Bukharian Jews

Bukharian JEWS

Text by Robert Pinkhasov, Thomas Loy and Fred Daudon

WHO Are the Bukharian jews?

« Bukharian Jews are the descendants of ancient Israelites, a part of whom were exiled after the destruction of the Northern Israelite (722BCE) and Judean (586BCE) kingdoms, and also after the Roman conquest of the Hasmonean Jewish kingdom in 70CE.

While the presence of Jewish communities in Central Asia dates back well into the pre-Islamic times, the use of the term ‘Bukharian Jews’ is relatively new. It was adopted by Russian and European travellers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The expression relates to the Jews living in the Emirate of Bukhara which existed from 1785 to 1920. It is now Uzbekistan. Bukharian Jews are not only from the city of Bukhara but also from different cities of the Emirate such as Samarkand. Their distinctive characteristic is their language which is a mix of Persian/Tajik and Hebrew. » Robert Pinkhasov, They Should be Known. Bukharian Jews


The spreading of Jews throughout Central Asia is primarily the result of their participation in the silk trade along the great Silk Roads.

After the Arab conquest, Bukharan Jews were governed by Muslim law. Considered as « People of the Book », they were permitted to hold on to their religion by observing certain specific rules, i.e. paying a tax, wearing distinctive clothes and building synagogues which cannot be higher than mosques, etc. They also had to live in separate neighborhoods, where they exercised autonomy over their community. The secular head of the community was the kalontar who was entrusted with administrative and judiciary matters. Questions of a religious nature was decided by a rabbi.

The arrival of the Shiite Safavid dynasty in 1502 in Iran almost coincided with the rise of the Sunni Sheibanid dynasty in Transoxiana which led to a situation where Central Asian and Persian (Iranian) Jews ended up within the territories of two warring nations. It was namely this event that led to the separation of Bukharian Jews from Persian Jews as an independent and distinct ethnic sub-group and community.

Robert Pinkhasov, They Should be Known. Bukharian Jews

Jewish neighborhood in Bukhara

At the end of the 16th century, a Jewish Quarter (mahalla) emerged in Bukhara. Later, at the beginning of the 19th century, this neighborhood grew and a new Jewish quarter of Amirobad was built.

At the time, the largest mass of Bukharian Jews lived in Bukhara, with smaller communities in Samarkand and Shahrisabz.

From the middle of 18th century to early 20th century, the literary scene was very active with a number of great poets and writers translating Muslim and Persian books.

In 1793, the Chief Rabbi Yosef Maimon Maaravi arrived in Bukhara from Palestine. Born in Morocco, he imported many Sephardic customs which took root among Bukharian Jews.

Robert Pinkhasov, They Should be Known. Bukharian Jews

BUKHara- Jerusalem

Bukharian Jews maintained contacts with their coreligionists in Palestine. Moreover, the contacts were two-way: emissaries of Jewish communities in Palestine (Jerusalem, Hebron, Tzfat) traveled to Central Asia for the collection of donations (at the time the religious Jews of Palestine lived by the account of the donations collected from diaspora Jewish communities); and devout Central Asian Jews traveled to Jerusalem for pilgrimages, or to be buried in the Holy Land.

In the 1880s, the number of Bukharian Jewsin Jerusalem was so large, that they decided to establish a separate Bukharian-Jewish quarter, which was completed in1890.

With the First World war, Ottoman Empire and Russian Empire were ennemies. Contact between Bukharian Jews in Jerusalm and Central Asia was interrupted.

In 1914, Jerusalem was home to almost 1,500 Bukharian Jews and Central Asia had almost 20,000.

Robert Pinkhasov, They Should be Known. Bukharian Jews


The Second World War certainly left a mark on the lives of Bukharian Jews.

Historically speaking, there have been extremely few military career among Bukharian Jews. At the same time, 4,000 were called up for military service, and more than 1,000 of them died during the war.

Robert Pinkhasov, They Should be Known. Bukharian Jews


Central Asia was one of the places to which European Soviet citizens were evacuated during the war. As a result, the local Ashkenazi community increased in number. In the following years, many religious activists settled in Central Asia, where there were more opportunities for the observance of religious customs and education.

