THE CENTRAL ASIAN JEWS
The self-designation is jahudi, isroel or bane isroel meaning ‘sons’ or ‘descendants of Israel’. In academic studies and in the places they inhabit they are known as the Bukhara or Local Jews. These designations were used particularly in the Soviet period.
Habitat. Central Asian Jews live chiefly in the Uzbek cities (Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Kokand, etc.), with a smaller number living in villages. The majority of Jews in Tadzhikistan, who moved there from Uzbekistan in the 1930s, live in Dushanbe.
Population. It is very hard to determine the exact number of Jews in Central Asia as censuses during the Soviet period did not consider them separately; they were usually included in the total Jewish population. The only exception to this was in 1926.
In 1926 there were 18,698 Central Asian Jews, in 1934 there were 24,000 Jews in Uzbekistan, in 1959 they numbered 20,800.
Language. Central Asian Jews speak a Jewish-Tadzhik language which belongs to the Samarkand-Bukhara dialect of the Tadzhik language. Their ethnic origins are revealed by phonetic, lexical and grammatical differences which contain Old Hebrew elements. A Russian influence is discernible in the vocabulary.
Ethnic origin. There are no written records of the Jews’ arrival in Central Asia, neither are there records given on their country of origin. However, evidence exists that by the 10th century a number of Jews were living in neighbouring areas — eastern Persia and the northern part of Afghanistan. The oral tradition of the Central Asian Jews has it that their ancestors came from Babylon and moved on to Persia. Historical records concerning the arrival of Jews in Samarkand, and elsewhere in Central Asia, contradict this. The migration is supposed to have taken place in the 13th–14th centuries, but there have been some later resettlements, for example, in the 18th–19th centuries. The main Jewish settlements were originally in Bukhara and Samarkand and from here the Jews spread into other places, such as Tashkent and the cities in the Fergana Valley. The Jews came to the city of Margelan, from Bukhara, in the early 19th century, to the city of Fergana about a century later, and to the Valley of Gissar in the mid-19th century. A large community of Central Asian Jews was established in Jerusalem in the late 19th century and the Jewish quarter in Dushanbe came into existence later still. As a result of land reforms carried out by the Soviet authorities in the 1920s a lot of Jews settled in the countryside, and a lot of collective farms were established in the environs of the big cities where the Jews mostly lived. In 1934 the Jewish rural population in Uzbekistan numbered 4,500. Another larger resettlement took place in the 1930s when nearly 5,000 Jews moved from the Uzbek to the Tadzhik SSR.
The identity of the Central Asian Jews has been preserved trhough their religion. Judaism, with its strict laws and customs, isolated the Jews from the surrounding Islamic world, even though the same language — either Tadzhik or Uzbek — was spoken. Jews in the cities occupied separate quarters, which they were not allowed to leave on Saturdays. The residents of a quarter made up an isolated community which followed the rules set by emirs, and later by the Russian authorities. The centre of the community’s social life was the synagogue. The community was relatively independent regarding their inner life, but there were several humiliating and restrictive rules and regulations that the Jews were forced to observe. They were not permitted to live outside their quarters, their gates and shops had to be built lower than those of the Muslims, a Jew had to wear a black cap and a cord belt, and accounts by Jewish witnesses in court were not valid for Muslims. The life of the Jews in Central Asia became easier when tsarist Russia took control in Central Asia. Jews were distinguished by their traditional dress, in particular their headwear. Today, the Jews have, as a rule, abandoned their traditional garb and their dress complies with that generally worn in the area. Only elderly women still stick to traditional dress. Unlike their Muslim neighbours, the Jews did not divide their homes into men’s and women’s quarters, though outside the home women covered their heads and faces just like their Tadzhik or Uzbek counterparts.
Judaism in Central Asia had its own distinctive features. Until the end of the 18th century observation of ritual practices was not consistent. Later, the local Jews were adopted by Palestinian rabbis and the faith was kept more strictly. A great many Jewish religious books were translated into the Tadzhik language, and links with the mother country were developed (a Central Asian Jewish community became established in Jerusalem). A highly peculiar feature of the Central Asian Jews was dual denomination. Religious persecution led to a number of Jews renouncing Judaism and adopting Islam instead. Such Jews were called tshla or ‘imperfect’ in Bukhara as in the majority of cases conversion was only for outward appearances. Judaic customs were observed in secret, with the rabbi being party to the deception.
Economy. In Central Asian towns the Jews were chiefly craftsmen and traders because tillage of the land was forbidden by the authorities. In the course of time, certain crafts became linked with the Jews. One of these was dyeing and this industry became completely the domain of the Jews. The Jews were quick to respond to the freedom of enterprise that resulted from the annexation of Central Asia by Russia. By the end of the 19th century there were among the Jews wealthy merchants and manufacturers, including a number of factory owners. A lot of Jews still predominate in industry and the crafts.
Until the establishment of Soviet rule, Jewish social life was confined within their communities. Small schools were attached to synagogues, were the Old Hebrew script was used. Russian-language Jewish schools were established in Samarkand in the 1880s, after the country’s annexation. In the early 1920s several Jewish secular schools were founded. In 1928 the Latin alphabet was introduced, but later tuition was given in the Tadzhik language and the Cyrillic alphabet came to be used. Earlier, a variant of Old Hebrew script was in use, and both religious and secular books were published in this script, for example, Persian Jewish and Persian Tadzhik classics. Today, it is preferred to educate children in Russian schools rather than in Tadzhik schools.
Central Asian Jews are very well integrated into local life and their contribution to the Uzbek and Tadzhik economies and cultures has been notable. The composer, S. Yudakov, who wrote the Tadzhik national anthem, is a Jew. However, the Jews who are active in public life, do not usually boast of their origin.
As mentioned above, all Central Asian Jews speak Tadzhik, or a kind of Jewish-Tadzhik dialect which is on the verge of dying out. In Tashkent and in Fergana Valley the second language is Uzbek. Most of the Jews today, especially the young, are fluent in Russian. Linguistic relations have become strained in the past few decades because there is a covert, but at the same time systematic, attempt to oust the Tadzhik language from Samarkand, Bukhara and other places in Uzbekistan where the Tadzhiks form the majority. The aim is to replace it, in all spheres of public life, with the Uzbek language. The Tadzhik people have come under pressure as they are forced to give up their national identity and Tadzhik-language schools are being closed. The situation of the Jews as non-Muslims is a little easier, but in this climate of hostility they cannot avoid suffering too.
Я. И. Калонтаров, Среднеазиатские евреи. — Народы Средней Азии и Казахстана. Т. 2, Москва 1963С. А. Токарев, Этнография народов СССР, Москва 1958
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