Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Shevat 5763 - January 22, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Jews of Bukhara
Part V -- The Dream Comes True

by C. Ofek

This series recounts the trials and tribulations of the Jews of Bukhara, from the perspective of Shulamit Tilayov, a Jerusalem-born woman who spent twenty years of her youth in Bukhara. At the age of four she returned to Bukhara with her parents for a "short stay," but due to the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I, their visit turned into a two- decade sojourn. Mrs. Tilayov's memories paint a picture of Bukhara's splendor and the tremendous mesirus nefesh required to observe Torah and mitzvos under the Communist regime. Through a series of miracles, she had the merit to return to the Holy City and to Shechunat HaBukharim, the neighborhood her grandfather, Rav Shimon Chacham, helped establish years earlier.

Part III recounted the Tilayovs' and another family's efforts to keep mitzvos in hiding in Bukhara, risking their lives to cling to the Jewish faith. The sidebars included a harrowing account by the head of a talmud Torah who withstood terrible interrogations and torture, and the rare hachnosas orchim extended to World War II refugees under dire conditions.

Part IV described worsening hardships the Tilayov family faced, which led to their decision to cross the border into Afghanistan illegally. Following Yitzchak's successful passage, Shulamit remains alone with their children, planning her escape. While trying to cross she is caught by soldiers and taken into custody. She was caught carrying illegal gold coins, and was to be tried. She decided to try again to flee, but her group was to leave exactly on the Friday of her trial. Realizing that if she would not show up they would begin searching for her immediately, making it even harder to flee, she decided to send her children ahead and catch up with them on motzei Shabbos. It was a difficult, tearful parting that Friday morning.

In Part V, Mrs. Tilayov finally crosses over the border into Afghanistan, overcoming hardships and narrowly escaping danger be'ezer Hashem. In Afghanistan her troubles continue. After reuniting with her husband, the authorities threaten to send him to Russia along with all of the other men who crossed the border illegally. Only through urgent international efforts by Bukharan-Jewish communities in the West are the refugee families granted entry visas to Eretz Yisroel, then under British mandate. The year-long journey by horseback, buses, boat and train takes them through seven countries.

After they had gone on their way I remained home alone, reading Tehillim with a broken heart nearly until the time of the trial. I especially concentrated on the verse, "Ya'ancho Hashem beyom tzoroh, yesagevcho sheim Elokei Yaakov," which reflected my situation.

I arrived at the GPO office early and waited. At exactly 10:00 a.m. I was called into the judges' chambers and found myself standing before high-ranking GPO officials.

On the table lay the articles found with me and now silently condemning me. Armed guards stood to the left and right of me as if I could escape. I sat on the chair facing the judges' table and they began to interrogate me.

First they asked me why my husband had fled the country with his parents and other relatives. I could see there was no sense in trying to hide anything, so I replied that this was what the family had decided. Then they asked why I wanted to flee with my children. I answered that it was not because I was unhappy in my motherland, but because I had been born in Jerusalem and I wanted to go back. (Among my confiscated possessions they had found my birth certificate which my mother had sent from Jerusalem.) I explained that my mother lived there and I wanted to see her and to benefit from her help.

I did not realize that by mentioning Jerusalem I was raising the judges' wrath, for they had been irate over the notebook they found among my possessions containing handwritten poems about Jerusalem that I had written while in school. They sentenced me to a fine of twice the value of the gold coins found with me when I was arrested.

Informing me that I could expect to receive a jail term for the other indictments and that my children would be sent to a government institution, they then asked if I had legal counsel. Their severe statements and harsh demeanor filled me with fear. I told them I could not afford to hire an attorney.

They handed me a sheet of paper to sign. I asked what was written on it and they explained that signing would obligate me to work for the authorities, perhaps as an agent (i.e. informing against other citizens) and, if I signed, they were authorized to suspend the sentence for a trial period. I refused to sign. An argument ensued in which they threatened to send me to Siberia and to place my children in an institution in a city far away and I would not even know where they are.

I did not know what to do and felt very confused, but at that very moment salvation came from Above. All of a sudden a great disturbance took place in the courtyard and everyone left to see what had happened. A distinguished government worker had been caught crossing the border in a government vehicle after embezzling a large sum of money from public funds. Expected to receive a heavy sentence, he became the center of attention and the judges postponed my trial for 24 hours, which meant until Sunday morning.

