Jewish children with their teacher in Samarkand

An estimated 93,000 Jews lived in Uzbekistan when it became independent in 1991. Since then many of them have emigrated to Israel an elsewhere. An estimated 6,000 Ashkenazi and 2,000 Bukharan Jews remain concentrated in Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, and the Fergana Valley; however, the Jewish population continues to decline due to emigration. Uzbekistan had between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews in the 2000s. According to the U.S. Department of State: The Jewish community had no rabbinate because it did not have synagogues in eight different administrative units and therefore did not meet the requirements for a registered central office. The Ministry of Justice accredited a rabbi for the community in 2012, after a four-year gap, and has renewed his accreditation since.

The Jews in Uzbekistan are divided into two distinct groups: the more religious and traditional Bukharan Jewish community and the more progressive, European-in-origin Ashkenazi community. Most Uzbek Jews are now Ashkenazi due to the immigration of Bukharian Jews to Israel and the United States. There are 12 synagogues in Uzbekistan. [Source: Wikipedia +]

There are six synagogues in the Valley. There are several hundred Jews in Fergana, Namangan, and Kokand, with about 800 total in the area. Semyon Abdurakhmanov, the head of the Fergana Jewish community, has said that the biggest problem faced by the Jewish Uzbek community is the economy. During the Andijan Massacre in May 2005, the Israeli Embassy in Tashkent asked Abdurakhmanov to make a lists of Jews "in case there will be a need to airlift people to Israel." +

The Jewish population of Uzbekistan (then known as the Uzbek SSR) nearly tripled between 1926 and 1970, then slowly declined between 1970 and 1989, followed by a much more rapid decline since 1989, when the collapse of Communism began to occur. Between 1989 and 2002, over ninety percent of Uzbekistan's Jewish population left Uzbekistan and moved to other countries, mostly to Israel. +

Nearly all the Jews in Central Asia, including the Bukharan Jews, have left. Most went to Israel. Some of those in Uzbekistan went to Almaty, Kzyl-Orda, Bishkek and Tokmak in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Jewish leaders reported high levels of acceptance in society. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts or patterns of discrimination against Jews. The Jewish community was unable to meet the registration requirements necessary to have a centrally registered organization, but there were eight registered Jewish congregations. Observers estimated the Jewish population at 10,000, concentrated mostly in Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara. Their numbers continued to decline due to emigration, largely for economic reasons. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Uzbekistan ,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish History.org jewishhistory.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu

Bukharan Jews

Bukharan Jews before 1899

The Bukharan Jews are group of Jews that have lived in Central Asia for centuries and are so named because they were originally based in Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan and were associated with the city when it was capital of the powerful Bukhara Khanate. Culturally and linguistically they are most similar to Jews of Iran and Afghanistan. They speak a Jewish dialect of Tajik and have traditionally lived mostly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Many now live in Israel. Some live in the United States. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston), The New Yorker and New York Times]

There are believed to be around 60,000 Bukharan Jews in Central Asia. As of the late 1980s there were about 30,000 of them in Tashkent, 15,000 in Samarkand, 10,000 on Dushanbe, 9,000 in Bukhara and small numbers of them in Kokand, Andigan, Margelan and other towns. There have never been more than a few tens of thousands of Bukharan Jews. A traveler to Samarkand in the Middle Ages said there were around 50,000 Jews living there at that time. Surveys and estimates counted 16,000 in 1900, 20,000 in 1910, 30,000 in the 1920s, 40,000 at the end of the 1950s, 50,000 in the 1970s and 60,000 to 75,000 in the 1980s.

There are about 120,00 to 160,000 Bukharan Jews in Israel: many more than Uzbekistan, where only 1,500 to 2,000 remain. A large number of Bukharan Jews live in Rego Park in Queens. Some of the them are gangsters.

