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A Bukharan Sukkot


Celebration of Sukkot in a Bukharan Jewish community, circa 1900. (

Celebration of Sukkot in a Bukharan Jewish community, circa 1900. (

NEW YORK, Sept. 17 (JTA) — “There is nothing like memories of the house where you grew up,” says Berta Shakarova, who was born in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Eight years ago, she immigrated with her family to the bustling Bukharan Jewish community in Queens, New York. “You never forget the way your childhood house and neighborhood looked.” My husband shared her reaction when we recently visited his boyhood home in Forest Hills, and saw a brick wall near the sidewalk where shrubs once bloomed. He was equally surprised by changes in his old neighborhood, which coincidentally is Shakarova’s new one. When David grew up during the 1950s and 1960s, he circulated in an Ashkenazi world among Jews with roots from Central and Eastern Europe. Today, many of the Jews who inhabit the streets of his youth hail from further east, from the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, once republics of the former Soviet Union north of Afghanistan. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bukharan Jews have sought a better life in Israel and the Queens neighborhoods of Kew Gardens, Rego Park and Forest Hills, now home to 50,000 of them. As David and I perused stores on 108th Street, recently dubbed “Bukharan Broadway,” we peered at exotic lettering on signs written in Russian. David’s eyes darted, searching for the familiar. “The bagel shop and candy store have been around for decades,” he said, explaining that in his youth kosher stores had dotted 108th Street, but with the exception of a Chinese restaurant, Asian influences were non-existent. We stepped into a Bukharan bakery, and the owner introduced us to lepeshka, a 10-inch round bread with a dimple in the center. Coated with sesame seeds, Lepeshka is baked in domed tandoor ovens. We bought two loaves and ripping off pieces found the bread delightfully chewy and moist. We tried Bukharan crisp bread, crackers the size and shape of basins that are served on special occasions. Perforated with tiny holes, they share matzah’s texture. Cumin seeds are baked into the dough and add a subtle essence to this cracker. David realized that more has changed on 108th Street than food stores. Russian is spoken, and china shops display tea sets with ornate Russian designs. Embroidered jackets called Joma beckon from inside stores. They are worn by Bar Mitzvah boys, brides and grooms, and couples celebrating milestone anniversaries. On holidays, such as Sukkot, men don these colorful robes along with flat hats, while reading prayers and drinking wine. Bukharan families are generally large and extended. In the old country, aunts, uncles, and cousins celebrated the harvest festival in a sukkah. Young and old alike shared good times and sumptuous meals. “At Sukkot, the weather is cooler in Uzbekistan than in New York,” Shakarova says. “But we didn’t mind; for seven days we ate outside.” “Sukkot was a great adventure, especially for children,” says Shlomo Fuzaylov, a Web site programmer who founded, a Web site that literally and figuratively opens windows onto the world of Bukharan Jews. Since the mid-1980s, the Jewish population of Uzbekistan had dropped by nearly 90 percent. Yet Jewish life there has outlived many conquering empires. It is believed that the city of Bukhara was Habor (II Kings 17:6), where the 10 tribes were exiled. Although anecdotal evidence suggests that Jews from Persia first settled in Uzbekistan between the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., there is no archeological proof of a Jewish presence in Central Asia before the first century B.C. In 1954, Soviet archaeologists dug up fragments of pottery with Hebrew lettering and unearthed ancient synagogues from that era. Bukharan Jews originally migrated from ancient Persia, Afghanistan and Morocco and follow Sephardi law. During the 20th century, Ashkenazi Jews settled in Uzbekistan from other parts of the Soviet Union, but the two groups never mixed. Further separating them, Bukharan Jews spoke different languages than the rest of the population. “Under communism, local languages were outlawed,” Shakarova says. “People had to speak Russian. Jews went to public schools and learned how to read and write Russian like everyone else.” In Uzbekistan, Shakarova’s mother-in-law threw elaborate Sukkot celebrations, and the women in the family helped her prepare lavish meals. But today in Queens, they are apartment dwellers without space to erect a sukkah, so celebrations, while festive, are smaller in scale. “If you have a house, you build at sukkah,” says a Queens college student, who immigrated to America when she was 15. “If not, you join friends who live in a house, celebrate