The Human Spirit: Picking up the scent

The tale of a man’s decades-old search for the writings of the grandfather he never got to meet and his triumphant find in the last synagogue in Tajikistan.

benzion yehoshua 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
benzion yehoshua 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The scent of newsprint has always reminded Benzion D. Yehoshua of bread. Perhaps that’s partly because he began delivering daily newspapers when he was 11 years old to earn his family’s daily bread after his father was killed in the War of Independence.
“I didn’t feel sorry for myself,” said Yehoshua. “Many of my generation were in a similar position.”
He would grow up to become an acclaimed author, a publisher and a lecturer on Asian Jewry. He headed Jerusalem’s scholarly Magnes Publishing House. But of all the printing with which he has dealt over a lifetime – Yehoshua is a youthful 74 – a slim volume of pietistic poetry translated from Hebrew into a Persian-Jewish language called Bukhori has moved him most. In there lies a tale – a Jerusalem tale of our times with as many exotic characters as a Russian novel.
Yehoshua’s father came to pre-state Israel from Afghanistan. The family had escaped from the Persian city of Mashhad where they’d lived as crypto-Jews after the pogrom and forced conversion of 1839. But when Yehoshua’s grandfather was murdered by Afghan highwaymen, his father moved to Jerusalem, arriving in 1898, in time for the historic visit of Theodor Herzl and the German Kaiser Wilhelm II.
In those days, Yehoshua’s father used his full name, Raphael Yehoshua Raz, but when a Raz cousin was apprehended for underground activity on behalf of the Stern Gang, he dropped “Raz” and Yehoshua became his surname. Raphael Yehoshua was a well-known Jerusalem storyteller, spinning a spell before a large audience each day in the time between recitation of the afternoon and evening prayers.
He lived in Jerusalem’s Bukharan Quarter. “Bukharan,” of course, refers to the ancient community of Central Asian Jews, once the Emirate of Bukhara, today Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and parts of Russia. Cities with names like Tashkent, Samarkand, Dushanbe. In the Bukharan Quarter, storyteller Raphael Yehoshua met his wife-to-be Yocheved Hanukka, a mystic who fasted each Monday and Friday. Yocheved’s mother Sa’ada Azulai was from an old Sephardi family.
At age 11, she married Mullah Matatya Hanukka, a widower from Turkmenistan. A short, dapper man, he always wore a red fez. He eked out a living for his wife and eight children by taking wealthy Bukharan tourists to visit the graves of the righteous in the Holy Land. They invited him at their expense to visit them back in the Asian communities to collect donations and encourage aliya. As gifts for those who would host him, he translated into Bukhori two medieval liturgical poems he’d become acquainted with in Jerusalem, both written by German rabbis.
The first was the emotional High Holy Day prayer favored by Ashkenazi Jews, Unetaneh Tokef, “who shall live and who shall die,” by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. The second was a pious poem about the binding of Isaac used in penitential prayer by Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn (1132-1200), best known as the writer who documented the massacre of the Jews of York in 1190. Benzion Yehoshua’s maternal grandfather Mullah Matatya Hanukka had the two booklets handsomely printed at Jerusalem’s well-known Lunz Press, and left on his odyssey.
IN THE meantime, Afghanistan immigrant Raphael Yehoshua (formerly Raz), 21, married Yocheved Hanukka, 14. Benzion Yehoshua, the youngest of their children, was born at home in 1936. Because of the riots that year, leaving home was dangerous. Yehoshua never got to meet grandfather Mullah Matatya Hanukka, who died of starvation in Jerusalem at 50, but throughout all his years of involvement in publishing, he searched in private and public libraries for those two small books his grandfather had printed. A single copy of the Unetaneh Tokef finally turned up in Beit Shemesh. Yehoshua borrowed it and printed a facsimile.
Then in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Yehoshua was approached by the government to serve as a cultural attaché to the five Asian countries. His task was to strengthen Hebrew culture and to work, often sub rosa, to facilitate aliya. As civil war broke out in Tajikistan, armed Muslim Tajik rebels seeking to make the country an Islamic state battled the neocommunist-dominated government. In 1992, on the night before the start of Succot, Yehoshua found himself and a fellow Israeli flying into the main city of Dushanbe, landing as rockets were being fired all around. Said Yehoshua: “We were two Israelis in suits carrying attaché cases, looking rather conspicuous. I assumed it was my last day on earth.”
But luck was with him. Unsure what to do, Yehoshua approached a Russian military officer and simply told him they needed a place to stay. To his surprise and relief, the officer and five tanks accompanied them to a city hotel, pounding on the door with their rifles. “A very scared, elderly hotel owner answered, apologizing that the place was closed. The officer suggested rather strongly that he open it and provide a room for these guests.” They had beds and a roof, but realized the hotel was in firing range of the Tajik rebels in a nearby mosque.
“We didn’t sleep all night,” said Yehoshua. A knock on the door sounded in the morning. A representative of the Jewish community arrived with a basket full of fruit and treats. “Word of mouth had somehow gotten round that there were two Israelis in town,” said Yehoshua.
The townsfolk had built a succa inside their synagogue because of the danger. In his suitcase, Yehoshua had brought a citron, a palm leaf, myrtle and willows – the Four Species required for the Succot blessing. The rabbi and cantor had fled from the fighting, so the congregants prevailed on the Jerusalemite to lead the services, to read the Torah and to give a speech. The prayer service was easy enough, but he hadn’t read the Torah aloud since his bar mitzva. He coped with the trope. Then it came time to speak. How would he find the words to convince the community to leave for Israel that very night with one suitcase, leaving behind generations of their history and their property?
His hands shook as he made his case, urging the congregants to leave while they still could. When he finished speaking he went back to his seat near the western wall of the synagogue. On a wooden table lay a thick volume called Mikraot Gedolot, a Bible with rabbinic commentaries. He opened it aimlessly, and found something tucked inside the pages.
His breath caught. On yellowing paper with his grandfather’s name still legible, was the gift brochure with a poem by a German rabbi, translated into Persian-Hebrew 90 years earlier. Here was the last copy of it in the last synagogue in Tajikistan.
“I felt my grandfather had come to bring me warm regards and to send me a message that I’d done all right,” said Yehoshua.
That evening, the first of many planes of Jews left Dushanbe for Israel. Also one slim booklet with a medieval poem.
Today, in his modern apartment in the new neighborhood of Ramat BeitHakerem, Benzion Yehoshua is a grandfather who likes to share hisstories with his children and grandchildren. He leads tours and giveslectures. He’s taught himself all the languages spoken by Asian Jews.He’s just recently published his tenth book, a collection of literarycriticism and stories called The Aroma of Fresh-Baked Bread. The volume is dedicated to his beloved wife Tikva who died just last month.
Looking back, how does he explain his discovery of his grandfather’sbook that day in Dushanbe. Yehoshua shakes his head. “I had looked forit for decades, and there it was on the table. I have no idea. I can’texplain it at all.”
Such are the stories of our Jerusalem.