Throughout his nearly 50 years living in Forest Hills, Queens, Gavriel Davidov was the unofficial mayor of the borough’s Bukharian Jewish community. He was widely known a peacekeeper, and the first person someone could turn to for help.
The owner of Gavriel Davidov Jewelry, a fine jeweler in Manhattan’s Diamond District on 47th Street, Davidov was among the first members of the Bukharian community — mostly Russian-speakers from Central Asia — to resettle in New York City. Seeking to escape Soviet restrictions on religious Jewish life and expression, Davidov, his wife Zoya and their four daughters — Ninel, Susan, Stella and Zhanna — immigrated from Tajikistan to New York in 1976.
By the time Davidov died in April 2020 at 85, the number of Bukharian Jews in New York had grown to over 50,000 people. And many of them had Davidov to thank for the strength of their community: Over the course of his life in the United States, he helped establish dozens of yeshivas, synagogues and community centers in Forest Hills and the surrounding neighborhoods.
Last month, Davidov’s dedication to the Bukharian community — and his legacy of humility, leadership and honesty — was honored by the City of New York with the co-naming of the corner of 64th Road and 108th Street, near the epicenter of Bukharian life in New York, as Gavriel Davidov Corner.
“He was the patriarch of our family and he was a pillar in the community,” Gabriella Kaplan, one of Davidov’s nine grandchildren, told the New York Jewish Week in a recent phone interview. “Whenever I’d walk down the street with him, everyone was his very best friend. You couldn’t get two feet because everyone had to stop him to say hello. It was so cool to see how much respect he had in the community and how much everyone loved him.”
“He is finally getting the recognition that he deserved,” said Kaplan, 28, who was one of about 10 people who spoke at the unveiling ceremony on Oct. 22.
According to Manashe Khaimov, an adjunct professor at Queens College specializing in Bukharian Jewish history and the founder of the Sephardic American Mizrahi Initiative, the city’s recognition of Davidov is a major step in acknowledging and celebrating Bukharian life in the United States. “It leaves our footprint on the history of New York,” he said.
“For the Bukharian youth and for the Bukharian people as a community, this is a big deal,” he added. “Living in Forest Hills, walking down the street in Forest Hills, to have a street named after a Bukharian person is an empowering moment.”
For Davidov’s family, which also includes 11 great-grandchildren, the ceremony provided a bit of much-needed closure. Davidov died just as COVID-19 took hold in New York City and last month’s ceremony, said Kaplan, was “a celebration of his life that we didn’t necessarily get to have in the way that we should have when he passed.”
A prominent lawyer in Tajikistan, Davidov arrived with his family in the U.S. via Vienna and Israel. The family settled in a two-bedroom apartment in Forest Hills — the same apartment Davidov inhabited for the rest of his life.
According to his daughter Susan Davidov Hod, they were the tenth Bukharian family to make their home in the neighborhood, which is now home to thousands of Bukharian Jews and dozens of synagogues.
Upon arriving in New York, despite being well-educated and fairly well-off in Tajikistan, Davidov found work as a taxi driver, a job he held for three years to support his family while learning English. According to favorite story passed down by the family, Davidov picked up a man from JFK Airport and told the passenger in broken English about his journey to the United States and his four girls at home. At the end of the day, he was cleaning out his car and realized the man had left his suitcase in the cab.
“We opened it up — it was full of cash,” Hod recalled. Her father insisted he had to return it.
Hod found a business card in the suitcase and they called the passenger. “My father didn’t speak English very well, so I talked,” Hod said. “My father drove back to him the next morning and gave him the full case. A week later, we got four or five boxes of clothing because the man knew that he had four daughters. He sent us the most fashionable clothes at the time.”
This type of honesty was typical of her father, Hod said, who was 18 when he opened his jewelry business in 1980 and she started working with him — an experience she describes as “amazing.”
Hod recalled how her father would help others get started in the jewelry business, sometimes signing on as a guarantor for loans. “People still owe him a lot of money,” she said. “But he never chased that. Not that he was a millionaire, believe me. But his heart was of gold.”
Davidov also quietly worked throughout his life to boost the Bukharian community, helping to establish two Orthodox synagogues, the Bukharian Jewish Community Center and Beth Gavriel Synagogue, as well as multiple yeshivas in the neighborhood.
“He planted the seeds for 35 Bukharian synagogues in New York City and united thousands of congregants,” said City Council member Lynn Schulman, who represents Forest Hills and its environs and who sponsored the legislation to co-name the street. “As a leader in the Bukharian community, Gavriel always gave of himself, never asking for anything in return. He has left an indelible mark in Forest Hills and throughout our city.”
“He was really the person that so many people in the Bukharian community came to. He was very quiet about it. He wasn’t public. He wasn’t looking for name recognition. But helped so many people that were new to the Bukharian community and Queens, whether they needed money or had a family emergency,” said Assembly Member David Weprin, who knew Davidov personally. “He was the person that people said: Go see Gavriel Davidov. He will help you.”