I saw this as an auspicious sign from Heaven. Hashem was guiding my path, for the delay would allow me to set off on my way on motzei Shabbos as I had arranged with the head guide, without my absence being detected until at least midday Sunday. By then, G-d willing, I would already be at the border.

On motzei Shabbos at 8:00 I set out together with my landlady, who had become a close friend of mine. To avoid attracting attention I carried only a small purse with a bit of money. We looked like two acquaintances out for a stroll. It took six hours to arrive at the meeting point where the horses waited with my fellow travelers. I bid my landlady farewell and placed a gold coin in the palm of her hand.

The horses were laden with heavy sacks filled with jewelry and other valuables smuggled from Bukhara, as well as bread and water for the journey. The women sat on the back of the horses with small children between each mother and the rider. Each of these threesomes was securely tied with a huge, thick cloth band and our feet were placed in stirrups so we could hold on in case the horses began to gallop. Thus we set out on the difficult journey from Russia to Afghanistan.

After about two hours of riding, suddenly some soldiers caught sight of us and began to shoot in our direction. The frightened horses bolted into a wild gallop, running in every direction. The soldiers did not overtake us and the riders re- banded, once again forming a single file, which seems to be how they were trained to walk.

The experienced guides would halt periodically either to rest or eat and drink. Continuing on our way we crossed the border unharmed. We rode for 27 hours straight until we reached the first town inside Afghanistan.

A huge expanse of desert stretches between the two countries. We did not see a single tree or bush or even a small sprig. The sun beat down on our heads throughout the day (it was then August 1933). Our seasoned guides navigated according to the soil type. From time to time they would dismount, dig into the ground, smell the earth and set our course accordingly. At night they used the stars to guide us. With a glad heart I thanked Hashem for bringing us safely.


Upon our arrival in Afghanistan we left our fears of the Russians behind but here, too, we could expect to be arrested if caught, for we had crossed the border illegally. In addition we faced the threat of attack by highway bandits lying in wait in the no-man's-land near the border to rob fugitives and kill them so there would be nobody left to bear witness. We were still very tense and alert. The guides checked to see whether we were still well-tied and warned us that if the children were to cry it could endanger all of us.

On the second night, already on the Afghani side of the border, we heard dogs and grew frightened. We knew robbers trained their dogs to detect the scent of horses and people in order to track down convoys. The guides seemed nervous and spurred the horses into a fast gallop after warning us that if any of the children fell while they made their run they would not stop. We were very afraid for the children, and while the horses ran I prayed in my heart we would arrive safely.

In the morning we arrived at a place of settlement and were brought to a lone house at the edge of the village. We were unable to move our arms or legs following the protracted ride. Our legs were swollen and paralyzed from disuse. Only now did I see my daughter's face and I almost passed out. Her forehead was swollen and covered with dried blood because she had been whipped all along the way by the rider's rough coat. Despite the pain she had not cried or opened her mouth throughout the journey.

After we had rested, a breakfast of milk and fruit was brought to us. The guides asked each of us to write letters to our respective families in Anchoi and forced us to promise outrageous sums for transporting us. Although we had already paid a large portion of the money in advance while in Karaki they said they would bring us on to Anchoi only after receiving their pay. With no other option we acquiesced and, in the end, they received the fees they had demanded.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah 5794 (1933) we finally rejoined our respective families who had been waiting anxiously for so long.

In Afghanistan other misfortune awaited us. Lacking transit documents, all of the men were arrested and the authorities threatened to send them back to Russia. Afghanistan was under British control at the time and the Bukharan Jewish committees throughout the West initiated emergency actions to reverse the terrible decree, concentrating efforts on lobbying the British to grant the detainees permits to immigrate to Eretz Yisroel. The feverish activity was centered in Kabul but took place in Jerusalem, London and the US as well.

The race was won by Rav Eliyahu Yissachar-Kahn, president of the Bukharan Jewish community in London, who made the trip to Afghanistan to try to secure their release. He even met with the king of Afghanistan, Nadir Khan, asking him to grant Bukharan refugees a 6- 12-month stay in his country, during which immigration permits for Palestine would arrive. He agreed and thus we were able to remain in Kabul for several months.

Since there were numerous families, together we rented a house with a large courtyard and divided the rooms. Yitzchak had already sent a letter to my mother in Jerusalem asking her to act on our behalf to lobby the British authorities for immigration permits. Although it took time, she eventually succeeded. After an eight- month stay in Kabul we were informed that our immigration permits had been approved and we could set out on our way.

