Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism

Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism

Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism

Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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.

Even their language testifies to their deep Central Asian ties. Like Jews around the world, they spoke a dialect that set them off as a distinct community, separate from the non-Jews among whom they lived. Unlike the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, however, whose language was derived from experiences in a previous diaspora home, the language of Central Asia’s Jews evolved within the confines of Central Asia itself. Whereas Yiddish—a Germanic language—marked Ashkenazi Jews as outsiders in Poland, Judeo-Tajik is one of the many variants of Tajik (a Persian language) spoken in the region by Jews and Muslims alike.

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