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What Women Seek in Uman

Shalvi Weissman

Some are hoping for a specific salvation. Others want to connect to Rebbe Nachman. Still others have no idea why they’ve come. But the thousands of women who come to Uman annually all find something.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

We’ve all heard about the tens of thousands of men who fly to Uman for Rosh HaShanah; many of us know someone who goes every year, or has been at least once. What’s less well known is that each year an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 women make the same journey. They don’t go for Rosh HaShanah; Breslov rabbanim are outspoken about women not traveling to Uman for Rosh HaShanah due to tzniyus concerns. But throughout the year they make the pilgrimage.

Like their male counterparts, these women come from all over the world, and from every color and stripe of the Jewish world. What draws them? What do they find when they get there? And why has Tu B’Av become known in recent years as the “Rosh HaShanah for women” in Uman, with well over 1,000 women making the pilgrimage?

Some women travel to Uman because they are in need of a particular yeshuah (salvation) and have heard it’s the place to go. For others the trip is an extension of their spiritual life and the study of Rebbe Nachman’s life and works. Some women are encouraged to go by husbands who find yearly inspiration from spending Rosh HaShanah there. And for yet others the reasons are unclear, sometimes even to themselves.

During one of my visits to Uman, a woman in tight jeans and long painted nails turned to me and asked me, “Do you know why I’m here?”

“No,” I answered, expecting her to tell me.

“Neither do I. A few months ago, I felt like I needed to start saying Tehillim regularly. Then I felt like I needed to come here. I thought maybe you could explain it to me.”

I couldn’t, but in time she’ll probably discover the answer for herself.

 

First Encounter

I grew up in a non-Orthodox family, but my father was raised in a chassidic home. He didn’t pass on much from his childhood to me, except stories of the Baal Shem Tov. While my peers focused on superheroes, I dreamed about the Baal Shem Tov. Those images were part of the process that brought me to Torah as a young adult.

One Friday afternoon in 1998, just hours before Shabbos, a friend asked if, early the following week, I would go with her and a few other friends to Uman and Mezibuzh. With no idea where the money would come from, my “Yes” was instantaneous. Was this my opportunity to jump on the Baal Shem Tov’s wagon and travel off into the night?

While my dreams remained lofty, the trip was a rather bumpy ride. We arrived in Uman late at night, exhausted, and were taken to the home of some locals in a huge apartment building that smelled of gasoline, dust, and foreign foods.

I just wanted to sleep, but my friends were going to the kever, and I wasn’t going to stay alone. I walked to the kever, part of me expecting a life-altering experience, and part of me wondering how long it would take before my friends would be ready to return to the apartment. I stumbled my way through some prayers until the first woman headed back.

We spent four days in Uman, and I’d never before had so much time with nothing to do but daven. Shacharis, Tehillim, personal prayer, Tehillim, Minchah, Shir HaShirim, Maariv.

At the time, my father was seriously ill, and my brother was drifting further and further from Yiddishkeit. I prayed for them and others, as well as for myself to find a husband. I compelled myself to sit at the kever and daven, hour after hour, day after day. At moments I felt some connection, but most of my tefillos felt forced.

From Uman we visited Breslov, where Rebbe Nachman’s primary disciple, Reb Nosson, is buried atop a hill overlooking a wide river and surrounded by fields of wildflowers. Old, intricately carved headstones peeked up among the greenery. I felt the disorientation I’d had in Uman fading.

Then we headed for Mezibuzh, arriving in the magical town of the Baal Shem Tov at twilight, and spending that night at his kever.

Only after returning home did I grasp what I felt had really transpired in Uman. I told a friend that Rebbe Nachman had taken a sledgehammer and smashed the klipos, the outer shells surrounding my neshamah. Parts of me that had formerly felt comfortable had cracked and were no longer part of me. When we reached the Baal Shem Tov, I felt light seeping in between the cracks, giving me the strength and courage I needed to start peeling off the unneeded and unholy things that had been part of me for so long.

Within that year my father, may he live until 120, recovered, my brother shaved off his ponytail, leaving only peyos, and I married a Breslover.

Since then I’ve been back to Uman umpteen times. The connection I feel there is so deep it’s hard to describe. I’ve had the honor of leading many groups of women to Uman, each trip and each woman unique. These ladies span the spectrum in every way possible, but to me they’re all beautiful. I’ve witnessed their souls blossom.

 

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