by Ariane Sadjed, Vienna

On the train ride from Tashkent to Samarkand, my colleague was reading a booklet about the history of Bukharan Jews (Bukharskie Evrei). A lady sitting in front of us tried to start a conversation with us, asking, “Are you Americans?“ I was puzzled by the question, pondering whether the history of Jews in Central Asia, once a community indigenous in the region, had become a topic of interest only for foreigners. Much of the history about Jews in Muslim countries, including Central Asia, was for a long time written by Western travellers, missionaries and imperial ethnographers. Nineteenth-century accounts, for example, portray local Jews as backward and isolated, ascribing them a double Otherness: qua Orientals, they embodied many of the classical Orientalist stereotypes ranging from laziness, to being dirty, and cunning. On the other hand, they were also depicted as victims of this same Oriental culture, that is, a minority oppressed by the fanatical, intolerant and irrational Muslim. As Aomar Boum explains in his book Memories of Absence, after the mass emigration of Jews from the Muslim world, mostly from 1948 onward, local Jewish histories had increasingly become disconnected from their environment and connected to issues relating to present-day Israel.

Were Bukharan Jews isolated from the centers of Jewish learning, living in ignorance, yearning for their “true” homeland Eretz Israel? This narrative was and is propagated by members of the Bukharan Jewish community itself: For example in connection with the emissary Yosef Maimon, who was originally from Morocco, reached Bukhara in the late 18th century. He found that the local Jews were not following the “right” traditions, were ignorant of religious practice and assimilating into their Muslim environment. He established the Sephardic rite among the Jews of Central Asia, who previously had followed “the old Persian Jewish ritual” (Adler 1898), not without some serious friction with other, local rabbis. In this conflict over religious authority, the students of Maimon prevailed and embraced the narrative about their lost knowledge of orthopraxy, which allegedly only Maimon was able to restore. Far from being isolated, Central Asian Jews were closely connected to Jewish networks expanding beyond the Persianate world, as they were in possession of religious books and manuscripts from Rome, which reached Central Asia via Persia at the beginning of the 16th century, as well as from Constantinople and Venice.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and emigration of most Jews from Central Asia, the previous ethnicization (i.e. as a “national” rather than “religious” minority) and secularization contributed to the emergence of a new communal narrative: namely of having lost their tradition under Soviet pressure. Bukharans arriving in Austria, Israel and the US in the 1970s and again from 1991 onward, struggled to be accepted by the local Jewish communities to which they had moved. During many interviews I conducted, my interlocutors have explained their experiences of perceived inferiority and discrimination in light of their “lack of religiosity”. However, there were also ethnic and class-based issues at play: Until two decades ago, Jews of European origin antagonized Bukharans in Austria by using racial slurs such as ‘black’ (German, Schwarzer). Similar accounts were related by Bukharan Jews in Israel, who were ostracized after revealing that they were not Russian – that is European Jews – but of Central Asian origin. Many of my interlocutors tend to play down these forms of racist discrimination in order to allow for a universal Jewish experience in which being “Bukharan” is a subgroup of many, “with qualities that should be highlighted and celebrated, while also emphasizing the notion that Jews belong to one unified group that shares a common history, tradition, and destiny” (Cooper 2012: 60).

This background is significant for understanding the new forms of religiosity that have emerged in the late 20th century among Jews in the different locales such as Israel, the US, and Europe. Wealthy Bukharan families, now living in the US or Israel, have engaged in “rekindling” Judaism among Bukharan Jews by sponsoring schools in Israel as part of a charity network for a broad range of needs such as food, transport and clothing. This system of matching an orthodox education with social services was carried out successfully by the Sephardic orthodox party SHAS in Israel, founded in 1984 under the leadership of Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic chief rabbi (Kamil 2001). Many schools in Israel catering to Bukharans operate under the aegis of SHAS, which claims to represent all Middle Eastern and North African Jews under a new umbrella identity as “Sephardim” (Iberian Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492). This identification is more prestigious than the Mizrahi/Oriental one, and allows association with and revaluing a variety of “Eastern” Jewish traditions, ranging from Yemen to Iraq, as one of my interviewees now living in Vienna, explained: “Bukharan Jews were a mix from all these countries. In Central Asia, they merged into one community.”


What are the views of Jews and non-Jews in Uzbekistan on the place of Jews in Uzbek society?

