Bukharan Jews now in Queens recreate their Sukkot memories
NEW YORK — “There is nothing like memories of the house where you grew up,” says Berta Shakarova, who was born in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Eight years ago, she immigrated with her family to the bustling Bukharan Jewish community in Queens, N.Y. “You never forget the way your childhood house and neighborhood looked.”
My husband shared her reaction when we recently visited his boyhood home in Forest Hills. He was equally surprised by changes in his old neighborhood, which coincidentally is Shakarova’s new one.
When David grew up during the 1950s and 1960s, he circulated in an Ashkenazi world. Today, many of the Jews who inhabit the streets of his youth hail from further east, from the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, once republics of the former Soviet Union north of Afghanistan.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bukharan Jews have sought a better life in Israel and the Queens neighborhoods of Kew Gardens, Rego Park and Forest Hills, now home to 50,000 of them.
As David and I perused stores on 108th Street, recently dubbed “Bukharan Broadway,” we peered at exotic lettering on signs written in Russian.
We stepped into a Bukharan bakery, and the owner introduced us to lepeshka, a 10-inch-round bread with a dimple in the center.
David realized more has changed on 108th Street than food stores. Russian is spoken, and china shops display tea sets with ornate Russian designs. Embroidered jackets called joma beckon from inside stores. They are worn by bar mitzvah boys, brides and grooms, and couples celebrating milestone anniversaries. On holidays, such as Sukkot, men don these colorful robes along with flat hats, while reading prayers and drinking wine.
“At Sukkot, the weather is cooler in Uzbekistan than in New York,” Shakarova says. “But we didn’t mind; for seven days we ate outside.”
“Sukkot was a great adventure, especially for children,” says Shlomo Fuzaylov, a Web site programmer who founded www.Bukharian.com The site literally and figuratively opens windows onto the world of Bukharan Jews.
Since the mid-1980s, the Jewish population of Uzbekistan has dropped by nearly 90 percent. Yet Jewish life there has outlived many conquering empires. It is believed that the city of Bukhara was formerly Habor (II Kings 17:6), where the 10 tribes were exiled. Bukharan Jews originally migrated from ancient Persia, Afghanistan and Morocco and follow Sephardi law.
In Uzbekistan, Shakarova’s mother-in-law threw elaborate Sukkot celebrations, and the women in the family helped her prepare lavish meals. But today in Queens, they are apartment dwellers without space to erect a sukkah, so celebrations, while festive, are smaller in scale.
“If you have a house, you build at sukkah,” says a Queens college student, who immigrated to America when she was 15. “If not, you join friends who live in a house, celebrate in an apartment or take your food to a synagogue and eat there.”
The student raves about succulent Sukkot dishes that were passed down from her grandmother: fried potatoes, vegetables and grape leaves stuffed with beef, and meatballs and tomato sauce. Rice and meat are staples of their cuisine.
“The grandmothers are always the best cooks in everyone’s family,” she says. “They know the recipes and the old school of cooking.”
They are revered for more than their age. They are the link between the future in Queens and a vanishing world far to the east.
(STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES)
Makes about 32
3/4 lb. ground beef
1/3 cup raw rice, rinsed in cold water
1 small onion, minced
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound jar grape leaves
4 Tbsp. olive oil, or more if needed
1 lb. cubed beef
Combine first four ingredients in a mixing bowl. Rinse grape leaves and place in a large bowl of hot water. Cover for 2-3 minutes. Drain in colander. Reserve a dozen smaller leaves. Place 1 tsp. of meat mixture in center of each leaf. Using stuffed cabbage technique, wrap an edge of leaf around meat. Fold right and left sides of leaf in front of meat mound. Roll leaf around meat until you have a neat package. Place on plate and continue until meat and remaining leaves are rolled.
Coat bottom of 6-quart pot with oil. Brown cubed beef. Turn off flame. Lay reserved grape leaves over beef. Carefully place rolls, which can be layered, on top of grape leaves. Add enough water so it is level with vegetables. Cover pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer on a low flame for 90 minutes. Check pot every 20 minutes and add water, if necessary.