Following a tradition that dates back to the beginning of the last century, thousands of Hasidic pilgrims made their way to this small Ukrainian city lying halfway between Kiev and Odessa, to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav at Rosh Hashanah.
Uman today looks like a typical post-Sovietera city. The square in the center of town still has a huge statue of Lenin, alongside of which dozens of private entrepreneurs sell produce or consumer products brought over the border from Poland.
On the outskirts of Uman, factories, smokestacks and rows of gray Soviet-style apartment buildings are piled next to old, little cottages.
If it were not for the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and the thousands of Jews who have come to his grave wearing their best black hats and caftans, there would be nothing to distinguish Uman from the hundreds of other small Ukrainian cities.
Born in 1772, Rabbi Nachman became famous for his teachings and mystical interpretations of Jewish texts.
A great-grandson of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Nachman emerged as one of the leading figures of the burgeoning Hasidic movement.
Suffering from tuberculosis, Rabbi Nachman moved to Uman to be near the mass grave of the Jews of Uman, who were forced to choose between conversion or death during the Chmielnicki revolt and massacres of 1648-49.
According to his wishes, when he died, Rabbi Nachman was buried amid the 20,000 martyrs of the Haidamak persecutions in the 18th century, which were more limited in scope than the Chmielnicki massacres, but even more terrible in their cruelty.
On his death bed, he promised his followers that he would personally intercede on behalf of anyone who visited him, saying that he would lift them out of hell by their peyos (earlocks).
Since then, his followers have returned to Uman every year on Rosh Hashanah to pray, sing and dance at his grave. He remains the only leader, or rebbe, that the Bratslav Hasidim have ever had.
HOUSE BUILT ADJACENT TO SITE
After the Russian Revolution, the Communist government tried to stop the gatherings by forbidding Jews from Poland to enter the country and by closing in 1937 the last synagogue in the city, turning it into a metalworks factory.
During World War II, Uman and its graveyard became the scene of intensive fighting between the Soviet and German armies.
Returning to the site after the war, the Jews of Uman discovered the cemetery had been devastated and the gravesite had been demolished by a hand grenade.
After the war, the Soviet government announced plans to build housing units on the site.
The sole remaining Bratslav Hasid living in Uman, a convert to Judaism named Reb Daniel, quickly bought the land. The precise site of the grave was found, and Reb Daniel built a house near it.
The wall of the house was placed flush against the grave with a window above it to prevent extensions and insure that nothing else would ever be built over the site, thus protecting the sanctity of the grave.
Before he left for Israel, Reb Daniel sold the house to Yakob, a now-elderly Ukrainian who still lives there today.
Though the site was preserved, the grave remained off limits to Jews.
It was not until 1988 that the Soviet government, then experiencing the first awakenings of perestroika, allowed the first group of 250 Jews to visit the grave.
Since then, the number of Jews visiting the site has grown every year. About 4,000 Jewish pilgrims were expected for this Rosh Hashanah.
Air Ukraine added extra flights on its Kiev-New York route for what is known as "Uman week," and dozens of charters came in from Israel.
Visiting Jews seemingly took over Uman for the week, turning it upside down, but providing an incredible boost to the local economy.
A local organizing committee, which had been here since the beginning of the summer, rented out dozens of apartments in the housing complex that overlooks the grave to accommodate all the visitors.
Local banks set up mobile currency-exchange centers in parked cars near the gravesite, while hundreds of locals were selling souvenirs or trinkets of all sorts to the tourists.
Many local residents were able to make the equivalent of several months’ salary during the course of the week.
NEW SYNAGOGUE QUICKLY ERECTED
The main kitchen had over 100 Israelis as well as 20 Ukrainians working there preparing kosher meals. In contrast to past years, most of the food was not flown in from Israel but came from Ukraine.
A shochet, or ritual slaughterer, had been slaughtering meat for a month in advance.
Perhaps most impressively, an entire synagogue — the first to be built in Ukraine since before the Bolshevik Revolution — was put up in just 3 1/2 weeks by a local contracting company working overtime.
In addition, several mikvahs, or ritual baths, were built and were operating during the week.
The pilgrimage to Uman has become such a central event for Bratslav Hasidim that a small international uproar broke out when Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk agreed earlier this year to a request from then-Israeli President Chaim Herzog to transfer the remains of Rabbi Nachman to Israel.
Both the Israeli and Ukrainian presidents, who thought they would be doing the Hasidim a favor, were besieged by protests from the group, which insisted that the remains stay put in Uman.
Chaim Blum, an American living in Israel, has come to Uman for the past two years. "Reb Nachman said to come here to Uman to visit him on Rosh Hashanah, so Jews have always come, no matter what the difficulties. It is often difficult to do but it is important," said Blum.
For Itzhak Goluboy, a smiling, blond, 13-year-old Jewish boy living in Uman, the event takes on another significance.
For a week, instead of being a tiny community of 50 Jews, Uman is transformed into a thriving Jewish city. Said Goluboy: "When I came by the grave and saw so many Jews in Uman, I got very excited."