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Bukhara, Uzbekistan

The Origin and Sources of the Jewish Community
Forced Conversion and Detachment from Jewish Centers
After the Russian Conquest
Under the Soviets
The Literature of Bukharan Jewry
Immigration to Israel
Musical Tradition
Bukhara Today


The Jews of Bukhara are an ethnic and linguistic group, concentrated in Central Asia, particularly in the area of the Uzbek and Tadzhik Republics. The term "Bukharan Jewry" was coined by European travelers who visited Central Asia before the Russian conquest; it derived from the fact that at that time most of the community lived under the Emir of Bukhara. The members of the community call themselves "Isro'il" or "Yahudi." They speak a distinct dialect of the Tajik language, the so-called Judeo-Tajik, defined also as the Judeo-Tajik language. In Uzbekistan the largest concentrations are in Samarkand, the second largest city in the Uzbek Republic, Tashkent (capital of the Republic), Bukhara, Kokand and other cities. In Tadzhikistan they could be found mainly in the capital, Dushanbe. A considerable number of Jews of Bukharan origin can be found in Israel.

It is difficult to estimate exactly how many Jews lived in Central Asia before the second half of the 19th century. Benjamin of Tudela estimated that at the end of the 12th century there were 50,000 in Samarkand alone, but there is no doubt that this figure was not based on direct observation. Arminius Vambery estimated the Jewish population of the Bukharan khanate in 1863–64 at 10,000. At the end of the 19th century the figure was about 16,000. On the basis of Soviet censuses and other assessments it may be assumed that in 1970 30–35,000 Jews lived in Soviet Central Asia (with 8,500 in Bukhara itself). This figure dropped to around 10,000 in the early 21st century after the mass emigration of the 1990s. Of the 200,000 or more Bukharan Jews in the world, around 100,000 live in Israel and 50,000 in New York.

The Jews of Iran, Central Asia and Afghanistan constituted a single community until the 16th century, when historical-political developments divided them into two sections: the community of Iranian Jews and the community of the Jews of Central Asia and Afghanistan. In the middle of the 18th century, similar circumstances brought about a further division of the latter group into two separate communities.

The Origin and Sources of the Jewish Community

It may be assumed that the first Jews arrived in Central Asia following the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus King of Persia (539 B.C.E.): the majority of the Babylonian exiles did not return to the Holy Land (see Ezra 1:4, 2:64) and remained in Babylonia, at that time part of the Persian Empire. It is thus not unlikely that some came to the three Central Asian provinces of the Empire.

Rabban Gamaliel the Elder (first half of the first century C.E.) addressed a letter "to our brothers the children of the exile of Babylonia and to our brothers in Media and to the other exiles of Israel" (Sanh. 11). It is possible that "the other exiles" referred to the Jews living east of Babylonia and Media, including those of the area known as Central Asia. The first unquestionable evidence about the Jewish presence in Central Asia is a story in the Babylonian Talmud (Av. Zar. 31b) about the refusal of an amora called Samuel bar Bisna (the first half of the 4th century C.E.) to drink wine and beer in Margwan, i.e., Margiana, the medieval Merv (now the region of Mari in Turkmenistan). Early Muslim sources (late 7th, early 8th century) refer to the presence of Jews in the area. At the beginning of the 8th century a Jew called Akiva is mentioned as collecting taxes from the Jewish community of Merv. The Jews were the only group in Central Asia which did not accept Islam.

There is evidence that Jewish communities in the area flourished in the 9th to the 12th centuries, particularly in the towns of Balkh, Khorezm and Samarkand and that they recognized the authority of the exilarch in Baghdad and communicated with him.

Map showing the location of Bukhara, Uzbekistan 

The Mongol invasions which early in the 13th century laid waste the cultural centers of Central Asia apparently also devastated the Jewish communities. Data from the 13th century attest to the existence of the remnants of a community in Balkh and a small community in Khorezm, where Jews from other places were prohibited by the authorities from settling. A Jewish presence in Bukhara is first mentioned in the 13th century. In 1336 a religious disputation was conducted in Merv, apparently sanctioned by the Muslim authorities, between Christian monks and one of the leaders of the Jewish community. In 1339 Solomon b. Samuel compiled in the town of Gurganj an exegetical dictionary of the Bible in Judeo-Persian, the literary language common to the Jews of Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia in this period.

At the beginning of the 16th century a dynasty that adopted Shi'ism – the non-Orthodox stream of Islam – ruled in Persia, while Central Asia and Afghanistan retained their allegiance to the Sunni, Orthodox stream of Islam. As a result, the links between the Jews of the area were severed, and the community was divided into two distinct entities.

