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Across the Former Soviet Union Rift over Root Differences Remains Unmended for Jews of Uzbekistan

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Lev Gulden knew he was different from most of the Jews in this ancient city. Growing up after World War II in a Jewish neighborhood in Bukhara, Gulden said he would occasionally catch a disapproving glance from some Jewish neighbors on the streets.

“They thought we were not proper Jews,” recalls Gulden, now 57.

Years later, his daughter came across a similar attitude.

A young Jew recently “asked me if we were real Jews,” said Oksana Gulden, 24, who works for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s local office in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital some 420 miles to the east of Bukhara.

Father and daughter were both born in Uzbekistan, but they’re unlike many Jews who live in this Central Asian nation: Their Jewish roots are in Eastern Europe.

The attitude they encountered tells something about the longstanding, uneasy relationship between the two segments of the Jewish community here — indigenous Jews of Central Asia, usually called Bukharans, and Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent, whom local, Persian-speaking Jews refer to as “European Jews.”

Around the same time as Lev Gulden was growing up in Bukhara, Zinaida Sichakova, a Bukharan Jew, often would go to the synagogue with her grandfather in Tashkent.

Practicing Judaism “was very common among Bukharan Jews” even during the Soviet era, Sichakova explains. But few Ashkenazim here practiced at the height of communism, which was notorious for its enmity toward any religion.

Gulden’s father, a police officer in postwar Bukhara, was born in Poland, and his mother came from Ukraine. The two met during World War II on board a train carrying Jewish refugees to the safe haven of Central Asia.

During the Holocaust, about 250,000 Jews from European parts of the Soviet Union and Poland found refuge in Central Asia. Most were assimilated Soviet Jews who surprised their locally born Jewish neighbors by neglecting all Jewish observance.

But the distinctions were not only about religion: There were differences in lifestyle and culture that brought about estrangement between the Bukharans and Ashkenazim, an estrangement that has persisted for several generations.

“The two communities practically do not overlap,” said Olga Kipnis, a European Jew who is director of the Hillel youth group in Tashkent.

Tashkent today is home to some 9,000 Jews, about three-quarters of Uzbekistan’s Jewish population. The community now is mostly Ashkenazi due to the emigration of Bukharan Jews to Israel and the United States, but the city has two Bukharan synagogues and `one Ashkenazi one, run by Chabad. Each of the communities has its own cultural center.

“Bukharan Jewish young men rarely come here,” Kipnis said on a recent Friday evening in the Hillel club, where she was surrounded by two dozen young Jews, all of European descent. “Perhaps they all have emigrated? Or they go somewhere else.”

She admitted that her group never made a special effort to overcome the situation. And she might have a good reason not to try: Many of her activists might not like it.

“When I meet a Bukharan Jew, I can clearly see social and cultural differences,” Kipnis said.

Lev Gulden’s example may suggest that these differences can be reconciled: Though he’s one of the few European Jews in town, Gulden a few years ago became the leader of the city’s 900-strong Jewish community.

But even he says there’s little mixing between Bukharans and Ashkenazim, and they rarely intermarry.

“I cannot recall a single example of a mixed marriage between Bukharan and Ashkenazi Jews here,” said Gulden, who owns a small electrical equipment company.

Markiel Fazylov, a Bukharan Jew and leader of another prominent Uzbek Jewish community in the city of Samarkand, agrees.

“A Bukharan Jew would rather marry a Muslim Tatar than a European Jew,” Fazylov said, pointing to the fact that despite its religious distinction, his community shares much more in common with local Muslims than with Jews of Eastern European descent.

“European Jews are more educated, while Bukharan Jews are more traditional,” said Fazylov, who has written several books on the history of Bukharan Jews.

When Central Asia fell under Russian rule in the mid-19th century, the Russians officially referred to local Jews as “indigenous Jews.” The term “Bukharan Jews” became an official definition for these Jews in the 1930s shortly after the region was included in the Soviet Union.

Jews settled in the region as far back as 20 centuries ago. Coexisting with Muslims, they adjusted to local customs and traditions without compromising their religion.

“We have very much in common with Uzbeks in culture, in traditions of hospitality, in dress,” Sichakova said.

Some of the similarities were striking. Until before the war, “some local Jewish women wore face veils,” similar to Muslim Uzbek women, said Sichakova, who heads Hesed Yehoshua, a JDC-run Jewish welfare center in Tashkent.

Her organization is probably the only one in Tashkent that is making a concerted effort to get the two parts of the community to socialize.

“Yes, we have different culture and music, and Ashkenazi Jews are more ‘civilized,’ ” she said. “But in our Hesed we try to bring these two cultures together.”

The two cultures don’t meet easily.

At a cultural event in the center, when a violin starts to play a traditional Eastern European Jewish tune, some “Bukharan Jews grumble, ‘Why do we need this Gypsy music?’ ” Sichakova said.

When traditional Bukharan Jewish music, rhythmical and heavy on percussion, is played, a typical reaction of a European Jew is, “Is this a funeral?”

Although the Bukharans now have their own intelligentsia, it is a relatively new phenomenon.

“My relatives all have higher education, but the majority of our ancestors were illiterate: shoemakers, barbers, tailors,” Sichakova said.

Old stereotypes die hard. European Jews still tend to think of Bukharans as culturally backward. And Bukharans have their own view of Ashkenazim.

During communism, European Jews did not become part of the Jewish community because they were building their Soviet careers, says Mikhail Elnatanov, 56, former deputy manager of a state-owned motor transport depot in Bukhara.

“They were doctors, college teachers or communists; they couldn’t go to the synagogue,” he said. “Others worked two, three shifts a day, so they didn’t have time to.”

Lev Gulden says one reason Bukharan Jews could maintain their traditional lifestyle was because many were self-employed or worked in small organizations or workshops. They found it relatively easy to go to the synagogue without jeopardizing their jobs in a society that did not approve any form of religious observance.

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