Jewish life in Bukhara

When I mentioned that I would be going to Bukhara, someone – I think it was my mother – said, “Oh, that’s where the Bukhara Jews are from.” Which, of course, makes perfect sense.

So this morning I set out to find the main synagogue. There are two remaining, but one doubles as the community center and seems to be known as the synagogue. I had some trouble finding it since, as it turns out, there’s more than one street in the area called Sarrafon. But a guy selling postcards and things was helpful and tried to guess what I was wandering around looking for, and hit on: “Sinagoga?” One more block down, and I turned down a slightly less narrow alley; thirty or so meters in, I saw it: number 20, on the right-hand side, Bukharan-style double doors held tight by a heavy padlock. Two signs confirmed that it was the synagogue, but there wasn’t much to see from the street. Still, I took a couple of pictures of the door and the signs, wanting some memento of Bukharan Jewry.

I tried again later in the afternoon. Still locked.

So I set out to find the Jewish cemetery. It wasn’t far from my hotel, though the walk felt longer in the bright mid-afternoon sunshine and dusty heat. A sign in Hebrew, Russian (or Uzbek?), and English was affixed to a wall next to an open gate. I walked in, past a few scraggly fruit trees, past a padlocked metal box for donations, past a little house or office with the door ajar, past a tiny van with one wheel removed. Next to the van, against the outer wall of the house, someone had leaned several blank gravestones, one a Star of David, another an irregular curving shape, the others various shapes of quadrangles.

The cemetery was dry, rocky, neglected. Many of the oldest stones were flat, horizontal markers, their writing (if there had ever been any) erased by weather and time. The oldest ones were a shock to someone used to North American Jewish cemeteries: polished stone, often a heavy horizontal slab topped by a vertical component, usually with a mix of Hebrew and Cyrillic characters, often with an image of the deceased engraved in startling detail. One woman, presumably a singer, gestured lavishly with a microphone in hand. Others stared solemnly or wore half-smiles. One reminded me of the guy who wanted to be my tour guide at the Ark this morning. One was only a child: he had died at the age of three. Some also had Stars of David or menorahs or other Jewish imagery carved into the stones. In one section, most of the graves were surrounded by white-painted metal-railed fences. Artificial flowers offered a rare dot of color; on one grave, the plastic green stems had been secured with transparent tape, which had weathered to a gray translucence.

Later on, after more aimless wandering (which is the perfect thing to do in Bukhara), I decided to eat dinner at Lyabi-Hauz, the main square surrounding a (square) pool with fountains and 700-year-old mulberry trees. When I got to the square, I realized I was right by the synagogue again. So, once more, I headed down Sarrafon Street. The synagogue’s carved wooden doors were shut, but the padlock was gone. I stood there, trying to figure out if I could just push open the heavy doors, when I heard a friendly shout from down the road. A man with more gold teeth than white had broken off his conversation and was coming towards me. With gestures, we established that I wanted to see the synagogue, and he wanted to show me the synagogue.

So we opened the heavy doors and found ourselves in a small uncovered courtyard, with a menorah painted on one wall. Tall windows looked into the sanctuary, to the left, and a smaller room stood to the right. He first opened the door to the right. It wasn’t a formal sanctuary, as far as I could tell, but there was a small bima or podium near the center of the room. At the back was a picture of a white-bearded man; my host explained that this was the rabbi. We quickly established that he only spoke Russian and Uzbek (I’d hoped we could speak Hebrew together), but he spoke anyway, cheerfully and loudly. Perhaps this room is used for classes, or for very small services?

The sanctuary was simple but lovely, white and wood and pale blue, with the bima at the center. White lace hid the women’s gallery upstairs. A string of Israeli flags hung in an arc from the front of the women’s gallery. The seating was unusual: small tables, a few chairs at each one, surrounded the perimeter of the room. Convenient for leaning books on, I imagine, or for study.

At the back of the room was a bookshelf full of prayer books; on the wall was a photo montage, mostly of older bearded men. I couldn’t tell if my host was saying that these were the people who have left Bukhara for Israel, Europe, North America, and elsewhere, or if these were the few that remain. At one point, I’ve read, the town had eight synagogues.

When I left, thanking my host and folding up some sum for the donation box, I said, “Shalom.” He replied, “Shalom.” His kindness, his warmth, his eagerness to show me the little synagogue and my eagerness to see it, and that final, familiar word of greeting, moved me to tears.

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