Mansur Mirovalev of Al Jazeera wrote: “Bukhara was once a focal point on the Great Silk Road, a powerhouse of Islamic learning. It was also the capital of one of the world's oldest and most isolated Jewish communities that barely survived centuries of persecution and is now facing extinction because of an exodus to Israel and the United States. [Source: Mansur Mirovalev, Al Jazeera, May 6, 2015]

Origin of the Bukharan Jews

According to legend the Bukharan Jews descended from the Ten Tribes of Israel, who were driven into the Assyrian Empire in the 8th century B.C. Some believe that Habor, a place mentioned in the Bible as a refuge for Jews at that time was really Bukhara. Scholars think that Jews have been in Central Asia since the A.D. 6th century. There is evidence that Jews were in the Central Asian cities of Balkh, Khwarezm and Merv in the 8th century but nothing that supports links with the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Mansur Mirovalev of Al Jazeera wrote: “Historically, the Bukhara Jews were traders, craftsmen, and specialised in fabric dying. They claim to have arrived in Central Asia around 500 BC, after being taken into captivity by Assyrians. Soviet archaeologists have found evidence of these claims in the remnants of a 2,200-year-old synagogue in what is now Turkmenistan. They became part of a multi-confessional population where Buddhists, Zoroastrians and, later, Nestorian Christians and Manicheans lived side by side. But by the time czarist Russia conquered Central Asia, they were the only surviving religious minority. [Source: Mansur Mirovalev, Al Jazeera, May 6, 2015 ]

Early History of Jews in Central Asia

From the 8th century to around the 16th century, Bukharan Jews were part of a large group of Jews that spread across Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran. Arab sources from the 10th century describe large numbers of Jews in Central Asia. Early 11th century sources describe a large population of Jews in Balkh.. During a visit to the region in 1170, Benjamin of Tudela wrote about a large Jewish community in Samarkand.

Mansur Mirovalev of Al Jazeera wrote: “Prior to and after the Arab conquests, the vast oasis that includes Bukhara and Samarkand was part of various Iranian and Turkic states that thrived on trade with China, India, and the Middle East, and produced such renowned scholars as mathematician ibn Sina and hadith collector al-Bukhari. Over time, the Jews of Bukhara adopted a dialect of Persian and used the Hebrew alphabet to write poems that blended traditional Persian poetry with Biblical themes - or praised Jewish martyrs killed after refusing to convert to Islam. From the 16th century, a Shia dynasty in Iran isolated the Bukhara Jews from other Jewish communities. [Source: Mansur Mirovalev, Al Jazeera, May 6, 2015 ]

According to Iranian-Jewish sources, large numbers of Jews fled Meshed in Iran for Samarkand and Balkh after the invasion of Iran by the Mongols. In the 16th century, after the destruction of Samarkand, Jews migrated to Bukhara, which was establishing itself as a major power in the region at that time.

Early History of Bukharan Jews

The strict and cruel Islamic Bukharan knanate was formed in the late 16th century. The Jews there were forced to live in a special quarter called Old Mahallya and forbidden from buying horses from Muslims and had to wear special clothing so they could be easily distinguished from Muslims.

Mansur Mirovalev of Al Jazeera wrote: “In the Bukhara Emirate, they were further isolated as the Sunni emirs were known for their cruelty - one had live coals placed under scaffolds so that the heads of executed men would grimace from the burning heat right after decapitation. They enjoyed absolute power over their Sunni Muslim subjects - and more so over the minority Shia, Hindu, and Jews. The 10,000-strong Jewry of Bukhara "lives in utmost oppression, being despised by everyone", wrote Arminius Vambery, a Hungarian-Jewish traveller who visited the emirate disguised as a Sufi dervish in the early 1860s - a few years before the czarist invasion. [Source: Mansur Mirovalev, Al Jazeera, May 6, 2015]

Many Bukhara Jewish men were craftsmen. They worked as weavers, tailors, carpet makers, jewelry makers and hairdressers, Most were involved in yarn dying. They managed to monopolize that craft in Central Asia. Women sold bread for money and worked as dancers at weddings and other family celebrations for both Jews and Muslims.