In Samarkand (photo),there were underground yeshivas (religious educative centers), organized by Lubavitcher (Chabad) hasidim and Lithuanian Jews; this is where secret conventions of Chabad rabbis were held.

Robert Pinkhasov, They Should be Known. Bukharian Jews


Only two sinagogues are still active in Samarkand. The same number as in Bukhara.

Public baths

These baths were built by and for the Jewish community of Samarkand.


Many Bukharian Jews had a respected public status, some worked with top positions within the administrative ranks of the Soviet republic. Unfortunately for this rich Jewish landlord, his beautiful house was seized by the government as he publicly supported the tsar.


Maqam is a word which describes the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music, which is mainly melodic. The word maqam in Arabic means place, location or position.

Bukharian Jews were influenced by Arabic music and developped their own maqam which you can still listen to in Bukhara.


Houses and synagogues were built with local materials and used the same kind of architecture as mosques with wooden pillars.

The massive migration

From the 1970s, the massive wave of emigration of Soviet Jews began as a whole, and Bukharian Jews largely headed to Israel and the United States.

By the end of 20th century, 74 communities of Bukharian Jews in 13 post-Soviet states ceased to exist. At present in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan there are only 6 communities left.

ARKADI (Abrasha) Levayevch Il’yasov

Arkadi is the last member of his family to remain in Central Asia. We met him in November 2017 in Samarkand. His story and his relatives’ is an incredible chance to understand the history of Bukharian Jews.

« I was born at the end of 1939, on 25 December, one week before 1940. In 1948 I started school. In 1956 I entered a vocatio nal school connected to a co – operative. I studied there for two years. Then I was drafted into the army. When I joined the army, they trained me as a driver. I worked as a driver for motorised units. I also served at the Pacific Ocean in Vladivostok. We transported goods on trucks and loaded them on bord. I was demobilised in 1962 and returned home on 30 December. Only five days later my grandma died. She died on 4 January and I’d only just come back on 30 December … When I came back home, I started to work at the bus service … I worked at that place [for 33 years] until I retired. Now I’m a pensioner. »

« Bukharan Jews in the Soviet Union. Autobiographical Narrations of Mobility, Continuity and Change« , Thomas Loy, 2016

Arkadi’s family

« The Bukharan Jews came to Samarkand 2,100 years ago. But my family settled in Iran and lived there for a ve ry long time before they moved on [to Central Asia]. A thousand years? Maybe 1,500 years? – They stayed there a very long time. In 1855, my grandpa’s parents migrated from Mashhad in Iran to Afghanistan, to the city of Herat. They lived in Herat for fifty years until 1905. In 1905 they moved on from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan, to a town called Marv. They stayed in Marv for seven years until 1912. In 1912 they moved to Kerki, another town in Turkmenistan. They lived in Kerki from 1912 until 1937. In that ye ar they moved to Samarkand. Half of our relatives lived here, while the other half stayed in Turkmenistan. Later on, some of them left Samarkand for Tashkent and Dushanbe. »

« Bukharan Jews in the Soviet Union. Autobiographical Narrations of Mobility, Continuity and Change« , Thomas Loy, 2016

The Story of Hano and ROHEL

« When my forefathers moved to Afghanistan, my grandpa was born there, the father of my father. My father’s father was born there [in 1866] in the city of Herat. When he was a ten – year – old boy, one of his relatives gave birth to a child. While the wife gave birth, the father of the newborn child was sitting in his shop selling things. This boy [my grandpa] came and said, ‘Give me a gift! I have good news for you!’ – ‘What news?’ – ‘Your wife had had a child!’ – ‘Has she!?’ – He had not had any children so far. – ‘What is it?’ – ‘I don’t know – a child!’ – ‘Ok but a girl or boy?’ – ‘I don’t know!’ The man tells the ten-year-old boy, ‘Go and find out if it’s a boy or a girl, then come and tell me and I’ll give you a reward!’

After finding out, he went back to the shop and said ‘Uncle Levi, your wife has had a girl! Now give me a gift for the good news, please!’ But the man got angry. He hoped for a boy so he did not give the boy anything. The boy insisted ‘I brought you the information that a girl’s been born, so give me the gift now!’ The man said ‘Get lost! That girl is yours! The girl is your gift!’

