Farewell to an ancient minority in Central Asia

Along the narrow, crooked streets of Samarkand's Ivritski Mahalla - the Jewish Quarter - the signs are everywhere: House For Sale; Desperate To Sell Now.

The going rate: around $2,000.

In 1990, between 20,000 and 50,000 Jews lived in Samarkand, the second-largest city in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. Today, a few hundred remain out of a community whose presence dates back millenniums. Most of them are planning to go.

"After five years there will be no Jews in Samarkand," says Yuri Yusupov, a retired veterinarian who is selling the last of his equipment and old extension cords at a street bazaar. He has lived his whole life in this arid, balmy city, famous for its fantastic Muslim mosques and palaces. But his brother and children have moved to Queens, New York, and Yusupov says he will probably join them.

All over Central Asia, Bukharans, as they are known, are departing. There is a certain irony to the exodus. With the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago, Jews can finally practice their religion without interference. But some want a more prosperous life, while others are concerned about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the largely Muslim region.

Uzbekistan's leaders have tried, with limited success, to transform it into a secular, open nation. But the economy, largely controlled by the government, has stagnated. The average monthly income is around $60. To the south lies Afghanistan, where the Taliban imposes its harsh brand of Islamic rule over 95 percent of the country. A militant group with reported ties to the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, appears to be gaining influence in some parts of the country.

"These Taliban, they are threatening that they will come and establish radical Islam," says Aron Aronov, who left Uzbekistan for New York 10 years ago. "This threat looms over the heads of Jews there."

Back in Samarkand, Yusupov and his wife, Clara, serve a lunch of kosher beef - once a week, an out-of-town rabbi arrives to supervise the slaughter of three cows, enough to supply the small community - and talk about their lives.

Mrs. Yusupov was born in this house, a small, airy place that looks out over a cluttered courtyard. Her father built it himself more than 90 years ago. "We had a very beautiful life," she says. "Weddings, we used to celebrate for the whole day.... Once, the streets were full of Jews."

No one knows when Jews first arrived in Central Asia. Many scholars believe they fled to the region 2,500 years ago when the Babylonians conquered Israel. Their name stems from Bukhara, another Uzbek city that was once a center of Central Asian Jewish life. They speak a distinct language, known as Judeo-Tajik, and traditionally worked as skilled tradesmen, mostly as weavers and cloth-dyers.

Over the centuries, they developed customs and rituals that differ from those of Jews in Europe, the Mediterranean, and present-day Iran. "A lot of times, people assume they're Sephardic, but they're not at all Sephardic. They comprise a separate cultural group of Jews," says Theodore Levin, an ethnomusicologist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Once they leave, many Bukharans have trouble in their new surroundings. "Their communities and families have been splintered in the process of immigration," says Alanna Cooper, an anthropologist who has done extensive fieldwork on Bukharans in Uzbekistan, the US, and Israel. "The values and expectations are really different in the West than in Uzbekistan."

"With TV and movies, assimilation here comes very quickly," says Mr. Aronov, who he says he emigrated "to join my family."

A short, stocky man with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, Aronov is a former linguistics professor who now works for a Jewish social-service agency. He has started a Bukharan Jewish museum in his Queens rowhouse. His basement is crammed with historical objects, among them a 450-year-old torah made from deerskin, antique silk robes, water urns, a wooden abacus, and thousands of photographs. Aronov dreams of moving his collection to a larger, more public space. The clock is ticking, he says: "2,000 years of history - finished."

On a recent Saturday morning in Samarkand, Sabbath services take place at the 120-year-old Gumbaz Shul, one of two remaining synagogues in a city that once held 50. The unofficial rabbi, a fleshy electrician named Boris Muratov, leads the prayers in a mixture of Bukharan and halting Hebrew.

Mr. Muratov took over when the previous rabbi left. Soon he, too, plans to depart - for Israel. Who will take his place? "Nobody," he says. "There are no other rabbis."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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