The Yuhan believes he might be Bukharian Jewry’s last great hope.
“Assimilation will kill us,” Yuhan said. “We are drowning, but I still want to take a last grip of air.”
Bukharian Jews held on to their traditions among the Muslim populations of Central Asia for more than 1,000 years. But maintaining Bukharian culture in the melting pot of Queens for more than a few decades is proving difficult.
Separated from their homelands of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the Bukharian diaspora community finds itself staring into the cultural abyss.
Yuhan, a 51-year-old wedding singer, believes he may have the answer. “Wedding is the only place still holding our community together,” he said.
A wedding singer might seem an unlikely savior of a community, but wedding singers occupy a more vaunted position in Bukharian society than in America at large.
Bukharian wedding singers don’t just sing songs, they host weddings from beginning to end. In Queens, where up to 10% of the Bukharian community can show up at each wedding, a singer — like a rabbi — can elevate a rite of passage.
Like Cher, Angelina and Britney, Yuhan has attained such a level of fame that his last name — Benjamin — has become superfluous. Everyone knows “the Yuhan.”
One morning in June, Yuhan was sitting with me at the kitchen bar of his home in the Rego Park section of Queens. He bought the property four years ago, tore it down and rebuilt it to his own taste. Gold columns rise through the living room; the floors are made of dark wood, and the furniture is mostly black. Paintings of Paris and Italy adorn the walls, a far cry from his birthplace in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
Central Asia’s Jews lived in relative stability alongside their Muslim neighbors for much of the Soviet era, according to Alanna Cooper, a cultural anthropologist at Boston University who specializes in Bukharian Jews. But economic instability and a rise in Uzbek nationalism following the collapse of the Soviet Union led to tens of thousands migrating. Today, only a few hundred Bukharian Jews remain in Central Asia.
Like the Jews of America’s Syrian and Iranian communities, Bukharians have less fear of intermarriage than other American Jews. When Bukharian parents bemoan their children marrying out, they usually mean their son or daughter is marrying a Georgian Jew or, more exotically, an Ashkenazi one.
But their culture is disappearing. Young Bukharian couples do not speak their traditional language, Bukharian, a dialect of Farsi. They are turning away from the traditions of their parents and grandparents, such as Bukharian music and modest styles of dress.
Weddings are about the only tradition that remains strong. A typical Bukharian wedding caters to between 350 and 400 guests. Live bands play music from across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, including Russia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. The dancing usually starts at around 10:00 p.m. and continues until the early hours of the morning.
Weddings are important, Yuhan told me, because they are about the only occasion where the community comes together in large numbers to meet, talk, celebrate and maintain their traditions.
But he believes that even Bukharian weddings are under threat. Couples are increasingly demanding Western club music instead of traditional tunes. The rapid drumbeat of the doira, a sort of oversized tambourine, is being drowned out by a stomping electronic bass. Some couples avoid live music altogether and hire a disc jockey.
“It’s a crime,” Yuhan said. “You can hire a DJ for a bar mitzvah, for kids a little bit to dance. Maybe a small birthday or a show. A wedding — it’s only once in a lifetime.”
Weddings are not primarily just a party for the young couple and their friends, he added. They are about reuniting families and showing relatives respect. “It’s not a discotheque,” he said.
Today, Yuhan sees weddings as an opportunity to educate people, especially young Bukharians, about their past and their future. He encourages couples to allow him to play as much traditional music as possible. During the wedding, he preaches the importance of tradition and continuity. But Yuhan fears he is fighting a losing battle.
“If you take it out from our culture — weddings,” he said, “our community will be dead.”