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!
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • 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.