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.


Tzivia Inoyatova sits every day on her crumbling doorstep next door to the synagogue in the Old Mahalla(Jewish Quarter) asking passers-by where they are from and where they are going. Even at home she seems lost, but her concern is not misplaced. In her lifetime, more than 10,000 Jews crowded the narrow dirt passages between the high mud walls of her neighborhood. Today only hundreds remain, and they are leaving fast for Israel and North America. Most of those who will stay are those who have nowhere to go. After perhaps 2500 years of Bukharian Jewish history, this community may soon have only ancient Jewish doors and a handful of ancient Jewish faces as a reminder of its past.

Tzivia Inoyatova sits every day on her crumbling doorstep next door to the synagogue in the Old Mahalla(Jewish Quarter) asking passers-by where they are from and where they are going. Even at home she seems lost, but her concern is not misplaced. In her lifetime, more than 10,000 Jews crowded the narrow dirt passages between the high mud walls of her neighborhood. Today only hundreds remain, and they are leaving fast for Israel and North America. Most of those who will stay are those who have nowhere to go. After perhaps 2500 years of Bukharian Jewish history, this community may soon have only ancient Jewish doors and a handful of ancient Jewish faces as a reminder of its past.

Malkiel Ashurov Levy worked 55 years for a Communist government shoe factory. When the Communists lost power, Malkiel's pension lost its value. Now his clothes and his tubeteika(traditional Bukharian cap) are filthy and he gets his groceries from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Not to suggest conditions were rosy during the Communist period: "We locked the doors to celebrate the Jewish holidays," Malkiel remembers. "The non-Jews said we made matzah with people's blood," he says, recalling the "Blood Libel" common throughout the Former Soviet Union and elsewhere. "The government took all my grandfather's things in 1929 -- 15 wagons of his belongings. He fled and my mother was taken to prison." After a pause, Malkiel asks, "Will you take me to prison because of this interview? Who will read this?"

Malkiel Ashurov Levy worked 55 years for a Communist government shoe factory. When the Communists lost power, Malkiel's pension lost its value. Now his clothes and his tubeteika(traditional Bukharian cap) are filthy and he gets his groceries from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Not to suggest conditions were rosy during the Communist period: "We locked the doors to celebrate the Jewish holidays," Malkiel remembers. "The non-Jews said we made matzah with people's blood," he says, recalling the "Blood Libel" common throughout the Former Soviet Union and elsewhere. "The government took all my grandfather's things in 1929 -- 15 wagons of his belongings. He fled and my mother was taken to prison." After a pause, Malkiel asks, "Will you take me to prison because of this interview? Who will read this?"

Bukhara's Rabbi since 1974, Aaron Sianov dispassionately slaughters a chicken by cutting its throat in accordance with Jewish ritual -- without breaking any bones. The rabbi's passion only reveals itself when he sings. Rabbi Sianov is Bukhara's finest remaining performer of the town's distinctive, traditional Tajik-Jewish melodies. "The best time to listen is on Shabbat, or maybe with a bottle of vodka," he says, finally admitting a smile.

Bukhara's Rabbi since 1974, Aaron Sianov dispassionately slaughters a chicken by cutting its throat in accordance with Jewish ritual -- without breaking any bones. The rabbi's passion only reveals itself when he sings. Rabbi Sianov is Bukhara's finest remaining performer of the town's distinctive, traditional Tajik-Jewish melodies. "The best time to listen is on Shabbat, or maybe with a bottle of vodka," he says, finally admitting a smile.

Marina Borukhova operated the mikvah at Samarkand's new city synagogue. Her grandfather was a rabbi in the old Samarkand synagogue (the Gumbaz) and her family always kept Shabbat, Pesach and kashrut. "We were always proud to be Jewish," Marina recalls. Most of her friends and relatives have emigrated to America and Israel. Marina explains, "Life here is not bad, but there is no future." She asks, "One question: who will my children marry?"

Marina Borukhova operated the mikvah at Samarkand's new city synagogue. Her grandfather was a rabbi in the old Samarkand synagogue (the Gumbaz) and her family always kept Shabbat, Pesach and kashrut. "We were always proud to be Jewish," Marina recalls. Most of her friends and relatives have emigrated to America and Israel. Marina explains, "Life here is not bad, but there is no future." She asks, "One question: who will my children marry?"

Every morning, Rafael Davydov, the former President of the Bukharian Jewish community, wears tefillin as he rapidly recites the shacharit service in Hebrew, barefoot in his bedroom. "I only started to teach myself Hebrew…after I became the community President," Rafael confides. During the Soviet era, it was prohibited and impossible. "In spite of the fact that I didn't know Hebrew," Raphael says, "we always ate kosher food, fasted on Yom Kippur, observed Pesach, and quietly performed circumcisions and bar mitzvahs." Now the community has religious freedom, but the Jews are leaving en masse. "It's too bad all the Jewish people left to America, Israel, Germany -- before we all lived here together as neighbors," Raphael laments. 

Every morning, Rafael Davydov, the former President of the Bukharian Jewish community, wears tefillin as he rapidly recites the shacharit service in Hebrew, barefoot in his bedroom. "I only started to teach myself Hebrew…after I became the community President," Rafael confides. During the Soviet era, it was prohibited and impossible. "In spite of the fact that I didn't know Hebrew," Raphael says, "we always ate kosher food, fasted on Yom Kippur, observed Pesach, and quietly performed circumcisions and bar mitzvahs." Now the community has religious freedom, but the Jews are leaving en masse. "It's too bad all the Jewish people left to America, Israel, Germany -- before we all lived here together as neighbors," Raphael laments.