For 3 years in a row, I went to Uman
for Rosh Hashana.
In this 1998 self-portrait, I am sitting smack dab in the middle of the Sofiyivka Forest
in Uman. In the hour preceding this photograph, I'd been attempting to engage the G-d of Abraham in some sort of cathartic screaming dialogue involving guilt, repentance, and semen (though not necessarily in that order). It wasn't going so well, as you can tell by the look of resignation emanating from beneath the large furry animal that had chosen, at that time, to settle its chestnut-brown carcass upon my face.
There's a song
that the Breslover Hassidim
sing when they go to Uman (which is the Ukrainian town in which their Rebbe, Nachman of Breslov
, is buried). The lyrics are "Uman, Uman, Rosh Hashana; Uman, Uman, Rosh Hashana!!!" You don't have
to be in Uman and it doesn't have
to be Rosh Hashana when you sing it, but singing it at other times of the year is kinda like singing "Happy Birthday to You" on a day which isn't really your birthday -- it makes you seem kinda out-of-phase
with the rest of the world.
Uman's inhabitants are mostly lower-class, post-Communist-era peasants from whom a crisp, new twenty-dollar bill might buy a week's worth of lodging, an entire month's supply of vodka, or even an astonishing selection of top-grade Ukranian booty (your choice). Everything has that "third-world bootleg" feel, down to the worn-out-looking Fila jumpsuits and gold-capped teeth that the grubby local youths proudly display as they leer and jeer at you from behind the proteksia
of their own drunken stupors.
Modern pilgrimages to Uman started with Rabbi Gedaliah Fleer
in 1961, but after the Iron Curtain came down in the late 80's/early 90's, more and more of Rebbe Nachman's followers started showing up every year -- in 1998, more than 10,000 Jews showed up, and the gatherings just keep growing. There's now a gi-normous
shul, called The Kloiz
, which is capable of holding 3,000-4,000 congregants in the same room. There's a hotel, a mikve, a kupat cholim
(infirmary), a caterer... everything a good Jew needs to prepare to cry out from the depths of his shattered mortal soul on Rosh Hashana.
So I'm walking around the backwater Ukranian streets with my pal Gavriel (now Rabbi Gavriel
, currently in Boulder, CO but originally from Yardley, PA
), with no KFCs or Sbarros or even street signs
to help orient us to our surroundings, when Gavriel spontaneously busts out singing a lyrical snippet from everyone's favorite Hassidishe musician
:A man walks down the street
It's a street in a strange world
Maybe it's the Third World
Maybe it's his first time around
He doesn't speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says Amen! and Hallelujah!
As we round the corner to the Main Street
, we pass a throng of Fila-clad young ruffians, obviously enamored of the "Uman, Uman, Rosh Hashana" chorus they've been hearing day and night
from the mouths of these strange, affluent, black-frocked, sidelocked tourists. One of them, passing by our group in a mock-jigging dance and mock-Hassidishe singing voice, parodies our strangeness by singing wildly, "Uman, Uman, LaLa, LaLa!!! Uman, Uman, LaLa, LaLa!!!!!!!!!"
As if to say, "What the hell
is so special about our trashy little toilet of a village, you unbelieveable
idiots? Some Hassidic dude dies here 200 years ago, and you decide to party your asses of on our main street because of it?!?!?"
Gavriel's like, "Imagine if you had a bunch of freaky-looking Ukranians coming to your hometown, throwing some huge freakin' party in your backyard and singing the name of your city over and over and OVER again -- 'Yardley, Yardley, Blooga, Blaaga!!! Yardley, Yardley, Blooga, Blaaga!!!!!!!' You'd probably be freaked out, too."
(to be continued)