Bukharian Jews: Preserving Identity

In Queens, New York, Cyrillic signs adorn storefronts, restaurants with names like Shalom and Cheburechnaya serve bread baked in a tandoor and a museum showcases elaborate robes and kippot – all signs of the thriving community that came from Central Asia, bringing their unique heritage with them.

On a fall Sunday afternoon, the chandeliered party room at Troika in Forest Hills, Queens, is filling up. Friends and relatives have come to the Bukharian restaurant to honor the memory of prominent Jewish writer Lev Kandinov on the one-month anniversary of his death. Candles stand ready to be lit below his portrait, and long, rectangular tables are heaped with food: carrot, beet and mushroom salads; dishes of raisins, pickles and caraway wafers; non, a bialy-shaped bread topped with black sesame seeds; noni toqhi, matza-like in its flatness but baked into a curve against the dome of a tandoor; and bottles of seltzer, vodka and pots of green tea.

Soon, the rabbi chants minha, the afternoon service, in the Middle Eastern-inflected Bukharian style. The men stand and pray while the women remain seated and chat. While the speeches extolling the deceased begin in Bukhori, also called Judeo-Persian (Farsi mixed with Hebrew, Aramaic, Uzbek and Tajik), which is the native tongue of the Bukharian Jews, the guests sip and munch. Course after course is served: fried carp dipped in garliccilantro sauce; round meat pies (samboosak); dumlama, a wheel of baked cabbage, tomato, meat and pepper; and plov, rice spiced with cumin and crowned with julienned carrots, chick peas and meat.

The scene is repeated all through the year – with some variations – at two dozen or so restaurants that have sprung up to accommodate the thousands of Bukharian Jews who have settled in Queens since the early 1970s. Bukharian Jews are thriving here and elsewhere in the United States, modernizing yet trying to stay true to their heritage. Memorials that used to be conducted at home are held in restaurants during shiva and at 30-day and 1-year anniversaries. The memorials represent one custom among the many traditions members of the community are dedicated to maintaining in their diaspora.

“Every day, every restaurant is full,” says Lana Levitin, a real estate broker and manager of Maqam, a Bukharian musical ensemble. “With 50,000 Jews, everyone has someone to remember.”

Sheva berakhot, bar mitzvas and birthday celebrations also fill the halls. When someone dies, “even if you’ve never heard of the person, you go to the funeral,” says David Ribacoff, an ?migr? from Bukhara who has lived in New York since 1963.

At the remembrance for Kandinov, Levitin emphasizes the high intellectual and cultural level of the largely older crowd. There are former physics professors, physicians, dancers and other professionals fluent in a variety of Central Asian dialects. Because of their age and limited English, it has been hard for them to find work in their fields.

Despite that, “we are not mourning the Old Country,” says Ezra Malakov, 70, a singer and cantor at the synagogue of the Beth Gavriel World Center for Bukharian Jews in Queens. “Practicing Judaism freely was not allowed there. There is a nostalgic feeling for the country where we were born but whatever we are doing here was absolutely impossible there.”

Legend traces the origins of the Bukharian Jews to the Israelites exiled to Babylonia in 586 B.C.E. According to another theory, they are descendants of fifth-century exiles from Persia. How they got to Central Asia is obscure, but they maintained their distinctive Eastern practices in relative isolation for thousands of years under Islamic and, later, Russian rule. Their name derives from the Uzbek city of Bukhara in south-eastern Russia. Their history and traditions differ both from the Caucasian, or Mountain, Jews, who hail from nearby Azerbaijan and Dagestan, and the Ashkenazic Russian Jews of northern cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev.

Yet all three groups experienced religious persecution under the Soviets. The Bukharians suppressed all evidence of religious practice but were allowed to obtain higher education and establish careers. Although some left as early as the 1960s (the first Bukharian synagogue in Queens was established in 1965), emigration increased with perestroika in 1985 and then again after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Many made their way first to Israel and then resettled in the United States. There are approximately 150,000 Bukharian Jews in Israel today, including a group of 100 who made aliya from New York in 2006 with their rabbi, Michael Boruchov; 60,000 in North America; and smaller numbers in Europe. The community is centered in Queens and Brooklyn, but some groups have relocated to Miami, Denver, Phoenix, Toronto, Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Diego. About 2,000 remain in Central Asia.

Along the main shopping area of 108th Street in Forest Hills – called Bukharian Broadway or Queensistan-signs in Cyrillic advertise aptekas (pharmacies), bakeries, fruit markets, dry cleaners and restaurants like Salute, Shalom and Cheburechnaya. The older generation has become entrepreneurs, shoemakers, hairdressers, barbers, cosmetologists, jewelers, real estate agents, photographers and caterers; the younger generation is made up largely of physicians, lawyers, accountants, computer specialists and financial advisers. Journals and newspapers, mostly in Russian, circulate weekly and three theater troupes perform regularly.

At least a dozen synagogues – all Orthodox-serve the community (two opened this year) along with three day schools, several yeshivot, youth groups and Jewish organizations.

