Who exactly are the ‘Bukharan’ Jews?

‘Threads of Silk’ is a colorful and informative exhibition that tells the story of the Jews of Central Asia from the days of the Persian empire to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

bukharan 521 (photo credit: US Library of Congress)
bukharan 521
(photo credit: US Library of Congress)
In his poem “The Ballad of East and West,” Rudyard Kipling famously observes, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.”
East and West were meeting, however – as well as trading, communicating and exchanging ideas – for well over 2,000 years along a vast expanse of trails, paths and camel tracks now known as the Silk Road. This 6,500- kilometer network of interlinking trade routes connected the Far East, Southern and Western Asia with the Mediterranean world and Europe, largely as a result of the lucrative trade in Chinese silk.
The development of the Silk Road began in the fourth century BCE, when Alexander the Great began to expand his empire into Central Asia. In 329 BCE he established a city called Alexandria Eschate (“Alexandria the Farthest”) in Tajikistan, which soon became a staging point for trade and travel to India and the Far East.
Travel along the trade routes increased and became more organized two centuries later as the Romans developed an intense desire for silk from Han Dynasty China, which they received from their eastern neighbors the Parthians.
They thought silk grew on trees like cotton. Roman demand for silk became so intense – and so costly to import – that the Roman senate attempted to outlaw its use. The Silk Road continued to expand and develop after the fall of the Roman Empire, through the Byzantine and medieval periods in the West, and through Mongol rule in the East.
Jews living along the various routes of the Silk Road were usually traders, working with Jews living in other countries. Some of these Jews organized trade caravans; others actually led them – through the vast expanses of trade routes that ultimately connected the cities of Central and Eastern Europe with those of the Far East.
Jews in Central Asia, from the eastern boundaries of Persia to the western frontiers of China, soon found themselves at a strategic crossroads linking East and West. In time, they developed thriving communities with rich and distinctive customs. Today, we know these colorful communities as Bukharan Jews.
Their history, culture, arts and traditions are currently being celebrated in Tel Aviv at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People in an exhibition called “Threads of Silk, The Story of Bukharan Jewry.” The exhibition chronicles and examines the life of Bukharan Jews in two different spheres: the larger Bukharan sphere in which their identity was consolidated, and the personal sphere.
The Bukharan sphere is represented by a variety of arts, crafts, photographs and information related to life along the Silk Road and to the Jews’ life as a minority community.
The personal sphere focuses on marriage and the family, which has always been the most important social unit in the life of this community.
A major theme that runs through the exhibition is the community’s strong connection to Zion, which led over the centuries to pilgrimages to the country, to the establishment in the late 19th century of Jerusalem’s Bukharan neighborhood, and to a massive wave of aliya following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Who exactly are “Bukharan” Jews? The answer is a bit complicated.
Says Orit Engelberg Baram, one of the two curators of the exhibition, “Many people actually don’t know where Bukhara is because today it is not a state, it’s a city.
So who are the Bukharan Jews? The first part of the exhibition deals with that question.”
Says co-curator Meirav Balas, “We’re not merely talking about Jews from the city of Bukhara, which is in Uzbekistan today. We’re talking about a cultural region.”
“Bukharan Jewry” is thus a generic term that refers to the Jewish communities of Central Asia – present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – all once part of the Emirate of Bukhara, which existed in this area from the 16th century to its invasion by Russia in 1868 and its final dissolution by the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
“The Bukharan Jews are part of a large community, which I call the Persian cultural community. They share their culture with Persia, especially Afghanistan. So when we relate to Bukharan Jews, we should relate also to Afghanistan and to the source of the Jews, in Persia,” says art historian Ariella Amar from the Hebrew University’s Center for Jewish Art.
Did these Jews come originally from Persia? “There are several theories, and there are several legends,” Amar explains. “The first theory is, of course, that they came from Persia. That’s why they speak Tajik, a dialect of Farsi, and share the same culture and customs.”
According to Chana Tolmas, a linguistics professor at the Hebrew University, the community developed its own dialect of Tajik, called Judeo-Tajik, which comprised one of many “Jewish languages” around the world, like Yiddish (Judeo-German) and Ladino (Judeo- Spanish).
