Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

17 Cheshvan 5763 - October 23, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Jews of Bukhara

by C. Ofek

Part I: The Torah World of 90 Years Ago

"Exile is not good for exiles," says 95-year-old Shulamit Tilayov. "Yet leafing through the annals of the Jews of Bukhara can be a heartbreaking experience. Splendor alongside the great suffering and hardships that would strike mercilessly. Sometimes tranquility would descend upon our lives, then once again the storm waves would come sweeping through, leaving us vulnerable to the blows of a foreign country.

"But like a scarlet thread we passed on our Jewish roots of faith and our yearning for the Land of Glory from one generation to the next. There were always rabbonim who girded their strength and restored the ruchniyus for us in the Diaspora, planting new sprouts and cultivating the young generation on eternal values preserved throughout the years." In this multi- part series, C. Ofek writes Mrs. Tilayov's story of the past glory of Jewish Bukhara and the many tribulations the community faced, particularly following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

In 1905 my parents came from Bukhara to Eretz Yisroel to pray at the holy sites and to spend time with my grandfather, Rav Shimon Chacham, who was among the founders of Shechunat HaBucharim in Jerusalem. The Jews of Bukhara had a custom of coming for an extended "holy visit" to pray at sacred sites and to stay in Eretz Yisroel for an extended period, but since subsistence was difficult in Eretz Yisroel some had to return home ahead of schedule.

I was born in 1907 in Nachalat Shiva in Jerusalem, but when I was four years old my parents were forced to return to Bukhara to earn a living and to take part in my sister's wedding. She had remained in Bukhara, preparing to marry a young man from the city of Samarkand.

Upon their arrival they found Bukhara controlled by a cruel dictator. Soon after their departure six years earlier General Samsonov rose to power in Turkestan and, due to the fomenting revolt, decided to "reorganize" the population. As part of this plan a harsh expulsion order was proclaimed in all Jewish settlements, only permitting them to live in the capital city. (The capital of Bukhara is also called Bukhara.)

Only the rich and the most distinguished members of the community, who had commercial ties with other countries near and far and held key positions in local industry, managed to secure licenses to live in Samarkand and other cities through persistent efforts to exert their influence. My parents planned to return to Eretz Yisroel but were forced to stay in Bukhara longer than they originally anticipated, so they decided to enroll me in school in the meantime.

The Jewish community of Bukhara, with roots stretching perhaps as far back as the First Exile, had been large and flourishing for many generations. Its leaders were considered men of high standing and its rabbonim and chachomim were active in community life. In fact the Bukharan Jewish community served as the center of Jewish life for all of Central Asia. It was very careful to ensure that its children received a proper Jewish education. The talmud Torah was one of the most important learning institutions in the city. There were no schools for Jewish girls, however, for formal education was considered superfluous for girls.

My uncle, Rav Chizkiyah Hacohen Rabin ("Mullah Chizkiyah"), was the rov of the community. The central meeting of the Jews of Bukhara was held in his home, just as before it had been held in his father's home and before that in his grandfather's home. The local chachomim and the rabbinical emissaries (shadarim) who came from Eretz Yisroel would study there. The rabbonim of Jewish communities in other large cities--Samarkand, Tashkent and Kokand-- came to consult with Mullah Chizkiyah's beis din, for it was considered the highest spiritual institution in Jewish Central Asia.

Kehillos in Bukhara remained in contact with one another and maintained a high spiritual level due in part to the rabbinical emissaries who arrived from Eretz Yisroel regularly, helping disseminate Torah learning to the masses.

During this period the Jews of Bukhara were divided into two groups--outstanding talmidei chachomim associated with the famous yeshivas and large Jewish communities, and the masses that constituted the majority. The latter were people of deep and simple faith, but due to a lack of knowledge they were not always aware of certain mitzvos or the details of keeping them.

My parents belonged to a famous family of rabbonim and had a firmly established Torah worldview. My mother was unwilling to see me fritter away my days without learning how to pray and read kisvei kodesh. Because I was only four years old they decided to place me in a cheder where I would be able to hear the sounds of the boys learning. That was how my mother had been educated by her father, the renowned Rav Shimon Chacham, as well as my mother's grandmother, the granddaughter of the great Rav Yosef Mammon Maaravi, who was related to the Rambam.

Every day my mother would bring me to the talmud Torah headed by Rav Eliezer Kikov where I would sit off to the side and thirstily imbibe the sounds of Torah learning until I was about six-years-old.

Jerusalem was frequently mentioned during the course of the studies. For every Bukharan child, Jerusalem and Eretz Yisroel were shining, distant dreams, but I had come from Jerusalem and still had memories from a four- year-old's perspective of the wide, cobbled streets of Shechunat HaBucharim and the large stone houses. My parents also spoke often of Jerusalem and the cities of Israel we had left behind.

I read many books over the next few years and hungrily consumed all of the writings my grandfather, Rav Shimon Chacham, had translated into the local language -- Megillas Esther, Chochmas Shlomo and more.

Generally, Bukharan girls were educated at home by their parents or sisters. Emphasis was placed on cooking, sewing, embroidery, etiquette, hospitality, respecting parents and of course observing the mitzvos that apply to women. Girls were trained to be diligent housewives.

