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Bukharan Jews, also Bukharian Jews or Bukhari Jews, (Persian: یهودی بخارایی, Russian: Бухарские евреи, : Bukharim), also called the Binai Israel, are Jews from Central Asia who speak Bukhori, a dialect of the Persian language. Their name comes from the former Central Asian Emirate of Bukharamarker, which once had a sizable Jewish community. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the vast majority have emigrated to Israel or to the United States, while others have emigrated to Europe or Australia.


There is a tradition among the Bukharian Jews tracing their ancestry to the Lost Tribes of Israel to the Tribe of Napthali and to the Tribe of Issachar who may have been exiled during the Assyrian captivity of Israel in 7th century BCE.

Bukharan girl, circa 1900.
The Bukharian Jews of Central Asia were essentially cut off from the rest of the Jewish world for more than 2,500 years but somehow managed to survive and preserve their Israelite identity and heritage in the face of tremendous odds. They are considered one of the oldest ethno-religious groups of Central Asia and over the years they have developed their own distinct culture. Throughout the years, Jews from other Eastern countries such as Iraqmarker, Iranmarker, Yemenmarker, Syriamarker, and Moroccomarker migrated into Central Asia (usually by taking the Silk Road), as did Jews who were exiled from Spainmarker during the Inquisition; all these joined the Central Asian Jewish community and were later collectively known as Bukharian Jews. In Central Asia, the Bukharian Jewish community survived for centuries, despite being subject to many conquering influences and much persecution.

Most Bukharian Jews lived in the Emirate of Bukharamarker (currently Uzbekistanmarker and Tajikistanmarker), while a small number lived in Russiamarker, Kazakhstanmarker, Turkmenistanmarker, Afghanistanmarker, Pakistanmarker, Kyrgyzstanmarker and some other parts of the former Soviet Unionmarker. In the Emirate of Bukhara, the largest concentrations were in Tashkentmarker, Samarkandmarker, Bukhara, and Khokandmarker. In Tajikistanmarker, they similarly were mainly concentrated in the capital, Dushanbemarker.

Prior to the Partition of British India, some Bukharian Jews could be found among the Afghan population of Peshawarmarker, a city in what is now Pakistanmarker. After partition and the creation of Israelmarker, nearly all of these Jews left for Israelmarker and other countries. One synagogue still exists in Peshawarmarker and there are two main synagogues and several Jewish cemeteries that were annexed by local Muslims and still function in the port city of Karachimarker.

Name and language

The term "Bukharan" was coined by European travelers who visited Central Asia around the 16th century. Since most of the Jewish community at the time lived under the Emirate of Bukharamarker, they came to be known as Bukharan Jews. The name by which the community called itself is "Isro'ilmarker" (Israelites).

The appellative "Bukharian" was adopted by Bukharian Jews who moved to English-speaking countries, in an anglicisation of the Hebrew "Bukhari." However, "Bukharan" was the term used historically by English writers, as it was for other aspects of Bukharamarker.

Bukharian Jews used the Persian language to communicate among themselves and later developed "Bukhori", a distinct dialect of the Tajiki-Persian language with certain linguistic traces of Hebrew. This language provided easier communication with their neighboring communities and was used for all cultural and educational life among the Jews. It was used widely until the area was "Russified" by the Russians and the dissemination of "religious" information was halted. The elderly Bukharian generation use Bukhori as their primary language but speak Russian with a slight Bukharian accent. The younger generation use Russian as their primary language, but do understand or speak Bukhori.

The Bukharian Jews are Mizrahi Jews and have been introduced to and practice Sephardic Judaism.


Bukharan Jews celebrating Sukkot, c.
The first primary written account of Jews in Central Asia dates to the beginning of the 4th century CE. It is recalled in the Talmud by Rabbi Shmuel bar Bisna, a member of the Talmudic academy in Pumbedithamarker, who traveled to Margiana (present-day Mervmarker in Turkmenistan) and feared that the wine and alcohol produced by local Jews was not kosher. The presence of Jewish communities in Merv is also proven by Jewish writings on ossuaries from the 5th and 6th centuries, uncovered between 1954 and 1956.

Having developed over the millennia from Spanish Jewish and northeastern Persian and Arab Jewish communities, this Central Asian community has experienced alternating periods of freedom and prosperity, as well as periods of oppression. With the establishment of the Silk Road between Chinamarker and the West in the 2nd century BCE that lasted well into the 16th century, many Jews flocked to the Emirate of Bukharamarker and played a great role in its development. After the Babylonian exile, they came under the Persian Empire, as they prospered and spread through the area. However, around the 5th century, began a period of persecution. Famous Jewish academies in Babylonmarker were closed, while many Jews were killed and expelled (see Mishnah). After Arab Muslim conquest in the early 8th century, Jews (as well as Christians) were considered Dhimmis and were forced, among other things, to pay the jizya head tax. The Mongol invasion in the 13th century also adversely affected the Jews of Bukhara.

