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I traveled to the cities that have the largest and most long-standing Jewish populations. I learned about the homes, institutions and ways of life the people were leaving behind. Those whom I met were taken aback by my interest. Why was I — an Ashkenazi Jew — so keen on finding out about Bukharan Jews (the term they used to refer to themselves)? Many wondered if I might actually be Bukharan myself. Despite my fair skin and curly hair, some suggested that I must be related through some distant great-grandmother or grandfather.
As far as I have been able to surmise, I am not. The reason I was drawn to study Bukharan Jews was not family ties. Rather, it was the allure of their difference. Although they did eat matzo on Passover and knew some Hebrew, their cuisine, music, and ritual and cultural norms were totally unlike anything else Jewish I had ever encountered. Yet in the face of our differences, I sensed a hovering connectedness. Why, I wondered, was I so readily and warmly welcomed into their homes? And why did I have such a strong feeling of kinship among them, despite our vastly divergent historical experiences?
In the dictionary I began to find my answers. It came to print in the midst of Russian encroachment upon Central Asia. While large parts of the Bukharan Kingdom were coming under czarist rule, transportation and communication with the West improved, and mercantile activity in the region burgeoned. Jews took advantage of these new opportunities, and a well-traveled, nouveau riche merchant class emerged among them. They journeyed east for business, west for pleasure and to the Land of Israel on pilgrimage.
They were cosmopolitans who drew upon a broad and varied set of languages as they moved freely between cultures and empires. The dictionary suggests that, as they were not tethered to a particular home, they may not have had a primary language. The editor, Shlomo Baba Jon Pinkhasov, gives no preference for Russian, for example, over Persian, Turkish or Hebrew.
The implication is mind-boggling. With no base language — that is, no assumption that the user is translating from one particular language into another — there can be no alphabetical order. Instead, the book is organized according to categories such as “foods,” “weather” and “units of time.” Users must flip through sections and scan through rows and columns to locate whatever word it is that they wish to translate.
Navigating through this dizzying arrangement, I thought of other Jewish travelers who were at home in the dis-embedded Jewish world: 12th-century adventurer Benjamin of Tudela, who preserved a record of the Jewish communities he visited across the Mediterranean; 17th-century Glueckel of Hameln, whose memoirs describe the marriages of her children into families all over Europe; 19th-century David D’Beth Hillel, whose travelogue provides colorful depictions of the Jewish communities he visited in the Far East.