Everywhere you look along one of the most fabled trade routes in the annals of man—the old silk road that winds across Russia’s steppes toward far Cathay—you’ll find evidence that the Jews were here once upon a long-ago time.
According to a story by Andrew Higgins in the New York Times, a relative handful, maybe 100 to 150 by most estimates, may remain there, but their major goal was to get out while the getting-out was still good.
So it goes in Tsar Putin’s old Russia, where the past is far from passed. Flying on Aeroflot years ago toward Tashkent, I encountered a young man and artist whose prime object at the moment was to enlist my aid in getting to the west, where he was confident he could make it by dint of his talent and dedication if only he could escape the vast prison-house of peoples known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Abram Iskhakov, who’s president of the Bukharan Jewish Community, notes, “Just being here to preserve our history, our language and our traditions is a big victory.” He’s got relatives all over the world who plead with him to leave Bukhara but his response is always the same: He’d rather stay just where he is, thank you.
“I am needed more here than over there. There are millions of ‘Abrams’ like me in Israel and America, but this is my place, my home. I feel comfortable here. I live here like a fish in water.” Besides, he adds, he finds Israel too humid and a much more dangerous place than Bukhara: “We have no problems here like the Israelis and Palestinians. We live on the same streets with Muslims. We went to school together and work together. If I had two lives, I would spend one in Israel. But I only have one and it is here.”
Fair enough, far-seeing enough. He keeps kosher, but doesn’t mind if his fellow Jews fail to follow all the religious laws stressed by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which has its headquarters in far-away Brooklyn. He finds its distinctive clothing—like broad-brimmed hats for the men and wigs for the women—quite different from the Sephardic outlook and way of life. “We have our own traditions here,” he adds. “Nobody wore black hats here before.”
Jewish law holds that, where no fixed observance is in place, local custom takes precedence, as it certainly has done in Bukhara, whose Jewish roots now have spread to Bukharan communities scattered the world over. And all of them proudly identify themselves as Bukharan Jews.
But move to America? Many Bukharan Jews are saddened by that prospect. “Many of our people get depressed in America,” says shoemaker Jura Khoshayev, the last of 10 siblings left in Bukhara. “They take too many anti-depressants.”
But with so few Jews left in Bukhara, it’s getting harder even to find a minyan, the minimum number for a Jewish prayer service. Where will girls find husbands among the fast-dwindling number of Bukharan Jews? And so still another Jewish community now fades into a storied past with little but its memories to leave behind. “We all have to leave sooner or later,” sighs a Jewish mother, looking wistfully around at what once was but soon will be no more.
The legend of the Wandering Jew is more than a legend in Bukhara. Theirs is a story worth continuing, but the odds are against it. Except in the long chronicle that records the birth and death of so many Jewish communities. Rest in peace, Bukharan Jewry. You will never be forgotten.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Print Headline: Along the old silk road