bother to unpack.”
So, there in the middle of the night, we left the building again and made our way up a hilly, bumpy road, where many construction projects were evolving. There were hotels for travelers, kosher restaurants, small supermarkets with kosher produce, Hebrew bookshops and souvenirs. Some were just there operating, and other sites were completely under construction. It was quite alarming and intriguing how in the middle of the Ukraine, in the middle of Uman, in the middle of the town, we discovered an Israeli quarter. We took our torches and walked toward the area of the grave of Rebbe Nachman.
The Rebbetzin kept reminding us about our grandfather who we were going to visit. I didn’t really relate to that, but I thought, it’s the very least I can do to come and offer prayers and thanks to the Rebbe who left such wisdom in the world and who certainly spoke to me. All his works were recorded by his student Rebbe Natan.
Jewish people had come from all over the world dragging their suitcases behind them to sit and pray and cry and stay near the grave of Rebbe Nachman.
It seemed very peaceful there. Everyone had come for some deep reason known only to themselves.
The bookcases were full of Tehillim and siddurim in many languages. As it was the middle of the night it was fairly empty and we had the place to ourselves.
What I found at Rebbe Nachman’s grave was myself. I met myself. And that felt ok.
I was like a warrior having a few nights’ rest after a long battle. Of course, there was a good feeling that there were still many things still to ask for and to pray for – the wrestle of life was not over yet.
This was a good place to stop for a while.
In the morning, after breakfast, I sketched a view from my small window. I noticed the landscape was so vast and fresh and clean somehow. I looked up at the huge cloudy blue skies, rivers running through forests and avenues of trees, green rolling hills, small colorful one-room summer houses, which in the past were owned by people who lived in the big cities.
In fact, it was everything I had been teaching to my adult art students all year. We had been studying drawing and painting landscapes in class.
That was a bonus I was not expecting. This was an art teacher’s delight and reward. The real landscapes on site, to be captured, in my sketch book or camera.
* * *
There was a sense that apart from the new “Rebbe Nachman Industry”, which now is providing jobs for waiters, waitresses, cooks, drivers, guides, translators, cleaners, money for restaurants, hotel staff, small supermarket workers, selling kosher food products, and guard jobs, an increase in police presence and painter-decorators, homegrown vegetables and produce, that this is and was a sleepy rural town.
Outside Uman lay Breslov, where I went for a flying visit of exactly three hours, before dawn, the day our plane brought us back home. I saw out of the window people mainly on bicycles. I noticed trucks and horse-drawn carts. Local people were carrying baskets of produce, selling them on the roadside, a few potatoes in a basket. A few apples here and a couple of pears looked like home-grown spare produce from their small gardens. In the back yards, there was a cow and chickens running around. The domesticated animals were there for the milk and eggs. It was like stepping back in time a hundred years or more from the world I come from.
That was a real eye opener for people who have lived in Europe and Israel.
The road to Breslov was rough and in need of repair. The local driver told us that since the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia, all the budgets were used up in this conflict, so there were no resources left for road repairs.
Eventually, we turned off the rough road and came upon an even more primitive pathway. The street was cobbled. This was not new for tourists, this was the original road used by wagons and horses back in the day, maybe two hundred years or more ago. You could just imagine the times by looking at this setting. The ladies were wearing white kerchiefs around their head.
In an instant the car tire burst. The driver got out and examined the situation. It was a wooded area in a village right near Breslov. The area was deserted except for a barking guard dog closed in a compound with fences and wire.
I got out and looked at the building, which was locked up.
When I looked closer I saw that this was previously a shul, a school and a Jewish building, unused now of course.
Eventually, the driver managed to fix the car tire, and we walked on towards a little one room house painted pink, where two local men were chatting and smoking their cigarettes.
That little building was a rest room with a huge Shabbos urn steaming away, with, yes you guessed it, tea bags. We were told this was paid for by a Jewish person so travelers could wash up and have a hot drink before visiting the grave of Rabbi Natan.
It was beautiful, peaceful, serene, fresh, and so special. We davened there and said our private prayers, very early in the morning.
The three of us, who had left at four in the morning for that trip, had shared the fastest taxi ride home I have ever experienced in my life, in time to have our last breakfast in the Ukraine and board our flight from Kiev back to Ben Gurion.
Happy is an understatement. Mission of a lifetime achieved. Thank You Hashem.