Central Asia’s Jews in Uzbekistan, Community is Built Even As Students Think of Leaving

It was on her initial visit to Tel Aviv a few years ago that Oksana Gulden first saw street lights.

There simply aren’t any in her hometown, a city in this former Soviet republic in Central Asia.

Gulden, 20, is president of B’Yachad, or Together, a youth club housed in a baby-blue, single-story wood home deep in the dimly lit heart of Old Town Bukhara’s dusty, labyrinthine alleyways.

The house, rented from a local family, is a homey place, dominated by an airy courtyard. Off to the side of the courtyard is a white tandoor oven — for baking Uzbek bread, samosas and, on the Jewish holidays, matzah.

But the paint is peeling, the floorboards are rickety and the light switches work in only a few of the rooms.

"If you go to Israel, you won’t notice it, because you’re used to it," Gulden tells a visitor. "But I noticed it: lights everywhere on the streets. And I was ashamed that I was amazed by it. Maybe that’s why our life here is finished at 6 o’clock and there’s nothing to do."

Gulden, like many of her contemporaries, says she may soon leave behind this historic city for the bright lights of Israel.

She is fueled by devotion to the Jewish state, frustration with the economic plight and deprivation of present-day Uzbekistan — and, like many youngsters in sleepy provinces the world over, by her thirst for big city life.

There is much about the Jewish youth of Uzbekistan that is uplifting — how the more devout now freely practice their faith and how so many of those with assimilated Jewish parents now proudly embrace their history, traditions and culture.

But the dominant story in this mostly Muslim country remains one of emigration.

Or at least talk about emigration.

Eleven years after the collapse of communism, most of the Jews from the former Soviet Union who were serious about leaving appear to have already gone — primarily to Israel, the United States and Germany.

From Uzbekistan alone, the numbers are dramatic: In the last Soviet census, taken in 1989, there were reportedly 95,000 Jews, though it’s widely believed that many more Jews were well hidden and assimilated.

Today, estimates put the community here at anywhere from 10,000 to 45,000, depending on which Jewish organization you ask and your definition of "Who is a Jew?"

But emigration from the former Soviet Union has slowed to a trickle.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported earlier this year that immigration to Israel had hit its lowest point in 13 years due to the dwindling pool of Jews from the former Soviet Union and anxiety over the ongoing violence in the Middle East.

Those remaining cite an array of reasons, and waiting out the war in Israel ranks high among them.

They may also be caring for elderly relatives, don’t want to give up the professional status they have achieved, are unwilling to start over again. They also have the luxury of choosing whether to go or stay.

Among the students, many say that they first want to finish their schooling.

In the meantime, they enjoy what has become a vibrant Jewish life.

At the Hillel in Tashkent, in the nation’s capital, the din of some 30 young, Russian-speaking Jews pierces the otherwise quiet neighborhood.

The mood inside is boisterous and clubhouse-like, with students flopping on lumpy couches, the walls filled with maps, flags and touristy images of Israel.

Theirs is the most self-confident generation of Jews, unsaddled with the anti-Semitic baggage of the Soviet past, unafraid to openly wear a Chai or Star of David necklace.

They say they are drawn to Hillel for a range of reasons, from the discussions of Jewish history and tradition to interaction with fellow young Jewish intellectuals to the meaningful way in which the Sabbath is celebrated among friends.

"I studied in a Jewish high school, but I’d never experienced a Shabbat in which so many people were praying by heart," says Jana Mofshits, 20. "I was impressed very much, and I began to come here more and more."

Here in the sanctuary of Hillel, which is largely supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, students speak freely about their dictatorial government, America’s threat of a war against Iraq and what they perceive as Israelis’ negative attitude toward Russian immigrants.

There is no unanimity on the ideal destination, or why one is preferable to the other; students debate the merits of resettling in Israel, America, Germany, even Moscow.

There is only agreement on the lack of a future in Uzbekistan.

Indeed, analysts suggest that the authoritarian Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, shows no inkling for modernization, or the political and economic reform that would pave the way for foreign investment and competitive manufacturing.

As long as the economy spirals downward, with few opportunities for decent, well-paying jobs, the youth say they are biding their time.

"It’s a ridiculous question. Why would anyone want to stay?" says Misha Pertziger, 19, an aspiring journalist. "And not just all Jews, but even Uzbeks. Each of them would leave, if they have the opportunity to go."

Therein lies the irony.

After 75 years of being singled out for added harassment during mass repression, Jews in the former Soviet Union find themselves with the luxury to choose if, and when, to leave.

The neighbors have no options, giving rise to an unprecedented sentiment toward the Jews — envy.

At Bukhara State University, where Gulden studies English, she says she makes no secret about her Jewish identity, her trips to Israel or her activism for Jewish youth.

Among her non-Jewish classmates, says Gulden, pessimism about the future also runs deep.

Smiling broadly, Gulden says, "Some of them have told me, ‘Unfortunately, I’m not a Jew.’ I swear, they told me this."

Another friend, an Uzbek, told Gulden that she has pestered her mother: "’Maybe we have some Jew in us?’ " Gulden recounts. "And her mother said, ‘Forget it.’ "

Gulden credits her own pride in her Jewishness to her father, Lev Gulden, who also serves as the Jewish Agency for Israel’s representative in Bukhara.

And this pride she imparts to the youth she draws to B’Yachad.

The club boasts some 140 members, from 7 years old to college age, most of whom are Bukharan — Jews of Persian descent who settled in the region some 1,500 to 2,000 years ago.

Gulden herself is Ashkenazi, her grandparents from Ukraine.

With a steady stream of news of war and death in Israel causing trepidation about immigration, Gulden says her task, in part, is "to make them understand that Israel is not so bad, and that it’s a young country that needs us."

Looming over such discussions in Bukhara, and eight hours farther up the Silk Road in Tashkent, is the specter of friendships ending because of emigration, or at least strained by distance.

The numbers tell the story: While her youth club drew 35 to 40 members for activities just a year ago, says Gulden, some 20 to 30 attend nowadays.

At the Hillel, the first generation of members from three years ago are all but gone and scattered abroad, says the chapter’s director, Boris Nedosekov.

These are difficult questions for parents, says Lev Gulden, who weigh the challenge of starting over with the deep affection for their city and friends they often express, or satisfaction with the career and status they have carved out.

"But there is a big ‘but,’ " Gulden says. "And that ‘but’ is the prospect of a better life for our children — especially if we don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel here."

Still, no one seems to be in a hurry.

When she comes across old friends and acquaintances, Oksana Gulden says, "Many ask why I’m still here, since I have the possibility to go. They tell me, ‘If I were you, I’d have left a long time ago.’ "

But she has a plan: Once she graduates in July, she’ll reassess her future.

And that may mean overcoming perhaps the greatest obstacle lying between her and aliyah: Her mother, Valentina, is fearful of the bloodshed in Israel.

"I see what’s happening there, but I’m not afraid," says Gulden. "I’m a Jew, and I’m a part of this nation."

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