The town of Bukhara apparently became a center of Jewish life in Central Asia in the 16th century, also absorbing many Jews living in cities in the zone of battle between the Persians (Iranians) and the local Sunni rulers.

Toward the end of the 16th and at the beginning of the 17th centuries the Jewish quarter (Maḥalla) was established in the town of Bukhara, still known as the "Old Maḥalla," and the Jews were forbidden to reside outside its boundaries. The main (and today, only) synagogue of this town was built in this quarter in the first half of the 17th century.

The middle of the 18th century saw the creation of the Afghani kingdom, ruled by the Durrani dynasty (1747–1842), while Bukhara was ruled by the Manghit dynasty (1753–1920), who made their country the strongest in Central Asia. There was constant hostility between the two countries, and the ties between the Jews of Afghanistan and those of Central Asia were effectively severed too. From that time Central Asian Jewry became a distinct entity, known as the "Community of Bukharan Jews."

Forced Conversion and Detachment from Jewish Centers

In the middle of the 18th century the first attempt was made at forcibly converting the Jews of Bukhara, leading to the creation of a community of anusim, called in the local languages (Tajik and Uzbek) Chala (lit. "not this and not that"), i.e., Jews who were externally faithful to Islam but secretly observed the commandments of their own faith.

Forced Islamization was resumed at the beginning of the 19th century and the number of anusim increased. However, when Russia conquered the kingdoms of Central Asia in the last third of the 19th century (see below), the new rulers did not recognize the Chala as Muslims, and regarded them as a special group of Bukharan Jews; some of them, living in those areas of Central Asia that were under direct Russian administration, returned to Judaism. Relicts of the Chala community have survived in Central Asia, especially in Bukhara, and are registered as Uzbeks or (in Tadzhikistan) as Tadzhiks.

Toward the end of the 18th century separation from Jewish culture centers led to a decline in the spiritual and religious level of the Jews of Bukhara. One consequence was the community's inability to produce its own religious leadership. The spiritual-religious decline, the absence of leadership and the forced Islamization could have produced a process of increasing assimilation within the general population. However, in 1793, R. Joseph Maman (Mamon) Maghribi, a native of Morocco, arrived in Bukhara as an emissary from the community of Safed, where he had settled a few years previously. When he saw the wretched situation of the Bukharan community he decided to settle there, and thanks to his efforts a revival of the religious and spiritual life took place. He introduced the Sephardi prayer rite to replace the existing Persian rite.

The Jewish population of Bukhara increased and the Muslim authorities permitted them to settle outside the quarter; this led to the establishment of the "New Maḥalla" and the Amirabad quarter, which for administrative purposes was regarded as part of the "New Maḥalla." During the first half of the 19th century Jewish quarters were established in Marghelan, Samarkand, Dushanbe as well. There were also relatively large concentrations of Jews in Shahrisabz and Merv, which in the 1840s absorbed many Jews who had escaped from Meshed, Persia, after its community was forcibly converted to Islam.

The Jewish community enjoyed a degree of autonomy before the Russian conquest. The community of every town was headed by a kalontar, elected by the community. His election had to be ratified by the head of the government (qöshlegi) as well as by the Emir of Bukhara himself. He was aided by two deputies – ossoqols, heads of the Old and New Maḥallas, whose election also had to be approved by the Emir. These communal officers served for life, unless removed from office by request of the authorities or a considerable number of community elders. They acted as judges in cases of litigation within the community; the kalontar also represented the community vis-à-vis the authorities. There were instances where the chief rabbi of Bukhara was appointed a kalontar as well. Criminal cases, as well as cases in which a Muslim was involved, were brought before the Muslim court.

Bukharan Jewry set up a network of schools, similar to the ḥeder of European Jews, known as khomlo. Although it was obligatory for all children up to bar-mitzvah age to attend these schools, this regulation was in fact never implemented, and there were no schools for girls. On the other hand, there was a yeshivah, established, according to several sources, by R. Joseph Mamon Maghribi. Prayerbooks were imported, especially those printed in Leghorn, including some that contained tafsir – a Judeo-Persian translation with commentary. Other study books (e.g., alphabet books, portions of the Pentateuch) were prepared by the teacher (khalfa) himself.

As in all other Muslim countries, the Jews had to pay the jizya, the tax required of non-Muslims. The Muslim tax-collectors were emissaries of the government, but the assessment was made by Jewish assessors, who were subordinate to the kalontar. After receiving his due, the Muslim tax-collector would slap the Jews twice on the cheeks. (Respected members of the community received a mere symbolic tap.)

