by Joanna Sloame
The term “Bukharan Jews” refers to the Central Asian Jews of
the khanate of Bukhara, those of Samarkand,
and the Ferghana Valley. Today, the region
is divided between the former Soviet republics
Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The majority
of Bukharan Jews live in the Uzbek cities
of Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, and Kokand,
in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, and in
Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek. Also, a large
number of Bukharan Jews have made aliyah and have congregated in Jerusalem.
Bukharan Jews call themselves Isro'il or Yahudi and speak Bukhori or Judeo-Tajik, a distinct dialect of the Tajiki-Persian
language that incorporated a number of Hebrew words.
- Islam Reaches Central
- The Arrival of Maman
of the Community
- Under the Russians
- The Soviets
- Bukharan Sites
Some Bukharan Jews claim they are the descendents of
the ten lost tribes of Israel who
were exiled by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.E. Whether
or not this is the case, the Bukharians can trace their ancestry back
to the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, the King of Persia,
in 539 B.C.E. Cyrus decreed that all Jews in exile were free to return
to Jerusalem, though many remained in Persia.
The Jews lived peacefully in Persia until 331 B.C.E.,
when Alexander the Great defeated the Sogdian King Spitamenes and conquered the region. At Alexander's
sudden death in 323 B.C.E., the Seleucids gained control, followed by
the Parthians, who reestablished the Persian Empire.
The Parthians gave the Jews citizenship and allowed
them to practice Judaism freely. Under Parthian rule, the Bukharian
communities flourished. In 224 A.D.,
however, the Sassinids conquered the region. They made Zoroastrianism the official religion and persecuted the Jews for their unwillingness
to convert. Some Bukharan Jews moved to the northern and eastern parts
of the region due to anti-Jewish hostilities.
Islam Reaches Central Asia
During the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, control of Bukhara was transferred between
many different Arab rulers. The Saracens overpowered Bukhara in 709 and founded the Umayyad
dynasty throughout the former Persian Empire. But the Abbasids,
who were Shi'ite Muslims from
Baghdad, quickly defeated the Saracens. They maintained control of the
region until 874, when the Saminids, who were Sunni Muslims, took over
and made Bukhara the capital of their empire.
The Saminids were fairly
tolerant of the Bukharan Jews, though they
forced all non-Muslims who refused to convert
to pay heavy taxes. Jews were given the
status of dhimmi,
or “protected Unbelievers.”
Under the Saminids, the Bukharians found relative
peace, which was ended by the conquest of the Qarakhanids in 999. The Jews of Central Asia now found themselves completely cut off from the Jews of Europe, but they managed
to maintain some contact with those in the Muslim
In 1219, the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, conquered Bukhara, pillaging
and burning the city to the ground, destroying the Bukharan Jewish community.
In 1300, the new leader, Timur, rebuilt Samarkand and Bukhara when the
Mongols decided to abandon their traditional nomadic way of life. Timur
imported Persian Jews to work as dyers and weavers and develop the empire's
textile industry. Supposedly, one could recognize a Bukharan Jew by
his purple-dyed hands.
In the rebuilt city of Bukhara, the Jews lived in the makhallai yahudiyon, or Jewish quarter in Tajik. The community
was restricted to this section of the city, and was strictly forbidden
to live elsewhere. Jewish stores had to be one step lower than Muslim
ones. Despite these restrictions, Jewish merchants established lucrative
trade businesses and the women became known for their elaborate goldthread
embroidery. The community also built a magnificent synagogue that was used for the next 500 years.
At the beginning of the 1500s, Persia was ruled by
Shi'ite Muslims, while Central Asia came under Sunni Uzbeks in 1506. Jews in Persia and Central Asia were divided and ties severed. The isolated
Bukharan Jewish community developed its own unique form of Judaism.
At the same time, Bukhara had become the center of Jewish activity in
the region, especially after a devastating earthquake in 1720 in Samarkand
prompted its Jewish population to move to Bukhara.
Under the Uzbeks, Turkic nomads from the East, Bukharan Jews experienced
waves of relative tolerance and those of discrimination. They were forced
to wear yellow and black dress to distinguish themselves from the rest
of the population. As non-Muslims, the heads of Jewish households were
slapped in the face when they paid their annual tax, a humiliation they
endured for centuries.
