The Last Jews of Uzbekistan

Sept. 17 2018

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.

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More about: Bukharan Jews, Central Asian Jewry, History & Ideas, Jewish World, Synagogues

Iran Is Back on Israel’s Doorstep

Feb. 15 2019

On Monday, the IDF shelled Iranian-linked targets—most likely held by Hizballah—in the Quneitra province, which lies in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights. There can thus be little doubt that the Islamic Republic has positioned its proxies in deadly proximity to Israel’s borders. Yossi Yehoshua comments:

Hizballah is trying to entrench itself in Syria now that Bashar al-Assad has reclaimed the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, precisely as it did in 2014 and 2015, [before Syrian rebels retook the area]. This was when one of the terror organization’s more prominent members, Jihad Mughniyeh, was appointed by Hizballah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to be in charge of the Golan Heights area and of planning terror attacks against Israeli civilians. Mughniyeh was killed in a 2015 airstrike attributed to Israel. . . .

In addition, an increase in the number of incidents along the Syrian border was noted over the past two months, with the Israeli strikes in Syria . . . meant to signal to the enemy that it is best not cross any red lines. This is similar to the message Jerusalem conveyed to Iran when it [previously] attempted to entrench itself in [this part of] Syria and was pushed out of there after a series of Israeli airstrikes.

Unlike the situation of four years ago, Iran now has a real presence along the Syrian border, while Hizballah is working to resume its confrontations with Israel. And since the organization is up to its neck in domestic problems and thus cannot allow itself to face Israel on the Lebanese front, it finds Syria to be a more comfortable staging ground from which to take on the Jewish state.

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More about: Golan Heights, Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Syria