|History : Introduction|
The Jews of Bukhara are an ethnic and linguistic group, concentrated in Central Asia, particularly in the area of the Uzbek and Tadzhik Republics. The term "Bukharan Jewry" was coined by European travelers who visited Central Asia before the Russian conquest; it derived from the fact that at that time most of the community lived under the Emir of Bukhara. The members of the community call themselves "Isro'il" or "Yahudi." They speak a distinct dialect of the Tajik language, the so-called Judeo-Tajik, defined also as the Judeo-Tajik language. In Uzbekistan the largest concentrations are in Samarkand, the second largest city in the Uzbek Republic, Tashkent (capital of the Republic), Bukhara, Kokand and other cities. In Tadzhikistan they can be found mainly in the capital, Dushanbe. A considerable number of Jews of Bukharan origin can be found in Israel.
It is difficult to estimate exactly how many Jews lived in Central Asia before the second half of the 19th century. Benjamin of Tudela estimated that at the end of the 12th century there were 50,000 in Samarkand alone, but there is no doubt that this figure was not based on direct observation. Arminius Vambery estimated the Jewish population of the Bukharan khanate in 1863–64 at 10,000. At the end of the 19th century the figure was about 16,000. On the basis of Soviet censuses and other assessments it may be assumed that in 1970 30–35,000 Jews lived in Soviet Central Asia.
The Jews of Iran, Central Asia and Afghanistan constituted a single community until the 16th century, when historical-political developments divided them into two sections: the community of Iranian Jews and the community of the Jews of Central Asia and Afghanistan. In the middle of the 18th century, similar circumstances brought about a further division of the latter group into two separate communities.
The Origin and Sources of the Jewish Community
It may be assumed that the first Jews arrived in Central Asia following the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus King of Persia (539 B.C.E.): the majority of the Babylonian exiles did not return to the Holy Land and remained in Babylonia, at that time part of the Persian Empire. It is thus not unlikely that some came to the three Central Asian provinces of the Empire.
Rabban Gamaliel the Elder (first half of the first century C.E.) addressed a letter "to our brothers the children of the exile of Babylonia and to our brothers in Media and to the other exiles of Israel" (Sanh. 11). It is possible that "the other exiles" referred to the Jews living east of Babylonia and Media, including those of the area known as Central Asia. The first unquestionable evidence about the Jewish presence in Central Asia is a story in the Babylonian Talmud (Av. Zar. 31b) about the refusal of an amora called Samuel bar Bisna (the first half of the 4th century C.E.) to drink wine and beer in Margwan, i.e., Margiana, the medieval Merv (now the region of Mari, the Soviet Turkmen republic). Early Muslim sources (late 7th, early 8th century) refer to the presence of Jews in the area. At the beginning of the 8th century a Jew called Akiva is mentioned as collecting taxes from the Jewish community of Merv. The Jews were the only group in Central Asia which did not accept Islam.
There is evidence that Jewish communities in the area flourished in the 9th to the 12th centuries, particularly in the towns of Balkh, Khorezm and Samarkand and that they recognized the authority of the exilarch in Baghdad and communicated with him.
The Mongol invasions which early in the 13th century laid waste the cultural centers of Central Asia apparently also devastated the Jewish communities. Data from the 13th century attest to the existence of the remnants of a community in Balkh and a small community in Khorezm, where Jews from other places were prohibited by the authorities from settling. A Jewish presence in Bukhara is first mentioned in the 13th century. In 1336 a religious disputation was conducted in Merv, apparently sanctioned by the Muslim authorities, between Christian monks and one of the leaders of the Jewish community. In 1339 Solomon b. Samuel compiled in the town of Gurganj an exegetical dictionary of the Bible in Judeo-Persian, the literary language common to the Jews of Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia in this period.
At the beginning of the 16th century a dynasty that adopted Shi'ism—the non-Orthodox stream of Islam—ruled in Persia, while Central Asia and Afghanistan retained their allegiance to the Sunni, Orthodox stream of Islam. As a result, the links between the Jews of the area were severed, and the community was divided into two distinct entities.
The town of Bukhara apparently became a center of Jewish life in Central Asia in the 16th century, also absorbing many Jews living in cities in the zone of battle between the Persians (Iranians) and the local Sunni rulers.
Toward the end of the 16th and at the beginning of the 17th centuries the Jewish quarter (Mahalla) was established in the town of Bukhara, still known as the "Old Mahalla," and the Jews were forbidden to reside outside its boundaries. The main (and today, only) synagogue of this town was built in this quarter in the first half of the 17th century.
The middle of the 18th century saw the creation of the Afghani kingdom, ruled by the Durrani dynasty (1747–1842), while Bukhara was ruled by the Manghit dynasty (1753–1920), who made their country the strongest in Central Asia. There was constant hostility between the two countries, and the ties between the Jews of Afghanistan and those of Central Asia were effectively severed too. From that time Central Asian Jewry became a distinct entity, known as the "Community of Bukharan Jews."
