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Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism

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Part ethnography, part history, and part memoir, this volume chronicles the complex past and dynamic present of an ancient Mizrahi community. While intimately tied to the Central Asian landscape, the Jews of Bukhara have also maintained deep connections to the wider Jewish world. As the community began to disperse after the fall of the Soviet Union, Alanna E. Cooper traveled to Uzbekistan to document Jewish life before it disappeared. Drawing on ethnographic research there as well as among immigrants to the US and Israel, Cooper tells an intimate and personal story about what it means to be Bukharan Jewish. Together with her historical research about a series of dramatic encounters between Bukharan Jews and Jews in other parts of the world, this lively narrative illuminates the tensions inherent in maintaining Judaism as a single global religion over the course of its long and varied diaspora history.

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Preface: Reining in Diaspora’s Margins

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For countless generations, Jewish houses of prayer, schools, neighborhood associations, and markets dotted the landscape of Central Asia’s ancient silk-route cities. Although historians are not certain when Jews first appeared in the region, most believe they were among those who were exiled—or whose ancestors were exiled—from the Land of Israel in the sixth century BCE at the hands of the Babylonians. They moved eastward, probably as merchants along trade routes, spreading out as far as the fertile river valleys of present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

As the centuries passed, their descendants continued to carry the collective memory of exile and loss of the Jewish homeland. Over time, however, their historical experiences became intimately linked to the Central Asian landscape in which they found themselves. So much so, that the Jews whom I met there in the 1990s characterized themselves as “indigenous” to the region. We arrived here before Islam was introduced to the area, and before the Uzbek dynasts conquered the territory, they explained.

 

Acknowledgments

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This work is about the way in which unity can be constructed and maintained in the midst of tremendous flux and dispersion. Indeed, the book itself brings together in a single volume almost twenty years of research and writing, done in many locales. My deep love and devotion to the subject matters have carried me through the process. But this was no solitary enterprise. It could never have been accomplished without the care, support, encouragement, wisdom, friendship, sharing, and dedication of so many whom I met along the way. Some joined me in my endeavors for a few fleeting moments, and with others I have had deeper and more sustained interactions. Regardless, this work is a product of all these relationships.

First, I must thank the people whom this book is about. Although it is not possible for me to list each of the hundreds of individuals who shaped this work by sharing pieces of their lives with me, I extend deep gratitude to all those who did. I am particularly thankful to a few for opening their hearts and homes to me, and for the great time and energy they spent teaching and sharing with me. These include: Yitzhak Abramov, Rivka (Aronbayev) Aharoni, Leora Gevirtzman, Rahel Karayof, Berta Nektalov, Shlomo Haye Niyazov, Geula Sabet, and Nina Yitzhakov. I would also like to mention Sasha Aronbayev and Mikhael Chulpayev, who passed away while still in the prime of their lives. I am grateful for their generosity of time and spirit, and wish I could have been able to share this book with them. May their memory be for a blessing. There are others whose anonymity I have worked to preserve, and am therefore unable to thank by name. I am deeply indebted to these individuals whose lives are so integral to the story I tell here.

 

Part 1. Introduction

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During the cold war, when tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States were high, the plight of the Jews of the USSR was on the forefront of the American Jewish public agenda. The refusenik movement, in particular, was given great attention and publicity. Among its heroes were Anatoly Sharansky, Ida Nudel, Vladimir Slepak, and others who attempted to leave their homes for a place where they could identify as Jews without stigma, and practice their religion without fear. As a consequence of applying for exit visas, they were declared enemies of the state, lost their jobs, and were imprisoned.

While I was growing up in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, the stories of these refuseniks played a formative role in shaping my Jewish identity. I was among the many Jewish youth who signed petitions on their behalf, wrote letters of encouragement to them, sent money to organizations that fought for their freedom, and wore bracelets signifying our solidarity with their plight. These activities sensitized me to the situation of Soviet Jews, but also strongly informed my own ideas about what it meant to be an American Jew. They instilled within me a strong appreciation for the freedom that I had to practice religion and identify proudly as a Jew, all the while maintaining my sense of belonging to America.

 

Part 2. Eighteenth-Century Conversations

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Much is at stake in writing the past of the Bukharan Jews, for their story—ostensibly about a small, marginal diaspora group—actually encapsulates the dynamics of Jewish history and Jewish People in the broadest sense. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the tale of an eighteenth-century Sephardi emissary from Ottoman Palestine, and his encounter with Central Asia’s Bukharan Jews.

At the end of the eighteenth century, a young man by the name of Yosef Maman is said to have set out from his home in Safed. He headed eastward as an emissary of the Holy Land, driven by a desire to educate Jews living in the far reaches of the diaspora. Over many generations of isolation from important centers of Jewish learning, explains historian Avraham Ya‘ari, these communities had lost their sense of connection to the Holy Land and to the Jewish People, and had strayed from the dictates of Judaism. The hardy, charismatic Maman, who was not much older than twenty, was determined to reunite them.

 

Part 3. Nineteenth-Century Conversations

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The story of Yosef Maman’s arrival in Central Asia at the turn of the eighteenth century signifies the onset of new forms of engagements between the Jews of Bukhara and the Jewish world that lay to the west. These relationships intensified in the nineteenth century as Imperial Russia encroached on Central Asia, bringing the region under its control. Taking advantage of improved conditions for travel and communication and of new mercantile opportunities the Russians brought with them, Bukhara’s Jews formed new far-reaching trade relationships. A well-traveled, nouveau riche class emerged, focused on material acquisition as well as on using their recently obtained financial resources to enhance their spiritual lives. Pilgrimage to the Holy Land became fashionable, and importing religious teachers from there also gained popularity. Through these connections, the Jews of Bukhara were drawn into extensive conversations about religion with rabbinic authorities in Ottoman Palestine.

The next chapter (chapter 6) will trace the contours of these charged debates; we will analyze these in a manner akin to the way in which the debates between Maman and Central Asia’s local religious authorities were studied. The current chapter sets the stage by providing a political and historical context for these colorful and complex international religious conversations.

 

Part 4. Twentieth-Century Conversations

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The cosmopolitan, global quality of the Bukharan Jewish community was short-lived. In the 1920s the Soviets dismantled the remaining vestige of the Bukharan emirate, cut through the old borders, carved new ones, and incorporated the region into the USSR. Where the emirate once stood, two new political entities were created: the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic.

For the Jews of the region, this new geopolitical landscape meant a sudden severing of their international ties. Under Soviet rule, their movement became highly restricted, bringing an end to their participation in social, religious, and mercantile networks that had stretched between Central Asia, Europe, and Palestine. Those who remained in Central Asia were no longer able to travel out, and religious emissaries from abroad were no longer permitted to enter. Tight control on human traffic extended to the flow of information as well. Just as people were forbidden from crossing the borders, so, too, was the written word. Letters were monitored and censored, and religious texts printed elsewhere in the Jewish world were not permitted entry.

 

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