October 19, 2000
Jews of Uzbekistan
Going, going, but hopefully not gone.
What and where is Uzbekistan? Following the breakup of the USSR, Uzbekistan is an independent country of 23 million people, located in central Asia, west of China.
There are three theories on when Jews came to Uzbekistan:
1. A myth-like tale claims they are part of the tribe of Naftali that fled to Central Asia following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.
2. A more authenticated story is that they fled the persecution in Persia under King Peroz in 458 to 485 C.E.
3. They came in the seventh century along the silk road, primarily as merchants.
Whichever story you accept, there is a long history of a Jewish presence in this area. In the ninth century, the city of Samarkand had 50,000 Jews, and the Jewish population of Uzbekistan in 1989 before the mass emigration was 120,000. Today it is estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews remain. The number is uncertain because only now have many surfaced who did not identify as Jews under Soviet rule for fear of discrimination.
Over the centuries, the fortunes of the Jews rose and fell with the pains and progress of the region, home to many people whose names at best are only faintly familiar to us in the West: the Sardians, the Achemid Empire, Massagetai, Kushans, Ephthilites, Genghis Khan's empire, the Timurids of Tamerlane, and many others, not to mention Alexander the Great, the Turks and the Soviets. It's a land torn by centuries of warfare; Samarkand has been razed eleven separate times.
In spite of difficult periods in the past, today there is no prejudice against Jews. They're respected more highly than the Russians, whose oppression of Central Asians during the Soviet era is well remembered. However, Uzbekistan is a poor country, suffering from a crippling inflation. In six years, the cyn (local currency) has gone from 11 to the dollar to the current price of over 800 to the dollar, decimating savings and creating economic havoc. A poor economy combined with rising Uzbeki nationalism means that few employment opportunities are available for ambitious young Jews, who have been leaving the country, going primarily to Israel and the U.S. Only in Tashkent, the major city, are some career opportunities available with foreign companies that are entering the country seeking to develop the extensive oil resources.
In spite of this questionable future, the city of Bukhara's 1,300 Jews have a vibrant Jewish school and two active synagogues. Through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), our guide to Jewish Bukhara was 19-year-old Artur Davidov, son of the president of the Bukhara Jewish Community. Davidov, the local schochet, spent a year in Israel and is planning on making aliyah upon completing his university training, citing the lack of opportunity for a creative career in Bukhara.
The vitality of Jewish school No. 36 was electric. The school leaders are Uzbekis who emigrated to Israel, were educated there and returned to their native country full of energy, purpose and enthusiasm. As the principal told us, "I'll be the last one to go." Funding for the school comes primarily from the New York Syrian community through a yeshiva in Israel, plus the JDC and the Jewish Agency.
In Morocco, we saw this same process. Jews are leaving, not because of overt prejudice, but seeking a healthier, more fulfilling life. They do not leave out of fear or despair, but with hope for a richer life elsewhere. Perhaps the opportunities in Tashkent will allow a surviving Jewish remnant to remain. Only time will tell. The Jews of Uzbekistan are living in the midst of a mass migration, an oft-repeated saga of the Jewish people.