The boy went away without saying another word. He went away and was very angry. The boy came of age and so did that new – born girl. In those days, when a boy turned fifteen or sixteen, they would give him a girl in marriage. Well, he came of age and his parents said to him, ‘You’re grown up now, so we’ll find you a girl to marry.’ But he said, ‘I’m taking that Hano!’ Hano was the name of the girl. ‘I’ll take Hano!’ he said. – ‘But Hano’s just a little girl. She’s not the right match for you! You’re ten years older then her. You’re fifteen already, and she’s only five or six!’ – ‘Then I’ll just wait!’ [he replied.]

He rejects all their suggestions. He said, ‘The father of that girl said that she’s mine! He didn’t give me anything, he just said, The gi rl is yours. So I’m taking that girl!’ The boy waits until he’s 23. Then he tells his father, ‘Go and fetch me that girl Hano!’ Hano had grown up [by then]. She was already thirteen [in 1890]. At that time they would marry off the girls at the age of twelve or thirteen.

So there they went; they were relatives, so the father of the boy went to their relatives and said, ‘Levi, I’m taking that daughter of yours for my son!’ – [They talked about] this and that – finally they say no. Then the boy – the groom – says, ‘Don’t you remember? You said this girl is yours! I’ve waited all th is time. Now give me your daughter!’ So they talked and talked and [Levi] agreed and my grandpa married that girl. He married my grandma and they lived right here in our house. Hano was the only child of her parents, but she gave birth to eighteen. She raised nine out of the eighteen. At that time there was no medicine and many children died. My grandpa started to go to Marv for trading. He would bring stuff along and sell it here, and then he would take other things from Marv along to Iran and Afghanistan. (…) In Russian his profession is called kupets . In olden times they would call [these people] kupets [Russian for ‘merchant’]. At that time the Muslims who lived in Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia couldn’t be traders. That’s why they would call Jews [to do this job] and so they created the conditions for Jews to live and work in their cities, ‘We’ll give you permits, we’ll give you support!’ According to our law no matter in which town Jews live, there have to be not less than ten. Because for praying there have to be ten or more persons […] so my grandpa said, ‘I’m coming [to Marv] with my family and my relatives.’ They gave him a permit and they moved to Marv. That was in 1905. There my grandma had a few more children. My father was born in Marv in 1912. My grandpa moved again when he was still very young. [In the year of my father’s birth] they moved on from Marv to Kerki. « 

« Bukharan Jews in the Soviet Union. Autobiographical Narrations of Mobility, Continuity and Change« , Thomas Loy, 2016


« Arkadi’s mother’s mother: Yokhovet (1891 Herat – 1913 Kerki) died and left behind her six – month – old daughter Rohel. Yokhovet’s mother Hano took care of baby Rohel and raised her. Every now and then, Rohel’s father, Mordekhay, would visit his daughter pretending to be her uncle “to avoid making her feel uneasy”. He was doing business in northern Afghanistan at that time. Rohel grew up in her grandparents’ home as one of Hano’s children. She only learnt about the fate of her mother later. In 1930, when Rohel was 17 years old, Hano married her to Levi, one of her own sons, so that in fact Arkadi (born in 1939), their fourth child out of six, was Bibi Hano’s grandson and great – grandson at the same time.

Following the Bolshevik takeover and the establishment of Soviet rule on the one hand and the efforts to create a modern Afghan state on the other, keeping these trans – border networks up became more and more difficult and in the second half of the 1930s “older trade patterns were broken definitely”. The modern states turned the borders, which up to that point had been a major sources of income for the Jewish trading – communities, into insurmountable barriers.

From the mid – 1930s onwards, cross – border communication and commerce (which now ment smuggling) became extremely difficult and dangerous, and by the end of the 1930s they came to a halt altogether. Transborder families were separated by the Soviet – Afghan and Soviet-Iranian borders. Arkadi’s family was one of them. »

« Bukharan Jews in the Soviet Union. Autobiographical Narrations of Mobility, Continuity and Change« , Thomas Loy, 2016


The first person mentioned by Arkadi as being cut off from the family in Central Asia was his grandfather Mordekhay, Rohel’s father. Mordekhay’s last visit to Rohel and her family in Kerki on the Soviet side was on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding in 1930. Afte r the wedding, Mordekhay returned back to Afghanistan. In the early 1930s the wave of refugees from the Soviet Union rose considerably and the Soviet authorities stepped up their efforts to stop illegal border crossing into Afghanistan and Iran:

« The district was closed in 1933. No one could leave or enter it after 1933. When the district was closed, he stayed in Afghanistan and communication totally broke down. They [Mordekhay’s relatives in the USSR] thought that he had fallen ill and died over there. Otherwise a letter would have arrived or somebody would have brought a message. So they thought that he died after he had left Kerki. »

Contrary to what Arkadi’s family believed at that time, Mordekhay did not die in Afghanistan in the 1930s, but in Israel in 1970. Twenty years after the death of his first wife, he married another woman in Afghanistan and migrated to Palestine. They had several children. When Arkadi’s sister Mazol arrived in Israel in 1972, her aunt (Uncle Benyamin’s wife) informed her about all that. In Jerusalem, Mazol met one of Mordekhay’s daughters. She was totally surprised when she heard the story about her mother’s father. Mazol received an old photo of Mordekhay’s second family and immediately forwarded it to Samarkand.

« We showed the photograph to our mother and asked her, “Do you recognize anybody on this picture?” The last time my mother saw her father had been in 1933. This was in 1972, 39 years later, almost 40 years. In those days he had been a young man and now he was an old man with a white beard. My mother took [the photograph] and looked at it. You know, on that photograph his face looked exactly like my mother’s, just like a copy. She took it, looked at it for a while and said, ‘Oh?! T his is my father!’ After so many years – ‘This is my father! »

Rohel visited her relatives in Israel in 1989, one of her half – sisters was still alive. She met her husband and her children as well. “It was the first time the younger and the elder sister met each other.” Five years later, in 1994, Arkadi’s mother, Rohel, moved to Israel for good and joined her relatives there. She died in 2006.

« Bukharan Jews in the Soviet Union. Autobiographical Narrations of Mobility, Continuity and Change« , Thomas Loy, 2016


« In 1942, Ashkenazim, as we call them – they call themselves Russian Jews – were evacuated from the Ukraine and Belorussia and came to Samarkand; they came from everywhere. At that time my mother had four children. It was wartime. I was the youngest one then – I was the fourth child. A girl ended up here, a Jew from Poland whose parents had died during the siege of Leningrad . My parents took that fourteen – year – old girl into their house to save her life. I guess they had in mind to prevent her from stealing or from dying of hunger. So they took in this girl. She was born in 1928. In 1942 she was fourteen years old. She assisted my mother in taking care of the kids. I was two years old then. My mother taught her h ow to cook, sew and use the washing machine. She taught her all kinds of work. Then she came of age. She even called my parents Mum and Dad. Just like her biological parents. When she grew up, a matchmaker came to ask for her. Her name was Margo Shekhter. »

Less than five years before Arkadi’s parents took the Ashkenazi refugee girl into their home, they themselves had arrived in Samarkand as refugees. Margo Shekhter’s story of appropriation, departure and reunification was an integral part of Arkadi’s autobiographical narration. Her story inseparably belonged to Arkadi’s narrative on the Soviet experience, a narrative of family fragmentation, reunification and overcoming hurdles.

After her wedding in 1946, which was arranged by Arkadi’s father, Margo Shekhter left Samarkand. The wedding was one of the earliest events consciously remembered by Arkadi. He was six – and – a – half years old when Margo left and her ties to his family faded after that. In the late 1950s, when Polish Jews were allowed to do so, Margo Shekhter returned to Poland. From there she moved on to Israel. The ties were re- established in 1988 by accident. In 1989 Arkadi’s mother went to see her daughters who had migrated to Israel in 1972 and 1980 respectively. On that trip, 43 years after ties had been cut off, she met her adopted daughter in Jerusalem. Margo Shekhter still deemed Rohel to be her mother. When Arkadi went to Israel to visit his relatives in 1999, he wanted to meet Margo first of all, but he failed: she had passed away only ten days before he arrived in Tel Aviv.

« Bukharan Jews in the Soviet Union. Autobiographical Narrations of Mobility, Continuity and Change« , Thomas Loy, 2016


« All my family is now in Israel. I hope I will move there before dying to stay with my children. »