The chief occupation of the Jews of Bukhara on the eve of the Russian conquest was dyeing of cloths. This trade was so typical that visiting Central Asia in the mid-19th century European travelers could recognize the local Jews by their stained hands. Other less common crafts were weaving of special silk and cotton cloths, tailoring and hairdressing. Craftsmen would sell their own products, and the number of Jews who engaged in trade was small. A Hebrew letter written from Central Asia by a Jew called Benjamin to the Jews of Shklov, Russia, in 1802, indicates that at that time the Jews financed the commercial activities of their Muslim fellow-townsmen, who peddled their wares in Russia. Subsequently the Jews themselves began to trade in goods produced in Bukhara (particularly cotton) within nearby areas of the Russian empire, and also to import Russian-made goods. A Russian regulation of 1833 permitted the "Asian" Jewish traders to reside outside the Pale of Settlement, which was in force for the Jews of Russia. They were also permitted, in 1842, to trade at the fairs at Orenburg and Troitsk, and in 1844 even at the country's most famous fair at Nizhni-Novgorod (present-day Gorki).

After the Russian Conquest

The concessions accorded in Russia to the Jewish traders from Bukhara helped to disseminate the notion that the situation of the Jews in the Russian Empire was good, and when Russia conquered Central Asia in 1864–88 the Jews welcomed the Russians and even aided them, for example in the conquest of Samarkand (1868). According to the 1868 peace treaty, Bukhara, which had been decisively defeated, became a vassal of Russia and other parts of its territories, including Samarkand and several other towns with a Jewish population, were incorporated into the region (kray) of Turkistan, which was annexed directly to the Russian Empire. In the first few years, the Russians took several measures to gain the allegiance of Central Asian Jewry, which they regarded as the only loyal element within the native population. The regime did not restrict Jewish autonomy, and only added to the communal structure the office of official rabbi (kazyonny ravvin), whose functions were similar to those of the official rabbis in other areas of the Russian Empire. The Russian-Bukharan peace treaty included three paragraphs that defined the rights of the Jews of Bukhara to live freely in Russia, to trade freely there, and to purchase real estate within its borders. In 1866 and 1872 it was decreed that the Jews of Bukhara and two other states in Central Asia, Khiva and Khuqand, or, in the Russian pronunciation Kokand (in the former, which became a Russian vassal in 1873, there were, in effect, no Jews, while the latter was abolished in 1876 and its territory annexed directly to Russia) would be granted Russian citizenship even if they resided in these countries, on condition that they join the trade guilds in Russia (thus exempting them from the law that denied Russian citizenship to "alien" Jews).

This policy aided Bukharan Jewry in acquiring a powerful status in trade relations, both with Central Asia and in trade with central Russia. Bukharan Jews established trading companies which opened branches in the large Russian cities as well as factories for the initial processing of local products, especially cotton and silk (the most known of them – the Va'adiyayev, the Potilahov and the Dividov companies). The local Jewish trader and industrialist, familiar with local conditions, had the advantage in competition with his Russian counterpart who was new to the area. At the same time the Emir of Bukhara and his government attempted to make of the Jews who remained within the borders of the kingdom scapegoats for their defeat, persecuting them and extorting money from them. These decrees resulted in the mass emigration of Jews from Bukhara to Turkistan. The Jewish population increased greatly in Samarkand, Tashkent and other cities. Fierce competition between the local Jewish tradesmen and industrialists and their Russian rivals and the movement of Jews from Bukhara to Turkistan were the main causes for the imposition of discriminatory measures against the Jews of Central Asia as early as the 1880s. In secret government circulars these measures were explained unequivocally as necessary to protect the Russian traders and industrialists and to limit the number of "native" Jews in the Turkistan region. In the year when the Russian conquest of Central Asia was completed (1888), the Russian authorities decreed the expulsion of the Jews from all the towns of the Trans-Caspian kray, which covered approximately the territory of the Turkmen Soviet Republic. However, implementation was postponed indefinitely for fear of damaging the interests of the Russian traders engaged in trade with the local Jews. At the same time a decree was issued (but in a short period of time suspended) closing the synagogues in Merv. In 1887–89 new regulations were issued that divided the Bukharan Jews who lived in the Turkistan kray, into two categories: "native Jews of the Turkistan kray," i.e., the Jews who had lived in what was now the kray before the conquest and their direct descendants, and those who could not prove that they or their ancestors were natives of the kray. The former were granted equal rights with the local Muslims, while the latter (as well as the Jews from Iran and Afghanistan who were in Turkistan) were regarded from a legal standpoint as foreign citizens. Their rights were restricted and it was stipulated that by 1905 they were "to return to their place of residence," i.e., within the borders of the Bukharan khanate. From 1900 on they were permitted to reside only in three border settlements – Osh, Katta-Qurghan and Petro-Alexandrovsk (now Törtkäl) – three townlets which were not industrially developed and located away from the trade routes.

