September 23, 2018

The Incomparable Power of the Jewish Pilgrimage to Uman

On the first morning of the year of 5779, most of the Shacharit prayers in Uman were over. Thousands were streaming out of the synagogues in search of wine and cakes to make kiddush. It was nearly eleven and a few stragglers’ minyanim, huddled from the rain under leaky tarpaulin awnings, were still ongoing around the building containing the tziyun, the cloth-covered slab of marble above Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s grave.

“Where are we? Where are they up to?” asked one late arrival as he stubbed out his cigarette. A bleary-eyed, overhung man, tallit over one shoulder and a wide white knitted kippa pushed back over his stubbly graying hair. Those standing around barely stifled their laughter, but didn’t speak. A shofar was blowing its 100 blasts. To everyone else it was clear at what stage they were.

But nothing is entirely clear in Uman.

Over 40,000 Jews, nearly entirely men, arrived this week for Rosh Hashanah to gather around the grave of Rabbi Nachman, who died here in 1810, in this poor and nondescript town in central Ukraine. In less than three decades, the site has been transformed into the largest annual Jewish pilgrimage outside of Israel.

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