Some 1,500 Bukharan Jews--10 percent of the country's total Jewish population--had immigrated to Palestine of their own free will by the time World War I broke out. From 1880, following the Russian pogrom against Odessa Jews, until 1914 three million Jews emigrated from Russia, 30,000 of whom came to Palestine on aliyah, including some 1,500 Bukharan Jews. During the two recent waves of aliyah of Bukharan Jews, starting in 1972 and 1991 respectively, 130,000 immigrants arrived from Bukhara.

Home Again!

In 5694 (1934) we finally had the merit to arrive in Jerusalem following many hardships we met during our long, circuitous route. Along the way our two children contracted various childhood illnesses that were difficult to cope with.

Toting all our baggage we passed through seven countries: Russia, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The journey, by horseback, bus, boat and train, lasted an entire year. To cover our expenses we would periodically sell diamond and gold rings we had smuggled into Afghanistan.

Following 23 years of exile in Bukhara I returned to the Holy City. I was filled with overwhelming excitement when I once again saw the streets and houses I remembered as if in a dream. When we got off the bus at the old Egged station on Jaffa Street I got down on my knees and kissed the ground as tears streamed from my eyes.

Now I was returning to see my dear mother, who had been so sorely missing from my life during our years of separation. She was living in Nachalat Shiva in a house Grandfather had bought her. The house was next to the home of the Baba-Khan family and opposite Beit Knesset Istanbuli. I, too, had been born in this house.

Now, upon my return, she told me that Grandfather had contributed much toward establishing the Bukharan community in Jerusalem. He had been one of the seven founders of Shechunat HaBukharim (originally known as Rechovot). The other founders were Rav Yaakov Meir, Rav Yosef Cojehin Cohen, Rav Shlomo Mussa, R' Yissah Chaim Chafetz, R' Chaim Moshiach, R' Faizi Ben Moshe -- in addition to my grandfather, R' Shimon Chacham.

Construction began in 1891 and it was the most stately neighborhood in Eretz Yisroel--European architecture in Asian and Mediterranean styles, with Byzantine and Russian touches. The neighborhood included 18 botei knesses and two mikvo'os, all from money raised among the Bukharans in Palestine.

Although Grandfather was among the original founders of Shechunat HaBukharim he refused to purchase a lot in the neighborhood saying he preferred to remain in the Old City, close to the remnants of Beis Hamikdosh. But his close friend R' Yaakov Mahavshov, who had been his business partner in commercial enterprises back in Bukhara, purchased a lot on the main street of the neighborhood and entreated Grandfather to buy half a lot for his only son. R' Pinchas was engaged and Grandfather agreed to buy his son the half lot.

R' Yaakov Mahavshov built on his half and R' Shimon built a house on the other half as a wedding gift for his dear son. He even ordered wall paintings for the guest room in accordance with the Jewish custom in Bukhara, who would string together verses and phrases such as Bruchim Habo'im and Ben poras Yosef ben poras alei ayin along the edge of the ceiling.

Sadly, a harsh decree befell my grandfather when my uncle, R' Pinchas, passed away suddenly during his first year of marriage. My grandfather said he would not even be able to step into the house. He offered to sell it to R' Yaakov but his friend refused saying, "R' Shimon Chacham's son passes away and I should buy the house? Chas vesholom! I won't even live in my own house standing on the same property."

R' Yaakov then sold his lot as well and bought another one where he built a new house. This was the tragic reason why none of my family ever settled in Shechunat HaBukharim.

Following my arrival in Palsetine we lived with my mother, where we took in Jerusalem's splendid atmosphere and heard much about the contributions my grandfather-- among the founders of Shechunat HaBukharim--made toward building the city. Eventually our stay in Jerusalem came to an end.

Upon their arrival in Palestine many of the Bukharan immigrants settled in Jerusalem, and after a relatively short period moved to other cities to make a living.

In 1934 we moved to Jaffa because rent was inexpensive there. My husband Yitzchak worked at various odd jobs and I worked in a matzo factory. In 1936 the Arabs began a series of attacks, killing and injuring many Jaffa Jews. On the first day of the unrest we fled for Tel Aviv, leaving everything in the apartment, which the Arabs plundered. Empty-handed, we had no choice other than to sell the diamond rings we had brought from Bukhara, and even had to borrow money to rent a room in Tel Aviv. It was a difficult and tense period, but we were happy to be in Eretz Hakodesh.

