Jews arrival in Central Asia:
The beginning of a Jewish settlement in the area around Bukhara may
go back as far as the 7th century BCE when the Jews were exiled by the
Assyrians(II Kings 17:6). It is to this date that the Bukharan Jews
themselves trace their heritage. Many historians contend, however, that
it was probably a century or two later during the reign of Cyrus the
great of Persia that the Jews began to arrive. Regardless of the exact
date the Jews were introduced to Central Asia, all agree that by the
end of the 4th century BCE, when Alexander the Great arrived, there
was a large community of Jews living in the region. This number was
most likely added to following the Diaspora as records show communities
of Jews traveled and joined or created settlements as far east as China.
Many of the Jews lived in either the city of Bukhara or Samarkhand.
In fact, it was not until an earthquake in 1720 that left Samarkhand
uninhabitable, that all of the Jews living in the region moved to Bukhara.
Jewish men at the Synogue in Bukhara
Jews as a religious minority:
For the first 10 centuries the Jews lived peacefully as an accepted
minority in a predominantly Zoroastrian culture. They were culturally
and religiously very different from their immediate neighbors, but the
Central Asians were very accepting of them and allowed them to live
out their beliefs.
During the 1000 years that followed, the Jews of Bukhara were often
defined by their contrasts with the Islamic rulers of the region. Jewish
and Islamic cultures are, in many ways, similar to the outside observer.
Both are patriarchal societies predicated on similar history and values.
The basic tenets of belief are accepted by both. The differences, however,
proliferate. Some of the differences are more obvious than others. The
Jews had many vineyards and drank wine as a part of their tradition,
the Muslims forbade all alcohol. The Jews were monogamous while the
Muslims accepted man marrying up to four wives, and at times harems
of concubines were common as well.
Though Bukhara was ruled by Muslims for most of the time between 700
CE and 1900, each of the Islamic dynasties, however, dealt with the
Jews differently. When, in 709, the first Muslim Arabs reached Bukhara
they set up the first of several Islamic dynasties in the region. The
Umayyad dynasty was the first to bring Islamic learning and culture
to Bukhara. It lasted only a short time, however. In 750 CE the Sunni
Umayyads were replaced by the Shi'ite Abbasids who briefly controlled
Bukhara from Baghdad. While Bukhara was a place of learning it did not
reach its pinnacle of importance in the Islamic world until 874 when
the Sunnis reclaimed it. The Saminid dynasty made there capitol in Bukhara
bringing in a time of culture and influence for the region.
By the beginning of the second millennium the Jews, now living in land
controlled by the Qarakhinds, had become an accepted, though obviously
foreign part of the culture. The lives of Bukharan Jews changed little
until the Uzbek people became rulers of the region.
Synagogue in Bukhara
The Uzbek leaders were less tolerant of the Jews in the
region and, although it was never to the extent found in Europe, persecuted
them. Jews had to wear yellow and black clothes that made them stand
out among the people. They also had to continue paying an annual tax,
though now it was accompanied by the additional insult of a public slap
in the face when the tax was paid.
It was in the 1700's CE that the Islamic leaders of Bukhara tried hard
to start converting the Jews there. The Jews who did not convert struggled
under the stricter Islamic influence. Those who did convert became chalas,
the Tajik word for 'neither one nor the other 'often converted in name,
but continued to practice all of the customs that overlap both cultures,
circumcision, arranged marriage, and not eating pork, and often tried
to maintain there Jewish practices as well. Because they were not fully
one or the other the chalas often became outcastes shunned by the Jews
for converting and the Muslims for their Jewish heritage.
The advent of the railroad in Bukhara led to the Jews who remained being
joined by Jews from other parts of what would become the Soviet Union
and these Jews who traveled there noticed distinct differences in the
dress and customs of the Bukharan Jews. There arrival served to force
assimilation with the culture that had not been present before. The
Bukharan Jews began to become more European or Russian in there culture
and learning than ever before. The railroad also led to an equally large
exodus of Jews traveling from Bukhara region to the Holy Land, with
many Jews buying land in Jerusalem either to live in or to visit and
keep in case of a pogrom or persecution that would cause them to leave
It was at this time that many Jews began to support many of the Russian
influences on Central Asia as a way to get out form under the persecution
they had faced under the Muslim governments. This acquiescence to Russian
influence put them greatly at odds with the Islamic majority and many
of the people of Bukhara acted out in anger. There were riots against
the Jews for most of the time between 1918 and 1920, when the Red Army
conquered the region.