The possibility of obtaining Russian citizenship, accorded in regulations between 1866 and 1872, remained merely theoretical and its realization became very difficult. In 1892 the general governor of the Turkistan region issued a secret circular severely restricting the entry into the region of Jews residing within the boundaries of Bukhara. Czar Nicholas II himself added a note to the protocol of the government session held on November 20, 1898, defining the policy of the regime in Central Asia towards the Jews as follows:

To protect the General Governorship (region) of Turkistan and the General Governorship of the Steppes (i.e., the Kazak and Kirgiz areas conquered by Russia in the second half of the 19th century) from the harmful activities of the Jews, so long as this is possible.

However, already in 1900 it was evident that it would not be possible to implement the proscription. The authorities were confronted by the mutual responsibility of the members of the community, who protected the "aliens" in their midst and covered up for them, thus preventing the attempt to banish individuals, and even groups of Jews. The Jews were also aided by the lack of organization and the confusion in the Russian administration of the region. Moreover, the lower echelons of officialdom, whose task it was to carry out these orders, often accepted bribes and ignored the presence of the "aliens." Implementation of the decree was thus postponed first until 1909 and then until 1910, and in the meantime, the chief rabbi of Turkistan, R. Salomon Tajer, intervened in this matter. He appealed to the government, using the assistance of advocates who were well-versed in the law and wealthy Bukharan traders, and thus the town Khuqand, Marghelan, and Samarkand were added to the list of places where residence was permitted. In 1910 the committee of Count Pahlen, entrusted with the task of examining the situation in the Turkistan region, recommended that additional decrees be issued against the Jews residing there. One of the high officials of the local regime announced publicly in that same year that the Jews are "robbers of the people" and "counterfeiters of documents." He ended his statement thus: "It is to be expected that the people itself will issue a sentence against the Jews." This was an open call to the masses to terrorize the Jews. Indeed, already in January 1911 a memorandum to the authorities by a high official reported that "the local population [i.e., the Muslims] demands that all the Jews be banished," and that it "requests permission to massacre them." During these years the press and literature of local Muslim modernists (jadids) displayed hostility towards the Jew (and the Armenian), the "robber," and usually depicted an image of a Jewish tradesman "robbing" the local Muslim tradesmen of their profits, since the latter do not know how to compete with him.

With the outbreak of World War I, there was a violent upheaval within the Muslim population of Central Asia, which in 1916 became an open revolt that the Czarist army managed to subdue only with great difficulty. The Jewish problem thus lost some of its urgency. But even during the course of World War I, as is attested in secret documents of the period, the rulers continued to formulate decrees directed against the Jews.

The Russian conquest aided in the establishment of a stratum of tradesmen and industrialists within Bukharan Jewry that was limited in number but had significant economic power and ability to compete. Nevertheless, the new conditions brought about the impoverishment of the masses of Bukharan Jewry since the importation of the cotton and silk cloths that were produced in Russian industrial enterprises resulted in the elimination of the major occupation of the Jews of Bukhara – the dyeing of cloths. The impoverished craftsmen turned to other professions. Thus, by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, hairdressing and shoe-shining and repairing became the almost exclusive monopoly of the Jews in Central Asia; many of them also became petty traders.

The advent of the Russian regime brought changes also in the field of education. Alongside the khomlo (ḥeder), schools were established that taught some basic principles of secular culture. The teachers were mostly Bukharan Jews who had been educated in Jerusalem, where a Bukharan community had been established. In addition secular schools supported by the regime were established "Russian–native Jewish schools," in which the language of instruction was Russian. The first periodical in the language of the Bukharan Jews, entitled Raḥamim, began to appear in 1910 in the town of Skobelev (now Ferghana) and continued to be published until 1916.

