Judaism in Uzbekistan.

Jewish people may have lived in modern-day Uzbekistan from not long after the 5th century CE, when some scholars think that they settled after migrating (because of persecution?) from what was then Persia (this said, evidence for a very old synagogue exists in neighbouring Turkmenistan. The synagogue was probably built 2,200 years ago). There is good reason to suppose that Bukhara was the first important city in Uzbekistan where Jewish people put down their roots, but over time settlement took place in other cities in the region. The Jewish communities in Uzbekistan eventually embraced the identity and the practices of the Sephardis, and in Bukhara today it is as Sephardi Jews that all or most of the remaining families describe themselves (during a visit to the synagogue furthest from the city centre, our female host said that only 50 Jewish families remained in the city). Persecution of the Jewish communities by Muslim rulers and neighbours was frequent prior to the Russian conquest of Central Asia in the 1860s and the 1870s, and persecution, albeit generally more subtle, resumed when Uzbekistan secured its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 (it was during the tsarist era that Askenazi Jews from other parts of the Russian Empire settled in Uzbekistan, thereby increasing the overall size of the Jewish presence, but the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi communities sustained their separate identities). Not long after independence, Islamist fundamentalism became a force to contend with, although the oppressive regime that currently prevails in Uzbekistan has done much to reduce the threat (however, because Uzbekistan shares a border with Afghanistan, the threat posed by Islamist extremists can never be completely ignored. This is even more so given that Uzbekistan has its own Islamist extremists, as the two preceding posts confirm). Fears about personal security help explain why Uzbekistan’s Jewish community is now extremely small. Migration to Israel and the USA persists.

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Jewish cemetery, Samarkand

EAJC.org has the following information about the Bukhara Jews in particular and the Jewish communities of Uzbekistan more generally:

The special sub-ethnic group of Bukhara Jews formed on the territory of Uzbekistan. The first authentic evidence of a Jewish presence in the region belongs to the 4th century CE. A large Jewish community in Samarkand is first documented in the 12th century. By the time Central Asia was annexed by Russia (1865-73), the Bukhara Jews were a minority with diminished rights, and a small part of them, living in the Bukhara Emirate, were forcibly converted to Islam (the so-called “Chala”). Jews were living densely in Bukhara, Kattakurgan, Samarkand, Tashkent, Karshi, Shakhrisabz, Kokand, Margelan and other cities.

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Jewish cemetery, Samarkand

The discriminatory edicts, existing in the Bukhara Emirate with regard to the Bukhara Jews (referred to as “indigenous Jews”), were cancelled in the areas annexed by the Russian Empire. After the region came under Russian rule, Ashkenazi Jews arrived (up to this point, all Uzbekistan’s Jews were Sephardi). At the same time the term “Bukhara Jews” emerged. The term was used to define Jews arriving in Russian-ruled areas from the Bukhara Emirate.

At the end of the 19th century there were approximately 16,000 Bukhara Jews; by the end of the 1930s there were about 20,000. According to the 1926 Soviet census, there were 38,200 Jews living in Uzbekistan. During world war two, Ashkenazi Jews from Nazi-occupied Soviet republics were evacuated to Uzbekistan. As a result, in 1959 the Jewish population of Uzbekistan was 93,000. By 1970, the population had grown to 103,000.

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Jewish cemetery, Samarkand

In the 1970s, about 10,000 Bukhara Jews emigrated to Israel. The 1979 census showed 95,000 Jews still living in the republic, with the same number in the 1989 census (26,000 of these were Bukhara Jews).

The state’s first legal Jewish secular organisations emerged in the years 1988 to 1999. May 1990 saw nationalist riots which damaged the Jewish quarter in Andijan (damage was also done in Jewish quarters in other cities). During the period of mass emigration (the late 1980s to the early 1990s), no less than 80,000 Jews left the republic. The emigration continues to this day. Beside Israel and the USA, small groups of Jewish emigrants settled in Russia; there are also small communities in Austria and Germany.

Today’s Jewish population in Uzbekistan is estimated at 13,000, of whom no more than 3,000 are Bukhara Jews. Tashkent has a relatively large community (about 8,000). There are smaller communities in Samarkand and Bukhara, and even smaller ones in Fergana, Andijan, Namangan, Margelan, Kokand and Navoiy. The communities contain both Bukhara and Ashkenazi Jews. Most of the Jews in Tashkent are Ashkenazi. Bukhara has more Bukhara Jews, and the community of Samarkand is more or less equally divided.

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Jewish cemetery, Samarkand

I believe the figures in the last paragraph exaggerate the size of Uzbekistan’s Jewish community today, the following from “Al Jazeera” (6.5.2015) perhaps confirming that this is so:

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 2,800 kms north-east of Jerusalem.

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.

A dozen men carried the body and put it to rest among the graves, which now outnumber the entire Jewish population of Bukhara.

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Second synagogue, 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 ten men, Khoshayev added, pointing at seven Jewish men who had gathered at one of the city’s two remaining synagogues, an adobe house built in 1882, just hours after the funeral. His remark seemed especially poignant 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.

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Second synagogue, Bukhara

Less than 500 Bukhara Jews now live in the ex-Soviet nation of 31 million – a hundred times fewer than their population in New York’s Queens alone. Another 100,000 live in Israel. Some 150 live in the city of Bukhara, where the 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.”

At the time of his birth, the problem did not exist. 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.

Historically, the Bukhara Jews were traders and craftsmen who specialised in fabric dying. They claim to have arrived in Central Asia around 500 BCE after being taken into captivity by the Assyrians. Soviet archaeologists found evidence for these claims in the remnants of a 2,200 year-old synagogue in what is now Turkmenistan.

The Bukhara Jews became part of a multi-confessional population where Buddhists, Zoroastrians and, later, Nestorian Christians and Manicheans lived side by side. But by the time tsarist Russia conquered Central Asia, they were the only surviving religious minority.

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First synagogue, Bukhara

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. In the Bukhara Emirate they were further isolated because 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 Muslims, Hindus and Jews.

The 10,000-strong Jewish community of Bukhara “lives in utmost oppression, being despised by everyone”, wrote Arminius Vambery, a Jewish traveller of Hungarian origin who visited the emirate disguised as a Sufi dervish in the early 1860s, a few years before the tsarist invasion.

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. 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 the new communities and lived as impoverished outcasts.

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First synagogue, Bukhara

In 1793, the Sephardi rabbi Yosef Maimon arrived in Bukhara to find that many religious practices were neglected and remaining copies of the Torah had only three parts. He opened a yeshiva and convinced the community to commit to the Sephardi liturgy.

Tsarist Russia turned Central Asia’s rulers into vassals or annexed their lands. The Jews 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 synagogues and some prospered by trading Russian goods and cotton. Moreover, Chala Jews were permitted to return to their faith without fear of execution.

Some young, westernised and secular Bukhara Jews embraced the communist doctrine and after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution helped 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 and rabbis were persecuted, which forced 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.

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Jewish cemetery, Bukhara

After Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, emigration to Israel and the USA intensified, while Jewish organisations rushed in to educate the remaining Jews. Israeli visitors scrutinised and sometimes rejected their practices. “When I slaughtered a cow, they would not eat my meat,” Rabbi Siyanov recalled. “They said my rabbi’s certificate was from Russia, not Israel.”

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 practice 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 back yard of his house next to a huge cage filled with the pigeons he breeds. “To preserve the term ‘Bukhara Jew’, we will do whatever it takes.”

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Main gate, Jewish cemetery, Bukhara
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