Sixteenth to eighteenth centuries

In the beginning of the 16th century, the area was invaded and occupied by nomadic Uzbek tribes who established strict observance of Islam and religious fundamentalism. Confined to city quarters, the Jews were denied basic rights and many were forced to convert to Islam. Under the Uzbeks, they suffered considerable discrimination. They were forced to wear a distinctive black and yellow dress to distinguish themselves from Muslims. Since the Bukharian Jews were considered Dhimmis, their heads of households had to be slapped in the face by Muslims during the annual tax collection.

At the beginning of 17th century, the first synagogue had been constructed at Bukhara city. This was done in contravention of the law of Caliph Omar who forbade the construction of new synagogues as well as forcing the destruction of those that existed in the pre-Islamic period. The construction of the first Bukhara synagogue was credited to two people: Nodir Divan-Begi, an important grandee, and an anonymous widow, who reportedly outwitted an official.

During the 1700s, Bukharian Jews faced considerable discrimination and persecution. Jewish centers were closed down, the Muslims of the region usually forced conversion on the Jews, and the Bukharian Jewish population dramatically decreased to the point where they were almost extinct. Due to pressures to convert to Islam, persecution, and isolation from the rest of the Jewish world, the Jews of Bukhara began to lack knowledge and practice of their Jewish religion. They only had three of five books of the Torah, did not know Hebrew, and replaced Bar Mitzvahs with Tefillin-banons.

By the middle of the 18th century, practically all Bukharian Jews lived in the Bukharan Emiratemarker.

Yosef Maimon

In 1793, a Sephardic Jew from Tetuanmarker, Moroccomarker, named Yosef Maimon traveled to Bukharamarker and found the local Jews in a very bad state. He decided to settle there. Maimon was disappointed to see so many Jews lack knowledge and observance of their religious customs and Jewish law. He became a spiritual leader, aiming to educate and revive the Jewish community's observance and faith in Judaism. He changed their Persian religious tradition to Sephardic Jewish tradition. During this time, the Jews of Bukhara were almost extinct, and Middle Eastern Jews came to Central Asia and joined the Bukharian Jewish community. Mammon's work and the Middle Eastern Jewish move to Central Asia helped revive the almost extinct Bukharian Jewish community. Yosef Mammon is an ancestor of Shlomo Moussaieff, author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, and the First Lady of Iceland Dorrit Moussaieff.

Nineteenth century

In 1843 the Bukharian Jews were visited by the so-called "Eccentric Missionary", Joseph Wolff, a Jewish convert to Christianity who had set himself the broad task of finding the Lost Tribes of Israel and the narrow one of seeking two British officers who had been captured by the Emir, Nasrullah Khan. Wolff wrote prolifically of his travels, and the journals of his expeditions provide valuable information about the life and customs of the peoples he travelled amongst, inclluding the Bukharan Jews. In 1843, for example, they collected 10,000 silver tan'ga and purchased land in Samarkandmarker, known as Makhallai Yakhudion, close to Registon.

In the middle of the 19th century, Bukharian Jews began to move to the Land of Israel. The land on which they settled in Jerusalemmarker was named the Bukharian Quarter (Sh'hunat HaBucharim) and still exists today.

In 1865, Russian troops took over Tashkentmarker, and there was a large influx of Jews to the newly created Turkestan Region. From 1876 to 1916, Jews were free to practice Judaism. Dozens of Bukharian Jews held prestigious jobs in medicine, law, and government, and many Jews prospered. Many Bukharian Jews became successful and well-respected actors, artists, dancers, musicians, singers, film producers, and sportsmen. Several Bukharian entertainers became artists of merit and gained the title "People's Artist of Uzbekistan," "People's Artist of Tajikistan," and even (in the Soviet era) "People's Artist of the Soviet Union." Jews succeeded in the world of sport also, with several Bukharian Jews in Uzbekistan becoming renowned boxers and winning many medals for the country.

Twentieth century

Jewish students with their teacher in Samarkand, ca. 1910.

Prior to the establishment of the state of Israelmarker, the Bukharian Jews were one of the most isolated Jewish communities in the world.

With the establishment of Sovietmarker rule over the territory in 1917, Jewish life seriously deteriorated. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of Jews, fleeing religious oppression, confiscation of property, arrests, and repressions, fled to Eretz Israel. In Central Asia, the community attempted to preserve their traditions while displaying loyalty to the government. World War II and the Holocaust brought a lot of Ashkenazi Jewish refugees from the European regions of the Soviet Unionmarker and Eastern Europe through Uzbekistan. In the early 1970s, one of the largest Bukharian Jewish emigrations in history occurred as the Jews of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan emigrated to Israelmarker and the United Statesmarker, due to looser restrictions on immigration. In the late 1980s to the early 1990s, almost all of the remaining Bukharian Jews left Central Asia for the United Statesmarker, Israelmarker, Europe, or Australia in the last mass emigration of Bukharian Jews from their ancestral lands.

After 1991

With the disintegration of the Soviet Unionmarker and foundation of the independent Republic of Uzbekistanmarker in 1991, there was an abrupt growth of nationalism, chauvinism, and xenophobia in Uzbek public consciousness. The advent of Islamic fundamentalism in Uzbekistanmarker and Tajikistanmarker caused a sudden increase in the level of emigration of Jews (both Bukharian and Ashkenazi). Before the collapse of the USSR, there were 45,000 Bukharian Jews in Central Asia.

