THE BUKHARAN JEWS AT THE THRESHOLD OF THE THIRD MILLENNIUM

Dr. Albert KAGANOVICH


Albert Kaganovich, Research associate, Humanities Department, Jewish University in Jerusalem (Israel)


Small Eastern Jewish ethnic groups that used to live in the Soviet Union are now scattered across the world and are in danger of losing their ethnic and cultural identity. To avoid this and to better adjust themselves to their new homes they form communities in the places where they are now living. The Bukharan Jews have been more successful than others: they went as far as setting up a single organization to tie together their ethnic communities functioning on several continents.

Central Asia

Jews have been living in what is now Central Asia for over 1,500 years.1 At the turn of the 19th century they finally started climbing out of a several centuries long economic and spiritual crisis. It was at that time that they became known as the Bukharan Jews. Until the October revolution of 1917 they were rapidly monopolizing regional trade; after a short revival during the New Economic Policy period (the early 1920s) they had to retreat from trade to handicrafts, the communitys second traditional occupation. The standard of living dropped, the new power stepped up its persecution of Judaism and Jewish culture. As a result, in the first half of the 1930s some 4 thou members of the Bukharan Jewish community escaped to Eretz Yisrael and Western Europe via Iran and Afghanistan. The majority of those who stayed behind continued preserving their ethnic traditions despite persecutions. In the 1970s when Soviet power allowed limited Jewish emigration about 10 thou Bukharan Jews (or 23.3 percent) left Central Asia mainly for Israel. Later, before the 1980s about 7 thou more left the Soviet Union; about 41 thou remained in Central Asia. They were mainly city dwellers and lived in Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Ferghana.

New foreign and domestic policy launched in the 1980s in the Soviet Union made it possible to set up Jewish organizations and step up activities. After 1990 new synagogues, cultural centers, Sunday schools, summer camps, charities, and ulpans were opened; newspapers in Hebrew and Russian appeared (Khaverim, Mizrakh, Shofar). About 450 Bukharan Jews studied in the Chabad Yeshiva; Joint, Sokhnut, Bnei Akiva opened their branches in Central Asia; an Israeli embassy started functioning in Tashkent. People from all sorts of Jewish religious organizations flocked to Central Asia from Israel and the United States; in the late 1990s the Or Avner Chabad set up by one of the largest Israel businessmen Levi Levayev, himself a Bukharan Jew, actively supported the local religious organizations.

Perestroika in the Soviet Union along with the economic crisis boosted nationalist feelings. In the Central Asian republics the process went hand in hand with Islamization: in 1990, in Andizhan (Uzbekistan) the mob attacked the local Jews, Armenians and Crimean Tartars; a wave of nationalist meetings swept Central Asia; Tajikistan was plunged into a civil war waged by ethnic and clan groups. The pressure of anti-Semitism was increasing: in the mid-1990s, a 24-year old Dmitri Fattakhov and 76-year-old Iosef Koenov were arrested in Tashkent on false accusations; in 1998, in Dushanbe journalist Meir-Haim Gavrielov, Chairman of the Cultural Society of the Bukharan Jews, was atrociously murdered.

The local republics proclaimed their national tongues state tongues; members of ethnic minorities, Jews included, were dismissed en mass from nonindustrial organizations. This forced Bukharan Jews and Ashkenazim who had arrived in Central Asia during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 to leave the region in great numbers. As a result, by 2000 only about 3,000 Bukharan Jews stayed behind united into about a dozen of religious communities. Many small and medium-sized towns lost nearly all their Jews and Jewish communitiesthose of the latter that are still functioning will probably not last long. The majority of the Bukharan Jews still living in Central Asia is planning a resettlement to Central Europe and North America. They refuse to associate themselves with Israel, the country plagued by numerous social-economic and political problems.

Israel

Today Israel is home for the majority of the Bukharan Jews. They came there in four waves: the first aliya from the 1880s to World War I was followed in the early 1930s by the second one. This was the most difficult process: the Soviet secret police arrested Jews at the borders with Afghanistan and Iran; those who managed to cross the border into these countries fell prey to local bandits. Between the early 1970s and mid-1980s the third wave of Bukharan Jews reached Israel. It doubled their number: by late 1980s, there were about 29,600 of them. When the fourth aliya left Central Asia in the 1990s (about 22 thou in all), the number of Bukharan Jews in Israel in 2000 was estimated as 60 thou.

Many centuries of existence in a hostile Muslim environment taught the Bukharan Jews to live in extended families closed to outsiders. This influenced their behavior outside the region, too. In Israel the first two aliyas lived for some time as closed ethnic groups. The first aliya donated money to Sephardic and Ashkenazic charities, yet preferred to remain in its own quarter Rehovot in Jerusalem (now known as Shkhunat Na-buharim). Later, the second aliya joined them. They married inside their community, opened synagogues of their own, celebrated religious holidays and followed all their traditions. Those who left the quarter still preferred to settle all together. It was several decades later that they started gradually assimilating themselves with other Jewish ethnic groups. In the 1970s-1990s when the third and especially the fourth aliyas arrived the old timers discovered that their relatives fresh from Central Asia were absolutely different people. The attempts to bring together the two groups to discuss their cultural heritage, education, and adaptation failed. At the same time, the Bukharan Jews of the latest aliya stay away from the organizations of Soviet Ashkenazim even if they have Russian as the common tongue. This is explained by different mentalities.

