I didn't want to go, let me make that perfectly clear. I was pushed into it - albeit gently - by my wife Judy who thought that now was the time to honor a promise I had made to my son to go someday.
We have been blessed with eight wonderful children (ages 5 to 23), the elder of whom have all found their own unique niches in the Jewish world. My middle son, Simcha, 19 -who extracted this promise from me - is a brilliant musician whose extemporaneous compositions on the piano can bring tears to your eyes with their power and intensity. He is deeply connected to his soul, which somehow led him onto spiritual path of a Breslover Chassid. We supported him in his choice - as we have the very different choices of his elder brothers and sister – but supporting your child in his journey and joining him are two wildly different things.
Simcha spent Rosh Hashana twice before in Uman, where Breslov Chassidim and a whole array of colorful people gather every year at the graveside of Rebbe Nachman, the founder of the Breslov sect. He urged me to come with him.
I had heard about the intensity of the Uman experience from various acquaintances who had gone in past years. I had also heard they brought all their own food and water, and that scared me to no end.
I had never been away from my family for any holiday in our 24 years of marriage, and it was to my wife's credit that she was willing to spend Rosh Hashana alone with five of our younger children. And if she was willing to make the sacrifice, why not I?
I was trapped.
UMAN, HERE I COME
Arriving by taxi at the outskirts of Uman, I could not get into town without paying a $5 bribe to the police. Once inside, I was overwhelmed by the chaos. Non-stop noise, crush of people, crowds, throngs of Jews everywhere!
Where had I landed? Katmandu? Woodstock?
Not only Chassidim but every type of Jew, wearing every type of dress and head-covering. I spotted two Israelis wearing pink tee-shirts and pink yarmulkes. A guy with a pony tail and an earring. Another one with peyos (side-locks) down to his waist. One with orange pants, tie-dye hat, orange poncho and silver chain on his neck. Kids running around everywhere (Breslovers believe that as soon as a boy reaches age seven he should visit Uman). Ukrainian policemen and soldiers patrolling the streets looking like they just left the Russian front. Loud violin music playing, a guy in a long trench coat carrying a boom box. Music, music everywhere.
The taxi turned a corner and almost plowed into 30 little pup tents like at the bottom of Mt. Everest. Where had I landed? Katmandu? Woodstock?
This was the middle of the Ukraine, but everyone and everything was totally Jewish - Jewish signs, Jewish music, Jewish booksellers, Jewish yarmulke sellers, Jewish beggars. A few Ukrainians were watching all the goings-on with a kind of dull-eyed look. I know they hate us. They had wished us dead and almost got their wish, but now we're back in greater numbers than they could have imagined.
Simcha, who got there ahead of me, arrived, bringing along a wheel-barrow and a Ukrainian to haul my three food-filled suitcases to our shack. That's being generous. It was, in fact, a hovel, pre-1850 construction. Two rooms. A kitchen consisting of a sink by the front door. A bathroom equally posh. The toilet reminded me of that Seinfeld episode where George goes to India and says, "I won't use the toilet while I'm here." I wondered how long I could go without using it. No hot water, but who needs to wash at home when you can share a mikveh (ritual pool) with a thousand Jews?
I collapsed on the bed, which must have come from a gulag surplus store - old rusty springs, a mattress (if you could call it that) sagging in the middle and at both ends. I took a sleeping pill and drifted into blessed oblivion.
FEEDING AT THE TROUGH
After morning prayers, Simcha took me for coffee at one of the many guest houses that the Breslov Chassidim have set up to welcome and feed the throngs.
We walked up a steep and narrow staircase and entered a room no larger that 15 by 15 feet, absolutely jam-packed, elbow-to-elbow. Bolted to the wall was a long, stainless steel trough - the kind that could just as easily be used for feeding cattle. Suspended above the trough was a long row of faucets, variously labeled: TEA, COFFEE, MILK. You took a thin plastic up, made for cold beverages - hey, who am I to complain? - and filled up on as much coffee as you wanted. I drank one cup to satisfy my caffeine craving, but then my imagination and my phobias went to work: Where was this coffee being made? Where was it flowing from? What went through those pipes before? Had they ever been flushed out?
Thankfully, I had anticipated a coffee withdrawal problem and brought along two cans of Starbucks' double espresso for both days of Rosh Hashana. Thus, I was able to leave the feeding troughs for the more unfortunate souls.
I must mention that cakes came with the coffee. All for free. The organizers had really thought of every aspect. I mean how can you possibly provide coffee in the morning to 30,000 caffeine addicts except with feeding troughs that, in other settings, are used to feed cattle? I just hope these weren't bought second hand.
Next, Simcha suggested we go to the mikveh. Inwardly, I groaned.
I know that it is a custom to immerse in a purifying ritual pool before Rosh Hashana, but it is one of those customs that I have never embraced. Jumping into a small pool with a bunch of naked men just didn't speak to my soul. I wondered if I could get out of it somehow.
After a day of navigating the throngs in Uman, the idea had become totally abhorrent. There were 30,000 people in Uman. Let's say just half went to the mikveh, that's 15,000. There were 12 hours between sunrise and sunset. That means that about 1,300 men were hopping into the mikveh per hour!
But Simcha anticipated my fears and suggested we go to a nearby canyon. A great idea. A ten minute walk through the woods brought us to a beautiful spot hiding a large pond surrounded by high rock walls. A dozen others had gotten there ahead of us, but compared to the square footage-to-body ratio in town, this was nothing.
