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.
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Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. My father’s cousins found us, and we exchanged a few letters. They resettled in Israel, and it so happened that I was planning a trip there. I took the long bus ride up north from Jerusalem, where I was staying, apprehensive the entire way about our impending reunion.

Mikhail met me at the bus stop. Shuffling in his slippers, and slightly stooped, he accompanied me back to the modest apartment he shared with his wife and his adult son. Their shelves were lined with music books. Alex, a few years older than I am, was a doctor who was planning to retrain. Of the three, Klara was the most talkative. In broken Hebrew, with a heavy Russian accent, she told me how disappointed she had been that my father had not helped the family to immigrate to the United States. They offered me some fruit.

In their cramped, floral, socialist, Slavic, Israeli, cultured home, I could picture our family tree. I had learned the links that joined me to Mikhail, Klara and Alex. Yet I could not help but wonder what I was doing in this apartment, among these people to whom I felt no kinship.

Rather than filling the void I had felt growing up, this long-anticipated reunion only exacerbated my sense of rootlessness. Relief came unexpectedly from the dictionary of six languages, which helped to answer some of my questions.

Be under no illusion. This is no tale of mystery or adventure. I did not follow a trail of evidence to discover that the editor of that volume was a distant forebear. No. The connection between this little book and my own family is obtuse and indirect. Yet it is also vast and profound.

My first trip to Uzbekistan was in 1993. I was a graduate student in cultural anthropology who had traveled to this part of the world to witness the end of one of the longest chapters in Jewish Diaspora history. Jews had lived in Central Asia (in the region that had long been part of the Bukharan Emirate) for two millennia. Now, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this deeply rooted community of some 50,000 was fleeing fast.


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