Persecution of the Bukharan Jews

Bukhara Jews had to pay a special tax and were slapped in the face every time they paid it to humiliate them. Their shops were also required to be a step lower than the shops of Muslims.

Mansur Mirovalev of Al Jazeera wrote: “A tax collector had to ritually slap the kalontar - a Jewish community leader - after collecting dues and an extra "life sparing" tax. Jews were prohibited from wearing silk and riding horses and were permitted to live only in three specific neighbourhoods. [Source: Mansur Mirovalev, Al Jazeera, May 6, 2015 ^^^]

In the 18th century there was a wave of Islamic fanaticism in Bukhara and a campaign of forced conversion was launched against the Jews. Many Jews outwardly practiced Islam but secretly retained their Jewish faith. They were called “chala” (“neither this or that”). Others did convert and married Muslims and became completely assimilated.

Mirovalev wrote: “Muslims used coercion and verbal tricks to convert them to Islam, but the converts - dubbed chala, "neither this nor that" - were mistrusted by both the old and new communities and lived as impoverished outcasts. In 1793, Sephardic rabbi Yosef Maimon arrived in Bukhara to find that many religious practises were neglected and remaining copies of the Torah had only three parts. He opened a yeshiva and convinced the community to switch to the Sephardic liturgy.” ^^^

Due to these pressures and the remoteness of the Bukharan Jews from other Jewish communities, Judaism came very close to dying out completely in Bukhara and Central Asia. In the 19th century there was a rebirth of Jewish culture led by Joseph Mamon, an envoy from the Safed community. He procured books on Judaism and provided training for Jews. The Jewish community was given another boost with the arrival of large number of Jewish immigrants from Meshed in Iran.

Bukharan Jews Under the Russians

The Bukharan Jews welcomed the Russians because they were less discriminatory than their Muslim rulers. After the Russians arrived in the 19th century, many Jews migrated to Tashkent and Samarkand. They thrived as capitalists and traders. During the era of pogroms, Jews were accused of “exploiting” local people but no serious incidents of violence was directed at them.

Bukhara Jewish dancers

Mansur Mirovalev of Al Jazeera wrote: “Czarist Russia turned Central Asia's rulers into vassals or annexed their lands. The Jewry of Bukhara welcomed the new rule - and benefited from it greatly. They were listed as a "native" ethnic group. They could live where they wanted, their tax burden was reduced, they were allowed to build new synagogues, and some made fortunes on trading Russian goods and cotton. Chala Jews were permitted to return to their faith without fear of execution.” [Source: Mansur Mirovalev, Al Jazeera, May 6, 2015 ^^^]

Zionist ideas caught on among the Bukharan Jews. Significant numbers of them began migrating to Palestine in the late 19th century. At the end of the 1880s a “Bukharan quarter” appeared in Jerusalem.

Bukharan Jews Under the Soviets

After the Soviets took over Central Asia, Jews were accorded the same rights as other people and many people with Jewish heritage that had not called themselves Jews before began calling themselves Jews. Initially, Jewish culture flourished under the Soviets. Zionist societies were allowed to form. Hebrew was allowed as a language of instruction in schools.

The period of liberalism didn’t last long. In the early 1920s Zionist groups were forbidden and Tajik replaced Hebrew as the language of instruction, In the late 1920s, synagogues were closed. Jews were denied work in their traditional trades and crafts and were forced to work in trades such as butter churning, textile weaving and brick-making instead. Under the Soviets, Zionist ideology was condemned and emigration was halted. In 1960s, Bukhara Jews were required to participate in anti-Israel demonstrations.

