Shalom, Uzbekistan: A Jewish Culture Guide
The Jewish history in Uzbekistan is said to go back over 2,000 years to Solomon's Temple.
And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.
For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.
It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.
The Jewish community in modern Uzbekistan may only consist of approximately 4,200 people, but according to tradition, the country’s deep-rooted Jewish history goes back over 2,000 years after the destruction of the First Temple, also known as Solomon’s Temple.
Tradition explains that following the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple, Uzbekistan’s Jewish community in Bukhara was founded from the exile of Eretz Israel. Others believe that Persian Jews fleeing persecution 1,500 years ago ended up in Uzbekistan, while others believe Jews arrives in the 7th century as Silk Road merchants. Although accurate accounts cannot be proven, the Jewish history in Uzbekistan is long and rich.
The first Jews of Uzbekistan were mostly artisans and merchants as land ownership was forbidden. Similarly to all citizens of the region, the Jewish people survived several invasions led by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Sardians, the Qarakanids, the Seljuks, the Persians, the Turks, and the Chinese. While the Jews suffered greatly during these times, they prospered during two specific eras: Tamerlane and the Russians.
In the 14th century under Tamerlane’s rule, Jewish weavers and dyers played an integral role in helping to rebuild the abandoned Silk Road. Bukharan Jews created a major Jewish centre in Tamerlane’s capitol, Samarkand. However, after Tamerlane died, Muslim authorities and other rulers in the region implemented restrictive rules that forbade Jews from living outside the Jewish quarter. The Jewish community was humiliated, with Jewish gates and shops having to be built lower than those of Muslims, their witness accounts were not considered legitimate in court systems, and they were forced to wear a black cap and a cord belt.
When the Russians invaded in 1868, these restrictions were eased which allowed the remaining Jewish community to flourish until the 1917 revolution. During this time, Jews and Muslims shared equal rights and Jews were granted free acquisition of real estate. An estimated 70,000 Jews lived in Uzbekistan at the time, with 50,000 in Samarkand and 20,000 in Bukhara.
With the Russian Revolution of 1917, Jews once again lost almost everything. Religion became forbidden in the country and the 30 synagogues in the region were reduced to only one by 1935. Jews still retained their deep commitment to their heritage and religion through underground movements.
Today, there are two distinct Jewish communities in Uzbekistan: the more religious and traditional Bukharin community and the more reform and progressive Ashkenazi community that grew as a result of Jews passing through Uzbekistan while fleeing the Holocaust.
Uzbekistan has a population of approx. 4,200 people presently, spread throughout Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, the major Jewish cultural centers.
Jewish education is provided through schools and summer camps hosted by The Jewish Agency, Chabad, and the Joint Distribution Community. The Jewish Agency also sponsors a moadon (youth center) in various cities including the three mentioned above and some smaller cities in the Fergana Valley. The few local synagogues still offer services on Friday nights, although there is not always a minyan.
Since Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, many Uzbek Jews have moved to Israel or the ever-growing Bukharian community in New York City.
Uzbekistan ‘s almost 25 million person population is 88% Jewish, but unlike many other Middle Eastern countries, religion and politics have mostly kept separate. Israel and Uzbekistan have maintained good relations, with most violence blamed on terrorism caused by extreme Muslim fundamentalists originating from Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Historically, Jewish Uzbeks spoke a dialect known as Tajik, which is still spoken in Bukhara and Samarkand. However, most contemporary Jews in the region speak Russian, with some choosing English, Uzbek, or Hebrew.