Uzbekistan is located at the southern edge of the former Soviet Union, sharing borders with four other Central Asian republics as well as with Afghanistan.
It is the most populous of the six Asian republics. It has a population of 20 million, mostly Moslems, among whom Jews have lived, largely untouched by outside influences, for centuries.
But the outside world has begun to encroach on this formerly forgotten part of the world, and large numbers of Jews are immigrating to Israel.
Radical Moslem elements — stirred by neighboring Iran, and to an extent by Saudi Arabia–have been attempting to fill the power vacuum created in the wake of communism’s fall.
So far, the authorities have thwarted their attempts to seize positions of power.
The government has banned religious parties, and President Islam Karimov has announced that religious officials should not be allowed to be members of parliament. During a recent visit, however, the country came to a virtual standstill for one day when Moslems for the first time officially celebrated the holiday of Id Al Adha.
A few years ago, only a few dozen Moslems from this Central Asian republic made the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. This year, thousands did.
FOOD RIOTS AND STUDENT DEMONSTRATIONS
Last January, the capital was plagued by a wave of food riots and student demonstrations were brutally dispersed by the authorities. As a result, many residents of Russian origin began to leave. They said the Communist regime has not changed. It may have a new title, but the actors are the same.
But according to Boris Blinder, a professor of law at the University of Tashkent, there is definitely an air of greater political freedom than in the past. He notes, though, that it is marred by a high rate of inflation and a greater degree of economic uncertainty.
Blinder is less alarmed by events here than by news of unrest in other parts of the former Soviet empire. He speaks in cataclysmic terms of the Moslem fundamentalist riots in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and of the widespread anti-Semitism in Moscow, Leningrad and Ukraine.
But he says that currently there is no reason to worry in Uzbekistan. In his view, the Moslem fundamentalists are just not strong enough. And in the overall competition between Moslem-fundamentalist Iran and Moslem-secular Turkey over spheres of influence in Central Asia, the Turks have the upper hand.
But the Fergana Valley — shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — is a hotbed of militant Islam. The predominant religious sect is Wahabism, a conservative brand of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia. This is one of the few regions of the former Soviet Union where women cover their faces with a veil.
So far, says Blinder, there is no overt anti-Semitism in Tashkent. The Jews are but one community out of dozens living in Uzbekistan, where the people demonstrate high levels of tolerance.
Despite the absence of open anti-Semitism, Jews here worry about their personal security. People hide their homes behind walls, protected with heavy gates. At least three locks decorate the door of each apartment.
Such is the home of the Shalomova family in Tashkent. But once past the various barriers, one enters a beautiful retreat. On a recent Friday night, the Shabbat table was neatly and bountifully set in the middle of the courtyard.
It was a traditional Shabbat dinner, with all the necessary blessings in Hebrew. But that was as far as their Hebrew went. The rest of the conversation was held in Russian. There were no questions about Israel, no indication that they wanted to leave. They seemed to know enough about Israel not to substitute their luxury dwelling for what they might find in Israel. If they leave, they made it clear, they would go to America.
Ashkenazi Jews and Bukharian Jews do not mingle here very much. But recently, as a result of perestroika, a new wave of Jewishness has swept both communities. Jewish babies undergo circumcision in religious ceremonies, the number of intermarriages has decreased, and “intramarriages” between the two communities have increased.
An Orthodox Jew from Belgium has funded a local Talmud Torah of 80 students and plans to open a Jewish high school soon.
“In the past we felt much less Jewish,” said Pinhas Niyanov, president of the Bukharan community of Tashkent. “Now we all feel Jewish.”
A Jewish center began operating here four years ago. Its activities include charity work, Hebrew classes led by teachers whom the Jewish Agency had sent from Israel, a Jewish newspaper — and a matchmaking service.
The center operates on funds provided by local donors, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Unlike the Bukharian Jews, or the so-called mountain Jews, who have lived here for generations, the Ashkenazi Jews here consider themselves outsiders by comparison and are more inclined to leave for Israel.
The Bukharian community is more torn on the issue of aliyah. Their link with Jewish tradition is stronger, but they feel more at home in their native land. They pray “next year in Jerusalem,” but many, like the Shalomova family, plan to remain in Tashkent next year.