Bukharan Jews

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Bukharan Jews

ETHNONYMS: Israel, Jugur, Yahudi; Russian names: Bukharskie Evrei, Sredneaziatskie Evrei, Tuzemnye


Identification. Most Bukharan Jews live in Central Asia (primarily in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), some in Israel and the United States. Culturally and linguistically, Bukharan Jews most closely resemble the Jews of Iran and Afghanistan. The name "Bukharan Jews" comes from the city of Bukhara, the former capital of the Bukharan Khanate, in the territory where the majority of Bukharan Jews lived in the nineteenth century. Bukharan Jews refer to themselves as "Israel" or "Yahudi." The local Turkish population calls them "Jugur." The Russian names are "Bukharskie Evrei" (Bukharan Jews), "Tuzemnye" (local, native), or "Sredneaziatskie Evrei" (Central Asian Jews).

Location. Significant numbers of Bukharan Jews live in Samarkand (about 15,000), Tashkent (30,000), Dushanbe (10,000), Bukhara (8,000-9,000), Kokand, Andijan, Margelan, and other towns. Bukharan Jews are currently migrating to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (Alma-Ata, Kzyl-Orda, Frunze, Tokmak).

Demography. There are no reliable statistics on the number of Bukharan Jews. The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, referring to Samarkand in the Middle Ages, wrote of 50,000 Jews living there. In 1944, 10,000 Jews were living in Bukhara. The estimated population of the Bukharan Jews at the end of the nineteenth century was 16,000; in 1910, more than 20,000; by the end of the 1920s, about 30,000; at the end of the 1950s, more than 40,000; in the early 1970s, about 50,000; and in the mid-1980s, as high as 60,000 (and by some estimates 75,000). The fertility rate has fallen, and now most families have only two or three children.

Linguistic Affiliation. Bukharan Jews speak a Jewish dialect of the Tajik language. This dialect has a number of grammatical and phonetic differences from other Tajik dialects, and a certain number of transmissions and old Tajik semantic items have been preserved in the lexicon that are absent from other dialects; it also contains a certain number of borrowings from Hebrew. Bukharan Jews use the Hebrew alphabet, although in the USSR that alphabet was replaced by the Latin alphabet from 1929 to 1940.

History and Cultural Relations

According to one of their legends, Bukharan Jews consider themselves to be descended from members of the Ten Tribes of Israel who, after the seizure of Israel in 733/732722 b.c. by the Assyrians, were driven deep into the Assyrian empire. They associate one particular place in Assyria in which they settled, Habor, mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 17:6), with Bukhara; the identity of consonants in the two names is offered as proof of this. In the opinion of some scholars, Jews settled in Central Asia in the sixth century, but it is certain that during the eighth to ninth centuries they lived in Central Asian cities such as Balkh, Khwarezm, and Merv. At that time, and until approximately the sixteenth century, Bukharan Jews formed a group continuous with Jews of Iran and Afghanistan. Arabic sources of the tenth century describe large Jewish populations in Central Asia, and early eleventh-century sources note a significant Jewish population at Balkh. Benjamin of Tudela, visiting Central Asia around 1170, wrote of the populous Jewish community in Samarkand. According to Bukharo-Jewish traditional history, after the invasion of Iran by Mongols under the leadership of Chinggis (Ghengis) Khan, many Jews, particularly those residing in the Sabsavar district near Meshed, fled to Samarkand and Balkh, increasing the populations of those communities. The first mention of a Bukharan Jewish community (apparently small at that time) dates from 1240. In the sixteenth century, after the destruction of Samarkand, Jews migrated to Bukhara, which was becoming the center of Central Asian Jewry. Later, some of the Jewish population of Bukhara migrated to China, soon losing contact with Central Asia, although retaining genealogical knowledge.

At the end of the sixteenth century the Bukharan Khanate was formed, and its rulers propagated Islam in lands under their control. Having no right to live in other parts of the city, Jews of Bukhara began to settle in a special quarter called Old Makhalla. They were forbidden to buy horses from Muslims and were forced to wear a special sign on their clothing to distinguish them from Muslims. Jews were also compelled to pay a special tax, the collection of which was accompanied by a slap, intended to humiliate, and Jewish shops had to be one step lower in elevation than Muslim shops.