Under the Soviets

Military actions carried out after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, ending in 1920 with the conquest of Bukhara by the Red Army and the abolition of the Emir's rule, were regarded by the Bukharan Jewish masses as a further manifestation of the conflict between the Russians and Muslims; despite the harsh decrees of the Russian regime, many sided with the Russians. The radical Jewish intelligentsia in Turkistan supported the idea of establishing a democratic republic, whether an independent state or tied to Russia on the basis of local autonomy. Two representatives of Bukharan Jewry, Raphael Potilaḥov and Jacob Va'adiayov, served in 1918 as ministers in the short-lived autonomous government in Khuqand. Radical representatives of the Jewish community in Bukhara supported Muslim modernists (jadids) in their demands for reform; one of the Jewish radicals, Yunusov, was executed after the Bukharan authorities broke up a jadid demonstration in 1918. There were around 3,500 Jews in Bukahara during the 1930s. The entrenchment of the Soviet regime brought to an end the existence of the upper strata of Bukharan Jews. Most of them lost all rights because they had been engaged, according to the Soviet conception, in occupations of exploitation. Even the petty traders, who constituted a significant part of the community, were deprived of rights. Heavy taxes were imposed on the craftsmen and most of them had no choice but to work as laborers in government-supervised enterprises. Thus there were many Jews among the workers in the national factories, especially those near the Jewish quarters such as the silk-mill of Samarkand, or the cotton gin in Khuqand. Cooperatives of tailors, shoe repairers and barbers were organized, and many former craftsmen had to join them.

From 1926 on, under the aegis of OZET (the Soviet organization for the encouragement of agriculture among the Jews), many attempts were made to set up Jewish kolkhozes in Uzbekistan. In 1929 there were 26 such kolkhozes, but the experiment failed and by the early 1950s only two still existed. The censuses of 1959 and 1970 show that the number of Jewish rural dwellers in Central Asia was negligible.

Attempts were also made to weaken and ultimately to eradicate religious ideology. Notwithstanding the fact that this policy was implemented more cautiously in Central Asia than in the European sector of the Soviet Union, most synagogues were closed down by the late 1920s and early 1930s. The campaign against the Jewish religion increasingly intensified throughout the 1930s and was halted for a few years during World War II but resumed in greater force in the late 1940s. It resulted in a situation in which only one synagogue remained in each of most of the large communities, while in smaller centers prayer services were held in private homes. Nevertheless, the great majority of members of the community of all ages, regardless of education or social status, maintained traditional religious observances relating to the human life-cycle: circumcision, marriage and burial practices. Maintenance of kashrut and observances related to the yearly cycle (e.g., weekday prayers individually or in a minyan, Sabbath observance, synagogue service on Sabbath and the festivals, traditional practices relating to Passover and Sukkot, fast days) was more widespread among the older members of the community and in the lower echelons of social and educational status.

The Soviet authorities initially declared war on traditional antisemitism but anti-Jewish hostilities did not abate, and even intensified periodically. Thus, for example, there were blood libels in 1926 in Charjui (now in Turkmenistan), and in 1930 in the village of Aghaliq near Samarkand. After World War II, an antisemitic campaign was directed from above. In 1948–53, when there was intensive anti-Jewish agitation in the U.S.S.R. in general, the press in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also printed some "satirical" feuilletons whose villain was the local Jew. From the late 1940s the Jews of these two republics were excluded from the regulation that gives priority to natives of the region in studies at the local universities and the prestigious institutes of higher learning in the major academic and cultural centers of the U.S.S.R., such as Moscow and Leningrad, according to the quota allotted to every distant republic.

In 1956, during and following the Sinai Campaign, letters and declarations signed in the names of Bukharan Jews appeared in the newspapers of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, in not a few cases the signatories had been compelled to write the letters or to sign letters written in their name by others.

New blood libels erupted against the background of increased anti-Jewish public sentiments. In 1961 an old Jewess of Marghelan was accused of kidnapping a two-year-old Uzbek child and killing him for religious purposes. The child was found shortly thereafter in perfect health. A similar event occurred in Tashkent in 1962. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, articles appeared in the press signed by Bukharan Jews and in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, some Bukharan Jews spoke at meetings condemning Israel and displaying "solidarity with the peoples of Egypt and Syria who are struggling for their freedom." In these years, too, in many cases, this was in obedience to instructions given by the organizers of the campaigns. On the other hand, however, instances are known in which local Jews refused to sign letters condemning Israel or to speak at anti-Israel meetings.

At the onset of the Soviet rule a network of secular government schools was established for the Bukharan community; the first teachers in these schools were Ashkenazi Jews, who did not know the language of the Bukharan Jews, and the language of instruction in these schools was Hebrew. From 1923, however, Judeo-Tajik became the language of instruction at schools. In 1921 a teachers' seminary was opened in Tashkent, and in 1925 a newspaper entitled Röshnoyi began to appear in this language (its name was changed to Bayroqi Miḥnat in 1930). In 1929 the alphabet of Judeo-Tajik was changed from Hebrew to Latin. A literary journal entitled Ḥayot-i Miḥnati began to appear in the early 1930s, and several years later a Judeo-Bukharan language theater was established in Samarkand, as well as a "section" of Judeo-Bukharan writers. In the 1930s Tashkent became the center of book publishing in Judeo-Tajik. Numerous books were issued in this language, especially propaganda works and textbooks, but also original literary creations.

