I’ve been going to Uman for something like seven or eight years’ now, and in that time, I’ve seen it blossom from the worst sort of primitive, third-world country shtetl into a place with wifi, porsches and more kosher restaurants and hotels than many parts of Tel Aviv.
Mostly, it’s a good thing. But sometimes, I yearn a little for the utter simplicity of Uman even eight years’ ago. When I went back then, there was no cell phone access, and you’d be lucky if the electricity supply would hold out for a whole five days. Back then, I was still passing elderly Russian ladies taking their sleds down to the local water pump to get their H2O for the day.
The first place I stayed had two showers for 50 women – both of which opened straight onto the front door – and to say it wasn’t luxurious is kind of the understatement of the year. I had to bring my own toilet paper. I had to bring my own snacks (although breakfast and supper was catered on my trip.)
The snow was piled so high, that February, and the Ukrainian taxi and coach drivers were still palpably anti-semitic, but as they were the only people who actually had a van / car / coach at that time, you just had to put up with it or walk all the way back to Kiev.
Physically, it was really hard going. Spiritually? It was probably the most intense trip I ever had.
Not easy – really not easy – but powerfully transformational in a whole bunch of ways. That first trip was the only time that I ever had the Kever to myself for a little while, because going to Uman was still something a little ‘fringe’ that only hard-core crazies would do.
Not any more.
Uman has literally exploded over the last year or so.
Just now when I went, I saw at least three new hotels, and least three new kosher restaurants, plus big signs for people to come buy a luxury flat in a new development being built right up the road from Rabbenu on Pushkina Street.
If I’m honest, I wasn’t so happy that the commercialization of Uman is roaring ahead. Uman was the one place I didn’t have to worry about my usual inability to buy luxury properties, and where I could just disappear into my soul for a few days without any materialistic distractions.
This time, I went for a couple of days with my kids and husband and I struggled mightily to tap into the spirituality in Uman that usually just blows me away from the second I step off the coach there. I know it’s always different when you go with your kids, especially teenagers. From previous experience, I knew we’d have to budget more for food and souvenirs than we did for tzedakah (which is not the usual way of things, when me and my husband go there by ourselves.)
They wanted to eat pizza and chips, and go to Gan Tzofia, and buy all the cute Ukrainian handicrafts that I usually don’t touch with a bargepole because hey, I really don’t like giving those people any more of my money than I have to. But kids are kids. And one of the lessons I’ve been trying to learn recently is that God wants balance in the world, even when it comes to spiritual matters.
If Uman was minus the chips, and the ‘fun’ and the nicer accommodations, my kids wouldn’t want to keep going back every year.
That’s the reality. It’s the reality for a bunch of other people from the West, too, who really wouldn’t last 5 minutes in the Uman from 10 years’ back.
But I still felt pretty out of place in comfortable Uman. I still had to leave the Kever – which had been taken over by yet another rock-star Rabbanit doing a very loud ‘Amen’ festival for two hours, where her followers basically just chanted ‘Amen’ to everything she said – and go for a long walk round to the lake.
I sat there for half an hour, looked at the gorgeous trees, the beautiful water, did my best to avoid the big disgusting crucifix thing on the opposite bank of the lake (hey, it’s still GALUT after all) and tried to figure out what was bothering me so much.
After a while, I got it: normally, Uman is the only place in the world where I feel like really belong, in some weird way. Not that I want to live in the Ukraine, or even stay there for more than a couple of days, but normally, the spiritual vibe is so strong in Uman that everyone is talking about God, and being pretty real and honest, and you feel connected to yourself, and to God, and to your fellow Jew so much more.
This time, that seemed to be missing for me, and I felt its loss keenly.
Sure, I had a great plate of chips and chicken thighs instead, but for the first time ever, my soul felt more in exile in Uman than in Jerusalem.
Probably, this is a good thing. If Uman – one of the weirdest, most spiritually-intense places in the world – is finally going mainstream, then maybe the intense soul-connection that is Rebbe Nachman’s hallmark is finally making it out to the masses of Am Yisrael. Or, maybe God is showing me that just like Am Yisrael had to knuckle-down and get more ‘gashmius’ when they finally got out of the Desert and entered Eretz Yisrael, that now it’s also time for me to get a little more grounded and gashmius-minded again.
Truth is, I wouldn’t mind a luxury flat in Jerusalem. Or even, not such a luxury flat in Jerusalem….
Maybe that’s the lesson that I went to learn this time in Uman: that while it’s very important to pray, and to work on the spiritual side of things, sometimes, you also need to take a break from your devotions to eat a yummy plate of chips, sightsee and buy chatchkees for your kids, and in its own small way, that’s also somehow serving Hashem.