In the eighteenth century Islamic fanaticism in Bukhara had grown to the point that by midcentury, mass forced conversions of Bukharan Jews to Islam began. In response, many Jews became outwardly Muslim but secretly retained their Jewish faith; they were known as chala (neither this nor that). Forcible conversions continued in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the number of chala increased. By the beginning of the twentieth century their number reached several hundred families. Other Jews were almost completely Islamicized and began to merge with the surrounding population, retaining only insignificant relics of Judaism. These people were, as a rule, those whose families had been longest converted. Second-and third-generation converted families were often half-Muslim and half-Jewish. After the Sovietization of Central Asia in the 1920s, when people began to be distinguished by ethnicity rather than by religion, many chala became outwardly Jewish once more. Others identified themselves with Uzbeks and Tadjiks and remained Muslims. To this day there are families among these Muslims who trace their descent to Jews and have retained certain Jewish practices.

Remoteness from centers of Jewish culture, cruel oppression, and a wave of forcible conversion to Islam brought the Bukharan Jewish community to the verge of disappearance, and it was in this state that Joseph Mamon of Tetuan (Maghribi or ha-Ma'aravi), envoy of the Safed community, found it upon his arrival in Bukhara to collect money for Palestinian yeshivot (religious academics). Finding the community in such a desolate condition, Joseph Mamon decided to remain in Bukhara. He procured books on Judaism and began to instruct local Jews. As a result of his activity, and, later, thanks to the influx of Jewish refugees from the Iranian city of Meshed, there was a rise in ethnic and religious awareness among Bukharan Jews.

The Jewish population of Bukhara continued to grow, and a second Jewish quarter appeared, called New Makhalla. In the mid-nineteenth century a third area, Amirabad, was established, and 1843 Jews bought a district in Samarkand that became yet another Jewish quarter. At the head of the community was a leader, or kalontar, chosen by the members of the community from among its most respected men.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the Russian conquest of Central Asia began. Bukharan Jews welcomed Russian occupation because Russian authorities imposed no discriminatory policies toward Jews. A significant number of Bukharan Jews emigrated from Bukhara, which remained under the control of an emir, to Samarkand and Tashkent, which were governed by Russians.

Bukharan Jews were allowed to have trade with internal regions and developed a small but influential group of merchants and capitalists. At the end of the nineteenth century, Russian authorities issued a number of limitations on the residence of Bukharan Jews in Turkestan, the Russian part of Central Asia. Jews were divided into the categories tuzemniye (local, native), those who had lived in the territory before its occupation by Russians, and "foreign" Jews, who had migrated there after the occupation and who were deprived of some of their rights. In practice, authorities rarely enforced the limitations on the "foreign" Jews.

In 1905, with the rise of anti-Semitic sentiments throughout the country, Bukharan Jews were accused by the Russian administration of "exploiting" the local population, although this led to no serious incidents. The Bukharo-Jewish newspaper Rahamin appeared in Skobeler (now Fergana) in 1910 but it folded in 1916. After the 1917 February Revolution the new Russian government declared all peoples equal, and this was echoed in the Bukharan Emirate's new constitution. In March 1918 there was an attempted pogrom, but Jews, with the help of the emirate guard, averted it. On the other hand, a heavy tax was imposed on the Jewish population for the purchase of arms for the emir's army, which was fighting the Bolsheviks. War between Communists and the emir was perceived by Bukharan Jews as a natural stage in the war between Russians and Muslims, and for this reason their sympathies, as traditionally, lay with the former. The Communist ideology among Bukharan Jews found some adherents, who later formed the basis of the local Jewish Soviet organization. In 1920 Bukhara was occupied by Soviet troops and the Bukharan Soviet Republic was formed, but in 1925 it lost its semblance of autonomy and was incorporated into Uzbekistan. Local Jews held the same legal status as the rest of the country's population.

In the nineteenth century Palestinophile ideas made definite progress among Bukharan Jews, and in 1868 emigration to Palestine began. At the end of the 1880s this movement increased, and a "Bukharan quarter" appeared in Jerusalem, the population of which reached 1,500 in 1914, or about 8 percent of all Bukharan Jews. By this time a sizable number of adherents to Zionism had appeared among Bukharan Jews. The illegal exodus of Bukharan Jews continued in the 1920s and early 1930s, and during that period approximately 4,000 Bukharan Jews emigrated to Palestine. In Jerusalem, Shimon Hakhama inspired a literary circle that published about 100 books in the Bukharo-Jewish dialect.