The wave of imprisonments of 1936–38 dealt a harsh blow to cultural activity. In 1938–39 the newspapers were closed down, theatrical activity was terminated and in 1940 the publication of Judeo-Tajik books as well as the functioning of the Judeo-Bukharan schools was discontinued. The elimination of Judeo-Bukharan culture greatly accelerated the processes of assimilation with the community. In the large cities of Central Asia, where the Bukharan Jewish population is mainly concentrated, thirty years after the elimination of the community's cultural life and particularly its network of schools, the Judeo-Tajik language was the major means of communication in all areas of life only among those aged 55–60 or more. For most middle-aged Jews the cultural language is Russian, while the language of the community is spoken in the home. The younger generation often prefers Russian to the language of the community even in daily domestic usage. As for the children – some of them do not understand the language at all, and some of them understand but cannot speak it. Thus, the same intensive process of linguistic assimilation that occurred in the Ashkenazi community of the Soviet Union in the late 1920s–early 1930s is occurring, one generation later, within this community.

A basic change in the occupational composition of Bukharan Jewry occurred during the period of Soviet rule. The complex hierarchical structure of the Soviet society, in which personal social status is directly related to education, resulted after World War II in a sizeable increase in the members of the community who had received secondary and higher education. The most widespread occupations in the community still remain those that had constituted the primary means of livelihood at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century (i.e., hairdressing, shoe repairing, and instead of petty trades – selling in government stores); however, there was a great increase in the professions (doctors, teachers, engineers) and the free professions (actors, singers, artists, lawyers, etc.).

The Literature of Bukharan Jewry

Because, as stated above, until the beginning of the 16th century the Jews of Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia constituted one community, they had a common literature, which was created in their common literary language – the classical Judeo-Persian. In the early 16th century the poet Khaja Bukhari composed a poem about Daniel, "Daniel-nama." In the 17th century the poet Elisha b. Samuel Raghib wrote a verse and prose work entitled Ben ha-Melekh ve-ha-Zufi ("The Prince and the Sufi") about the same subject which in Hebrew literature is treated in Abraham ibn Ḥasdai's Ben ha-Melekh ve-ha-Nazir ("The Prince and the Hermit"). In the 18th century the poet Joseph b. Isaac Bukhari wrote a poem "Antiochus nama" about the Maccabees and a poem "Haft Biradarau" ("Seven Brothers") about Hannah and her seven sons (following a poem on the same subject by a Judeo-Persian poet, Imrani, who lived at the end of the 15th– beginning of the 16th century). At the beginning of the 19th century the poet Ibrahim ibn Abi-l-Khayr dedicated a poem in memory of his contemporary Khuidadcha (Khudaidad) who had been executed for refusing to convert to Islam. R. Simeon Ḥakham (1843–1910), who came to Jerusalem in 1890, laid the foundation for the Ereẓ Israel literary school of Bukharan Jewish literati, which engaged primarily in translations. His greatest achievements were the translation into Judeo-Tajik of the Bible and of Abraham Mapu's Ahavat Ẓiyyon, popular with generations of Bukharan Jews. Members of the school of R. Simeon Ḥakham also translated Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and Abraham Friedberg's Zikhronot le-Veit David.

The Judeo-Bukharan literature created during the Soviet period follows the path of Soviet literature in general. From an artistic point of view its most important creations are the prose works (whose most prominent representatives are J. Ḥayyimov, N. Fuzailov, M. Yitshaqbayev, B. Qalandrov, G. Samandarov). Drama, written for the most part for performance by amateur troupes, is influenced by contemporary Uzbek plays (the foremost dramatists are J. Ḥayyimov, and M. Amonov), while poetry is influenced by the Tajik literature, which in terms of language is very close to the Judeo-Bukharan literature. Prominent from the artistic standpoint are the poems of Muḥib (Mordechai Bachayev) and Y. Kurayov.

As has been stated, Judeo-Bukharan literature ceased in 1940; from that time to the present day no work has been issued in this language in the Soviet Union.