in an apartment, or take your food to a synagogue and eat there.” These days Bukharans are as rushed as other New Yorkers. After work, women purchase food on 108th Street. They also rely on the previous generation to prepare holiday recipes. The student raves about succulent Sukkot dishes that were passed down from her grandmother: fried potatoes, vegetables and grape leaves stuffed with beef, and meatballs and tomato sauce. Rice and meat are staples of their cuisine. “The grandmothers are always the best cooks in everyone’s family,” she says. “They know the recipes and the old school of cooking.” They are revered for more than their age. They are the link between the future in Queens and a vanishing world far to the East.Oshi Toki (pronounced Oh-she Toe-key)Stuffed Grape Leaves3/4 lb. ground beef1/3 cup raw rice, rinsed in cold water1 small onion, mincedSalt and pepper to taste1 pound jar grape leaves4 Tbsp. olive oil, or more if needed 1 lb. cubed beef1. Combine first four ingredients in a mixing bowl. 2. Rinse grape leaves and place in a large bowl of hot water. Cover for 2-3 minutes. Drain in colander. Reserve a dozen smaller leaves.3. Place 1 tsp. of meat mixture in center of each leaf. Using stuffed cabbage technique, wrap an edge of leaf around meat. Fold right and left sides of leaf in front of meat mound. Roll leaf around meat until you have a neat package. Place on plate and continue until meat and remaining leaves are rolled.4. Coat bottom of 6-quart pot with oil. Brown cubed beef. Turn off flame. Lay reserved grape leaves over beef. Carefully place rolls, which can be layered, on top of grape leaves. 5. Add enough water so it is level with vegetables. Cover pot bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer on a low flame for 90 minutes. Check pot every 20 minutes and add water, if necessary.Yield: About 32 piecesOshi Kimigi (pronounced Oh-she Keem-e-gee)Stuffed Vegetables1-2 medium eggplants1-2 medium zucchini5-6 medium tomatoes4-5 medium potatoes, peeled2-3 green peppers11/2 ground beef1/2 cup raw rice, rinsed in cold water1 medium onion, choppedSalt, pepper, and garlic powder to tasteNo-stick vegetable spray5 Tbsp. olive oil2 8-oz. cans tomato sauce1. Cut eggplants and zucchini in half lengthwise and soak in salt water for five minutes. Rinse and dry with paper towels. With a knife, cut an oval from the center of each half; avoid piercing vegetables. Reserve centers.2. Cut potatoes in half. Cut an oval from the center of each half. Reserve centers.3. Cut tomatoes in half. Remove seeds and centers and reserve. 4. Cut peppers in half and discard seeds and inside fibers.5. Blend and chop reserved centers. Press into vegetable cavities. Do not fill them. Reserve any leftovers.6. In a bowl, mix beef, rice, onion and seasonings. Top off vegetable cavities with beef mixture. You should have some left over.7. Coat 8-quart pot with vegetable spray. Heat oil in pot on low flame. Saute leftover meat and vegetables in oil. Turn off flame and add tomato sauce.8. Layer stuffed vegetables in pot. Start with eggplants and zucchini, followed by peppers and tomatoes, and finally potatoes. Add enough water to cover vegetables. Cover pot and simmer on low flame for 45-60 minutes, until vegetables wilt and potatoes are soft. Yield: 10 generous portions.Kotleti s Kartoskoy (pronounced Cot-lay-ete S Car-tosh-koy)Meatballs with French FriesFrench Fries:5-6 potatoes, peeledOlive oil for fryingSalt to taste1. Cut potatoes in julienne strips, rinse in colander, dry on paper towels and salt. Divide into 4 batches.2. Heat oil in large frying pan and place potatoes inside, one batch at a time. When bottom sides brown, turn and brown tops. Add oil as needed.3. Place French fries on paper towels to drain. While frying next batches, remove to a 250-degree oven on cookie sheets. Serve immediately. Yield: 6 servings.Meatballs:2 lbs. Chopped beef1 medium onion, chopped2/3 cup bread crumbs1 eggSalt and pepper to tasteOlive oil for frying1 tomato, cut in half1 green pepper, cut in half2 8-oz cans tomato sauce1. In a bowl, mix first 5 ingredients. Using 1/4 cup of mixture at a time, shape meat like small kirby cucumbers to yield 16-20 kotleti. 2. Heat oil in frying pan on medium flame. Place 4-5 kotleti in pan and turn when bottom browns. Continue turning until all sides brown. Remove kotleti to paper towels to drain. Fry remaining kotleti.3. Cool pan. Wipe with paper towel. 4. Discard seeds and fibers from pepper. Cut pepper and tomato into julienne strips.5. Add a little oil to pan and place on low flame. Add peppers, stirring until wilted. Add tomatoes and stir for 2 minutes. Add tomato sauce, stirring well. 6. Return kotleti to pan, one by one. You can layer them. Add a little water, if necessary, to cover kotleti. Simmer in skillet for 10-15 minutes. 7. Serve kotleti hot with French fries or on top of them. Yield: 6 servings.