The lay head of the Jewish community in Tashkent, for example, has recently explained to me that Uzbek Jews were not Sephardic, but Mizrahi Jews. While talking to him, I got the impression that such an emphasis reflected a specific objective, that is to promote the vision of a national Jewish identity. At the same time, he represents the Jewish minority in different official and state meetings, for example, about the state of different minorities in Uzbekistan – a position requiring that he bolsters the national and international interests of the Uzbek state: upholding a narrative of Uzbekistan as inclusive and tolerant to its religious minorities, and facilitating diplomatic and economic relations with Israel.

Local non-Jews couch their memories of former Jewish neighbors and friends in more ambiguous ways. A common trope I encountered was that of Jews as professionals who excelled over others. The best doctors or musicians were said to be Jewish. However, this was at times accompanied by an undertone of them being cunning – and especially after the end of the Soviet Union of being able to advance with help of foreign powers. A successful entrepreneur who had grown up in the Jewish quarter of Samarkand said that while many Uzbeks were struggling to make their living in the Soviet era, Jews mostly worked in professions such as shoemakers, goldsmiths or barbers, which allowed them a constant inflow of cash. He said, “They would not share their secret with outsiders. They also framed their jobs as if they were something inferior.”   

What came to be seen as a “secret”, were networks, often family businesses, from which a particular knowledge had emerged that was kept within the (extended) family. A more decisive feeling of separation took hold after the Soviet Union dissolved and Jews emigrating in large numbers were seen as being helped from the “outside”, especially the United States. A historian we met in Tashkent related how he found one of his neighbors getting his home ready for sale in order to leave Uzbekistan in the early 1990s: “They knew that something bad was about to happen [i.e. they were informed from outside]. I asked him, ‘how will you obtain an exit permit?’, he said, ‘I already got it.’” The option of moving away, primarily to the US or Israel, places Jews apart from the rest of the society, which – according to this informant – was not aware of what was to come and, more importantly, did not have the connections necessary to leave and settle somewhere else.

Bukharans now living in Austria recalled their visits back to Uzbekistan, stating that the local population welcomed them most warmly, lamenting that after the Jews left, there were no dentists or craftsmen available for a long time, connecting the demise of the local economy to the emigration of the Jewish population.

The few Jews who remain today in cities such as Samarkand or Bukhara are in the position to upkeep synagogues and cemeteries as sites of visitation for Jews from abroad, or tourists. When problems such as competing interests about a plot of land, formerly used as cemetery by a local Jewish community arise, these individuals report to the Bukharan community in the US, who then send representatives to Uzbekistan to resolve the issue with the Uzbek authorities. In that sense, the state of Uzbekistan has allowed the representation of Central Asian Jewish heritage to be “outsourced” to Jewish individuals and associations abroad. Together, the almost complete emigration of Jews from Central Asia and the musealization of selected aspects of their heritage such as cemeteries, have led to a separation of Jews as distinct from the society in which they had lived for many centuries.

When speaking to members of the older generation of Bukharan Jews, attempts to unify Jewish history are at times openly contested. Resistance to subsuming the Bukharan heritage under a global Jewish identity emphasizes the locality – Central Asia – in which Bukharan Jewish life historically evolved, as essential and distinct. Such positions tend to be rejected by the younger generation as “communist mindset”. The future lies elsewhere.

In order to analyze forms of hegemonic knowledge, the integration of new sources is critical, in particular what Engseng Ho has referred to as “indigenous knowledge”: sources beyond those written in Hebrew or sent to authorities in Palestine, such as oral histories transmitted in families, memories of people who have lived among Jews and records that remained in the places where Jews lived, allow a better understanding of how certain narratives have prevailed – not as normative truth but in relation to their significance for contemporary understandings of communal history and identity.

Further Reading

Adler, Elkan N. 1898. The Persian Jews: Their Books and Their Ritual, The Jewish Quarterly Review 10(4), pp. 584-625.

Boum, Aomar. 2013. Memories of Absence. How Muslims remember Jews in Morocco. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Cooper, Alanna. 2012. Bukharan Jews and the dynamics of global Judaism. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Cooper, Alanna. 2004. Reconsidering the Tale of Rabbi Yosef Maman and the Bukharan Jewish Diaspora, Jewish Social Studies 10(2), pp. 80-115.

Ho, Engseng. 2017. Inter-Asian Concepts for Mobile Societies. The Journal of Asian Studies 76(4), pp. 907-928. 

Kamil, Omar. 2001. The Synagogue as the Civil Society, or How We Can Understand the Shas Party. Mediterranean Quarterly 12(3), pp. 128-143.

Sadjed, Ariane. Jewish identity formation after leaving Central Asia, Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion 15, edited by Olga Breskaya and Siniša Zrinšcak (forthcoming).