Immigration to Israel

The first information about Jews immigrating to the Holy Land from Central Asia dates to the beginning of the 19th century, but large groups of Bukharan Jews who immigrated to and settled in Israel are known only from the 1880s. In the early 1890s the quarter called Reḥovot was established by them in Jerusalem (to this day it is known as the "Bukharan Quarter"), which was considered at the time one of the most magnificent quarters of the New City. Groups of Bukharan immigrants, some of whom had managed to bring money with them and were among the wealthy of Jerusalem at that time, continued to arrive in Ereẓ Israel until the outbreak of World War I. The number of Bukharan Jews who arrived in this first Bukharan Jewish aliyah has been estimated at approximately 1,500. These immigrants represented about 8 percent of the total community, a proportion which had no equal in any land of Jewish emigration at that time.

The second aliyah of Bukharan Jews began in the 1920s and continued until the early 1930s. The number of members of the community who settled in Ereẓ Israel during these years is not known, but it may be assumed that it was no less than 4,000 souls. The overwhelming majority had to leave Russia secretly, to cross the borders with Iran or Afghanistan with the aid of Muslim guides, and then to receive permits on the basis of certificates issued to them by the British consulate. Only a minority of these immigrants chose the legal procedure. They would sail by boat from Odessa to Turkey, with the help of documents attesting to their Afghani, Persian or Turkish citizenship (purchased at high prices from the legations of those countries), and in Istanbul they would obtain their immigration permits for Ereẓ Israel.

Henceforth followed the period of almost complete severance of Bukharan Jewry from Ereẓ Israel, and only in 1972, with the beginning of mass immigration from the U.S.S.R., did they renew the tradition of immigration to the Holy Land – this time to the State of Israel. About 8,000 Bukharan Jews arrived from 1972 to the first half of 1975. A new wave commenced in the late 1980s.

[Michael Zand]


Before the Russian Revolution, Bukhara and the other towns of Uzbekistan were distinguished by the splendor of their costumes, jewelry, woven silks, and embroidered fabrics. Restrictions were imposed periodically on Christians and Jews with regard to costume. In earlier periods, they were obliged to wear special colors, in the case of the Jews black and yellow, the black generally an outer garment, worn in the street. Until the 1920s, Jewish men were obliged to wear in the street a cord girdle and a hat trimmed with fur – the telpak. The latter was apparently of a special type but its exact shape cannot be ascertained. These two items seem to be the last vestiges of a Jewish costume known only through vague literary descriptions. Apart from these features imposed on their costume, the only garments peculiar to Jewish wear in Bukhara were the white robes worn on the Day of Atonement, and a bridal gown with a special type of veil, both made of bespangled white cotton tulle. Otherwise Jewish costume was similar to Muslim; ceremonial robes were copied from those worn at the court of the emir, who used to present such robes to his distinguished subjects, Muslims and Jews alike.

Men's coats were long garments of the "kaftan" type found in various versions all the way from Eastern Europe to China. Their cut was in simple, straight lines, in a wide, enfolding shape. They wore several coats, one over the other. Women's coats were of three kinds:

  1. the kaltshak, a long ceremonial coat, narrow at the waist, open in front, with very wide sleeves;
  2. the kamzol, for more general use, shorter and of a European-style, flared-out cut; and
  3. the frandjin, a mantle worn in the street, enveloping the whole figure from head to toe. Their dresses were wide, long, shirt-like. They were cut from lengths of cloth without a shoulder seam. The fabrics used were mostly local silks or imported materials.

Ornamentation on the costumes was of various kinds: most common were many-colored edgebands, generally tablet woven, on the borders of nearly all garments. Headgear and the paired bands on the front of women's dresses were embroidered with colored silk threads but also with gold thread, which was used lavishly for ceremonial attire. In private, Jewish men wore various kinds of caps; those current among Bukharan Jews even today are caps heavily embroidered with colored silk or gold. Women had various types of caps, and many kinds of kerchiefs and scarves. Unmarried women at ceremonial or family gatherings wore a topi-tos, a soft cap entirely covered with gold embroidery in traditional geometric patterns. For festive dress, mothers and older women bound the forehead with a special kerchief of brocade. On ceremonial occasions Jewish notables wore jeweled belts. In private, Jewish men wore various kinds of the plain cord girdle obligatory on the street. Soft boots of colored, floral patterns were worn indoors and boots resembling black leather galoshes outdoors.


Jewelry formed part of a girl's dowry, and was handed down from mother to daughter. Women normally wore simple earrings, a ring, and a bracelet, but on ceremonial occasions put on a magnificent display of jewels, including various kinds of forehead ornaments, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings. They were made of gold, adorned with pearls, green and rosy stones, and coral beads. The design of jewels for the head and neck comprised two main ornamental elements:

  1. solid pieces, originally made of solid gold and later of gold sheet stuffed with a kind of bitumen, studded with semiprecious and precious stones;
  2. pendants, known as poya ("feet"), made of coiled gold wire threaded with a varying number of pearls, stones, and granulated gold beads.