“They spoke this until the communist period, when they had to speak Russian,” says Amar. “But some of them kept their language and the customs. And if we’re talking about the Jews there, some of them also kept their religion – in secret. And we have some items in this exhibition that show how they prayed with prayer books that from the outside looked like books on geography but were actually prayer books inside. Not only that, but their synagogues were hidden as well.
Ostensibly they were ‘cultural centers,’ with Torah ark curtains that looked like Communist Party flags and banners – all red, with gold inscriptions. So it was a kind of camouflage.”
Geographically distant from other Jewish communities, the religious observance of Bukharan Jews is thought to have waxed and waned even before modern times. Amar mentions, for example, the story of Yosef Maman, a Moroccan Jew who journeyed to Central Asia from Safed in 1793 to collect money for a yeshiva in that town. Deciding that the Bukharan community’s religious observance had become weak, he stayed on as a missionary to teach Jewish law and reenergize the community’s commitment to Judaism.
MORE THAN 18 months in preparation, “Threads of Silk” is a colorful and informative exhibition that tells the story of the Jews of Central Asia from the days of the Persian empire, through the conquest of Alexander the Great, the Muslim conquest, the conquest of Genghis Khan and later of Timur Leng, the Emirate of Bukhara, Czarist Russian occupation, communist rule, and finally to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and subsequent mass migration to Israel. Items of traditional clothing, weaving, jewelry, household crafts and other colorful artifacts are displayed, along with photographs, videos and a wealth of detailed information about customs and folk beliefs.
We learn, for example, of the importance attached to the wearing of belts. Traditional dress played an important role in reflecting and preserving the social order, both between and within different ethnic communities.
Traditional belts for men attested to the wearer’s religion and status. Muslim authorities forced non-Muslims to obey the law of ghiyar, or “differentiation,” requiring them to adhere to a distinct dress code. Jewish men were forbidden, for example, to wear ornate belts and were ordered instead to tie lengths of rope around their waists. This was a humiliating mark of identification known as nakhi-ila’nat – “rope of the curse.” Jewish men wore ornate belts anyway, either hidden under their outer robes or displayed openly at community events.
Visitors to the exhibition will be particularly interested in the traditional marriage customs of the Bukharan Jews, which included betrothal of the couple while both were still infants; periods between the engagement and the marriage that lasted often for several years – in which the prospective bride rarely left her parents’ house; “official visits” to the bride by the prospective groom and his family, during which the girl was kept hidden behind a curtain; as well as the payment of a dowry whose preparation began when the bride was born.
Liberally displayed throughout the exhibition are numerous photographs by Zion Ozeri, who has been documenting traditional Jewish communities around the world for more than 30 years.
“I did this first with my own community,” he says. “I was born in Israel, but my parents came from Yemen. So I started documenting my own community because I realized it was going to cease to exist as we knew it.
And from there, I started going to other communities, documenting many, many different Jewish communities around the world. I went to Bukhara in the 1990s. I went there six times.
The first time I realized that with the gates of the Soviet Union opening up, there would be a mass migration.
And that community, which is very unique with their customs and traditions, would cease to exist in the same way. So I realized that this was a very important moment in Jewish history and that it needed to be documented.”
The result of all of the objects, photos and carefully researched snippets of information is a picture of a community that revolves around the concept of identity.
“I can tell you about one particularly interesting artifact here in ‘Threads of Silk,’” says curator Baram. “The Bukharan Jews were connected not only to the Jews of Persia but also to the Jews of China. And here, we show a tallit in which the four corners are decorated with ikat fabric, or Chinese brocade, showing scenes of a Chinese village. So you can see that in their religious objects, their Judaica, they integrated motifs and elements from the surrounding cultures. And this is a very important thing that we tried to show in this exhibition, that the Jews were not isolated, and they were not assimilated. They were influenced by their surroundings – and also influenced their surroundings – but they kept their identity and their Judaism, while absorbing influences from many places.”
“Threads of Silk: The Story of Bukharan Jewry” is on display until June at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv University campus, Ramat Aviv. Sunday to Tuesday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m; Wednesday and Thursday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m; Friday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Closed Saturdays and Jewish holidays. For further information: (03) 745-7800 or www.bh.org.il