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U.S.: Bukharian Jews Seek To Preserve Identity

  • Nikola Krastev

Tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia reside now in the New York City borough of Queens. Most have come from the Bukhara and Samarkand regions in Uzbekistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This non-European Jewish clan is well known for its attempts to preserve cultural identity, but modernizing and adapting to an American lifestyle is challenging traditions more than 2,500 years old. As part of our series on U.S. census trends, RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev looks at the experiences of New York's Bukharian Jews.

New York, 18 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The first Bukharian Jews came to the United States in the beginning of the 20th century, but major immigration didn't start until the 1960s and 1970s. The opening of the Soviet borders after 1985 brought a large influx of Bukharian Jews to the New York City borough of Queens, particularly to the neighborhoods of Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, and Rego Park.

There are an estimated 300,000 Bukharian Jews in the world. U.S. census figures on foreign-born residents have not been released yet, but New York City planning officials say more than 10,000 came to the city in the 1990s, taking advantage of their eligibility for refugee status.

Rafael Nektalov, an editor of several Jewish publications in the New York area, says that the Queens enclave -- with approximately 40,000 residents -- makes it the second-largest community of Bukharian Jews in the world after Israel.

While the name associates this group with the city of Bukhara, they came from the khanat of Bukhara, Nektalov says, which in ancient times stretched through the modern territories of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. A small number of Bukharian Jews came to the United States from Kyrgyzstan.

Gloria Blumenthal is director of acculturation for the New York Association for New Americans, known as NYANA, an organization that helps Jews from the former Soviet Union resettle in New York. She tells RFE/RL that the experiences of the Bukharian Jews have made many of them multilingual:

"It's a trilingual culture, or even a quadrilingual [one] because there's English, Hebrew, Bukharian, Russian spoken within the families."

The latest and the largest wave of Bukharian Jews immigrating to New York, primarily from the 1990s, mixed with Bukharian Jews who arrived in the United States earlier in the 20th century. Nektalov, himself a Bukharian Jew, tells RFE/RL that Bukharian Jews, in contrast to Jews arriving from other parts of the former Soviet Union, are very close-knit.

"For us, our Jewry is of primary consideration and [it] is very important. We have a very low percentage of mixed marriages. Our community is monolithic -- Jews are marrying Jews, while Russian Jews are more prone to assimilation."

Blumenthal says that among the important customs retained by the Bukharians in New York City is honoring the anniversary of dead relatives, a time when families are called together to remember their loved ones. In these tight-knit communities, Bukharian poetry is often recited and kept alive. And meals are still prepared according to ancient recipes.

Some of the meals described in the Talmud -- the authoritative body of Jewish tradition -- are preserved in the modern cuisine of Bukharian Jews. Nektalov notes that it is not difficult to find those meals in a number of restaurants in Queens.

"If you visit Queens you'll see entire neighborhoods with plenty of Bukharian Jews restaurants: dumplings, [shashlik], pilaf. Bukharian Jews changed the face of Queens."

In New York's best-known borough -- Manhattan -- Bukharian Jews have already become a fixture in the jewelry business. Their penchant for craftsmanship, says NYANA's Blumenthal, is a cultural heritage stemming from some Central Asian survival instincts.

"Families still said to their children: 'you should be able to do something with your hands, it's very important to be able to do something with your hands, you'll never go hungry if you can work with your hands.' And so many of them are barbers and shoemakers. But also they were merchants, and so going into the jewelry business, the clothes business, opening little businesses like barbers and shoe stores and shoemakers and all of that -- it's consistent with what they did there [in Central Asia]."

NYANA's Blumenthal says that unlike the more assimilated Jews from the European parts of the former Soviet Union, the Jews of Central Asia developed close-knit communities and migrated in large groups. Wherever they have gone, she says, they have been able to develop a community. Blumenthal says such communities have provided comfort and support but also have created obstacles to adjusting to life in the United States.

NYANA in 1999 opened an office in Queens to accommodate the needs of Bukharian Jews. The office helps the new arrivals understand the laws and find jobs.

Blumenthal says they are not anti-Western, but some of the values and the permissiveness -- for example, the sometimes freewheeling ways of American teenagers or the sexually provocative content of TV programs -- cause Bukharian Jews discomfort. Blumenthal says that many of the Bukharians she knows seek a family-oriented life and a more traditional Jewish lifestyle.

The distance between Queens and Central Asia is vast in many ways, Blumenthal says, but the Bukharians have been able to make adjustments.

"What the Bukharians have lost when they come here by and large is the courtyard because New York particularly is an apartment culture. And the challenge has been how to retain what the courtyard has meant where you had a gathering place for the family and if you invited people -- you invited them to your courtyard. And what's really interesting, I think, the proliferation of restaurants [in the areas] where Bukharians live has become a substitute for the courtyard because it's in the restaurants where they have their bar mitzvah ceremonies, it's where they have their yard-site ceremonies...this is where they celebrate their family events."

Bukharian Jews are building synagogues and schools in New York. They are maintaining their dance and crafts traditions. David Aminov, a 75-year-old Bukharian in Queens, hopes that one day his people's ancient culture will be preserved in a Bukharian Jews community center. Hard-pressed by demands of the modern world, the Bukharian Jews in New York are trying to re-establish their culture so their children can be part of it.

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