Simcha warned me that the water was cold, but I was not prepared for how cold. I jumped in and the chill took my breath away. This water was certainly below 40 degrees. I tried to remember what I learned in high school biology about hypothermia - how long before you lose consciousness? I dunked three times and quickly scampered out, trying to hold the thought that I had just been reborn and was now a new creation, but I was freezing.
Had I just taken my pre-Rosh Hashana cleansing dip in the run-off from the village septic tanks?
Going back into town, and trying to gauge if my material self had somehow been altered by the chilling dip, I could not help by notice the holes in the ground next to the village huts. Septic tank holes! Hopefully, air-tight septic tanks functioning properly. The more I thought about it, the more concerned I became about that canyon. I remembered the engineer who came to our home in Monsey, New York, to deal with drainage issues. Hadn't he said that water always flows to the lowest point? Wasn't that canyon the lowest point around here? I began to wonder about that layer of stuff on the pond's surface that had seemed like a reflection from the trees. As I walked my skin started to burn and itch. Had I just taken my pre-Rosh Hashana cleansing dip in the run-off from the village septic tanks?
I couldn't get this thought out of my head for the rest of the day. I thought to email my wife and have her make an immediate appointment with the skin doctor at home. But perhaps I had been shielded from disease by the power of the mitzvah.
My Rosh Hashana praying started early.
The epicenter of Uman is called the "Tzion" - this is the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman. It is the North Pole and the South Pole in one - the center of all gravitational pulls in the Breslov world.
Try to imagine an area the size of a couple of football fields surrounded by wire mesh fences and covered by corrugated metal. Inside, it is subdivided into a warren of many rooms at the center of which is the grave itself. The grave is protected by a little stone house and surrounded by a fence.
It took me a while to figure out how all the various rooms were connected and who holds court in which area. I was constantly amazed that literally hundreds of minyans were going on simultaneously at all times. On Rosh Hashana this became really chaotic when shofar-blowing started. The first minyan started praying at around 6 a.m. and so got to the shofar-blowing by 11 a.m. The last minyan didn't get there until 7 p.m. So basically, there was non-stop shofar-blowing all day and thousands of people jammed together continuously crying out to God. Some people would sob hysterically during prayers. It shook me to hear them - as if their sobs were echoing through me.
On the first day of Rosh Hashana, Simcha (in his white kapota and shtreimel) and I (a lot less fashionably decked out) prayed in the "Cloyz," a temporary structure built for 3,700 people (but packing in 7,000) which is the biggest of the synagogues in Uman. In fact, it is probably the largest synagogue in Eastern Europe, as big as a skating rink with the ambience of a gym (tin roof construction, plastic siding), but this one filled to the brim with Chassidim on treadmills to heaven!
Nowhere else in the entire Jewish world did I see such respect and good manners among such diverse Jews!
Despite the over-crowding, nowhere else in the entire Jewish world did I see such respect and good manners among such diverse Jews!
With so many people jammed into a relatively small area it is inevitable that people would bump into you, elbow you, step on you, or worse. I watched in amazement when this happened and experienced myself the object of the jostling innumerable times.
But every time it happened, people stopped and turned to the offended party, smiled broadly and apologized. It was contagious. If you accidentally bumped into someone, you immediately stopped and looked them in the eye and said, "I'm sorry." It became the social norm.
I realized just how easy it would be to make the world a more pleasant place. In New York City, if someone bumps you, they usually ignore you or - if you dare to voice an objection - follow up with an insult.
If the Chassidim were not all so pleasant, warm and polite, it would have been unbearable.
In a strange way, the overcrowding somehow inspired greater concentration in prayer. And the chassidic joy was particularly infectious. When we reached HaMelech prayer ("the King who sits on the throne") all 7,000 people started clapping. I had never experienced that. When we reached the Shema ("Hear O Israel") all 7,000 people shouted it out in unison at the top of their lungs. During the silent prayers, you could hear a pin drop. Pretty intense.
Everybody was so tightly squeezed in together that when some people started dancing, you had no choice but to go with the flow. As we were dancing together holding hands, I was struck by the realization that Simcha's grip was that of a man - that his hand was a man's hand and no longer a little boy's. It was a poignant moment - I realized that my son had truly grown up. It hit home there in Uman.
I had had more one-on-one talks with God than I had had in a long while. I went for several walks where I talked to myself and to God about how I wanted to be different and what I wanted to change in the coming year. And I had a couple of truly inspiring moments in prayer, particularly when reciting Adon Olam ("Master of the World").
I let the sound of the many shofars cut through me and I tried to feel that sound shaking me from my slumber.
For the first time the words of this beautiful song jumped out at me and became real. They brought me to tears. I read them over and over as their meaning seeped into me. I sang them to myself to a tune I remembered from my youth. I begged God for blessings of good health and happiness for all my family and that we would all merit to grow close to Him. I let the sound of the many shofars cut through me and I tried to feel that sound shaking me from my slumber. I hoped it would slice through the layers of apathy I had accumulated in the past year which were keeping me from feeling God's presence. In response, I could feel the Almighty's warm embrace, and I had the sense that I had shed some hard husks keeping me from being real.
Before I knew it, Rosh Hashana was over and I was getting into a taxi and kissing my son goodbye. He was staying on. As we stood in the center of the tumult, with crowds of people rushing by on all side to get to their buses or taxis, I placed my hands on his forehead and blessed him that he should have a sweet and healthy new year. That he should grow close to God. That he should learn a lot of Torah. That he should continue to get nachas from his gorgeous baby son, and continue to develop a loving relationship with his wife. We kissed and hugged a few times. I told him I wasn't sure if I would return, but that it had been a truly a life-altering Rosh Hashana.