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Bukharian Jews Walk Tightrope in U.S. Between Tradition, Modernity

January 11, 2006
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David Abayev is a successful Manhattan accountant. He attended American schools, wears hip professional clothes, sips coffee at Starbucks, and speaks perfect English, with little indication that until 1991, he lived in Uzbekistan. But Abayev has a different mind-set about family than most of his coworkers. At 29, he still lives with his parents because in Bukharian Jewish culture, adults leave home only to begin their own family.

Abayev wants to get married, but first he must find a Bukharian Jewish woman who meets his parents’ approval. He will not have premarital sex and will live with a woman only after marriage.

Although Abayev admits to feeling tempted to move away from his parents’ watchful eyes, “I really can’t do that,” he says. “If you leave you’re hurting yourself. You may find a job and girlfriend but you won’t have a family connection. You won’t have bachsh,” a traditional Bukharian dish, on Friday night.

Abayev is one of 40,000 to 50,000 Bukharian Jews in Queens — some are scattered in other cities across North America — who struggle to maintain their identity while confronting the economic and cultural pressures of the United States. The struggle is most apparent among young Bukharian Jews, most of whom left Uzbekistan in Central Asia after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and are now trying to define their identity away from the surroundings that shaped their heritage and traditions.

“When a child becomes a teen, he asks the question, ‘What does it mean to be a Bukharian Jew?’ ” says Imonuel Rybakov, chairman of the Association of Bukharian Jewish Youth of the USA — Achdut. “‘What’s the difference between us and others?’ And sometimes parents can’t explain.”

For some, defining their identity means using newfound religious freedom and knowledge to rediscover their ancestors’ Orthodox Jewish past. Isabella Roberts, youth committee coordinator for the Bukharian Jewish Congress, said 10 percent of the community is becoming Orthodox; others estimate closer to 30 percent.

But for the majority in the tight-knit community, being a Bukharian Jew increasingly means emphasizing cultural traditions, creating organizations to perpetuate knowledge of Bukharian Jewish history, food, music and family values.

This March the community will dedicate a new Jewish Community Center in Forest Hills, to house a synagogue, the Bukharian Jewish Congress, a group led by Israeli philanthropist Lev Leviev, himself a Bukhraian Jew, and other community organizations.

The challenges of remaining a traditional Bukharian Jew in the U.S. are great.

“The way we grew up, the tradition’s not as important as it was for my grandmother or my mother,” said Nelya Mushiyeva, 23, who immigrated to the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens 12 years ago.

Mushiyeva attended public school, wears brand-name jeans and speaks like an American. “I would consider myself more of an American Jew, rather than a Bukharian,” she said.

Economic pressures also weigh heavily.

Sulayman Penkhasov, 25, a barber, watched his two younger sisters begin to observe Shabbat and keep kosher.

Although Penkhasov keeps many traditions, his job prevents him from following his sisters’ lead. On Friday night, he eats Shabbat dinner with his family. On Saturday, he works as a barber, a common profession for Jews from Uzbekistan.

“As soon as I’m making enough money so I don’t have to work Saturdays, I’ll keep Shabbat the way it’s supposed to be,” he said. “It’s in my mind and my heart, but money talks.”

Faced with these pressures, some immigrants are turning to the Orthodox Judaism of their grandparents to maintain their identity.

One Friday night at the home of Larissa Mullodzhanova, 20, Shabbat candles were lit and the table was set. A home-cooked feast with Bachsh and Oshi Piyozi brought smells of Uzbekistan into the Queens apartment.

Mullodzhanova’s husband arrived home from synagogue, and her sisters walked over. The married women wore shirts with high necklines and long skirts, stylish scarves covering their hair in accordance with Jewish tradition.

In Uzbekistan, the families observed Jewish holidays. Mullodzhanova’s brother-in-law, Boris Abramov, 24, grew up hearing stories of his grandfather, who spent 25 years in Soviet jails for selling kosher meat. But it was not until they arrived in the U.S. and attended Jewish day schools that they learned the laws and reasons behind the traditions and started keeping them strictly.

“Our generation is more religious than our parents,'” Abramov said.

One major factor in religious revitalization is education. For the first time, Bukharian Jews have access to yeshivas. Chief Rabbi Itzhak Yehoshua estimates approximately 40 percent of Bukharian Jewish elementary school students nationwide attend Jewish schools, half of them Bukharian schools.

But Orthodoxy is not for most Bukharian Jews.

Many of these Jews find identity through culture — eating Bukharian Jewish food, listening to traditional music, learning their ancestors’ history, or dating other Bukharian Jews.

Abayev, the accountant living in Fresh Meadows, defines himself as “50 percent Bukharian, 30 percent Jewish and 20 percent American.”

He talks passionately about attending celebrations with Bukharian music, eating traditional home-cooked food, welcoming guests and spending Friday night dinners with family.

“Bukharian culture is part of you,” he said. “To change would be partial suicide.”

To ensure that others follow Abayev’s path, some young adults are starting organizations to keep their culture alive.

Peter Pinkhasov, 28, founded, a Web site with 950 registered members who chat, view photos, listen to music and read about Bukharian Jewish history, traditions and culture.

Today, the site has spawned other activities. Imonuel Rybakov, 23, a Queens College finance major, founded Achdut in 2002, a cultural organization that targets 16-to-35-year-old Bukharian Jews, running festivals, lectures, a band, political volunteering and online classes in the Bukharian Jewish language, a dialect of Farsi. Discussions can attract 100 people, Rybakov said, and dance parties nearly 500.

Both see signs that the youth are retaining their heritage. Pinkasov estimates 70 percent of young Bukharian Jews attend synagogue on High Holidays. Rybakov said 80 percent of those who get engaged keep the ritual of shirini huri, a party that includes eating sweets, Bukharian music, dress and dancing. Almost all celebrate the Passover seder with Bukharian Jewish songs, food, clothing and ritual.

The efforts of these youth parallel activities in the larger community. In May 2004, Aron Aranov, 66, created a three-room Bukharian Jewish museum in the Gymnasia, a tuition-free yeshiva in Queens funded by Leviev, hoping that Abayev, Abramov and their young counterparts would visit. It showcases paintings of Bukharian Jewish musicians, bright silk robes and embroidered gold kipot.

“We lost our environment that kept us afloat as an ethnic group,” Aronov said. “I didn’t want my people to disappear from the world without leaving any trace.”

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