Rosh Hashana with two (dead) rabbis

A 1-week trip to Ukraine explores the reality behind the "Fiddler on the Roof" misconceptions of shtetl life.

Ba'al Shem Tov's Tomb 370 (photo credit: PAUL ROSS)
Ba'al Shem Tov's Tomb 370
(photo credit: PAUL ROSS)
It was over 38º Centigrade in the car, all the windows were closed, and our feet were so swollen from the heat that they looked like inflated surgical gloves. “Ukrainians have a pathological fear of cold drafts,” my guide Alex Denisenko whispered to me and my husband, Paul. “Our driver would rather die of heat prostration than turn on the air conditioner. Are you sure you want to drive the extra four hours to visit the rabbis?”
We were on a one-week roots trip in western Ukraine, exploring the reality behind the Fiddler on the Roof images I always had of my ancestors and the shtetl they came from. Although I am a secular Jew, I have a passionate interest in the culture, heritage and history that spawned me, and have definite mystical and spiritual leanings and longings. So how could we possibly be in western central Ukraine, so close to the tombs of two great mystics – the Ba’al Shem Tov and Rabbi Nahman of Breslov – and not visit? We had already spent six hours in the car on a searing June day and hadn’t expired, so we nodded yes.
As we headed toward Medzhybizh, I reflected on what I knew about the Ba’al Shem Tov – Israel Ben- Eliezer – the rabbi who founded hassidic Judaism. Often called the Besht, he was humble, lived simply, and was not driven by ego or money. He taught that God was everywhere and in everything; that every person is basically good no matter what bad things he has done; and that the spirit and sacredness of religion are more important than the form. He spent long stretches of his life alone in the woods, and encouraged his followers to leave behind their suffering and poverty in urban areas, and become sustainable farmers in the country. A very modern thinker, the Ba’al Shem Tov.
Our driver – whom we adored, in spite of his opinion of air-conditioning – stopped in front of a grassy area that led to a single-story building with white plastered walls, a brown tiled roof and exposed wooden beams.
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“This is the Besht’s synagogue,” Alex said. “The foundation is original and the building itself was lovingly reconstructed by donors in 2005. Pilgrims come here from all over the world. About 20 to 30 arrive for Shabbat, but many more come on Rosh Hashana.”
Beyond the synagogue was a long stretch of dense forest; had the rabbi gone into those woods to mediate, seek communion with God and search for inspiration, I wondered? I wished the Ba’al Shem Tov were alive to answer my questions.
I hadn’t noticed before, but a gardener was mowing grass near the synagogue. “Dobry den!” we called out to him. As we entered the building, I heard someone breathing behind me. I wheeled around, and came face to face with the gardener.
“The Ba’al Shem Tov prayed at the bima, the place where the Torah was read,” he said, inviting me to accompany him to the front of the large room that served as a synagogue. I felt humbled by standing where the great hassidic master once stood. The gardener suggested I turn around to look at the wooden benches and ledges where the disciples of the famous rabbi prayed and stored their prayer shawls and other ritual objects. “You have the same view the Besht had,” the gardener explained. My imagination was on fire; I could almost see the disciples.
He beckoned me to a long, wooden table, and said it was there the rabbi talked to people privately and counseled them. I imagined how powerful it must have been to receive counsel from the wise leader. Then he led me to a corner of the room. “This is where the Besht prayed,” he offered. I followed him as he opened the door to a small side room with a long table and a stove with a hot plate, and invited me to enter.
“In this room, he performed his healings,” the gardener said, looking me in the eyes. Did he know that I longed for healing, for release from a crippling doctor phobia that plagued me since the time of my father’s terrible and rapid death in a hospital when he was 50 years old?
“In his healings, the Besht used faith and herbs,” the gardener said, breaking eye contact with me. “He charged nothing, but the rich gave him money and the poor brought him chickens.”
I looked at him quizzically, wondering who he really was. “Are you an official guide here?”
“No. I am the caretaker. I am not Jewish. I have just listened to what all the experts who came here were talking about. Am I correct in believing that you want to hear more?”
When I nodded, he launched into a condensed biography of the rabbi who was orphaned as a child, widowed when he was in his early 20s, and lived in the forest like a hermit for a decade, learning the language of birds, flowers and all of nature. Then he settled in Medzhybizh, married the town rabbi’s daughter, and began the healing work for which he was famous.
There are many legends about the Ba’al Shem Tov, and the caretaker told me one. “Once, the rabbi got caught in a swamp. A man helped him to get out, and the Besht was grateful and asked him if he wanted money or health. The man chose health. The rabbi stuck a stake in the earth and a spring came forth. He told the man to drink from that water and he would be healthy. He did, and he was.” When he ended the story, he looked at me. Every word he spoke felt pertinent, personal, relevant.
By the time the caretaker finished recounting a few legends, I was sitting on a wooden bench, rapt. Like the famous Besht, the caretaker was simple, articulate, humble and showed up at precisely the right moment when he was needed.
“In 1760, the Besht assembled his disciples and told them he was going to die soon. He asked them to select water, fire or blood. They chose fire. Before he died, he gave them a special powder and told them to put it on their houses. When he expired, some of the houses started to burn because of the powder, but when the Besht’s coffin passed, the fire went out and had no ill effect on the houses.”
And with that, the caretaker finished his compelling mystical narrative and bade us adieu. We drove for a few minutes to a cemetery, where tents and tables with half-broken wooden candelabra greeted us. An old toothless man, who happened to be passing by and was the only other visitor in the cemetery, explained that pilgrims had recently come for the holiday of Shavuot. “And you should see how many come for Rosh Hashana,” he added. Then he disappeared.
