The Bukharian Lobby
It was a political coming out of sorts for a minority within a minority.
Tucked into a pocket of central Queens, the colorful Bukharian Jewish community isn’t very well known even to Jews in metropolitan New York, let alone in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.
But there they were last week, in a first-ever lobbying mission to the nation’s capital, as some 100 Bukharian leaders rubbed shoulders with senators and representatives, pressing a few key points but mostly basking in the glow of the moment.
The emotional high point came during Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s address in the ornate Mike Mansfield Room of the U.S. Senate to the leaders of the close-knit community of approximately 50,000 Jews who emigrated from Central Asia to the U.S. over the past 20 years.
Lieberman, exhibiting the gift of the schmoozer at the Appreciation and Tribute Luncheon of the Bukharian Jewish Congress of the U.S.A. and Canada, intoned, “God said to Abraham, ‘You’ll be an eternal people’… and now we see that the State of Israel lives, and this historic [Bukharian] community, which was cut off from the Jewish world for centuries in Central Asia and suffered oppression during the Soviet Union, is alive and well in America. God has kept his promise to the Jewish people.”
Lieberman then grinned puckishly and deadpanned, “Let’s give God a round of applause,” and then, seemingly getting warmed up, shouted, “Am Bukharian Jews Chai.” The crowd responded rapturously.
Then, holding up a collection of several CDs of Bukharian cantorial and folk music just presented to him by renowned cantor community Ezra Malakov, Lieberman said, “Tonight, when I go home to Hadassah, I’ll be bringing her the wonderful music of Ezra Malakov.”
At that, Malakov, an energetic man in his 60s who had been seated alongside the senator, jumped up, embraced Lieberman and broke spontaneously into a medley of Bukharian cantorial favorites as the Connecticut senator grinned and clapped his hands.
When he was able to catch his breath, Malakov, who recently wrote and published a songbook compiling for the very first time the musical compositions of hundreds of Bukharian liturgical and folk melodies, said emotionally, “To hear our music praised by a great leader like Senator Lieberman right here in the U.S. Capitol so moved me that I simply had to get up and sing in his honor and in honor of this amazing day. Even a few years ago, who could ever have imagined our community experiencing such a miraculous day as this one?”
So it went throughout the Bukharian coming-out party at the Capitol. Lieberman and his Senate colleagues Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Wayne Allard (R-Colo), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and New York Reps. Anthony Weiner and Yvette Clark, both Democrats, dropped by to pay homage to the hitherto little-known community.
The Bukharians have an estimated 40,000 members in the central Queens neighborhoods of Rego Park, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens and another 10,000 spread across the U.S., especially in communities like Phoenix, Atlanta and Denver. (There are an estimated 100,000-150,000 Bukharian Jews in Israel and several thousand remaining in their former home country of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries).
Seated in places of honor alongside the visiting public officials were Boris Kandov, president of the Bukharian Jewish Congress of the USA and Canada, and Bukharian Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yehoshua, who spoke of his community’s gratitude to have come to a country he referred to as “an empire of chesed” and asked God to “protect our soldiers in Iraq [and] embrace peace on earth.”
For his part, Kandov, 59, the ebullient co-owner of a Queens-based limousine company known as Prime Time Transport, said to the assembled legislators, “For 20 years, the Soviet Union refused my request for immigration. During my years living in Central Asia, I could only imagine the White House as an unapproachable fortress. To be standing on this podium in this elegant room [in the U.S. Capitol] is a great honor as well as a big holiday and victory.”
Kandov said, “We are thankful to America for accepting us for who we really are. [Now] we want to take one step forward, and contribute to our new country.” He added, “In the USA, Bukharian Jews have received full freedom but are still experiencing some problems. One main issue is the preservation and development of our centuries-old history and cultural heritage. … My dream is to see a network of Bukharian cultural centers in each community scattered across the country.”
In an interview, Kandov, explained that the event represented the first step in a sustained effort to put the Bukharian community on the U.S. political map and in a better position to apply for federal funding for some of its ambitious building projects.
He noted that the Bukharians also used the occasion for some subtle lobbying on behalf of the government of Uzbekistan, which has been in the doghouse in the West over the past several years because of a 2005 incident in which government troops allegedly shot dead as many as 500 demonstrators. The Bukharians were accompanied to Capitol Hill by Uzbek Ambassador to the U.S. Abdul Aziz Kamilov.
According to Kandov, “While we have developed a number of philanthropists who have funded the building of many synagogues and yeshivas over the past several years, we will need to find government funding to help finance the building of Bukharian community centers across the country. In the years ahead, something we must do to preserve and protect the language and culture of our ancient community from the threat of assimilation.”
Kandov said that community is also squeezed by a dearth of affordable housing especially in New York. “We have several hundred families who have been on waiting lists for more than a decade for Section 8 housing,” Kandov said, contending that the community leadership plans to lobby hard for expansion of the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, a federal housing program which provides housing assistance to low-income renters and homeowners.
Kandov said that while most Bukharian Jews are now American citizens, only about 40 percent of adult community members are now registered to vote. “In the wake of our visit to Washington, we are forming an election committee to register as many members of the community as possible in time for the 2008 election,” he said. “We are also developing a cadre of young American-educated community members, one or more of whom may themselves run for office in the not-so-distant future.”
The U.S. State Department does not view Uzebkistan’s government kindly, recently declaring in an annual report that its “human rights record remained very poor, and it continued to commit numerous serious abuses. Citizens cannot exercise the right to change their government peacefully.”
But Kandov inists, “America is following a mistaken policy concerning Uzbekistan.” Contending that those killed in the 2005 incident in the city of Andijan were Islamic militants bent on overthrowing the government, Kandov said, “President [Islam] Karimov did everything to ally himself with the U.S. and was insulted [that] America turned against away from him in his hour of need.”
Ultimately, Kandov said, the community’s embrace of the Uzbek government comes down to preserving the Bukharian legacy there. “As long as one Jew lives in Uzbekistan, we will care about what happens there,” Kandov said. “Also, our cemeteries there, which are extremely important to us, are being kept in good condition thanks to the support and funding by the Uzbek government.”
After the senators left, leaders of the community began making emotional speeches in Russian, making clear how thrilled they were by the moment.
Zoya Maxumova, president of the Bukharian Women’s Organization, Esther Hamalka, remarked, “This event represents a huge leap forward for our community. I am so grateful to God that we are here, that I was able to witness this. Now, for the first time, Americans will know who we are.”