Jewish school in Bukhara
Jews in the Soviet Era:
During the beginnings of the Soviet Union the Jews were very supportive
of the new Communist government, viewing it as the opportunity it claimed
to be: equality regardless of religious affiliation. Unfortunately,
their contributions were soon forgotten by those in power. Many Jews
from all over the Soviet Union were banished to Bukhara or fled there
to escape the difficulties life in other parts of the Soviet Union brought
for the Jews living there. The rulers had changed, but the implicit
degradation remained. It was not until 1948, when the Israeli state
was formed that the Jews turned to the Soviet government for protection.
It was provided until the Soviet Union cut ties with Israel following
the Six Day War of 1967. From that time on the Soviet government repressed
all freedoms the Jews had of religious expression and cut down on the
ability to travel, cutting off any hope of immigrating to Israel.
Following the time of glasnost in the 1980's, when travel restrictions
let up and there was an influx of people to visit the Jews of Bukhara
and let them know they were welcome in the Jewish enclaves of the West,
in Israel, and in the United States in cities like Boston and New York.
By the time the USSR finally collapsed in 1989, a mass exodus of Jews
from Uzbekistan to Israel and the United States was already underway.
Now Jews whop trace their roots to Bukhara are a part of Jewish communities
all over the world.
Jewish Salom Inn Center in Bukhara
Jews in Economy:
Jews played several roles in the economy of the region throughout their
time in Bukhara. The most significant role played was as middlemen between
various groups of traders. The Jews were able to play this role because
of their ability to speak the languages of Persia and the west as well
as those of the more mongoloid east. As well as working as merchants
many Jews in the region became financiers, investing in caravans who
traveled the Great Silk Road. While these are the most recognizable
roles that they played, they are also known for their own crafts, particularly
Jewish customs in Central Asia:
The basic customs of the Bukharan Jews are the same as those practiced
by observant Jews all over the world. They have the same laws about
food preparation and cleanliness as well as circumcision. Around the
beginning of the second millennium the Jews, now living in land controlled
by the Qarakhinds, were cut off form communication with Europe, but
had grown to 50,000 in number and had managed to maintain there traditions
through the limited contact with Jews in the Muslim world. Because of
this lack of communication they did, however have there own traditions.
For example, the ceremony of a bar mitzvah was replaced by a tefillin-banon.
The Bukharan Jews were a contrast with other Jewish cultures because
of their colorful costumes. The Bukharan Jewish woman's costume of that
period included a loose-fitting ikat silk gown in shades of rose or
violet, over which was worn an elaborately-embroidered coat with kimono
sleeves, called a kaltshak. Head-covering was either an embroidered
cap or tulle scarf with a jeweled forehead ornament. Other jewelry included
bracelets, earrings and coin necklaces. Until modern times, Bukharan
Jewish men wore a caftan-like garment called a djoma which was secured
at the waist by a cord girdle. Over the djoma was worn a long, loose-
fitting flared coat. The usual head-covering was a fur-lined Astrakhan
hat or a richly-embroidered cap called a kippah, which served the same
purpose as the western yarmulke. Save that Jewish men were forbidden
by law to wear the turban; the rest of their clothing did not differ
much from traditional Bukharan Muslim dress.
As well as clothing, Bukharan Jews adapted much of the culinary and
musical culture of Central Asia. Even to this day the food and music
of Bukharan Jews strongly reflects those roots. Pilov, a Central Asian
rice dish is a part of cuisine and the shash maqan, a stringed instrument,
a part of the music. This often sets them apart from the other Jews
living near them, but the Bukharan Jews and their descendants living
outside of Bukhara, are still a part of Central Asian history as much
as it is still a part of them.
Written with special thanks to Donna L. Carr for all of
the time and energy she spent in doing the research and writing that
made this possible. For a fuller history of the Jews of Bukhara please
visit her site www.getnet.com/~byblos/bukhara.htm.