Bukharan folkways and costumes were long perpetuated by the community in Jerusalem, making it the most colorful and picturesque element in Jerusalem Jewry. In recent years, however, this distinctive dress has been increasingly abandoned, being worn only at weddings and on other festive occasions.

[Aviva Muller-Lancet]

Musical Tradition

Jewish musicians in Bukhara and other centers of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were active in all spheres of musical life, Jewish and non-Jewish. The first and foremost of the different generic-stylistic groups in which they were involved was the traditional art music called Shashmaqom (six maqoms) and referring to a cycle of six extensive vocal-instrumental suites principally performed both by Jewish and Muslim musicians at the court of the Bukharan emirs until the 20th century. However, the Jewish musicians were generally recognized as among the most distinguished interpreters. This was the case with Boruhi Kalkhok (1845–1891) and Levi Babakhanov (1873–1926).

During the Soviet period, Jewish musicians continued to occupy an important position as performers of Shashmaqom in concerts, on the radio, and in studio recordings. In the 1960s, Jews make up at least 30% of the contingent performers in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Among them were family clans of performers such as the Babakhanovs, Tolmasovs, Mullokandovs, Davidovs, and distinguished individuals including singers Barno Izhakova, Izhak Katayev, Neryio Aminov, Izro Malakov, and others.


A popular women's music-dance sozanda, is included in the musical category involving a secular repertoire that marks life-cycle events (marriage, circumcision, etc.). This genre was mostly typical of the Bukharan Jews. In Bukhara and Samarkand the sozanda is performed in bands of three or four women. One is the soloist, who sings and dances, the others accompany her performance with a doira (frame drum) and sing the refrains of the songs. The repertoire of sozanda consists of large vocal-dance cycles with elements of theatrical playing, and requires a high professional performing level. The best sozandas were performed at the Emir's court. Among the prominent female music-dance Jewish artists during the early 1930s were Shishahon and Malkoi Oshma, Tuvoi and Michali, Karkigi, Kundal, Chervonhon, Gubur, Noshputi. Tuhfahon was quite popular from the 1960s to the 1980s. Berta Gulomova, Mindal, Nina Bakaeva, and others gained prominence In Dushanbe (Tajikistan), during the years 1940–80.


On mourning occasions, Bukharan Jews usually perform the haqqoni pieces, which are extensive vocal compositions sung without accompaniment, either by soloist or antiphonally by two or three male singers. The haqqoni are performed both by Muslims and Jews in the Bukhara region but the Jews chant them typically as part of the funeral repast. In connection with the latter one should mention the remarkable chanting of the Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Splendour), performed by a specialized singer (Zuarhon) on various ceremonial occasions, but especially at the funeral repast.


In the post-Revolutionary period, Bukharan Jews were among the musicians who played leading roles in the formation of new genres of Western art music. In 1930 the first Bukharan-Jewish Theater of musical drama was founded where such well-known actors as Freho Mullokandova, Nina Bangieva, and Pinchas Kurayev were active. In 1938 this theater was closed. Many Jewish artists continued their activities in the musical and theatrical institutes of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In Uzbekistan, one finds numerous prominent Jewish opera singers: Ksenia, Morduchai and Michoel Davidovs, Sara and Zaur Samandarovs, Sason Beniaminov, Robert Boruchov, and Moshe Mosheev; in Tajikistan: Roshel and Zalman Mullokandovs, Raphael Tolmasov, Michoel Alloev, and Roza Mullojanova.

Bukharan-Jewish composers made an important contribution to the contemporary music of Central Asia. Solomon Udakov was among the leading Uzbek composers. He wrote operas, cantatas, chamber vocal music, and music for the national anthem of Tajikistan. His opera Tricks of Maisara is the first Uzbek comic opera. Manos Leviev composed the ballet Suhail and Mehri, musicals dramas, comedies, and vocal music. The noted Tajik composer Yahiel Sabzanov was well known for his opera Bozgasht ("Return") as well as his vocal-symphonic compositions.

After the break-up of the U.S.S.R. in the 1990s most of the prominent Bukharan-Jewish musicians resettled in Israel and the U.S., where they continue to develop their musical traditions.

[Elena Reikher (Temin) (2nd ed.)].

Bukhara Today

The Jewish community in Bukhara today has only 100 to 150 Jews, but probably no more than five families who keep kosher and follow Jewish traditions. The city has only one elderly rabbi, but two synagogues, a primary school that teaches Hebrew, a Jewish cultural association and a Jewish cemetery with more than 10,000 graves.


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Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.