KHUJAND, Tajikistan -- A close-knit community in the old quarter of Khujand, a historic Tajik city on the banks of the Syrdaryo River, buried one of its most respected members last week.
The death of 83-year-old Jura Abaev on January 15 marked the end of an era for Khujand: He was the last Jew in the predominantly Muslim city, once home to a strong Jewish community of several thousand that had lived in the region for centuries.
Affectionately known among his neighbors as Jura Ako -- local slang for the "elder brother" -- Abaev lived his entire life in the Under The Big Mulberry Tree neighborhood in the heart of the vibrant city of nearly 200,000 people.
A retired factory worker, Abaev was also the last rabbi of Khujand’s only synagogue until it was closed in 2015 after having been empty since the 1990s.
There were an estimated 15,000 Jews in Tajikistan in the late 1980s, but most of them left the Central Asian country after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Among those who left were Abaev’s five adult children and their families, his half-sister, and many friends and relatives.
After the death of his wife in the 1990s, Abaev also decided to immigrate to Israel to be closer to his children. In fact, he moved to Israel three times between 1990 and 2008 -- each time returning to Khujand, calling it the only home he ever had.
In several interviews with local media in recent years, Abaev said that while he was in Israel he missed his home city, where “everybody knows me, greets me, and calls me Ako.”
Abaev said he was given an apartment and a monthly pension in Israel, enough to lead a financially comfortable life.
But he told friends in Khujand that he felt lost and lonely in the new country, where he didn’t speak the language, Hebrew, and struggled to adjust to the Israeli way of life.
“Abaev used to say, ‘I felt like I’m a nobody in Israel. When I go out in Khujand, people in my neighborhood smile at me and say, "Look, Jura Ako is coming." But nobody knows me in Israel,’” says Tajik journalist Tilav Rasulzoda, a longtime friend of Abaev.
Bustling Bazaar, Vibrant Neighborhood
During his retirement, Abaev’s favorite pastime in Khujand was going to the Panjshanbe Bazaar, a centuries-old, bustling outdoor market selling fruits and vegetables and dotted with shops, cafes, and kebab houses.
The ancient bazaar is also famous for its old teahouse, where mostly elderly men gather for traditional meals like rice pilaf or lamb soup, and fresh bread from its own bakery.
Over endless cups of tea, the men play and watch others play chess. During long, hot summer days, the chess games sometimes continue until the early hours of the next morning.
“Abaev was the happiest when he rode his bike -- with a basket attached to its front for groceries -- to Panjshanbe Bazaar, some 200 meters from his house,” a neighbor recalled.
“It was a short trip, but it would take him a long time as he would make several stops along the way, chatting with neighbors, friends, shopkeepers, butchers, barbers, and so on. He was a popular member of a lively community in a vibrant neighborhood where everyone knows each other,” the neighbor said.
Abaev’s large family house on Under The Big Mulberry Tree’s Shuro Street didn’t stay empty for long after his children left the country.
When an impoverished Tajik family of six lost their own home many years ago, Abaev offered them several rooms in his house, where they still live.
In return, the family looked after Abaev until his death, providing much needed care, especially in his later years.
Born into the Khujand family of a factory-worker father and a mother who was a theater actress, Abaev experienced many hardships as a child, including his parents’ divorce, deep poverty, and hunger during World War II. Once he recalled a wartime rationing system in which the family received 300 grams of bread a day.
Since 1967, Abaev had been the rabbi of Khujand’s synagogue, just a stone's throw away from his house. His duties included conducting funerals, safekeeping the synagogue’s only copy of the Torah, and taking care of the house of worship.
During the Soviet era, the religious practices of all faiths were under strict government control, while the organized practice of faith was almost nonexistent.
But after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, relative freedom came and the synagogue began organizing Torah lessons, Hebrew-language classes, and religious gatherings for the ever-dwindling Jewish community in Khujand.
Six years ago, Abaev -- then the only Jew in Khujand -- had to watch the unused synagogue be demolished to make room for a new shopping center.
That left Tajikistan’s Jewish community with only one house of worship, in the capital, Dushanbe, where nearly all of the country’s last 50-some Jews were based. The majority of them are elderly and -- like Abaev in his later years -- depend on the financial aid sent from abroad by their relatives and Jewish organizations.
The Dushanbe synagogue -- a marble-clad house in a residential area on the city’s elite Ozodii Zanon Street -- opened in May 2009. It was donated by a wealthy relative of authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon after the city’s old synagogue in central Dushanbe was razed to make room for a complex near the opulent new presidential palace.
The first Jews are said to have settled in Khujand in the Middle Ages after coming to the city as merchants and tradesmen. The community, which shares the same language and culture with Tajiks, began to significantly increase in the 19th century when dozens of Jewish families moved to Khujand from the nearby city of Bukhara, in modern-day Uzbekistan.
At its height in the 1940s, Tajikistan's Jewish community was estimated to be around 30,000, with the majority of them living in Dushanbe and Khujand.
Many prominent figures in the Jewish community, including musicians, scientists, journalists, and doctors, became household names in Tajikistan. And many working-class Jews in cities worked in small, niche professions such as goldsmithing, watch repair, and barbering.
All But Gone?
Abaev was laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery in the city’s southern outskirts, a final resting place for some 1,000 Khujand Jews buried there since the early 20th century. Tombstones bearing the Star of David and the names and images of the deceased dot the landscape.
Until he severely injured his leg and his health began deteriorating three years ago, Abaev was also the caretaker of the cemetery that features stone-and-cement walls, concrete pavement, and a tall gate with a sign in Tajik, Hebrew, and English.
The grounds have since been looked after by a local Tajik whose wages are paid by Jewish groups in Israel and the United States.
Abaev had said he would probably be the last Jew to be buried in the Khujand cemetery.
With his passing, the Jewish community’s presence seems all but gone in a city that tens of thousands of them had once called home for centuries.
In the Under The Big Mulberry Tree neighborhood, residents gathered to pay their final respects to their friend. But there was no one to conduct the Jewish funeral rituals for him.
So his friends and neighbors improvised by having a wake at which they spoke fondly of their old friend and thanked him for being a part of their lives for so many years.
And then they took Jura Ako to the cemetery -- where they buried Khujand's last Jew.