Mansur Mirovalev of Al Jazeera wrote: “Some young, Westernised and secular Bukhara Jews embraced the communist doctrine, and after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, they helped Red Moscow uproot what it called the "medieval obscurantism" of Muslim ways of life. But the Communist Party was an ungrateful partner. In the 1920s, thousands of wealthy Jews were purged. Many crossed illegally into Afghanistan or Iran to reach British-administered Palestine. Bukhara's 13 synagogues were closed, Torah scrolls were confiscated, rabbis persecuted, forcing the community to hold Shabbat services and perform circumcisions in secret. "For teaching me, my teacher was sentenced to four years in jail," said Aaron Siyanov, a full-bearded, 80-year-old rabbi. [Source: Mansur Mirovalev, Al Jazeera, May 6, 2015]

Bukharan Jew Customs

Bukharan Jewish food

The traditional costume of a Bukharan Jewish man was a long shirt, trousers, a robe, a round hat of Astrakhan fur with a velvet top and leather shoes. Women wore a shirt and undershirts, trousers, a kerchief and leather shoes.

Jewish dietary customs, holidays and basic religious practiced were observed. Circumcisions and bar mitzvahs were presided over by “lakhams”, who performed the duties of rabbis. In the old days people lived in large extended family compounds. Their houses were more or less the same as those of Muslims except that there was no separation into men’s and women’s sections.

Bukharan Jews nearly always married other Bukharan Jews. Marriages have traditionally been arranged with the help of matchmakers and involved the payment of a bride price and a large dowry. In the old days children were sometimes betrothed while still infants and rich men sometimes had two wives if their first wife was barren.

Wedding celebrations included an inspection of the dowry payment and the bride price, a ritual bath for the bride and the painting the bride’s hands with henna. The approval of a marriage contract took place on Tuesday and the marriage ceremony was conducted under a canopy by a rabbi on Wednesday. After the ceremony there was a large feast.

Jewish wedding and marriage, see Jews.

Migration of Bukhara Jews

The Bukhara Jews, one of the world's oldest Jewish communities, is facing extinction amid a mass exodus to Israel and the United States. In the 1970s, when emigration was allowed, Bukhara Jews jumped at the opportunity to leave. About 10,000, 15 percent of their population, left. More left after Gorbachev came to power in the mid 1980s and the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s even though they were allowed more religious and cultural freedoms at home.

Mansur Mirovalev of Al Jazeera wrote: “By the early 1970s, the Bukhara Jewish population reached its all-time high - nearly 40,000 lived in Soviet Uzbekistan, neighbouring Tajikistan, and other Central Asian republics. In 1972, however, Soviet authorities began allowing repatriation to Israel. For the first time in centuries, Bukhara Jews were able to travel to the "Promised Land" without the risk of being enslaved, forcibly converted or killed along the way. [Source: Mansur Mirovalev, Al Jazeera, May 6, 2015 ^^^]

“After Uzbekistan's independence in 1991, emigration to Israel and the US intensified, while Jewish organisations rushed in to educate the remaining Jews. Israeli visitors scrutinised and sometimes rejected their practises. "When I slaughtered [a cow], they would not eat my meat," Rabbi Siyanov recalled. "Said my [rabbi's] certificate was from Russia, not Israel," they would tell him.” ^^^

Last Bukhara Jews in Bukhara

Bukharan sukhot

Less than 500 Bukhara Jews now live in Uzbekistan, with about 150 in Bukhara, compared to 50,000 in Queens, New York (by some estimates) and 100,000 in Israel. Reporting from Bukhara, Mansur Mirovalev of Al Jazeera wrote: “The body was wrapped in a worn-out carpet instead of a prayer shawl. Not a single relative entered the cemetery through its gate under an azure cupola topped with the Star of David.But the 75-year-old woman who died in early April, two days before Passover, was buried and mourned in accordance with Jewish rites in Bukhara, an ancient city in central Uzbekistan that lies some 2,800km northeast of Jerusalem. [Source: Mansur Mirovalev, Al Jazeera, May 6, 2015 ^^^]

“A dozen men carried the body and put it to rest among the graves, which now outnumber the entire Jewish population of Bukhara. "There's so few of us - we should be listed as an endangered species," said Jura Khoshayev, the grey-bearded, 44-year-old community leader. "We can't always get enough people for a minyan," a synagogue service that requires the presence of at least 10 men, Khoshayev added, pointing at seven Jewish men who gathered at one of city's two remaining synagogues, an adobe house built in 1882, just hours after the funeral. ^^^

