Ladies’ day at the Tziyun: Off-season Uman

“It’s wonderful here. There’s no place like this,” says Shula, a retired Shekem Electric executive whom I chatted with outside the tziyun. “This is my second time and it does something to my soul."

June 19, 2019 18:02
4 minute read.
Ladies’ day at the Tziyun: Off-season Uman

PUSHKINA SQUARE in downtown Uman is signposted in Hebrew.. (photo credit: CAROL UNGAR)

Everyone knows about Uman, the small Ukrainian city where 30,000 or more Jewish men come every Rosh Hashanah to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the Hassidic leader who famously promised to drag his visitors out of gehinom (the Jewish hell) by their sidelocks. But what happens after the mass visit? Does the town go to sleep?

Not at all. While Uman at Rosh Hashanah is a guy thing, the rest of the year, the tomb (known by worshipers as the tziyun) is visited by thousands of Jews – a large number of them Sephardic women who arrive in groups.

Drab, grey and filled with artless Soviet-era apartment blocks, Uman hardly seems like the ideal vacation destination, yet these women make the trip, eagerly filling the local hotels, restaurants and of course the tziyun

“It’s not the town, of course, it’s the grave that attracts them. This grave is special,” says Tzila Aryeh, a Bnei Brak-based Uman travel specialist who brings groups over four or five times each year. Over the past decade and a half, Aryeh who is of Yemenite extraction, estimates that she’s visited the grave over 50 times.

“Prayers are answered here. Every time I go, I hear about sick people who are healed, childless couples who have children, singles who find their mates,” she says.

But Uman isn’t only about the miracles; Rabbi Nachman’s resting place seems to inspire an expanded spiritual consciousness.
“You don’t just come here. You are invited,” explains Leah Aharoni, a business coach who also brings groups. “Every time I come there’s a spiritual takeaway,” she says.

But why Rabbi Nachman? Because his messages about living in joy and a state of closeness to God hit home for many people. The Garden of Emunah and its many sequels, all of them based on Rabbi Nachman, have sold over a million copies worldwide. Interestingly, their author, Rabbi Shalom Aroush, is himself of Sephardic descent and many of the Sephardic female visitors to the tziyun have been deeply affected by his books.

“Sephardic women have a rich tradition of connecting to tzaddikim, so in a way going to Uman is natural for them,” says Leah Aharoni, a business coach and tour leader.

PRAYING AT the grave of Rabbi Nachman. (Credit: CAROL UNGAR)

Although the Kotel, Rachel’s Tomb and the grave of Samuel the Prophet have undergone extensive and costly renovations, Rabbi Nachman’s grave remains simple and unadorned, a marble slab housed in a simply decorated oversized structure with a spacious women’s section well stocked with Sephardic prayer books. During a recent visit I struggled to locate an Ashkenazi siddur.

One would imagine worships to this holy spot who are attired in long dresses, headscarves or wigs. While that is certainly the case, one also sees women in miniskirts and even jeans, and no one says a word. In fact, women reach out to one another creating a unique camaraderie and spirit of Jewish unity.

“It’s wonderful here. There’s no place like this,” says Shula, a retired Shekem Electric executive whom I chatted with outside the tziyun. “This is my second time and it does something to my soul to be here.”

While women certainly recite the traditional prayers and psalms, many of the visitors participate in unscripted group prayer, their group leaders calling out of names of the suffering and the members of the group collectively requesting salvation, at the top of their lungs. As a cynical Westerner, I thought I’d scoff at this homespun tent revival-style Judaism but the sincerity was so palpable that I found myself tearing up. There’s something about being at Rabbi Nachman’s grave that opens the heart. It’s not uncommon to see visitors weeping, kissing the grave or even lying down on it – and once a woman comes she wants to return.

Because of the profusion of visitors, the entire neighborhood around the tziyun has become an Israeli enclave. A sign in Hebrew identifies Pushknina Square, named for the famous Russian poet and novelist Alexander Pushkin, which Bratslav chassidim deconstruct as Poh Shehina Square, indicating G-d’s presence in this place.

Within walking distance of the grave are at least three Israeli-run glatt kosher hotels, numerous glatt kosher BNB apartments, a glatt kosher supermarket and numerous glatt kosher eateries, including a bakery named “HaMaafeh HaNeeman,” a takeoff on the almost eponymous Israeli bake chain. For souvenir hounds, the town boasts numerous gift shops stocking everything from tiny pslaters (Books of Psalms), to white Bratslav yarmulkas to the entire Bratslav library.

Soon the town will experience its biggest female invasion to date as more than 1,000 women will arrive to celebrate Tu Be’av, the late summer holiday that has been dubbed the female Rosh Hashanah (for visits), but even now in the off season the town isn’t really quiet.

“Visits to Uman are always in season,” says Aharoni.

The writer teaches memoir writing at AACI Jerusalem and is author of Jewish Soul Food – Traditional Fare and What It Means.

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