The Bukharan Jews of the two latest waves, as those who came before them, marry among themselves, organize separate synagogues, and follow the Jewish traditions in the form brought from Central Asia. Even the third and the fourth waves differ: the fourth wave is less religious even if many of them follow all religious prescriptions; they are also better educated: there are more candidates and doctors of sciences among them; quite a few writers, singers, dancers, musicians, and artists. The expatriates of the previous waves were mainly traders and artisans. According to the 1998 poll conducted among the Bukharan Jews living in three quarters in Tel Aviv, back in Central Asia 12 percent of them filled the posts that required higher education; only 20 percent out of them found suitable jobs in Israel. It should be said that the social status of the Bukharan Jews of the latest wave drops much more sharply than of the earlier waves; they are much more depressed and are keenly aware of the crisis created by the destroyed family structure. It was in the last quarter of the 20th century that better-educated members of the family who filled important posts replaced the old men who had been traditionally heading the Bukharan Jewish families in Central Asia. Emigration to Israel or the United States deprived their heads of their professional and therefore high family status. It should be said that the Bukharan Jews find it easier to fit into the social environment in Israel where the life style is very close to that in Central Asia than in the United States.

In 1999-2000, having failed to get Knesset seats for their party called Lev, many of the Bukharan Jews supported the Shas religious party at the 1999 parliamentary elections. Success gave their young leader Amnon Cohen a Knesset seat while many of their communities began getting material support thanks to the Shas efforts. The party that has a wide network of cells in all parts of the country put religion on a much more prominent place in the life of expatriates of the latest wave.

Starting with the latter half of 2000 a religious organization Or Avner began working actively among these people: in six months it set up religious communities among the immigrants of the two latest waves; having united into a widespread organization, the Bukharan Jewish communities in Israel and elsewhere in the world set up a World Congress of the Bukharan Jews the constituent congress of which was opened with great pomp in Jerusalem on 26 November, 2000. The congress worked in five sections; the speakers used Hebrew, the language of the Bukharan Jews and Russian. The concluding plenary sitting endorsed the congress structure headed by the president, chairman, and five deputies of the president who led local congresses in Israel, Austria and Germany, North America, Central Asia, and Russia. The congress also acquired a board of directors and a presidential council to which 50 people, nearly all of them businessmen, were appointed. According to the congress President Levi Levayev, the board of directors should become the main working body expected to organize religious education of the Bukharan Jews; setting up and coordination of synagogues; carrying out social support and cultural activities in the form of museums, community theaters, and the press.

It should be said that back in the late 1950s-1970s the Bukharan Jews in Israel published several newspapers and magazines of their own; in the 1990s, there were at least a dozen of them; only two newspapers, the Menorah and the Bukharan Newspaper, have survived: the former, mainly a religious newspaper, is kept afloat by Levi Levayev; the latter is mainly a secular publication intended for the communitys intellectuals. It concentrates on the problems common to the entire country and uses Russian as its main tongue with several pages in the language of the Bukharan Jews. It is published by Ovadia Fatakhov, leader of the Lev Party. The Menorah carries more materials in Hebrew and the Bukharan Jewish language, yet its main language is also Russian. Late in the 1950s through to the 1970s the local press mainly used the language of the Bukharan Jews and Hebrew in small items. One can conclude that in the past decade the Russian language received much more space, which reflects its greater role in the life of the Bukharan Jews who came from Central Asia.

In the last decade, in an effort to preserve their ethnic and family heritage the Bukharan Jews in Israel and other countries have launched book publishing in Russian, Hebrew and their own tongue. It seems that they are doing much more in this sphere than other non-Ashkenazic ethnic groups from the former Soviet Union. The larger part of such books (the number of copies of which is fairly limited) describes family histories. Over 50 titles have been published; Israel leads where the number of books on poetry, history and folklore of the Bukharan Jews is concerned. In the 1990s several dozens of them appeared.

America

It was in the 1940s and 1950s that diaspora of the Bukharan Jews was taking shape in both Americas. The first immigrants came from Western Europe and Israel. A small number of them settled in Argentine and Brazil, the majority preferred the United States: by the early 1970s, there were 1,000 of them there. In the 1970s and 1980s, about 2,000 arrived from Israel and the Soviet Union, in the 1990s, 19,000 came from Israel and the CIS. Today the United States has the worlds second (after Israel) Bukharan Jewish community25,000. They are living in New York (70 percent in the Queens area, the largest group of the Bukharan Jews in the country), Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Denver, as well in cities in the states of Texas, Arizona, and Florida.

