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

(page 3 of 4)

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.


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.