During the mid-18th century, Bukharan Jews were isolated
further. The Durrani dynasty created the Afghani kingdom and military conflicts between Bukhara's Manghit dynasty and
the Durranis. Due to the continued hostilities, Central Asian Jewry
became a distinct entity, named the "Community of Bukharan Jews."
Toward the end of the 18th century, the mullahs of
Bukhara began to institute forced conversions of the Jews. Converted Jews were called chalas, meaning neither one thing nor the other
in Tajik, as they practiced Judaism in secret while posing as Muslims.
Both the Muslim and Jewish communities looked down upon the chalas,
leading to the creation of a separate anusim community.
The Arrival of Maman
Hundreds of years of isolation from European Jewry
and the forced Islamization of the 1700s, led to a decline in Jewish
religious and spiritual activity in Bukhara. The community lacked a
strong religious leader until the arrival of Rabbi Joseph Maman Maghribi
(or Joseph ben Moses Mamon al-Maghribi) in 1793. A Sephardic Moroccan Jew, Maghribi began
a revival of Bukharan religious and spiritual life single-handedly.
He introduced Sephardic traditions and prayer to a community who had
all but forgotten their Persian rites. Maman recruited European religious
teachers to re-educate Bukharan Jews. He founded Hibbat
Zion, a precursor to Zionism, and encouraged aliyah to Palestine. Maman served
the Bukharan Jews for thirty years, until he died in 1823, having completely
transformed the destitute Jewish community.
Growth of the Community
The Jewish population of Bukhara increased in the 19th century, prompting
the Muslim authorities to allow Jews to move outside of the Jewish quarter. Jews congregated in the New Mahalla and Amirabad quarters. Jewish quarters
were also created in the cities of Marghelan, Samarkand, and Dushanbe.
After a mob of Shi'ite fundamentalists burned the Jewish
quarter of Meshed, Persia, and forcibly converted the entire Jewish
population, a wave of Jews fled to Bukhara. They mostly settled in the
Bukharan cities of Shahrisabz and Merv. By 1849, the Bukharan Jewish
community was made up of 2,500 families.
The Jewish community in every town was led by an elected kalontar. The Jews of Bukhara established a network of Jewish
schools called khomlo. Since the emir of Bukhara had forbidden
the Jews to build new synagogues, rich families allowed services to
be held in their large homes. The Rubinov House Synagogue is one of
these makeshift synagogues that still stands today.
Under the Russians
Tsarist Russia conquered Turkistan in 1868, but Bukhara remained under the Turkic emir
for another 50 years. Eventually, Bukhara, Samarkand and several Jewish
towns came under the Turkistan region and annexed by the Russian Empire.
Initially, the Russians sought the loyalty of the Bukharan Jews as
they saw the Jews as their only friend among the newly conquered populations.
This friendship was due to years of close trade relations between Jewish
and Russian merchants. Russia did not restrict Jewish autonomy and aided
the Bukharians in becoming a powerful trading class with Central Asia
and the Russian Empire.
Simultaneously, the emir of Bukhara continued to subjugate
the Jewish population, blaming them for the khanate's fall to
the Tsar. Persecution and money extortion led to an exodus of Jews from
Bukhara to Samarkand, Tashkent, and other Turkistan cities.
In the 1880s, as a result of this mass immigration, combined with growing
competition between Jewish and Russian traders and industrialists, Russia
began to pass anti-Jewish legislation. Claiming it was solely in the
interest of Russian merchants, in 1888, the Russian authorities decreed
the expulsion of all Jews from the Trans-Caspian region, encompassing
Bukhara and Turkistan. Ironically, the decree was never realized due
trade interests with local Jews.
In 1887-89, the Russian authorities divided Bukharan Jews in Turkistan into two categories: native Jews and Jews who had
moved to the region after the annexation. Natives were allowed equal
rights while the rest were labeled as foreign citizens. They were restricted
in everyday life and in where they were permitted to live. By 1900,
so-called foreign Jews were only allowed to live in Osh, Katta-Qurghan,
and Petro-Alexandrovsk. These three border settlements were isolated
and undeveloped. Anti-Jewish restrictive laws continued through World
Crowd of Bukharan Jews, 1890.
