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.