We walked past old headstones and Alex pointed to a cluster of white tombs. “Those are the dynasty of the Besht,” he said. We followed him into a mausoleum, which was crowded with eight tombs. One of them, rounded and constructed of white marble, was inscribed, “Ba’al Shem Tov Hakadosh,” the holy Ba’al Shem Tov.
A young hassidic rabbi, with sidelocks and dressed in black prayed quietly at the sacred tomb. His face was radiant and he smiled at us and said that he wrote books and articles about the Ba’al Shem Tov, followed the way of the great rabbi, and this was his first visit. It was, he said, one of the most important moments in his life.
He introduced himself as Ya’acov Ben- Hanan, and asked if it was okay to share his love of the Besht with us at this holy site. When we nodded, he began to tell us stories of the Besht, and then he broke into song.
“The words are about peace, and all my brothers and sisters,” he explained. “I learn from the Ba’al Shem Tov to have love and peace in my heart for all Jews, even if they don’t know the Torah. Even if they are secular and non-observant.”
Were the caretaker and Ben-Hanan emissaries of the Ba’al Shem Tov? Why did they show up at precisely the right moment to instruct me?
We got back into the steaming car and drove several hours to Uman, where the Besht’s great-grandson, the famous hassidic master, mystic and healer Rabbi Nahman, is buried. We arrived at midnight and, after half an hour, the driver, frustrated at the complexity of the warren of streets, found our hotel by asking for a police escort. We schlepped our bags up three floors, and were pleased to find that that our accommodation was a spacious suite; the only problem was that it was the only room in the hotel that had no windows and no air. We turned on the cold water in the shower and doused ourselves multiple times during the night. “I am sure that Rabbi Nahman himself couldn’t sleep here!” I growled.
I thought about my introduction to the great mystical rabbi about 25 years ago, when I listened to a series of tapes about him and his views on healing. He referred to doctors as the “angels of death,” and addressed the torment of persistent illness – physical or emotional. When you are sick, it’s like there is a sentence on your head. The main difference between this sentence and a prisoner’s sentence is the latter knows how long he will have to spend in prison. And the only prescription for the seemingly-endless suffering is hitbodedut: talking out loud to God, as though you were speaking to a friend; it should preferably take place in nature, for one hour a day. I told numerous people about it, and it worked. I wondered why I had never committed to the practice of hitbodedut myself. Thinking about hitbodedut, my life and the rabbi’s life, which ended tragically in 1810 when he was 38 and contracted tuberculosis, I fell asleep.
In the light of day, I was stunned by what I found near the tomb of Rabbi Nahman: an entire town had grown up. The curb of the steep main street was lined with artists and vendors selling Rabbi Nahmaninspired paintings and crafts, and many of the signs were in Hebrew. Bookstores were stocked with books about him and hassidim – especially Breslov hassidim, who are his followers – were everywhere, and accommodations had sprung up to house them. During the rabbi’s lifetime, he stressed to his followers that it was important to be with him on Rosh Hashana. After his death, the practice continued, although it was greatly restricted and had to go underground during the Bolshevik years, when there was the threat of punishment and imprisonment. After the fall of Communism, in 1989, the practice resumed and today tens of thousands of pilgrims arrive for Rosh Hashana, where they gather at a lake for ritual purification. Many other pilgrims and visitors come throughout the year.
Alex and Paul headed to the men’s side of the building that houses the rabbi’s tomb, and I walked on a long concrete path lined by what looked like thick, white shower curtains – they blocked the view to the men’s area. I arrived at the entrance to the tomb building; it was dotted with benches and tzedaka boxes. When I opened the door to the building, I saw a playpen for babies, dozens of tzedaka boxes for charity in all shapes, sizes and colors, and bookshelves lined with prayer books; I selected a thin, paperback one, and smiled when I saw that the cover art was a fiddler on a roof.
The tomb itself was covered in black material with gold Hebrew lettering; on top of it was a protective plastic layer. Prayer requests, written on small pieces of paper, were taped to the top of the tomb. A hassidic woman who sported a well-coiffed wig and a long black skirt held up her baby daughter so she could touch the tomb. Another religious woman rocked gently as she read from a prayer book. Then she leaned her head on the tomb, and I heard her soft sobs. I sat down next to them and waited, trying to figure out what a secular woman should do. Suddenly, I heard a male voice say, “Ask. Ask for healing. You can ask as many times as you wish.” I turned to look behind me, but no one was there.
I knew exactly what the mysterious voice was alluding to. My intractable phobia, which torments me when I have any contact with doctors or medical settings. I hesitated, and then reached out and touched the tomb. My head fell involuntarily onto my chest. I closed my eyes, prayed silently, and asked for help. Was it my imagination, or did I suddenly see a bright purple light in the darkness? I opened my eyes, blinked, then closed them again. The purple light was still there. “Thank you,” I intoned. “Thank you.”
Before I left the room, a young woman approached me with an outstretched hand, asking for tzedaka. I told her I had already made contributions in two boxes. “Please help me,” she implored. “I don’t have enough money to run my household. Rabbi Nahman will open the gates for you.” I gave to her, hoping that indeed the gates would open.
I rejoined Alex and Paul in the street. Both are very secular. “Did you pray for your herniated disk?” I asked Alex, in a half-joking manner. He quite seriously replied that he had. “And you?” I asked Paul, expecting a funny reply from my very comical husband.
“A man approached me,” he said without a trace of irony. “He told me that no matter what I had done in my life that was wrong, the good rabbi would come out of the grave and pull me from the jaw of hell if I said a little prayer. So what did I have to lose?”
The three of us walked in silence to our car.
As we opened the door to the mobile sauna, I said, quietly, “We will have to come back here for Rosh Hashana.”
The author is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 100 publications and the author of Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Her website is Awardwinning photographer Paul Ross can also be reached at