To this day I can recall how my mother would receive guests. As the rov of the kehilloh, my father would bring home unexpected guests every day and my mother always received them graciously, as if she had known of their arrival in advance and had been awaiting their arrival. She would set a lavish table right away, serve refreshments and then go into the kitchen to cook choice dishes in their honor.

My mother, like most Bukharan women, was also skilled at cutting meat. In other locales this task was generally placed upon the men, but in Bukhara the men would buy meat without asking the butcher to remove the internal organs. Women were highly proficient in the art of cutting, knew all of cuts of meat and organs well, and transmitted this expertise from mother to daughter.

The Jewish neighborhood of Bukhara was densely constructed and known as "Jewish Machala." High walls were built on both sides of the street and the two- story homes were hidden behind them. They were large houses with spacious yards where many activities took place--smachos, seudos, chagim and Shabbosos. The seudas held for simchos were a central and important part of communal life and even distant relatives attended. Every simcha lasted several days and was accompanied by large and lavish seudas that took much time and energy to prepare.

Observing hazkaros, lehavdil, was also a major affair. We even commemorated the memory of great- great- grandfathers on the day of their petiroh with a large meat meal at which all of the brochos were recited for the elevation of his neshomoh.

The goal of these meetings was to strengthen the bonds of unity and to infuse ruchniyus among the Jews in Golus. Back then there were no sifrei halocho with sheilos vetshuvos and only a small percentage of the Jews had the merit of learning in a yeshiva. Although the community members' faith in chachomim was deeply entrenched and everyone obeyed the rov without a second thought, these family gatherings were used to increase knowledge of halocho. At every large seuda the rov would sit with the guests and teach halocho in a question-and-answer format. This helped preserve and provide the foundations of Jewish life.

We would accord elderly members of the family great honor, consulting with them and seeking their advice on which course of action to take in various situations. At simchos we seated them at the head of the table, and a brochoh from the grandfather was considered a tried-and-true segulo for yeshuos. Younger family members would compete for the honor of serving the elders in order to receive their brochoh.

Like all Bukharan Jews we were very tightly bound to the beis knesses. The sight of the embellished walls and unique sifrei kodesh provided through donations, pointed to the deep and meaningful ties the Jews of the kehilloh felt towards the beis knesses. The walls of the botei knesses in Bukhara were adorned with colorful pictures depicting holy sites or the grave sites of the ovos in Eretz Yisroel.

Among the drawings hung were pictures brought from Jerusalem, a menorah or a poster of the text of Modim Derabonon. The ceiling was also adorned with fabulous drawings. The whole floor was covered with rugs. The colorful tapestries, the embroidered bench coverings and the silken cloths on the tables and the omud were the trademarks of the splendor of the Bukharan botei knesses.

Elderly women from the community would sometimes donate their scarves to be used to embellish the sifrei Torah, and such contributions were considered a zchus and honor for them. Oil lamps hung down from the ceiling and were kept constantly lit through donations le'ilui nishmas deceased relatives; later, kerosene lamps were added and eventually electric lights came into use. Fancy curtains and suzeni (needle-embroideries) covered the windows, adding another colorful touch.

The sifrei Torah were kept in a wooden aron kodesh placed alongside the western wall and decorated with curtains made of superb cloth. Sewn onto the curtains was a rectangular strip of cloth with a dedication embroidered in gold and silver letters. Altogether the aron kodesh had three curtains: one outside the doors, a second one between the doors and the sifrei Torah and a third behind the sifrei Torah. Each of them was made of velvet or silk or brocade and generally unadorned except for the dedication.

In Bukhara (and in Shechunat HaBucharim in Jerusalem) congregants sat cross-legged on a kurpacha, a thin, 18- inch wide mattress. Later low benches were introduced. Today congregants sit on chairs with tables in front of them. Only distinguished figures are provided with cushions on their benches.

In 1924, when I was 17-years-old, I married my husband, Yitzhak Tilayov z'l. Even after all these years I still remember the joy I felt. Jewish weddings in Bukhara were unique and extended over a period of two weeks.

After my parents reached an agreement with the chosson's parents regarding the shidduch, a seuda--not unlike a vort--was held to celebrate the engagement. During the banquet, crowns were tied to the heads of the chosson and kalla. This custom, called sala bandan, was originally inspired by the verse, "bo'atoro she'itro lo imo beyom chasunoso ubeyom simchas libo" (Shir Hashirim 3:11). After the meal the guests rose to dance to the sounds of string instruments and drums.

On the Shabbos before the wedding, my parents held a seudah called "lech Sham" which means "go unto G- d," and on Monday morning a similar meal was held at the home of the chosson's parents. When my chosson approached me to do kiddushin the men sang Boruch Ato Bevo'echo to the accompaniment of drums and other instruments. They also lit a large bonfire in his honor.

After Mincha, my mother and the chosson's mother led me, veiled, and stood me to the right of the chosson and the chuppah ceremony was performed. The week following the wedding is called hapti pai tacht ("the canopy week"), because after the seudah or the next day we were brought under a canopy to the chosson's home.