After the 1917 Revolution Bukharan Jews began to develop an educational system with Hebrew as its language of instruction. The Tarbut (culture) society, united youth with Zionist sympathies, conducted active cultural work in many cities, and played an important role in the ethnic consolidation of Bukharan Jews. In 1922 the society's activities were forbidden, and instruction in the Jewish dialect of Tajik replaced instruction in Hebrew in Bukharo-Jewish schools. Schoolteachers underwent training at a Bukharo-Jewish pedagogical trade school opened in 1921 in Tashkent. In 1925 the newspaper Rushnoy began publication in Samarkand; in 1930 it was renamed Bayroki mikhnat (Flag of Labor).

Another manifestation of the Sovietization of Jews was their organization into kolkhozy: about ten Jewish kolkhozy were established in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Jews often received land unfit for agriculture, and the majority of the kolkhozy broke up rather quickly.

From the second half of the 1920s, Soviet authorities actively fought Judaism, waging an extensive campaign to close synagogues and religious schools. (This campaign subsided temporarily during World War II.) Anti-Semitism continued to manifest itself among the local population. There were specific cases of blood-libel charges in 1926 and 1930, and in 1961 and 1962 as well. At the end of the 1940s anti-Semitism took on an official appearance; anti-Jewish satires appeared in print, and in the 1960s a campaign against the use of matzo (unleavened bread eaten during the ten days of Passover) was conducted. Bukharan Jews were made to participate in anti-Israeli demonstrations, especially following the 1967 Six Day War. In Central Asia a significant number of anti-Zionist books and brochures was published, including some in local languages.

Nevertheless, Zionist sentiments strengthened among Bukharan Jews after the Six Day War. In the early 1970s mass emigration to Israel began. In the first half of that decade more than 10,000 Bukharan Jews left, approximately 15 percent of their total population in the USSR. From the second half of the 1970s the stream of emigrants was redistributed between Israel and the United States, where approximately 2,000 Bukharan Jews settled, primarily in New York. During the same period ethnic self-awareness grew among a large portion of Bukharan Jews. Hebrew teachers appeared among them, organizing Hebrew study groups. The authorities actively fought these study groups, frightening teachers and students. In 1983 Moshe Abramov, a Samarkand Jewish ritual slaughterer and Hebrew teacher, was arrested and sentenced to three years' imprisonment.

In 1987 a new wave of emigration of Bukharan Jews to Israel and the United States began. Ethnie tensions and the rise of pan-Muslim sentiment led to the rise of anti-Semitism in Central Asia. By contrast, the politics of glasnost (openness) of Gorbachev permitted the legalization of many aspects of Bukharan Jewish ethnic life. Bukharo-Jewish clubs and cultural associations sprang up in many cities. In Uzbekistan a Bukharo-Jewish sector of the Writers' Union was founded, and it became possible to openly study Hebrew.


Bukharan Jews lived in houses that differed from those of Muslims principally in the absence of a separation into men's and women's halves. The only furniture in these houses were low tables (shulhon), at which they dined on Saturdays.


An overwhelming majority of Bukharan Jewish men practiced the craft of yarn dying, which they monopolized almost totally in Central Asia. Those who dyed yarn with indigo dye were called kabudgar, whereas those who used other colors were called rangborchi. Men also practiced other crafts, among them weaving, jewelry making, distilling, tailoring, haberdashery, and hairdressing. Women often were cooks or laundresses or baked bread for sale; they were and continue to be dancers (sozanda ) at weddings and other familial celebrations, both Jewish and Muslim.

After the Sovietization of Central Asia many Bukharan Jews, having lost the opportunity to engage in their traditional crafts, began to work at silk-winding, textile, sewing, cotton-processing, butter-churning, brick-making, and other factories as well as in granaries and in small-scale, low-technology workshops. Women were a large portion of the work force. About 1,000 families worked in agriculture, although most soon abandoned that.

At the present time, a significant number of Bukharan Jews work in service and trade professions. Among them are many shoemakers, hairdressers, tailors, and photographers. There are also a large number of educated people: engineers, doctors, teachers, and musicians. There is a creative intelligentsia of writers, poets, artists, and scholars.

Clothing. The traditional costume of the Bukharan Jewish man consisted of a long shirt, trousers, a robe, a round hat of Asnakhan fur with a velvet top, and leather shoes or, in winter, soft boots. Women wore over-and undershirts, trousers, a kerchief, and leather shoes.

Food. Bukharan Jews ate beef, mutton, domestic poultry, rice, fruits, flour products, and milk products. Food was strictly divided into dairy and meat products in accordance with Jewish law. Dietary laws governing the acquisition, preparation, and consumption of food were strictly observed.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. Before the beginning of the twentieth century, Bukharan Jewish males were the heads of their patrilineal extended families. The father regulated household expenditures and dominated his sons and their families. Each married couple had separate quarters, but everyone ate from a common kitchen. In the twentieth century a process of separation of married sons from the common household began, leading to the now-predominant pattern of separate nuclear families.