“His remark seemed especially bitter because two of the men were Israelis, bearded and clad in black suits and hats, who had come to inspect the conformity of prayers and had brought kosher wine and matzo bread for the Passover celebrations. The youngest man in the synagogue was Sion Matatov, a 21-year-old who wants to become a rabbi. To do this, he will have to leave for Israel or Russia because there is no yeshiva, or religious study institution, in Bukhara. His younger sister, Angela Matatova, also expressed her plans to leave. "All our relatives are in America," said the 16-year-old with her dark curly hair in a waist-long braid.” ^^^

The Bukhara community “sees more deaths and funerals than births and weddings.” "It's time to get my son married, but there is no girl," Matatov's father Daniel, complained, sitting over a dismantled watch in his tiny workshop with a black, oblong eyeglass on his forehead. "That's the biggest problem." ^^^

“Now, their waning days in Uzbekistan are filled with cautious optimism and relative comfort. Relatives in the US and Israel support them financially, and for the first time in their history they can practise their faith without fear - and have their children educated at a Jewish school. "I think we will stay on," Siyanov said, sitting in the sunlit backyard of his house next to a huge cage filled with pigeons he breeds. "To preserve the term 'Bukhara Jew', we will do whatever it takes." ^^^

Lev Leviev, the Bukhara Jew Who Broke the DeBeer's Diamond Cartel

Lev Leviev with Putin

Lev Leviev is the founder and head of company that is the world's leading diamond cutter and polisher. A Bukharan Jew born in Uzbekistan, he is regarded as the richest man in Israel. His real estate holdings span the globe from the former Soviet Union to Europe to the United States. Among his assets are railways in Russia, 7-11s in Texas, shopping malls in Israel and the former New York Times building in Manhattan, which alone is said to be worth $525 million. Trained as a diamond cutter, he grew up poor, emigrated to Israel as a teenager in 1971 and is so confident of his cutting skills and steady hands that he has performed more than a thousand ritual circumcisions — many on the sons of employees in his various businesses. In 2007 he was ranked by Forbes as the 210th richest man in the world. The magazine estimated his worth to be $4.1 billion. Others say the true figure is close to $8 billion. He is leading benefactor is Jewish causes. [Source: Zev Chafets, New York Times magazine, September 16, 2007]

Leviev is credited by some with breaking the back of the DeBeers cartel. Working out of the office of his U.S. diamond company, LLD USA, situated in Manhattan's diamond district, he was able to achieve what he did by getting his hands on a large share of the world's uncut diamonds, which traditionally have been at the heart of DeBeer's ability to maintain its monopoly. A Tel Aviv diamond merchant told the New York Times magazine, “When Leviev started out, all he had was an amazing amount of ambition and the ability to understand the stone, Understanding the stone — that was the key." Leviev himself said, “I never doubted that I would get rich. I knew from the time I was 6 hat was destined to be a millionaire. I’d go with my father to shops, and while he talking business, my eyes automatically counted the merchandise."

Leviev's first big break came when he became a DeBeers's sightholder, a milestone he reached through hard work and harnessing the industriousness of his family. His second big break came when he forged crucial contacts in Russia in 1989 as the Soviet Union was coming apart. To do that he had to give up his sightolding place, a tremendous sacrifice.

Bukharan Jewish girl

Leviev came to Moscow on the invitation of the Soviet minister of energy and was able to exploit his connections in the Jewish community to set up diamond-rleated businesses in Russia. “When I got there, Gorbachev was till power, but you could see that things were coming apart," he told the New York Times magazine. In Russia, Levied established a high-tech cutting and polishing plant and showed the Russians how they could take control of their own diamond industry. In Angola he forged close ties with country's president , Jose Eduardo Dis santos, who speaks fluent Russian from his days as an engineering students in the Soviet Union.

