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This time I was serving as a scholar-in-residence for a tour organized by Jewish Historical Seminars, an Israel-based organization founded by the late Hebrew University professor Yom Tov Assis. Forty individuals from America and Israel joined this particular journey to the cities in Uzbekistan that once had a large Jewish presence, including Bukhara, Tashkent and Samarkand.
One of our visits was to the Jewish mahallah. In the 1990s, when Jews still lived in the area, tourists were unlikely to venture into this neighborhood’s narrow alleyways. Today though, the Jews are gone, and the area that was once their home is dotted with bed-and-breakfasts, shops and restaurants that beckon the tourist into the intimate zones of urban life.
Once out-of-the-way and unassuming, Akbar House now announced itself with a bold-lettered sign, accompanied by a red arrow that directed tourists to the entrance. My group followed these signs, just a few paces into the Jewish neighborhood, and came upon an open door.
Mastura welcomed us into her courtyard, green with the foliage of well-tended potted plants, and cool from the breeze that blows through the portico. At first, I did not recognize the home.
We beheld the windows and doors that encircled us, each leading to a different compartment of the expansive home. With our translator-guide beside her, Mastura stood before the group, and explained that her home had once been inhabited by the Ibragimovs and the Yasayovs, two Jewish families. She herself — a Tajik Muslim — was a dear friend of these two families. When the Soviet Union dissolved and the wave of migration began, the families packed their belongings and sold their home to Mastura and her husband.
After the pair moved in, our host continued, they spent much time and energy restoring the home to its former glory, while carefully preserving its historic features. She ushered us out of the courtyard, through a small hallway and into the house.
Entering the salon, we were greeted by dramatic ceilings and elaborate wall décor that included intricate abstract design, as well as ornate Hebrew lettering. We focused on the dedication painted by the home’s first owner who inscribed his name only as “David.” He built the house in 1898, and was among the well-traveled nouveau riche Jewish merchant class, which made its fortune as the economy boomed under Russian colonial rule. We sat on rugs and pillows around the perimeter of the room, where the family had once celebrated its Shabbat and holiday meals.
My fellow tourists were riveted by the layers of history that filled this space. And there was more: Mastura’s husband collected ritual items that had been used by the Jews who had once lived in Bukhara: old books, synagogue artifacts, and even scrolls of the sacred Torah. Some of these items, Mastura pointed out, were on display in one of the room’s many niches