BUKHARA, Uzbekistan — The ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara has two synagogues, a primary school that teaches Hebrew, a Jewish cultural association and a sprawling Jewish cemetery with more than 10,000 graves. What it lacks are Jews.
Home to one of the world’s oldest and, in centuries past, biggest Jewish communities, Bukhara — a fabled city of ancient ruins and Islamic architectural treasures in central Uzbekistan — has a Muslim population of more than 270,000 people but, according to most estimates, only 100 to 150 Jews.
Even that, said Lyuba Kimatova, an observant Jew whose son and older daughter emigrated to Israel, is a big exaggeration. Ms. Kimatova said there were only four or five families left who kept kosher and followed Jewish traditions. The rest, she said, “do not really live like Jews anymore.”
That is not entirely their fault, she quickly added, but mostly the result of the fact that there is nobody left who can slaughter animals for food according to Jewish law. Until last month, the city had two dueling rabbis who knew the rituals of slaughter, but each was old and very sick, and too feeble to wield a butcher’s knife.
The older rabbi has now died, delivering yet another blow to a community with a storied history stretching back millenniums but steadily running out of living members.
Ms. Kimatova herself would like to leave, joining an ever-expanding diaspora of Bukharian Jews living far from the city, about 50,000 of them in the New York City borough of Queens alone.
“We are all ready to leave. Only the old folk are hanging on,” Ms. Kimatova said, complaining that her ailing father-in-law, 83, the surviving — and, detractors say, phony — rabbi, refuses to budge, despite pleas from his teenage granddaughter and other family members. “He won’t leave so we have to stay.”
The steady exodus from Bukhara began in the early 1970s, when the Soviet Union relaxed a ban on Jewish emigration. It accelerated in the 1990s after Uzbekistan became an independent state, a development that Jews, Russians and other minorities feared might lead to an upsurge in nationalism and Muslim extremism.
The feared nationalist backlash against minorities, particularly non-Muslim ones, never happened, and even remaining Jews who are eager to leave praise Uzbekistan as a place, unlike Israel and many parts of Europe, where Jews and Muslims live side by side without friction.
“I never felt any anti-Semitism here. Never,” Ms. Kimatova said, noting that her husband, a watchmaker, walks in the street wearing a skullcap without any fear, and their daughter, 13, has always walked to school on her own through the narrow, winding streets of Bukhara’s old town district.
The central government in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, would like Bukhara’s Jews to stay and those who left to start returning. As part of a general opening-up after the death of the country’s longtime dictator, Islam Karimov, in 2016, it recently gave visa-free entry to Israelis and is encouraging émigrés to come back, at least to take look.
“They have always been an organic part of Uzbek society, and people here need them,” said Sodiq Safoev, Uzbekistan’s former ambassador to Washington and a close confidant of the liberalizing new Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. “It will be very sad if they are all melted down in the big melting pot of New York.”
A few Jews are determined to stay put in Bukhara so as to preserve a Jewish presence that, according to local lore, dates to the Lost Tribes of Israel, exiled from their homeland in the eighth century B.C.
Another theory is that the Bukharian Jews trace their ancestry to the conquest of Babylonia, the ancient empire based in what is today Iraq, by Cyrus, the king of Persia in the sixth century B.C.
“Without history, you have no future,” said Abram Iskhakov, the president of the Bukhara Jewish Community. “Just being here to preserve our history, our language and our traditions is a big victory.”
He said that his daughter, who now lives in Australia, his brother in Israel, and other relatives in the United States, regularly pleaded with him to leave Bukhara but that his answer was always the same.
All the same, he praised Chabad for supporting the few remaining Jews in Bukhara, who rely on Rabbi Abramchayev in Tashkent for their kosher food.
On a recent visit to Bukhara, the rabbi slaughtered six chickens in Ms. Kimatova’s courtyard and then wielded his knife on three cows at a farm outside the city. To the dismay of the Uzbek farmer who had raised the cows, the rabbi declared one of them not-kosher after having it skinned and putting his hand into the carcass to check its organs. His decision meant that the Uzbek could not make a sale — and was stuck with the bloody carcass.
Relations between Jews and Muslims have not always been harmonious. In the 18th century, Muslim preachers began forcing Jews to convert, creating a community of residents known as chalas, whose descendants still form a distinct community.
Under the emir of Bukhara, a notoriously cruel leader of what — until Russia invaded in the 19th century — was an independent khanate or state, Jews lived “in utmost oppression,” said a Hungarian-Jewish traveler who visited shortly before Russia’s conquest. The emir blamed Jews for his defeat by the Russians.
Over the centuries, Bukhara’s Jews spread out to other towns in Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, and from there to countries around the world. Today, many Jews now living in Queens, Israel and elsewhere, no matter whether they have any direct connection with Bukhara, often consider themselves “Bukharian Jews.”
Among them is Lev Leviev, an Israeli billionaire and supporter of the Chabad movement who was born in Samarkand, an Uzbek city east of Bukhara. He is president of the World Congress of Bukharian Jews, an organization with chapters around the world that seeks to preserve ties between the community’s now widely scattered members.
Each year before Passover, Mr. Leviev sends supplies of matzo, an unleavened flatbread, to Bukhara so that the few remaining Jews there can celebrate the holiday.
Local Jews are grateful for the supply but older ones, remembering the days when they had their own bakers, grumble that matzo should be round, instead of square like the factory-made European variety sent by Mr. Leviev.
For Rafael Elnatanov, the head of the city’s Jewish cultural association, however, the only real hope of keeping the community alive is support from the government. If the authorities encourage investment and make it easier to do business, he said, Jews who left for Israel or America will return to become at least as part-time residents.
As the community has grown smaller, the question of whether to stay or go has grown ever more insistent, intensified by the splintering of families and increasing difficulties of following Jewish dietary and other customs.
Some stay because they are in lines of work not easily transferred abroad, like Simyon Ismailov, who extracts venom from vipers for sale to pharmaceutical companies. His snake farm, located down a muddy track outside Bukhara, sells tiny vials of viper venom for $2,000 each.
Jura Khoshayev, a Jewish shoemaker and the last of 10 siblings left in Bukhara, said he had thought about moving to New York, where he has eight close relatives, but he worried about adjusting to life outside Bukhara’s old Jewish quarter. “Many of our people get depressed in America,” he said. “They take too many anti-depressants.”
Whatever the stresses of living abroad, however, the scope for living a Jewish life in Bukhara is fast shrinking. Because there are so few Jews left, it is often difficult to find a minyan, the required quorum of 10 worshipers needed to hold a service in the synagogue.
It is also difficult to find a spouse within the faith. Ms. Kimatova said she was determined, no matter what her father-in-law said, to get the family abroad before her daughter, Sarah, reached marrying age.
“There is nobody here for her,” she said, complaining that even a local school set up in the 1990s for Jewish pupils has hardly any Jews left. Of 440 students, only 39 are Jewish, none of them in Sarah’s class. “We all have to leave sooner or later,” she said.
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a photo caption with this article mischaracterized a religious service at a memorial near Bukhara. It was a Muslim service, not a Jewish one.
credit to nytimes.com