The construction of the Trans-Caspian railroad between
1880 and 1905 ended the isolation of Bukharan Jewry. The railroad ran
through Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent, linking the three largest
Bukharan Jewish communities with the Jews of Europe for the first time
in over a millennium. As early as the 1860s, European Jews began to
make their way into the Bukharan emirate, and later, the Russian territory.
These immigrants were mostly upper class and left their respective countries
in the hopes that the government of Central Asia would be less restrictive
than that of Eastern Europe under Tsar Alexander III. In 1905, following pogroms in Kiev and Odessa, a flood of
Jewish immigrants arrived in the territory. These European Jews were
shocked at the primitive lifestyle of Bukharan Jewry.
The railroad also enabled Bukharan Jews to begin to
make aliyah to Palestine. By 1914, eight percent of Bukhara-born Jews had moved to Rehovot, the Bukharan quarter of Jerusalem. The first aliyah of Bukharan Jews, in which approximately 1,500 left the
country, lasted until the outbreak of World War I.
The railroad brought with it inexpensive, factory-made textile goods,
which drove the prosperous Jewish traders out of business. The Jewish
community suffered, and many chose to move to Russian urban centers
By the late 19th century, much of the Bukharan Jewish
population began to favor a Bolshevik takeover. Centuries of persecution
under the local Muslim authorities and then the Russians, combined with
the perception that the Soviets would be tolerant of the Jews and bring
economic opportunities for trade, led to this support of a coup.
These new political views led to even greater persecution under the
Muslims. Numerous riots broke out against the Jews from 1918 to 1920.
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 brought the Red Army to Central Asia
in 1920. While the last emir was removed from office, Bukhara maintained
relative autonomy under the name of the Bukharan Soviet Peoples' Republic
until 1924. At that point, it became part of the Soviet Socialist Republic
of Uzbekistan, with Tashkent developing into its major city.
Beginning in 1926, OZET, the Soviet organization for
settling Jewish workers on farms, established a number of Jewish collective
farms, or kolkhozes, in Uzbekistan. By 1929, twenty-six kolkhozes were in existence, but, ultimately, the project failed and only two
farming communities remained by the 1950s.
After a few years of looking favorably on the Jews for their support of the Soviet takeover, the Stalinist regime began
the process of eradicating Judaism,
and religion in general, from its empire. Many synagogues were shut down in the 1920s and 1930s, leaving only one shul in each
of the large Jewish communities by the 1940s. Practicing Judaism became
increasingly difficult. The result of this was that Bukharan Jews were
more likely to take advantage of the new Soviet economic and education
opportunities rather than fighting to sustain their religion.
At the same time, the territory's Jewish population
began to grow. The Soviets exiled a group of Jewish Russian dissidents
to Uzbekistan. During World
War II, large numbers of European Jewish refugees fled to the region,
particularly to Tashkent. The European Jews were better educated than
the native Bukharan Jews and quickly rose in society. By 1959, though
the Tashkent Jewish population had risen to 50,445, Bukhara's Jewish
population had dropped to 5,000.
The Soviet authorities jailed a number of Jewish leaders in 1936-38,
striking a heavy blow at the Jewish community. In 1938-39, the Soviets
closed Jewish newspapers and in 1940, discontinued publication of Judeo-Tajik
books and shut down Judeo-Bukharan schools. The Communist government
did everything it could to smother Jewish culture and force assimilation
on the Bukharan community.
Beginning in the 1920s, and lasting until the early
1930s, a wave of Central Asian Jews immigrated
to Israel, marking the second aliyah of Bukharan Jews. Approximately
4,000 Bukharians left the region, for the most part in secret, due to
Soviet anti-immigration regulations.
Anti-Semitism was prevalent in the region and the Soviets did little to curb the situation. Blood libels took place in 1926 in
Charjui and in 1930 in the village of Aghaliq near Samarkand. After
the creation of Israel in
1948, anti-Semitism intensified as Muslims protested throughout the
By the Six-Day
War in 1967, the relationship between Bukharan Jews and Muslims
had reached a breaking point, and the Soviet Union became openly anti-Semitic.
The government discontinued diplomacy with Israel and forbade Jews to
make aliyah. Although these restrictions lasted until the late
1980s, about 8,000 Bukharan Jews managed to immigrate to Israel from
1972 to the first half of 1975.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, the region
was split between the newly independent republics of Uzbekistan,
Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Today, approximately 25,000 to 35,000 Jews remain in Uzbekistan, most of whom are Bukharan and reside in the cities
of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent. These Jewish communities are well
organized and provide many Jewish activities and communal services.
