Teens Trace Their Roots At Bukharian Museum
Aron Aronov ends internships at his Bukharian Jewish Museum in Elmhurst in a most unorthodox way — inverting himself and walking on his hands.
He begins this ritual by sandwiching himself between a 400-year-old deerskin Torah and racks of silk robes — relics of a rich Bukhori culture lost in time and place in Central Asia, but still alive in Queens.
“I walk on my hands to be in shape, to be with my museum,” explained Aronov, 69, the museum’s creator and executive director, who guides tours, curates the four-room exhibit and even vacuums the carpets.
This is not a traditional museum with daily hours of operation. Admission is free, but the museum is open by appointment only, because Aronov works full-time as a community liaison and translator at New York Association for New Americans.
In 2003, he and Yuriy Sadykov, the museum’s president, moved a collection of over 2,000 items — including gold embroidered tapestries, musical instruments, framed portraits of rabbis, matriarchs and merchants, Bukhori language books, Soviet money and cooking instruments — out of the basement of Aronov’s Rego Park home.
Lev Leviev, a prominent Bukharian billionaire diamond cutter, offered space rent-free on the sixth-story of his private Jewish school, the Queens Gymnasia.
“We have successfully immigrated into American society,” Aronov said. “(Now) we are trying to preserve our Bukharian identity.”
Today, there appears to be increasing interest by youths in their heritage. Every Monday night, seven teenagers from Forest Hills High School file in through the museum’s white metal gate on Gymnasia’s top floor. They are midway through an eight-week internship program at the museum, where they are learning about their ancestral identity and preparing to guide tours.
“There are many people (who) say they don’t care (because) we’re in America now,” said Dina Yusupova, 16, adding that her Bukharian culture thrives in New York, as opposed to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where her family migrated from two years ago.
Of the 300,000 Bukharian Jews worldwide, roughly 40,000 to 50,000 live in Queens — far more than in Central Asia, according to Aronov. For more than two millennia, the Bukharian Jews practiced the traditions of the Torah, but lived mainly among Muslims in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, speaking Bukhori, a Farsi dialect.
Feeling geographically and culturally isolated in Central Asia, the community eventually began migrating away from the region, primarily to Israel and America.
“A lot of (teenagers) don’t know why they are called Bukharian, or where they came from,” said Zhanna Beyl, of Jewish Child Care Association, a non-profit group that sponsors the internship program.
Beyl says she’s constantly receiving questions — like, “My parents are from Uzbekistan, I was born in Israel, what am I?” — from teenagers searching for a better understanding of their cultural identity.
And the many of the students are constantly searching. Some take weekly language classes with Imanuel Rybakov, 24, a Bukhori language instructor who guides tours in Aronov’s absence. As president of the 100-member Association of Bukharian Jewish Youth, Rybakov runs the youth group’s newspaper, Achdut, and also manages its Web site (www.bjews.com), where he posts online Bukhori language lessons.
In the densely packed museum, Aronov sits with his interns pouring over the treasures he has collected and quizzing them on topics ranging from the route between Jerusalem and Central Asia to the reason that Bukharians make round matzah.
“There (are) not too many of us,” said Liron Babishov, 16, a Bukharian, who was born in Israel. He plans to preserve his culture by going to a Bukharian synagogue, eating Bukharian food and trying to learn the language.
The interns draped scarves around their heads and handled antiquated objects, like an outdoor water vessel, that they said jogged memories of their grandparents’ kitchens and yards in the old world.
The session ended with one of Aranov’s unique lessons in tour guiding: How to end your tours — preferably upside down. He then performed his characteristic handstand, and the interns followed his lead.
The Bukharian Jewish Museum is on the sixth floor of Gymnasia, located at 60-05 Woodhaven Blvd., For more information, call Aron Aronov at (718) 897-4124.