On an auspicious day in the late 1980s, New York-based photographer Joan Roth decided to visit Bukhara in the former Soviet Union to photograph the centuries-old Jewish community there. The community’s relative isolation from the greater Jewish world and their constant and historic struggle against Muslim oppression had resulted in a unique set of traditions: They spoke a dialect of the Tajik language, their rituals stem from both Persian and Sephardic Jewish practices, and their clothing, silk gowns and caftans reflect the styles of their neighbors and rulers.
While staying at a Communist hotel near the Mahalla, the Bukharan equivalent of the Jewish ghetto, Roth slowly endeared herself to the 2,000-year-old community, with help from some broken Hebrew — and her art form.
“The camera worked as a bridge between us,” Roth recalled in a recent interview with the Forward.
Now, 20 years later—with most of the community since transplanted to these shores—the results of Roth expedition are being shown in “Remembering Old Bukhara,” an exhibit at the Center for Jewish History through September 30. In addition to photographs, the show also features objects borrowed from the Bukharian Jewish Museum in Queens, New York — now home to many Bukharian Jews, including some found in Roth’s photos.