The history of Bukharan Jews

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
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
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 Bukhara.
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
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.

Salom Inn Center in Bukhara
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 silk weaving.

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

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