Today, there are about 100,000 Bukharian Jews in Israel, 50,000 in the US (mainly Queens, New Yorkmarker), about 100-1,000 still remain in Uzbekistanmarker, about 500 in Canada (mainly Toronto, Ontario), and almost no Bukharian Jews remain in Tajikistanmarker (compared to the 1989 Jewish population of 15,000 in Tajikistan).

Emigrant populations

United States

Currently, Bukharian Jews are mostly concentrated in the U.S. in New Yorkmarker, Arizonamarker, Atlantamarker, Denvermarker, Los Angelesmarker, San Diegomarker. New York Citymarker's 108th Street, often referred to as "Bukharian Broadway" in Forest Hills, Queensmarker, is filled with Bukharian restaurants and gift shops. They have formed a tight-knit enclave in this area that was once primarily inhabited by Ashkenazi Jews (many of the Ashkenazi Jews have assimilated to wider American and American Jewish culture with each successive generation).

At the start of the Jewish New Year 5765 (2005), the Bukharian Jewish Community of Queens (mainly Rego Parkmarker and Forest Hillsmarker) celebrated the opening of the Bukharian Jewish Congress. This establishment further reflects the growing Bukharian community in Queens and their desire to preserve their identity in an ever-changing world.

Bukharian Jews are very proud of their Jewish heritage and religion, which are the chief components of their culture. Most are Zionist and strongly support Israel. Bukharian Jews also support the Central Asian governments in their struggle against Islamic Fundamentalism. Charitable funds named after prominent Central Asian cities, such as Tashkentmarker and Samarkandmarker, help maintain the Jewish cemeteries of these cities.

In 2007, Bukharian-American Jews initiated lobbying efforts on behalf of their community. One of the Bukharian leaders said, "This event represents a huge leap forward for our community. I am so grateful to God that we are here, that I was able to witness this. Now, for the first time, Americans will know who we are." Senator Joseph Lieberman intoned, "God said to Abraham, 'You'll be an eternal people'… and now we see that the State of Israel lives, and this historic [Bukharian] community, which was cut off from the Jewish world for centuries in Central Asia and suffered oppression during the Soviet Union, is alive and well in America. God has kept his promise to the Jewish people."


In early 2006, the still-active Dushanbe synagogue in Tajikistanmarker as well as the city's mikveh (ritual bath), kosher butcher, and Jewish schools were demolished by the government (without compensation to the community) to make room for a new Presidential residence. After an international outcry, the government of Tajikistan announced a reversal of its decision and publicly claimed that it would permit the synagogue to be rebuilt on its current site. However, in mid-2008, the government of Tajikistan destroyed the whole synagogue and started construction of a Presidential Palace. The Dushanbe synagogue was Tajkistan's only synagogue and the community were therefore left without a centre or a place to pray. As a result, the majority of Bukharian Jews in Tajikistan have very negative views towards the Tajik government. In 2009, the Tajik government rebuilt the synagogue in a different location for the small Jewish community.


Dress Codes

Bukharian Jews had their own dress code, similar to but also different from other cultures (mainly Altaic cultures) living in Central Asia. On weddings today, one can still observe the bride and the close relatives donning the traditional kaftan (Jomah-ҷома-ג'ומא in Bukhori and Tajik) and the richly-embroidered fur-lined hats for the wedding dances.


The Bukharian Jews have a distinct musical tradition called Shashmaqam, which is an ensemble of stringed instruments, infused with Central Asian rhythms, and a considerable klezmer influence as well as Muslim melodies, and even Spanishmarker chord. Shashamqam music "reflect the mix of Hassidic vocals, Indian and Islamic instrumentals and Sufi-inspired texts and lyrical melodies."


Bukharian cuisine consists of many unique dishes, distinctly influenced by ethnic dishes historically and currently found along the Silk Road and many parts of Central and even Southeast Asia. Shish kabob, or shashlik, as it is often referred to in Russian, are popular, made of chicken, beef or lamb. Pulled noodles, often thrown into a hearty stew of meat and vegetables known as lagman, are similar in style to Chinese lamian, also traditionally served in a meat broth. Samsa, pastries filled with spiced meat or vegetables, are baked in a unique, hollowed out tandoor oven, and greatly resemble the preparation and shape of Indian samosas.

Plov is a very popular slow-cooked rice dish spiced with cumin and containing carrots, and in some varieties, chick peas, and often topped with beef or lamb. Another popular dish is Baksh which consists of rice, chicken breast and liver cut into small cubes, with cilantro, which adds a shade of green to the rice once it's been cooked. Most Bukharian Jewish communities still produce their traditional breads including Lepeshka, a circular bread with a flat center that has multiple pattern of designs, topped with black and regular sesame seeds, and the other, called Non Toki, bears the dry and crusty features of traditional Jewish matzah, but with a distinctly wheatier taste.

Notable Bukharian Jews

See also


External links

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