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Ethnic Discord : Hope May Be Too Late Coming to Bukhara Jews : Revival of synagogue closed under Stalin is a positive sign but not enough to stop exodus.

July 12, 1994|IAN MacWILLIAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BUKHARA, Uzbekistan — An unmarked doorway in a dusty alley opens into one of this ancient Central Asian city's two synagogues. In the open courtyard, a young Israeli teacher instructs a small gathering of adults about Jewish law.

Against one wall are piled hundreds of old religious books, awaiting proper storage.

"These are the books of our ancestors," said a student. "When people emigrate, they can't take them, so they leave them here."

This synagogue in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, closed in 1930 during dictator Josef Stalin's anti-religious campaigns, reopened three years ago and is in the final stages of redecoration. It is known as the Young Synagogue; Bukhara's main synagogue stayed open during the Stalin era.

For the Bukhara Jews, an ancient community that has inhabited Central Asia for centuries, the restored synagogue is a hopeful sign. But for many, it has come too late.

The Bukhara Jews are packing their bags, leaving their ancestral homeland in search of a better life in America and Israel. More than 20,000 have left in the past three years, about half headed for each country.

"It's like a chain reaction," said Rabbi Itskhak Abramov. "People leave because their mother or brother or sister has left. If somebody has a good life over there, they invite their relatives to come."

Since the Soviet Union broke up three years ago, Jews have left in huge numbers. But while the pace of emigration from Russia has slowed in recent months, the tide is still rising in Central Asia, riding a frothy crest of nationalism, resurgent Islam, war and poverty.

Bukhara Jews are leaving faster than anyone else. "It is quite possible that, within a few years, there won't be any left," said Leonid Stonov, a human rights activist in Moscow for the U.S.-based Union of Councils.

Central Asia is a vast region of mountains, deserts and oases between European Russia and South Asia. Its caravan cities grew rich in the Middle Ages on the Silk Road trade between Asia and Europe.

Jewish traders first came to the region through Persia. They flourished as merchants and cloth dyers, cobblers and barbers in all the major cities of Central Asia. Some were cosmopolitan, as shown by a dictionary they published in 1907 in six languages--Persian, Arabic, Turkish, French, Russian and English.

Jews suffered various restrictions imposed by the despotic emirs of Bukhara but did well in the 19th Century under the Russian Empire.

After the 1917 Revolution, the Soviet government closed the borders, ending the trade that was the lifeblood of the Jewish community.

Bukhara Jews still live scattered throughout Central Asia, but their three biggest communities are in the ancient cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. Their mother tongue is a dialect of Persian, unlike the European Jews, who came to Central Asia after the Russian conquest and usually speak Russian.

The Muslim majority in Bukhara and Samarkand consists of Turkic-speaking Uzbeks and Persian-speaking Tajiks.

Only about 3,000 to 4,000 Jews are left in Bukhara, and most are already making plans to join relatives in Israel or New York.

Bukharans have been living in Jerusalem since the 1890s, and in New York, a small community has grown up in the Forest Hills section of Queens.

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Around the corner from Bukhara's main synagogue is the small Jewish cultural center. Jews who are preparing to leave for America gather there in the evenings to study English.

"There are many problems here and no future, not just for our children but even for us," said Alexander Tamayev, 40, who is bound for Queens this summer. "And everybody's relatives are in America."

Rafael Khaimov, 38, hopes to leave for New York this fall with six other family members, to join three relatives who are already there.

The family has been granted refugee status by the U.S. government and will be sponsored by Khaimov's brother, who left Bukhara four years ago. The brother went with his wife, who had been sponsored by her parents, who had gone previously.

"I won't sponsor anyone," Khaimov said with a smile. "I'm the last."

Buying a plane ticket out isn't easy in Uzbekistan, where the average monthly salary amounts to less than $10.

Those who go must sell or leave behind most of their possessions. Customs rules are obscure, and officials often do not allow antiques or valuables to leave the country, or expect to receive a bribe to do so.

"People who have lived well and who have a lot of jewelry and antiques cannot take them to another country, so they must sell them here cheap, and they arrive poor," Tamayev said. "It depends on the customs officer. If he wants, I can take five suits. If he doesn't want, I can take only one."

Uzbekistan's post-Communist property laws are still unclear. Some emigrants are told by local officials they must sell their houses before they leave, or else their unoccupied property will be taken over by the government. This forces them to sell cheaply and leaves them nowhere to return.

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