Over the years, we adjusted to life in Israel, but my husband's parents and their five children remained in Kabul where they had been living ever since their escape from Bukhara. We began concerted efforts to secure entry visas for them. We hired an attorney and after two years and considerable expense his parents finally arrived in Israel with the help of the Bukharan Community Committee via The Jewish Agency. Thus both sides of the family were reunited in Eretz Hakodesh.


This concludes our series on Mrs. Shulamit Tilayov, the mesirus nefesh of Bukharan Jewry and the courage they showed in the face of tremendous obstacles. Today many members of this important community in Am Yisroel are struggling to adapt to life in Israel. May Hashem grant them success in the adjustment process, helping them retain their identity as shomrei Torah umitzvos who hold fast to their unique heritage.

Mrs. Shulamit Tilayov: Postscript

Shulamit later became a leading activist in the Bukharan Jewish community, organizing fundraising drives both in Israel and abroad. In 1972 she joined an organization called Brit Yotzei Bukhara BeYisrael, which focuses on youth education and immigrant absorption. She founded the Hachnosas Kallah and Matan Beseter funds and worked for Or HaChaim in Bnei Brak, providing scholarships for needy girls there.

As a member of the Committee of Women Volunteers she worked to support the yeshivos kedoshos and lomdei Torah from the Bukharan community, helping talmidim cover expenses, providing salaries for rabbonim and yeshiva workers, organizing wedding grants for avreichim as well as holiday grants for the wives of avreichim and for yeshiva workers, supporting the yeshiva's book collection and channeling thousands more in donations to yeshivos and lomdei Torah.

Every year she gave ten grants of 1,500 liras each to avreichim in memory of her youngest child, Moshe Shimon z'l, who was killed in a car accident at a young age and dedicated numerous other contributions to yeshivos to his memory. Today she lives in a retirement home in Tel Aviv.

Bukharans in Israel

"There have been several major waves of immigration of Bukharan Jews," says Shoshannah Ron, director of Brit Yotzei Bukhara. "The one at the end of the 19th century was an affluent aliyah that set up Shechunat HaBukharim in Jerusalem and included many philanthropists who set up hekdeshim for the community and helped stimulate Jerusalem's economy during those years. The second aliyah was in the 1930s; these immigrants managed well on their own and their children achieved considerable success, boruch Hashem.

"Recent aliyah is divided into two waves. The first came in the 70s and was absorbed with the help of the Brit quite nicely, while the waves of immigration during the 90s were characterized by immigrants facing crises, difficulties and an inability to adjust suitably in Israel.

"Brit Yotzei Bukhara came to the aid of the new immigrants. We provided their children enrichment programs and also work hard to prevent their young children and adolescents from dropping out of the school system. Before the holidays we hand out food packages, and run social activities in order to preserve the community's history and heritage."

For thirty years the Pozailov brothers, Ben Tzion and Pinchas, who had great success in Israel in the diamond and jewelry trade, have been supporting Brit Yotzei Bukhara and maintaining it financially.

Overland to Persia

"It was during the Stalin era in the Soviet Union," recounts Rina Aharonov. "Some Bukharan families -- we were among them -- were daring enough to journey to Palestine, taking along a two-year-old baby, over a harrowing route full of pitfalls.

"Our escape was difficult. We set out from the city of Ashchavad, located on the border between Turkmenistan and Persia and with the help of Kurdish guides we walked for four nights. By day we would hide. At the end of the march, hungry and thirsty, we reached Persian territory [years before Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in Iran] exhausted and fell asleep in the first cave we came across.

"Just before daybreak we woke to the voices of robbers ordering us to put our hands in the air. Our pleas were in vain and all of our property was stolen. Before we had recovered from the robbery, Persian policemen accosted us, claiming we were Soviet spies. They wanted to return us to the Soviet Union. Kind Jews living in the area came to our rescue and we managed to free ourselves from the gezeiroh of the Persian police as well, surviving in Persia as refugees.

"We arrived in the capital of Persia, Teheran, got settled and even succeeded in business. My husband, a shoe designer, was very successful. The Persian Jews who helped us suggested we settle in Persia for a few years to save up money to replace what was stolen from us, and then continue on our way to Eretz Yisroel. We refused. We did not want to remain in a foreign land any longer.

"Six months later we sailed from the Persian Gulf to Eretz Yisroel, following `a well-trod path,' which included a one- month stay in India. From there, via the Suez Canal, we arrived in Palestine then under mandate control. After an exhausting one-year journey we began our lives in Eretz Yisroel from scratch."


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