On Wednesday night a seuda called shevi ashpiro, named after the main dish traditionally served, was held at the chosson's home. At the conclusion of the meal my chosson received a gold watch as a gift from my father. During the meal a sheep was shechted and the meat was distributed among the poor as tzedokoh.

For seven days and nights following the wedding, seudos were held at the home of the chosson's parents to celebrate. My chosson and I were seated in a special room called the deri churjeh, under a chuppah set up for us there. Ponim chadoshos were invited to every meal and every seuda--as was customary at all other simchos--was concluded with a brochoh that we merit seeing simchos Yerushalayim.

!!!!!!!!!!! BOX BOX BOX

A Typical Dowry

What would a Bukharan kalla receive for a dowry?

* One bundle of silk or cotton kerchiefs (buchcheband) * Earrings (chalka) * A twisted coral (sandalwood) necklace on a gold chain * (kaffa band) * A gold- plated bracelet (daspona) * A gold-plated headband with inlaid stones (parchona) * Brass candlesticks * A kiddush cup * Porcelain dishes * A tea kettle, tea cups and saucers * A type of Bukharan head-covering made of cotton threads and metal strands used to decorate kerchiefs * Hats decorated with gold and silver embroidery (tupi dass) * Weavings, pillowcases and quilt-covers, tablecloths of silk and colored cotton or velvet * Tapestries (suzeni) * Embroidered boots made of dyed leather (massi jana) * Shoes made of dyed leather, embroidered with cotton thread * A hair-covering for a kalla (oini ja) * A silk dress (kurta) * A silk jacket with buttons (kamazol) * A silk dressing gown, embroidered with silk thread (faranjin) * An overcoat made of thick woven material, and sometimes woven with gold thread (kalcha)

!!!!!!!!! BOX BOX BOX

Bukhara in Historic Perspective

The area formerly known as Bukhara was located in Central Asia and formed part of a large historical land belt called Turkestan (because most of its inhabitants originated from Turkey). It is bordered on the west by the Caspian Sea, on the east by the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges, on the south by Afghanistan and Iran and on the north by Siberia. Today Turkestan is divided into Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, part of Northern Afghanistan and the Chursan region of Iran.

Most of Bukhara is desert and plains. The large cities-- Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent--are concentrated in the central area, a fertile oasis about 1,300 feet above sea level. Each of these cities is the capital of a former province of Turkestan. The rich agricultural lands surrounding them and their location along the Silk Route--the famous historical route used by caravans traveling back and forth between China and Europe via the Caspian Sea, Iran, Southern Turkey and the Mediterranean--gave them important status as commercial centers considered highly developed and in demand.

In the 12th century, traveler R' Binyamin of Tudelo reported finding a flourishing Jewish community in Samarkand numbering 50,000 souls at a time when important kehillos in Spain sometimes numbered only in the hundreds. The Bukharan kehillos are among the most ancient in the Diaspora, some of which have been documented to date from the time of the First Exile.

In ancient times the local inhabitants were idol worshipers until Muslim Arab rulers conquered the land, forcibly converting them all to Islam. After becoming an important commercial center around 1,000 years ago it became a contested region, alternately conquered and ruled by the Salajuki Turks, Genghis Khan, and Timor Khan. During the 16th century nomadic Uzbekistani tribes took control, moving the seat of government from Samarkand and proclaiming Bukhara the new capital. The entire country then came to be known as the Bukhara Emirates.

The Uzbekistanis expanded and at the height of their power extended the borders far to the east and the west, but soon afterwards a number of internal wars weakened the kingdom.

In 1753 Bukhara was still an independent emirate but diminished in size and strength. The population consisted primarily of Uzbekistani tribes, some of them nomadic, who dominated the ranks of the ruling aristocracy, military officers, court officials and provincial rulers and military and political leaders. Civil and particularly economic affairs remained in the hands of Tajikistani bureaucrats, permanent residents in the cities who were merchants and industrialists and spoke Turkish. The urban population did not belong to any of the tribes.

The Jews of Bukhara, who predated all of the tribes that ruled over them throughout the centuries, had high status under all of the various governments that controlled the region.

During the 19th century the Bukhara Emirates became a corrupt totalitarian regime ruled by cruel, despotic emirs. In 1866 Bukhara was conquered by the czar's army and became a Russian protectorate.

The emir kept his throne under the patronage of the Russian czar. Although he had no control over defense and military matters, the emir still had a free hand to run domestic affairs. The last two emirs in Bukhara were treated well by their Russian patrons and maintained close ties with the imperial court in St. Petersburg.

All of this came to an end in 1920, three years after the Bolshevik Revolution, when Bukhara fell to the Bolshevik army. The emir was deposed and exiled to Afghanistan. A "Soviet republic of the Bukharan people" was set up in accordance with the well-known revolutionary doctrine of the time.

The republic held out until 1924, when Stalin came to power and instituted a "new order." He dismantled the entire Bukharan Republic and divided it into newly formed socialist republics--Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan--that were artificially created and become member states of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. When the USSR disbanded at the end of the 1980s these states won independence, but Bukhara was not reunited as a nation.


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