Bukhara and Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Strong Jewish Fiber on
the Silk Road
The Jews of Bukhara, Uzbekistan, say their ancestors originally arrived here shortly after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. By that time, Bukhara was already a thriving merchant city along the ancient Silk Road. The Bukharian Emir gave the Jewish immigrants the Mahalla, a neighborhood where they lived with relative autonomy for centuries and maintained Jewish religious traditions.
Bukharian Jewish community president, Rafael Davydov's grandfather was the last Bukharian Emir's bookkeeper, which was a privileged and lucrative position. Rafael's prosperous grandparents were able to raise 21 children in a strictly Jewish environment. In those days, before the Communist Revolution, Bukhara had 18 synagogues.
The Communists closed all but one synagogue in the Mahalla and Stalin even closed this synagogue for five years. But unlike most other Jews in the Former Soviet Union, the Davydovs and many Bukharians never stopped practicing Judaism, though they were forced to adapt to the difficult circumstances.
"I couldn't learn Hebrew for my bar mitzvah because it was very dangerous," says Rafael Davydov. "My father paid for a rabbi, called him to our home. The rabbi taught me to read the Siddur, the prayers, but with the threat of prison. The rabbi wrote the prayers in the Cyrillic alphabet. We would study in a room without windows to the street, with only one door, which we locked. So we would not be caught, it was always the farthest room."
Despite the Communist repressions, Luba Davydov, Rafael’s wife, suggests that Bukharian Jews never forgot how to celebrate together. "Even during the Communist period, Shabbat for us was always a big holiday, with many guests. My mother would make a plov with rice, meat, carrots, raisins and onions. Then my parents would say Kiddush, light candles, eat, sing...."
Saying Hebrew blessings was dangerous during the Communist period for many Bukharian Jewish families who needed to maintain the Communist leadership's good graces to maintain work. Luba explains, "My father was not a Party man (a Communist), so it was not as dangerous. My uncle, who was a Party man, had his sons' brit milah and bar mitzvah secretly, at home."
Bukharian "Rabbi" Gabriel Matatov was able to maintain Jewish learning during the Communist period because he was a humble watch-maker. "No one noticed me," Rabbi Gabriel says. When the synagogue across the street from his home which Stalin converted into a clothing factory reverted to the Jewish community in 1991, Gabriel became its rabbi because he remembered the rules of Torah.
Today, Rabbi Gabriel's community is not threatened by Communism, but by emigration to Israel and America. Of 20,000 Jews who once filled Bukhara's Mahalla streets, only hundreds remain. "If everyone leaves and I am the last Jew," Rabbi Gabriel concludes, "then I will have to leave here. But for now, G-d decided I should stay, and as long as I am here, I will follow G-d's commandments." Such resolve has kept Bukharian Jewry intact for more than 2500 years.
Bryan Schwartz visited the Bukharian Jewish community of Uzbekistan in 2001 and presents its members in vivid text and photographs in his book with Jay Sand and Sandy Carter, Scattered Among the Nations.