A pilgrimage to Uman, a family secret and a father-son reconciliation.
For Rosh HaShanah, 5771, two years ago, I had dragged my father, a rabbi, and my younger brother to Uman, a blighted Ukrainian city halfway between Kiev and Odessa. We were ostensibly there for the purposes of a book I was working on: the book was about pilgrimage, more or less.
I’d asked the two of them to come along to help me research the final chapter. But by calling it “research” I was being a little deceptive.
Unlike books where some stunt — a year of living biblically, say, or a year without sex — is taken up for the sake of the material it might provide, my book had its pretexts reversed. For me, the fact of the book was only an excuse to go ahead and have the experiences. Pilgrimage has always been about pretext: a pretext to leave home, to break with routine. For me, the pilgrimage that was the book had become a pretext to have a series of conversations — about the past, about regret, about forgiveness — that I’d never had the chance or the courage to initiate. My father had come out as gay to me when I was 19, and I’d never been able to reconcile myself to the deceptions and irresponsibilities involved.
Which had brought us to Uman, to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Nachman, a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, died in 1810, and was buried, according to his wishes, in Uman. Before his death, he had commanded his followers to come visit him there for Rosh HaShanah. They were to recite 10 psalms, what he called the “Tikkun haKlali,” or “general remedy,” and be granted forgiveness for the year to come. He had chosen to be buried in Uman because it had been the site of a massive pogrom, just a few years earlier, which had mostly wiped out Uman’s Jewish population. If he told his followers to come say the Tikkun haKlali, he reasoned, they would also be present to say Kaddish for those who otherwise might go unremembered. This felt somehow fitting: at the center of my book was the question of who, exactly, had to be present for forgiveness to be possible.
The book had begun — though I wouldn’t know that for some time — along the Camino de Santiago, one of the three most important pilgrimage routes in Catholicism, which I took up with a friend on what was basically a dare. At minimum a lark. It’s a walk to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela, about 550 miles across northern Spain from the French border, and it dates back about a millennium; according to Catholic doctrine, arrival at the cathedral in Santiago, where the bones of the apostle St. James are interred, grants a pilgrim a full remission of sins to date. Over the past two decades, the route has become hugely popular with a young, secular crowd, and when we walked we met almost nobody who’d cop to an explicitly religious motive. My interest lay in what it might mean to take up a formerly religious ritual — especially one oriented toward absolution — now drained of its original religious content. It was, in my mind, a purely formal investigation: if we didn’t believe in divine forgiveness, would we still feel, after having walked 500 miles as part of a roving community of sufferers, some lightening, some relief from the consciousness of our wrongdoing?
The answer turned out to be complicated, and by the time of our arrival in Santiago I felt, unsurprisingly, unresolved. The one thing I could point to that had changed along the way was that I was once more in touch with my dad, whom I hadn’t spoken to in almost two years. One of the impulses along the Camino is to strip away the extra weight, the things we carry unnecessarily. The movement was from the concrete to the abstract: in the first week this meant our books, left in pilgrims’ hostels in Roncesvalles and Pamplona; in the second week this meant our jeans and sweaters, given away in Burgos and León; and in the third week this meant the anger and frustration I’d been nurturing, laid idle on the Sarria bench where I called my dad for the first time in so long. The connection between this secularized ritual and a new hope for our relationship remained largely unclear to me, but what was important wasn’t the why of our steps toward reconciliation, it was the that.
Over the course of my next pilgrimage, to the 88 temples of the rural Japanese island of Shikoku, though, my faith in the possibility of a purely formal ritual began to wane. I watched the Japanese pilgrims as they lit incense, rang gongs, hung placards of remembrance, and repeated Buddhist sutras, and I recognized that their long familiarity with these rituals allowed them a much richer, more meaningful relationship to this temple circuit than I, an outsider, could never have. Which led me to Uman. I like to joke that I ended up in Uman because these things come in threes: I’d done the Christian pilgrimage and the Buddhist one and now it was time to cover my bases. But that’s not really true. I went to Uman because I had come to understand that the process of forgiveness I’d begun along an erstwhile Catholic walk was going to have to end with the rituals that felt natively resonant with me. My dad and I had been friendly, in a cautious way, for a year, but it still felt as though too much remained unsaid.
The promise of our trip to Uman, for me, was that the Jewish tradition tells us that we cannot be forgiven by God until we are forgiven by those we have sinned against. Where a Catholic can appeal directly to the divine, a Jew is required to offer his humble repentance in person. As Reform Jews, a lot of what went on among the Breslowers in Uman felt foreign to us, but somehow the context of such strange familiarity, or perhaps intimate estrangement, led us to take the mitzvot of forgiveness more seriously than the three of us ever had in the comfort of a New Jersey congregation. We thus spent the days of yuntif mostly avoiding the riotous derangement of the food tent and the Tzion, Reb Nachman’s grave, and kept to ourselves on Uman’s periphery, wandering around and telling each other the things we’d never been able to say out loud, asking each other the questions we’d been too hurt and worried to ask. Standing before each other and asking for forgiveness.
A few days before Yom Kippur of that year I got off the train from Kiev to Berlin to find an e-mail from my dad, accepting our apologies and asking that we, in turn, accept his. I ended up closing my book with that note, making up in part for the book’s betrayals by allowing him the last word. But that year the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur lasted for me all the way until the following Rosh HaShanah, when the book was finished and he finally had a chance to read it. I was afraid he might never talk to me again, that all of the wonderful things that had happened in Uman had been swept away by their place in a story that could not have been easy to read. But the warmth and graciousness of his response completed what we had begun. On that Yom Kippur, a year ago now, he wrote me another e-mail, this ONE an inscription not in my narrative, but in the book of life. It was no longer for my purposes, but for ours. This year, we’re planning another trip together in the weeks after the High Holy Days. But this one won’t be a pilgrimage. It’s just going to be a vacation.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus is the author of “A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful” (Riverhead), published in May, from which this article is adapted.