For the first time in centuries, the 170,000 Jews who live in the Asian republics of the former Soviet Union are emerging from isolation.
Many of them have decided to make aliyah, prompted in some cases by political considerations — particularly the upsurge in militant Islamic fundamentalism in the region after the collapse of Communist rule. Others are leaving with the hope of a better economic future.
The Jewish communities of Central Asia are in a state of radical change. On a recent trip here, it was possible to catch a glimpse of these Central Asian communities as they stand at a crossroads in their history.
The region’s Jewish communities are different from those found elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. In contrast to the Jewish communities in the West, they were spared the trauma of the Holocaust.
Unlike the shtetls of Western Europe, their Caucasus villages have survived, their synagogues were not burned down and their cemeteries were left untouched.
Uzbekistan, the first stop on the trip, is the largest of the six Moslem republics. With a population of 20 million people, it is the third most populous republic of the former Soviet Union.
ONLY ‘UZBEKS AND NON-UZBEKS’
“Here in Uzbekistan there are no Jews and gentiles, but rather Uzbeks and non-Uzbeks,” said Vica Perlowitz, 19, the secretary of the Jewish Agency office in Tashkent. “The Europeans look down at the Uzbekis, and the Uzbekis look down at all others.”
Most of the Jews living in the Asian Moslem republics are Ashkenazim. They migrated from the western portion of the former Soviet Union–either in the course of natural migration, or, as in many cases, out of fear of the advancing German troops during World War II.
Some 80,000 Jews live in Uzbekistan, and the majority of them are Ashkenazim who dwell here in Tashkent, the capital. Tashkent itself has 40,000 Ashkenazi Jews, as well as up to 20,000 Bukharian Jews.
The latter group, with roots far to the south and east of the Ashkenazi lands, are darker skinned and in general adhere to tradition more strongly than the more secular Ashkenazim.
The two communities barely mingle. In fact, some who are planning aliyah have said that once in Israel, they would like to live in separate communities.
Many, indeed, have already made aliyah and many more are seriously contemplating the move.
At the Tashkent airport terminal, some 200 would-be olim, including sleepy children and weary elderly, covered the benches and the floors. They were barely visible, because there was no electricity in the huge hall. For them, it was a last reminder of the aches and pains of their lives in a former Soviet republic.
“Nothing can be worse than here,” said Igor Galperin, 40, a building engineer from Bishkek, in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. He has a non-Jewish wife, Rajide, and two children, Leonid, 7, and Elina, 2.
Galperin had never been a Zionist. The idea of immigrating to Israel was relatively new to him. It had been provoked by a relatively minor incident.
Three years ago, the windshield of the family car, for which they had saved for years, had been smashed by vandals. “I knew then that there was no point waiting any longer for better times,” he said.
There was no concern in his voice, no fear that there would be no work, no housing, no future. “I am ready for everything,” said Galperin, collecting his luggage. “I already love Israel.”
‘TRAVEL AGENT’ SELLS ONLY ONE-WAY TICKETS
Enter Simon Shavit, 44, “travel agent” for the Jewish people of Tashkent. Shavit sells only one-way tickets — to Israel. Every two weeks he fills up a plane with immigrants. If there is a slowdown in aliyah, he has not heard of it.
The direct flights of El Al from Tashkent to Tel Aviv are always full, like the Aeroflot flights from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Israel. Indeed, there is even a waiting list.
No one knows better than Shavit how difficult aliyah can be.
He underwent the same process 20 years ago, when he immigrated to Israel from Tbilisi, Georgia. He knows that it is not just the fear of the unknown that one must confront; it is also the pain of leaving a home, an environment, friends, a familiar language.
Perhaps most difficult of all are the economic considerations.
Unlike the more recently arrived Ashkenazi Jews, who tend to be apartment dwellers, Bukharian Jews live in single homes which they sell at relatively high prices prior to their departure. But once the house is sold, they are not allowed to take foreign currency out of the country, and no one wants to take out the worthless Russian rubles.
Some Jews here have paid as much as 18 percent commissions to smuggle out foreign currency.
Shavit is now negotiating with the authorities to work out a legal way for olim to take their savings with them — but so far to no avail.
The Jewish Agency enjoys a special status in the Moslem republics of the former Soviet Union. Many officials are already familiar with the word “Sochnut,” the Hebrew name for the Agency. It works like magic. It opens doors.
NAME OF GAME IS CONTACTS
When Shavit arrives at the airport, he receives VIP treatment.-In-six months of service, he has found the way to the heart of many rigid officials.
When he opened the offices of the Jewish Agency in January, Shavit realized that the name of the game was contacts.
He immediately organized an inauguration ceremony for the new office, to which he invited 50 Jewish businessmen, along with 50 senior officials of the republic.
Contacts are nowhere as important as here, where any impossibility can be turned into a possibility.
Seventy years of Communist rule have brought out the worst of human inefficiency in the former Soviet republics. But Shavit uses his ingenuity whenever he can to smooth the road for his fellow olim.