Swaddled in a gray angora scarf and smiling brightly through a mouthful of gold-capped teeth, Miriam Baybatshiava welcomes visitors to what is known as “School Number 36” and the only Hebrew class in the dying Jewish community of Bukhara.
The 67-year-old former mathematician is the last teacher of Hebrew in a once-thriving Jewish community, now whittled down from thousands to a little more than 600 souls, about 120 of whom attend the school. The city’s Jewish academics, artists and physicians fled long ago, either to the capital of Tashkent or more likely out of the country, and the next generation of Jews is gearing itself for nothing other than emigration.
Baybatshiava’s story can be viewed as a prism revealing much of the Jewish experience in Uzbekistan during the last decade, one of political turmoil, economic decline, mass emigration and the slow abandonment of a Jewish presence in cities such as Bukhara.
It may be the last chapter in the long history of the Central Asian community, which includes bouts of tolerance and oppression under Muslim rulers beginning in the 16th century, relative prosperity under the czars after the Russian conquest in the late 19th century, renewed repression after the revolution in 1917 and eventually an uneasy stalemate after Uzbekistan was established as a Soviet state in 1924. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, there were three major Bukharan-Jewish waves of immigration, the first just prior to the Six-Day War in 1967, the second during the late 1970s and the third beginning with the period of Soviet perestroika during the mid-1980s.
During the early 1990s, Uzbekistan was sent tumbling into turmoil when the Soviets withdrew both their power and their rubles. In 1994, President Islam Karimov decreed a change in the national language from Russian to Uzbek, shifting the alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin. Almost overnight, millions were rendered virtually illiterate.
With partial privatization — the state still controls the country’s major resources, including its cotton, gold, oil, gas and other mineral resources — came dire poverty and mass emigration. Globalization has yet to reach many of the country’s rural villages, where a leading mode of transportation is still a cart and donkey and an operable telephone remains a rare commodity.
While the young crave a new start in the West, the old, like Baybatshiava, whose pension is the equivalent of $18 per month, unabashedly pine for the “stable” times under Soviet rule. Under Communism, Baybatshiava recalled, travel anywhere inside the Soviet Union was cheap, work was certain and pensions had some value.
Yet despite the hardships, said Uzbekistan’s de facto chief rabbi, Abba David Gurevitch, the state treats Jews fairly. Gurevitch, who was dispatched to Tashkent by the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement, said he has close ties to the government and maintains that Karimov has a soft spot for the region’s Jews. The president, it is said, grew up with many of them, including Israeli multi-millionaire Lev Leviev, in his native city of Samarkand. The government even permits organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel to operate freely, offering humanitarian aid and readying young and old for resettlement in Israel.
Still, Gurevitch’s own Chabad school system in Tashkent has lost as many as two-thirds of its pupils in recent years, though Gurevitch refused to give an exact figure.
While Uzbekistan is an Islamic state with a population that is officially 88% Muslim, Jewish and governmental sources maintain that Jews have little to fear. Karimov reportedly has said that the Jews and Muslim majority share the same enemy: Islamic fundamentalists.
Like most of Uzbekistan, Bukhara seems little tainted by terrorism. It is an ancient hodgepodge of 37 nationalities each living in relative harmony. Throughout the city’s 2,500-year history, its residents are said to have been too preoccupied with fending off invaders or conquering other lands to concentrate on internal squabbles.
In Bukhara it is not terrorism but poverty that devastates the community. In recent years, Baybatshiava has been forced to sell off many of her meticulously preserved family treasures, the remainder of which she shows off with great relish to guests visiting her modest house.
“To make ends meet, there is no other way but to sell these bits of our history if we want to survive,” she said.
As Baybatshiava chatted quietly with a visitor, her students bounced on the sagging, wooden floors of her classroom, jubilantly skipping around tables. Then they broke into a cacophonous rendition of the traditional song “ Haveinu Shalom Aleichem ” (“we bring peace unto you”). Grainy pictures of owl-eyed people preside over the classroom, gazing down at the students from a permanent display on the Holocaust pasted on the wall.
Adjacent to those haunting figures is the solemn face of Baybatshiava’s grandfather Levi Baybaynov, a famous musician favored by, among others, Sa’id Alim Khan, Uzbekistan’s last emir before he was banished from Bukhara by the Bolsheviks in 1920. Beneath the picture hangs a copy of the book written about Baybaynov and some of his sheet music.
Beside a framed picture of Karimov is a large topographical map of Israel. Baybatshiava teaches using books donated from various Jewish and Israeli groups. This is important work, she said though a heavily accented Hebrew, because many of them will one day move to Israel.
“Of course I want to leave. Everybody is sitting on their suitcases,” said Irena Haimov, 17, a former pupil who now helps Baybatshiava teach Hebrew. “There is no real chance for advancement. My dream is to become a registered nurse, but here I will not be able to live on that salary, no one can. So we have no choice but to leave Bukhara.”