According to the community’s chief rabbi, Itzhak Yehoshua, about 20 percent of the community is Orthodox; 60 percent is traditional but not necessarily observant; and 20 percent is unaffiliated. While some Bukharians are assimilating into secular life, others are becoming ba’alei teshuva, often with an Ashkenazic Orthodox twist.

In less affluent areas such as Lefrak City alongside the Long Island Expressway in the Corona section of Queens, Bukharians live in government-subsidized apartments, but in Forest Hills, contemporary colonials have been rebuilt with a Middle Eastern flavor, their large kitchens and formal dining rooms vital for accommodating extended family gatherings. Children live with their parents until they marry, and the elderly are rarely placed in nursing homes.

The five-story Bukharian Jewish Community Center in Forest Hills hosts numerous classes, events and youth activities; it also houses a synagogue and offices of the Bukharian Jewish Congress, an umbrella organization that runs about 30 outreach centers across North America. The BJCC was completed in 2005 with the help of Bukharian billionaire, Chabad devotee and philanthropist Lev Leviev.

Though Leviev lives in London, his spirit – and funds – are widespread, most notably at the Queens Gymnasia, which he founded in 2002. Today, he provides free tuition (estimated at $15,000 apiece) for each of its 800 students (pre-K through 11th grade), who would otherwise have attended public school. A portrait of the Lubavitcher rebbe hangs in the entrance.

Stella Mallayeva, who works in the Gymnasia office, has a fifth-grader in the school. “Culture and tradition are important,” says the Samarkand native. “That is what holds the family together….”

Devorah Tamarova, 16, whose family emigrated from Tajikistan in 1992, distinguishes between Bukharians and “regular Jewish people.”

“Bukharians are people you’d want to get close to because we have customs others wouldn’t think of,” she says. Her mother works as a housekeeper and her father has a dry cleaning business. “My parents brought Bukharian Judaism with them. It expresses them.” And though they were not religious, she says, “we became religious from the school…. I keep Shabbos but it is hard to do when you don’t know what you are do-ing.” She traces her pronunciation – (Shabbos instead of Shabbat) – to some of her Ashkenazic teachers.

Most of the students don’t speak Bukharian fluently but understand it. They learn to pray according to Sefardic custom. And if they take the elevator to the sixth floor of the Gymnasia, it is as if they have traveled back to the Old Country. The Bukharian Jewish Museum, founded by teacher and translator Aron Aronov with the support of Leviev and businessman Daniel Rose, beckons visitors into another world, one in which the epicenter of life was the courtyard of the house, where fruit trees canopied large wooden beds used for eating, sleeping and socializing and samovars perched on tables. Aronov waves a wicker fan – a bodbezanin a circular motion and explains that a bunch of dry grass that hangs on a wall was burned to protect against the evil eye. Rooms feature benches covered with vivid woven rugs; gold-embroidered wall hangings; robes of silk, magenta and gold called jomas; and glittering kippot donned for special occasions. A 400-year-old Torah scroll written on deerskin and hand-copied siddurim passed from grandfather to grandson evoke the religious life of the community.

“Whatever belongs to my people, I brought here,” says Aronov, who has been gathering artifacts, books and music for over 40 years and travels to Samarkand and Bukhara each year with the museum’s president, Yuriy Sadykov, to expand the collection. Aronov also teaches Bukharian customs and cooking at the Teen Lounge of the Jewish Child Care Association.

Another room in the museum is dedicated to the Russian and Muslim environment. A red velvet banner embroidered with Cyrillic words declares: “The proletariat of all the countries of the world, unite!”

“In my hands there should have been a Sefer Torah but the Soviets took it and gave me this banner,” says Aronov. “Our fathers almost gave up. They were afraid that keeping the Jewish tradition would bring trouble to the family…. But our mothers continued the tradition. If there was no kosher meat, we ate no meat. On Yom Kippur, they urged us to fast. On our fathers’ yorzeits, they told us to go to the synagogue and say Kaddish.”

Malakov, who left Tashkent in 1992, credits his mother for passing on the Bukharian musical heritage; she listened in when her father taught her brothers and recorded the oral tradition before she died in 1985. With funding from Leviev, Malakov recently published a notated songbook with seven CDs titled Musical Treasures of the Bukharian Jewish Community. He teaches the melodies to students at Beth Gavriel and to his 16 grandchildren when they gather on Shabbat.

The Bukharians are proud of their music, especially the classical folk style called shashmaqam (“six volumes”) they were instrumental in developing. At the home of Ilyas Malayev, Maqam’s musical director who passed away last May, traditional Bukharian hand-held drums and stringed instruments adorned the living room wall: violin, oud, tamboura, sitar, tar, sato, saaz, doira. The ensemble performs worldwide, even playing Carnegie Hall with Yo-Yo Ma, and is planning a series of concerts in Malayev’s memory.