Most Bukharan Jews speak Russian, but some in Bukhara and Samarkand
still speak Judeo-Tajik and Hebrew.
To this day, however, there is little mixing between the Bukharan and Ashkenazi Jewish communities.
Since the creation of the independent Republic
of Uzbekistan in 1991, a growing number of Bukharan Jews have left
the country due to the rise in Muslim fundamentalism and the poor economy.
More than 70,000 Jews have left the country since its inception, and
have moved to Israel and the United
States. Large Bukharan Jewish populations are located in Jerusalem and Queens, New York. The Jewish community of Bukhara is now around
3,000 and, in Samarkand, there are approximately 2,000 Bukharan Jews.
Almost immediately after declaring independence, the Republic of Tajikistan
was plunged into a civil war between government forces and Islamic fundamentalists.
Continuous military conflicts have kept Tajik Bukharan Jews in severe
poverty and in fear of their lives for years, prompting a mass exodus.
From 1989 through 2000, 10,800 Jews have made aliyah out of the 20,000
in the country. In 1992, a secret airlift operation brought a small
number of Jews to Israel.
The approximately 900 remaining Bukharan Jews are for
the most part elderly, poverty-stricken and subject to anti-Semitic
attacks and persecution. The Joint
Distribution Committee, working with community centers and other
Jewish organizations, send food packages and try to care for the aged.
The Jewish community of Tajikistan is barely able to function and relies
on the aid of world Jewish organizations for support.
The one remaining synagogue in Tajikistan is located in Dushanbe. In
the summer of 2004, however, the Tajik government announced its intent
to demolish the 100-year-old structure to make room for a presidential
palace. The community of 500 Jews in Dushanbe, most of whom are Bukharan,
as well as the world Jewish community, and the U.S. and Israeli embassies
in Tajikistan intervened to prevent the destruction of the historic
On August 31, 1991, Kyrgyzstan declared its independence.
Since then, the Jewish community has shrunk due to immigration to Israel.
From 1989 to 2001, nearly 5,000 Jews made aliyah, mostly because
radical Islamic fundamentalist activity has risen since 1991, especially
after the second intifada in Israel in 2000 and the terrorist attacks of September 11 in the United States. These extremist organizations,
such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir,
backed by other Muslim countries, have been gaining support, have carried
out a number of terrorist attacks, and have instigated other military
conflicts in the country.
In their attempt to make Kyrgyzstan an Islamic fundamentalist nation,
the rebels have distributed antireligious and anti-Semitic propaganda.
Anti-Semitism has been met with intense opposition by the general public
and the Kyrgyz government. The propaganda has infiltrated the population
to some extent, however, especially in the isolated southern areas,
where Islamic fundamentalism is more active, in Bishkek and the northern
20 Tsentralnaya Street
3 Sagban Street
Central Synagogue Beit Menachem
2-ya Kunaeva str. 15/17
Tashkent, Uzbekistan 700015
Tel.: (998 71) 152-59-78, 256-51-14
Nazyina Khikmeta Street 26
2-i Ilyazarov proezd 1
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Dekabristov Streeet, Fergan Oblast
Embassy of Israel
16A Lachuti Street, 5th floor
Uzbekistan (Represents both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan)
Community of Dushanbe
Nazima Khikmata str. 26
Dushanbe, Tajikistan 7340001
Tel.: (992 372) 21-76-58, 21-20-26, 21-31-64
Jewish Community of Uzbekistan
2-ya Kunaeva str. 15/17
Tashkent, Uzbekistan 700015
Tel.: (998 71) 152-59-78, 256-51-14
Buharian Jewish Community
Chkalova str. 9
Tashkent, Uzbekistan 700015
Tel.: (998 71) 256-63-36
Jewish Community of Samarkand
Respublikanskaya str. 45
Samarkand, Uzbekistan 703000
Tel.: (998 66) 233-1145, 236-8392
Jewish Community of Fergana
Tel.: (998 7322) 24-23-68,24-56-85
Jews of Bukhara
"Bukharan Jews" Encyclopedia
Peoples of the Red Book
The Federation of Jewish
Communities of the CIS