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Bukharian Jews Have Long, but Not Always Happy History

The history of Bukharian Jews of Uzbekistan is a bit murky. There is no documentation to prove it, but Bukharian Jews trace their history to the Jewish migration to the Persian Empire after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. There is evidence that in the 16th century, Bukhara became a center for the Jewish population in Central Asia and the community took on the name Bukharian Jews.

After the second half of the 19th century, the region increasingly fell under Russian rule, and Bukharian Jews were subject to the sporadic anti-Semitism that flared up elsewhere in the Russian Empire.

Ashkenazi Jews from the European sections of Russia began to settle in the region. Many were engineers, doctors or lawyers, and they provided the area’s first generation of local intelligentsia.

Bukharian Jew welcomed the Russian Revolution of 1917, which guaranteed civil liberties to all, but the reality proved to be harsher.

From the 1930s on, Bukharian Jewish practices were shaped by hostile surroundings, where Jews maintained traditional practices secretly despite state-sponsored atheism.

Although many younger immigrants had traditional grandparents, Jewish educational, cultural and religious centers in Uzbekistan were closed during Soviet purges of religion. In “A History of the Bukharian Jews,” David Ochildiev wrote that in the mid-1930s, the Soviets allowed only one synagogue in the largest Jewish communities. Jewish government officials, clergy, writers and teachers were fired, arrested or executed for advancing Jewish practices and culture. Farms were shut down, schools were closed, and publication of newspapers, magazines and books in the Bukharian Jewish language (a dialect of Farsi) ceased.

After World War II, Jews faced extortion and the threat of imprisonment or execution on false charges. In the predominantly Muslim country, anti-Semitism intensified after the founding of the State of Israel and the 1967 War.

Children attended school on Shabbat. Few Jews of any age attended synagogue, because doing so could cost worshipers a job.

Despite these strictures, Bukharian Jews enjoyed more freedom than elsewhere in the Soviet Union and families were able to keep traditions privately — lighting Shabbat candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, observing marriage ceremonies, circumcision, and life-cycle events.

Parents cooked Bukharian Jewish food, Jews formed tight-knit communities and married only among themselves.

“We did what our grandparents did, but we didn’t know why we were doing it,” said Queens barber Rachamim Dodoboyev, 24.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan’s economy deteriorated, and Islamic fundamentalism grew. The Jewish community emigrated en masse to Israel and the United States, particularly to Queens.

“There was no future for Bukharian Jewish children in Uzbekistan,” said Peter Pinkhasov, founder of BukharianJews.com.

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