Jews of Bukhara Helped Me To Understand Personal History

A Trip to Central Asia Informed Scholar's Research

Wayfaring Pilgrim: Alanna Cooper, author of Bukharan Jews and the Dynamic of Global Judaism, first traveled to Uzbekistan in 1993.
Courtesy of Alanna Cooper
Wayfaring Pilgrim: Alanna Cooper, author of Bukharan Jews and the Dynamic of Global Judaism, first traveled to Uzbekistan in 1993.

By Alanna E. Cooper

Published May 09, 2013, issue of May 10, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

I don’t remember the name of the man who sold the dictionary to me. He was one of the many people I met in the 1990s who was getting rid of his belongings in advance of his migration from Bukhara. He invited me to his home and showed me the small stack of books on the floor of his empty living room.

I couldn’t quite make out what they were, except that they had been printed in Jerusalem about a century earlier. The man wanted only a few dollars for them, so I took them with me.

The dictionary was the most curious of the lot. Less than 50 pages long, with translations of just 700 words, its ambition lies not in its length but in its breadth. Six columns run across each page: Hebrew, Persian, Russian, Spanish, Arabic and Turkish.

Bukharan Jews are often represented as an ancient, remote community long out of touch with Jews in other parts of the world, a group that history somehow passed by. This slim, brittle dictionary tells quite a different story.

My journey to Central Asia began here in America with questions about my own Ashkenazi family. My father kept an old portrait of his relatives in the top drawer of his dresser. I occasionally took it out and studied it. These are my cousins, I would think, examining the many blurry faces. But I did not know their names or even who belonged to whom.

Someone had sent that photo to my grandfather in the 1920s, shortly after he immigrated to the United States. I could not read the note scrawled on the back, which was in Yiddish, and that was all I knew about the family he had left behind in Ukraine.

My grandfather had passed away when I was a child, and I never learned anything about the fate of his siblings or their children. I grew up with a void, a hole in my family and my history, and even a missing piece in my understanding of who I was.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.