Alongside the nostalgia and attempts at preservation, the community is exercising newfound American savvy to raise its profile. Last October, a group of 70 Bukharian leaders met with senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill. “The senators said, ‘Stay what you are and be good Americans,'” recalls Yehoshua. “Every immigrant has the dream to melt into society. Just to talk about religion per se is not enough. To maintain our identity, it’s important to enhance self-esteem and give people pride in who they are.”

While the Bukharians often present a united front, internal power struggles have spawned charges of corruption. Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, says the Bukharians’ insularity and Soviet-bred distrust of government make it a challenge to integrate them into the larger communal structure. But, Bukharians are the future of Queens and a major component for Jewish continuity. “How many Ashkenazic synagogues are merging because of attrition?” she asks. “The Bukharians are building new ones.”

Like many immigrant communities, Bukharians face difficulties straddling the old and new. Most prefer not to talk publicly about the problems of acculturation: assimilation, intermarriage, divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism and drug abuse. “There are two distinct financial populations: the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor,” says Zalisky. “There is no middle class yet.” Her agency provides legal and social services, including assistance with medical insurance, a kosher food pantry, afterschool programs for at-risk youth and counseling.

Close-knit as they are, familial tensions do arise, Zalisky says. “The kids want to be American and chuck the whole Old World identity, and the grandparents want to hold onto it strongly. The parents are working hard and are caught in the middle.”

Some men, frustrated with their inability to replicate careers here, turn to alcoholism, even abuse. Marriage and parenting workshops and couples’ evenings focus on breaking the cycle of domestic violence, says Zalisky.

Within the community, an arm of the Bukharian Jewish Congress called Esther Hamalkah works to promote women’s health, says its president, Dr. Zoya Maksumova, 60, a radiologist and editorinchief of the Russian-language Ladies World magazine.

“In Bukharian families, the man is the main person, but in this country, the woman integrates better,” she says. “She goes to work, starts to support her family and husband…and finds it easier to start a new life. Unfortunately, in some families men cannot stand it, get depressed and there are problems.” Still, she notes that Bukharian divorce and abuse rates are the same as those in most communities in the United States.

Maksumova had to overcome immense odds. When she emigrated from Tajikistan in 1990, she began studying for medical recertification. Her husband passed away after a year, leaving her with two children to raise and no job (she remarried four years ago). Neither her daughter, who has a master’s degree in art and textile design, nor her son, who is in business administration, is married. “I want them to marry only Bukharian,” she says, pointing out that several groups and informal networks are dedicated to Bukharian matchmaking.

Levitin, a self-described free spirit who urges equality between men and women, lives outside the community – in Great Neck, Long Island – and belongs to a non-Bukharian Conservative synagogue where she recently became an adult bat mitzva. Yet she is still connected to the Bukharian community. She founded World of Women Immigrants, which offers workshops on health and self-improvement. She also delivers groceries from the Queens Jewish Community Council to 30 to 50 Bukharian families every month.

“I can see changes in the younger generation,” she says. “How much they want to stay linked to the community depends on what kind of family background they come from, their religious and academic orientation and where they live.” Levitin’s younger daughter, Arlene, 24, lives at home and is studying law. Her older daughter, Anya Barak, 27, is a child psychologist who helps with her mother’s organization.

“Within the broader Jewish context, my Bukharian identity gives me a specificity,” says Barak, noting that she considers herself both Bukharian and American. At her wedding to Ashkenazic Danie Barak in 2003, their traditions merged. He wore a kittel and a Bukharian kippa, and American and Bukharian music played alternately. Levitin gave Danie and his father jomas as gifts and brought others that were passed around and worn during the ethnic dancing. “My in-laws got a huge kick out of it,” Barak says. “The Bukharian families were like, ‘same old, same old.’ But they were happy to see how well American Jews took to our traditions.” Though she did not have a poitach, a women’s get-together with feasting, dancing, singing, telling jokes – usually about mothers-in-law – one of her sheva berakhot was in a Bukharian catering hall.

Barak says she is not typical because she did not grow up in the Queens community and was educated in the Conservative movement. To the next generation, she would like to pass on “customs and foods – like bakhsh, our version of cholent – Friday night meals, our music and dancing,” she says. “That will give my children a sense of who their mother’s family is.”

The Bukharian Jewish global portal, www.BJews.com, hopes to perpetuate that continuity while helping its members and visitors integrate into American life. The site, begun in 1998, has expanded into a veritable encyclopedia with history, culture, dating forums and more. It has also branched out into a leadership organization, the Association of Bukharian Jewish Youth (Achdut, or Unity), with about 100 members ages 16 through 35, according to Imanuel Rybakov, its president. Rybakov, 24, emigrated from Tashkent in 1999. He now lives with his family in Rego Park, Queens, while studying finance and economy at Queens College, teaches Bukhori at the BJCC and assists Aronov at the museum.

“I cannot forsake the Bukharian culture,” he explains. “My great-grandparents and ancestors were leaders of the community…. The Soviet system wanted to deprive us of our culture. We immigrated here to keep our traditions and religion.”


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