Bukharan Jewish kinship terminology was highly developed. Earlier, Bukharan Jews, as was the case with Jews in general, practiced levirate marriage as well as a ritual ceremony for its refusal, called halitso. Before the Sovietization of Central Asia the overwhelminging majority of marriages were monogamous, though there were instances of men having two wives; usually these were rich men or men whose first wives were barren.

Marriage. Bukharan Jews nearly always marry other Bukharan Jews. The parents of the groom send a matchmaker to the parents of the bride. When both sides have agreed to the marriage a betrothal takes place (shirinhuri), and later, the marriage ceremony (kidush). In the old days, children were sometimes betrothed while still in the cradle. Formerly, after a betrothal, a kudobini ceremony (meeting of the parents of the bride and groom) was also performed, as was the rubinoti (viewing of the bride's face), at which time the first meeting of groom and bride occurred. On the Saturday before the wedding there was an inspection of the bride's dowry and a party for the bride. The family of the groom paid a bride-price (kalin ) for the bride, but the dowry usually was larger. On Sunday the bride was taken to the baths, and on Monday the women celebrated the painting of the bride's hands with henna. On Tuesday the Hebrew marriage contract (ktubo ) was drawn up. The marriage ceremony, performed by a rabbi, took place on Wednesday under a canopy (hupo), followed by a wedding feast (tuy). Divorce was permitted among Bukharan Jews, and a law existed to regulate marriages of widows.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Bukharan Jews follow the traditional Judaic faith and form communities that have synagogues (keniso). They observe the lunar calendar and all Jewish holidays, the most important of which are Passover (Pesach), Shavuot, Sukkoth, New Year (Rosh Hashannah), and the Day of Judgment (Yom Kippur). Before 1793 Bukharan Jews observed the so-called Persian traditions in Judaism (nusah Paras), but after the settlement of Joseph Mamon in Bukhara they adopted the Sephardic tradition (nusah Sefarad ) and at present consider themselves Sephardic Jews.

Religious Practitioners. Bukharan Jewish communities are led by lakhams, who perform the functions of rabbis, butchers, circumcisers, and cantors. At present there are approximtely twenty Bukharan Jewish synagogues in the former USSR. Formerly, religious schools (homulo ) were attached to the synagogues. Special instructors, called melas, taught primarily boys there.

Ceremonies. On the eighth day after a boy's birth, a circumcision (milo ) is performed. At 13 years of age a boy undergoes a ceremony dedicated to his coming of age (tefillinbandon ).

Arts. Only three literary monuments have come down to us: the poems of the Book of Antioch and Seven Brothers by the poet Joseph ben Isaac, composed in the first half of the eighteenth century, and the poem "Memories of Hudaydad" written by Ibrahim ibn Abi-1-Hayr in 1809, about a young Jew who prefers death to conversion to Islam.

In 1930 the literary journal Haeti mikhnat first appeared. A whole series of works by writers and poets emerged in the Bukharo-Jewish dialect, although many were arrested between 1936 and 1938. Newspapers and magazines were closed by Soviet authorities, as was a theater opened in 1932 in Samarkand. In 1940 the Bukharo-Jewish schools were shut down, and publication of books in the Jewish dialect of the Tajik language ceased.

Death and Afterlife. After death, a burial and mourning ritual is performed for the deceased. The sons of the deceased read the mourner's prayer (kaddish) every day for the first year after death, and once a year thereafter.


Ben-Zvi, Itzhak (1961). The Exiled and the Redeemed, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Eshel, M. (1966). Galereyah: Demuyyot shel Rashei Yahadut Bukhara. Yaffo: Beyt Tarbut li-Yihudei Bukhara be-Yisrael.

Kalontarov, la. I. (1963). "Sredneaziatskie Evrei" (Central Asian Jews). In Narody Srednei Azii i Kazakhstana (Peoples of Central Asia and Kazakhstan), 610-630. Moscow: Izd-vo AN SSR.

Loewenthal, Rudolf (1961). The Jews of Bikhara. Washington, D.C.: Central Asian Collectanea.

Zand, Mikhail (1979). "Bukharan Jewish Culture under Soviet Rule." Soviet Jewish Affairs 9(2): 15-23.

IGOR KOTLER (Translated by Dale Pesmen)