Forced Conversion and Detachment from Jewish Centers
In the middle of the 18th century the first attempt was made at forcibly converting the Jews of Bukhara, leading to the creation of a community of anusim, called in the local languages (Tajik and Uzbek) Chala (lit. "not this and not that"), i.e., Jews who were externally faithful to Islam but secretly observed the commandments of their own faith.
Forced Islamization was resumed at the beginning of the 19th century and the number of anusim increased. However, when Russia conquered the kingdoms of Central Asia in the last third of the 19th century (see below), the new rulers did not recognize the Chala as Muslims, and regarded them as a special group of Bukharan Jews; some of them, living in those areas of Central Asia that were under direct Russian administration, returned to Judaism. Relicts of the Chala community have survived in Central Asia, especially in Bukhara, and are registered as Uzbeks or (in Tadzhikistan) as Tadzhiks.
Toward the end of the 18th century separation from Jewish culture centers led to a decline in the spiritual and religious level of the Jews of Bukhara. One consequence was the community's inability to produce its own religious leadership. The spiritual-religious decline, the absence of leadership and the forced Islamization could have produced a process of increasing assimilation within the general population. However, in 1793, R. Joseph Maman (Mamon) Maghribi, a native of Morocco, arrived in Bukhara as an emissary from the community of Safed, where he had settled a few years previously. When he saw the wretched situation of the Bukharan community he decided to settle there, and thanks to his efforts a revival of the religious and spiritual life took place. He introduced the Sephardi prayer rite to replace the existing Persian rite.
The Jewish population of Bukhara increased and the Muslim authorities permitted them to settle outside the quarter; this led to the establishment of the "New Mahalla" and the Amirabad quarter, which for administrative purposes was regarded as part of the "New Mahalla." During the first half of the 19th century Jewish quarters were established in Marghelan, Samarkand, Dushanbe as well. There were also relatively large concentrations of Jews in Shahrisabz and Merv, which in the 1840s absorbed many Jews who had escaped from Meshed, Persia, after its community was forcibly converted to Islam.
The Jewish community enjoyed a degree of autonomy before the Russian conquest. The community of every town was headed by a kalontar, elected by the community. His election
had to be ratified by the head of the government (q[shlegi) as well as by the Emir of Bukhara himself. He was aided by two deputies—ossoqols, heads of the Old and New Mahallas, whose election also had to be approved by the Emir. These communal officers served for life, unless removed from office by request of the authorities or a considerable number of community elders. They acted as judges in cases of litigation within the community; the kalontar also represented the community vis-B-vis the authorities. There were instances where the chief rabbi of Bukhara was appointed a kalontar as well. Criminal cases, as well as cases in which a Muslim was involved, were brought before the Muslim court.
Bukharan Jewry set up a network of schools, similar to the heder of European Jews, known as khomlo. Although it was obligatory for all children up to bar-mitzvah age to attend these schools, this regulation was in fact never implemented, and there were no schools for girls. On the other hand, there was a yeshivah, established, according to several sources, by R. Joseph Mamon Maghribi. Prayerbooks were imported, especially those printed in Leghorn, including some that contained tafsit—a commented Judeo-Persian translation. Other study books (e.g., alphabet books, portions of the Pentateuch) were prepared by the teacher (khalfa) himself.
As in all other Muslim countries, the Jews had to pay the jizya, the tax required of non-Muslims. The Muslim tax-collectors were emissaries of the government, but the assessment was made by Jewish assessors, who were subordinate to the kalontar. After receiving his due, the Muslim tax-collector would slap the Jews twice on the cheeks. (Respected members of the community received a mere symbolic tap.)
The chief occupation of the Jews of Bukhara on the eve
of the Russian conquest was dyeing of cloths. This trade was so typical
that visiting Central Asia in the mid-19th century European travelers
could recognize the local Jews by their stained hands. Other less common
crafts were weaving of special silk and cotton cloths, tailoring and hairdressing.
Craftsmen would sell their own products, and the number of Jews who engaged
in trade was small. A Hebrew letter written from Central Asia by a Jew
called Benjamin to the Jews of Shklov, Russia, in 1802, indicates that
at that time the Jews financed the commercial activities of their Muslim
fellow-townsmen, who peddled their wares in Russia. Subsequently the Jews
themselves began to trade in goods produced in Bukhara (particularly cotton)
within nearby areas of the Russian empire, and also to import Russian-made
goods. A Russian regulation of 1833 permitted the "Asian" Jewish
traders to reside outside the Pale of Settlement, which was in force for
the Jews of Russia. They were also permitted, in 1842, to trade at the
fairs at Orenburg and Troitsk, and in 1844 even at the country's most
famous fair at Nizhni-Novgorod (present-day Gorki).