Muslim Couple Preserves Remnants of Jewish Life in Uzbekistan

Few Bukharan Jews Remain in Central Asian Land

On the Silk Road: The famous Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
Jacopo Jakuza Romei/wikimedia commons
On the Silk Road: The famous Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

By Alanna E. Cooper

Published December 30, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 3 of 3)

With her audience still captive, Mastura switched gears. She conferred with our tour-guide and translator, who announced: “We have been allowed into this private home on condition that our hostess be able to show you some of her wares. She has a small factory that produces handmade embroidered textiles that she will now display.” At this point, my memory resurfaced of Mastura, the saleswoman, with whom I had interacted in the mid-1990s.

She moved to her piles of folded material and began opening each piece. One by one she held them up for all to admire: tablecloths, pillow cases, wall hangings, and bedcoverings. She described the fabric and the threads from which each was made, the symbolism of the design, the colors, and the stitching.

I was taken aback by this sudden shift of events. Others too may have felt the disconnect between Mastura’s narrative about the Jewish home and her sales pitch. But if they did, the beauty of the items she displayed, their affordability, and the sense of comfort they felt in her presence overwhelmed.

A buying frenzy ensued. The tourists rose from their seats, gathered around, touched, discussed, conferred and bargained. By the time we left, just about every person in the group had bought at least one item. I stood by, only watching. My rough estimate is that Mastura grossed $450 that hour, significantly more than the country’s average monthly salary.

As the group began to exit the home, I went to have a closer look at the corner that housed the Jewish artifact collection. I found that the old Torah scroll, unfurled for display, was upside down, as though a metaphor for the upheaval experienced by the local Jewish community.

Saddened by the twisted use of their past towards economic ends, I also felt admiration for Mastura and her husband. They have come a long way since they were a small-time outfit. They understand the tourist industry, and know how to tell a good story to draw people in, make them comfortable, and engender their trust.

More importantly, though, on account of them, the home of a 19th century Jewish merchant, David, and his successors has been preserved.

Perhaps when the synagogue in Bukhara no longer has enough worshippers to function, it will fall to the hands of a shrewd local, who will turn it into a profit-making museum.

Alanna E. Cooper, PhD is a cultural anthropologist who directs the Jewish Studies Division of Case Western Reserve University’s Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning Program. Her book, “Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism,” was published in 2012 (Indiana University Press).

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!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • 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.