Until recently the community in the United States was more active even if it was less numerous than in Israel. This is explained by the fact that the majority of members were educated and fairly well to do people who promptly set up communities and religious and cultural centers: the Rabbinical Council of the Bukharan Jews, the Bukharan Jews War Veterans Organization of the United States, the sports club, dance and music companies and four theaters (Renaissance, Bukhara on Hudson, the Ilias Malaev Theater, and a Studio Theater), which mainly use the Bukharan Jewish language. They have synagogues in New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego, Cleveland, Denver, Boston, Seattle, Miami, and in other cities. The Bukharan Jews in America regularly meet for congresses and publish newspapers (Most and Zamon) and journals (Druzhba, Voskhod, and Nadezhda) in Russian. Despite the fact that the majority of the diaspora is still living in communities, the family life is changing under the pressure of external conditions.

This process is especially obvious among the youth that here, as well as in Central Asia for the last 50 years, normally opts for business or careers in the sphere of education. In general, as distinct from the Bukharan Jews in Israel, in America they prefer secular educationmany of their young men study in colleges and universities. In 2000, Or Avner that detected a threat to the traditional values of the Bukharan Jews started a system of religious education in the United States.

The Canadian Bukharan Jewish communities made up of the families that came in the 1960s-1980s are closely connected with their compatriots in the United States; by the end of the 20th century more than 1,000 Bukharan Jews were living in Canada having arrived from Israel and the U.S. They have already started communal activities in cities, especially in Toronto, and have a synagogue that received one of the six ancient Torahs that heads of the Congress of the Bukharan Jews of the U.S. and Canada had taken out of Uzbekistan in September 1999 with President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimovs permission. The Canadian and American organizations of the Bukharan Jews united at a common congress in 1999.

Europe

Moscow was the first European city to which Bukharan Jews came and where they formed their community in the last quarter of the 19th century. They were mainly representatives of large trade firms that bought cloths from local textile manufacturers and sold them cotton. In Soviet times, Bukharan Jews also appeared in other cities of the European part of the U.S.S.R. In 1989, there were 1,546 people (including 1,407 in Russia and 110 in Ukraine). Today they are mainly living in Russia (there are about 1,000 of them500 are living in Moscow).

France was the first West European country where several dozens of Bukharan Jews came first in the 1920s, after the October revolution of 1917; by 1940 there were 200 of them living mainly in Paris. Some of them managed to escape to London before the Nazis captured Paris, a quarter of those who stayed behind perished in Auschwitz; a large number escaped with their lives: their representative Asaf Achildiev convinced the Germans that they were Iranians who believed in Moses. After World War II a small part of them remained in Franceothers emigrated to the United States, Israel, and other countries.

Vienna is their hometown in Central Europe: the first three families from Central Asia stayed in this (then transit) city as they moved from the Soviet Union to Israel in late 1973 (they were discouraged by the news about the difficulties of absorption and the Judgement War. By the late 1970s, their number increased to 150 families that arrived from the Soviet Union and Israel. Today there are over 350 Bukharan Jewish families living in Vienna (about 2,000 people) who faithfully preserve their traditions. In 1981, the Chabad movement helped them open a religious Talmud-Torah school; it also helped them organize observation of the kashruth and other traditions (Brit Mila, burials, and weddings). In the 1970s and 1980s, they attended Ashkenazic synagogues in Vienna, later, in 1988, they followed an example of the American and Israeli communities and built a synagogue of their own that they opened in 1992. By 2000, the community had already had an art school and a journal in Russian called Venskaia obshchina (The Vienna Community).

In the latter half of the 1990s Bukharan Jews started moving to Germany: by the end of 2000 there were two communitiesin Hannover and Dusseldorf. Today there are several hundreds of Bukharan Jews living in Germany.

Table 1

Dynamics of the Numerical Strength of Bukharan Jews Across the World in the Last Decade of the 20th Century2

Year

Central Asia

Israel

U.S.A.

Austria

Other countries3

Total

1989

41,000

29,600

4,700

1,100

2,600

79,000

2000

3,000

60,000

25,000

2,000

4,000

94,000

In the last decade the community on the whole left Central Asia and settled on three continents. In Israel there are 63.8 percent of the Bukharan Jews living in the world, in the United States, 26.6 percent. In 2000, in Central Asia (mainly in Uzbekistan) there were about 3.2 percent; in Austria, about 2.1 percent, in other countries, 4.3 percent. Everywhere where they live the Bukharan Jews try to preserve their ethnic culture and not to assimilate with their ethnic environment.


1 The earliest reliable information about the Jews in the Trans-Oxus area is dated back to the first half of the 4th century A.D. (see: M. Zand, Bukharan Jews, Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. 4, London, New York, 1990, p. 532).
2 I identify ethnic affiliation of the children of mixed marriages by the mothers nationality.
3 In Russia and the former Soviet European republics, as well as in Canada, Britain, France, and South America.

SCImago Journal & Country Rank
UP - E-MAIL