The Tel Avi diamond merchant said, “he was breaking the rules, going after the source. When he succeeded in Russia, and then in Angola, others saw it and were suddenly emboldened. That's how Leviev cracked the DeBeers cartel. With the instincts a tiger and the balls of a panther." Leviev now presides over a top to bottom diamond company that embraces mines in Russia, Angola and Namibia, cutting and polishing operations and outlets that sell diamonds wholesale and retail.

Bukharian Jewish Cultures Lives On in New York

Reporting from one of the Jewish enclaves in New York City, Paul Berger wrote in the New York Times, “Anyone stepping from the roar of Queens Boulevard into the din of the King David Kosher Restaurant one recent Tuesday evening could have been forgiven for thinking that he or she had just gate-crashed a wedding. A band belted out Russian and American pop songs while men in well-tailored suits and women in shimmering cocktail dresses danced, wrists twisting in the air, fingers snapping. Around them were enormous tables laden with food, and extravagant balloon decorations reached to the ceiling. Yet there, in the center of the dance floor, cradled in her mother’s arms, was the party’s host: Emily, 1. "When she was born, my husband told me we are going to have a big, big party," said Ekaterina Aminov, 32. "We knew it one year ago." [Source: Paul Berger, New York Times, March 29, 2012 ^]

“In a cramped office nearby, King David’s managing partner, Arthur Shakarov, 36, explained that such lavish celebrations were commonplace among Bukharian Jews. As many as 40,000 Bukharians immigrated to New York from across Central Asia, mostly from Uzbekistan, after the fall of the Soviet Union. The community is centered here, in Forest Hills, Queens. "This is something they have been doing in their countries" for generations, Mr. Shakarov said. There are many reasons Bukharians might hire a room: not just for weddings and bar mitzvahs, but also for baby showers, circumcisions, first birthdays and, "for the very religious," a boy’s first haircut, at age 3. ^

“Even somber occasions require a restaurant booking. Opposite Emily’s party, about 40 men and women gathered around a long table beneath three chandeliers. At the head of the table, a rabbi in a black hat bobbed rhythmically, intoning Hebrew prayers. Behind him stood a photograph of a wizened man wearing a white shirt, Solomon Cohen, who died 24 years ago in Turkestan, in what is now Kazakhstan, at age 85. Every year, Mr. Cohen’s grandson Joseph Cohen said, his descendants gather on the yahrzeit — or anniversary of his death — to pray and recount anecdotes about him. The ritual is common among American Jews, but the scale of the Cohens’ celebration is not. ^

“Joseph Cohen, who is 54 and a grandfather, said that if not for events like this, his own children and grandchildren would forget their past. "That is the way we are able to refresh our memories," he said. Amid rambling Russian tales of Solomon Cohen’s life, trays with food arrived. First, fried fish in garlic sauce, then baked samsa, a type of samosa, and lamb shish kebab. Finally, plates full of plov — a pilaf of rice with carrots, onions and meat, in this case, beef — filled the table. Igor Cohen, 46, another grandson, said that in Turkestan his mother had done all the catering herself. "Since we didn’t have that well-developed restaurant business back then," he said, "it was taken care of at home." ^

“Around 10 p.m., as news arrived that a new addition to the Cohen family, a baby boy, had been born that evening, and as tear-filled hugs were exchanged, the service wound down and the guests filed quietly out into the night. In the other room, Emily was just hitting her stride. After her dramatic entrance with her parents an hour earlier, to the applause of 80 or so guests, relatives were taking turns walking her shakily around the dance floor and bouncing her in their arms. After a cake cutting, the band announced that the time had arrived for "Joma" — the traditional Bukharian attire reserved for special occasions. Men and women slipped brightly colored robes embroidered with gold and Hebrew lettering over suits and dresses. They filled the dance floor once more, elbows raised, fingers snapping to a Persian tune. "It’s perfect," Emily’s mother, Ms. Aminov, said, looking on and touching her fingers to her chest. "It’s my heart. It’s my husband’s heart."”

Bukharan Jews

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Library of Congress, CNN, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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