Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bukharian Jews reign over Queensistan

Interesting article in Haaretz about the 50,000 Bukharian Jews of central Asia who now live in New York's Borough of Queens: (with thanks: Lily)

For two decades, Aron Aronov has transported embroidered garments, oil portraits of rabbis and other examples of traditional Bukharian Jewish culture from his native Uzbekistan to a small museum in New York.

"Here is all my money, all my life, all my time," Aronov, 71, said as he unbolted the door to the crowded, three-room Bukharian Jewish Museum, which he said is the only such museum in the world.

It tells the 2,500-year history of the Bukharian Jews of Central Asia, where they lived as a pious, insular ethnic community until leaving the region in droves in the early 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

They come mostly from Uzbekistan, and were concentrated in the Uzbek city of Bukhara.

"This museum is a desperate attempt to stop time," said Aronov, gesturing to an elaborate display of a Bukharian yard, including a wooden sofa covered with colorful rugs, cooking pots and an outdoor stove. "I don't want all this to go."

Bukharians had lived in relative harmony with their Muslim neighbors, but fled Central Asia as soon as it became possible to leave the Soviet Union, whose secular policies had long frustrated pious Bukharian Jews.

Now, they are struggling to protect an ancient culture they fear could vanish. Unlike some other ethnic communities in Queens, New York City's most ethnically diverse borough, Bukharians have no real homeland.

Most of the estimated 300,000 Bukharian Jews have settled in Israel but the second-largest concentration of about 50,000 live in the Queens neighborhoods of Rego Park and Forest Hills - earning the area the nickname Queensistan.

Only a few hundred remain in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, local leaders say.

Today, a stretch of Queens Boulevard is dotted with Bukharian synagogues, restaurants and cultural centers. There is also a theater staging plays in Bukhori, a Jewish dialect of Farsi, a newspaper, a cemetery and the museum.

Malika Kalantarova, a Bukharian from Tajikistan, was a celebrated dancer in the Soviet Union and now operates a dance studio in a Queens subway station.

"It's like a new Bukhara in New York City," said Itzhak Yehoshua, the head rabbi for Bukharians in America, a reference to the Uzbek city that gave Bukharians their name.

Bukharians attribute their success in keeping their heritage to their strong tendency to marry within the community and stick together. Of the 500 Bukharian weddings registered in 2007, Yehoshua said 400 were among Bukharians, 60 were between Bukharians and other Jews and 40 were between Bukharians and non-Jews.

Read article in full

New class on Bukharian Jewish history opens

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