The former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan is home to the three great Silk Road cities of Central Asia—Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara. Since the early Middle Ages, these cities have been home to Jewish communities; their descendants, who now mostly live in Israel or the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, are known generally as Bukhari Jews after the most prominent of these communities. During the Soviet era, significant numbers of Ashkenazi Jews—along with people of many other ethnicities—were deported to, or settled in, Uzbekistan. Armin Rosen, returning from a visit to Uzbekistan after having spent Rosh Hashanah in the capital of Tashkent, reports on what remains of the country’s Jews:
Uzbekistan . . . was under one of the most brutish and vacuous dictatorships of any post-Soviet state. The Jews of Bukhara were never violently liquidated, but they didn’t really have an easy run of things, either. [Now] there are just a few hundred Bukharan Jews left in Bukhara.
Samarkand is four dusty and potholed hours down the road from Bukhara. There had been Jews there for centuries before the local boy Tamerlane, [the 14th-century ruler who tried to revive Genghis Khan’s empire], rampaged through much of the known world. . . . Only when standing between the three ecstatically-tiled portals of the [old city square], or meditating on the sublime proportions of the Bibi-Khanym mosque, is it possible to imagine Samarkand being the capital of an empire spanning from Kabul to the Bosphorus. . . .
A door in a metal gateway abutting the hideous modern plaza across from the Bibi-Khanym mosque leads to a warren of zig-zagging residential streets and the remains of Samarkand’s old city. A passage little wider than an alleyway reveals the fat dome of the late-19th-century Gumbaz Synagogue, its interior decorated in a dazzling blue floral pattern. Inside the sanctuary, it feels as if the dome encompasses the entirety of the room. The space is compact yet airy, a minor miracle of sacral architecture crammed into a tiny footprint.
On the early Friday evening that I visited, a wiry and nearly elderly fellow was praying in the courtyard just outside the shul’s doors. Chickens scurried around the opposite end of the compound. In halting Hebrew, I explained that I was visiting from New York and wanted to know if anyone else would be coming. In somewhat less halting Hebrew, he explained that he prayed at this synagogue three times a day, often alone.
He didn’t expect there to be much of crowd on Rosh Hashanah, either.