Manashe Khaimov, MSW, Speaks with the Queens Jewish Link
Why are we called Bukharian if we are from Central Asia? Are we Sephardic or not? Are our traditions ours or were they adopted from the local communities? How did we end up in Central Asia?
For every Bukharian, learning the Jewish history behind one’s heritage is of utmost importance. Manashe Khaimov believes every Bukharian should have the opportunity to learn about his or her culture. “I was born in a city along the Silk Road – Samarkand, Uzbekistan – where my ancestors lived for over 2,000 years,” said Khaimov. Currently, a Queens College adjunct professor in Jewish studies, with a specialty in the history and culture of Bukharian Jews, Khaimov is the right person to educate others on Bukharian culture.
Why would one be considered Bukharian if he is not from Bukhara, as Manashe was born in Samarkand?
The simple answer is that there are two Jewish communities in the world that identify themselves based on the empires they lived in and not the countries where they resided. Persian Jews got their origin from the Persian Empire, while Bukharian Jews took on the title of the Bukharian Emirate.
Such a process dates to a familiar era in Jewish history, namely, the destruction of the First Jewish Temple, reported in the secular world to have occurred in 586 BCE. The Jewish community was held in captivity in Babylon and it was during this period that the Jewish Diaspora was formulated. Then, a Persian king, Cyrus the Great from the Achaemenid dynasty, conquered and absorbed Babylonia into his vast empire. In the year 539 BCE, he issued a decree allowing the Jewish people to return to Israel and rebuild the sacred temple, the Bayis Sheini.
A concept often ignored is the small percentage, roughly 33 percent, of the Jews who returned to Israel, while the vast majority stayed put or continued their travels east through the Silk Road, eventually settling in Central Asia on the outskirts of what was then the Persian Empire. “So,” explains Manashe, “my ancestors were amongst those families who never went back to build the Second Temple and instead continued going eastward.”
“Almost a decade ago, I launched a project called Bukharian Lens, where I have researched and produced several documentaries about the Bukharian Jewish community, including, ‘The Untold Story of Bukharian Jews,’ ‘The Untold Story of Ashkenazi Jews Who Were Evacuated During WWII to Central Asia,’ and ‘Bukharian Roots,’” explained Khaimov. Eventually, these documentaries were screened at numerous film festivals and conferences around the world.
Who is Rabbi Shimon Hakham? Who is Rabbi Yosef ben Maimon? Why was Bukhara called the second Jerusalem?
Questions like these pushed Manashe to conduct research on Bukharian Jewish history and culture.
The first settlement of the Jewish community in Central Asia dates to the second and third centuries CE. The name for the Bukharian Jews, agreed upon by many researchers, dates to the time they lived in the Bukharian Emirate, which existed from 1785 until the last Emir was overthrown by the Soviet Union in 1920, despite evidence that the formation of Bukharian Jewish ethnos identity commenced sometime in the 16th century. The Bukharian Emirate encompasses what today includes Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and even a bit of Afghanistan.
As part of his research, Khaimov discovered that there were very few reliable online sources of information about Bukharian Jewish history and culture. “Many people lack access to the right information, since most research is only published in Hebrew or Russian,” observed the professor. The yearn for others to learn the history led Khaimov to develop the Bobo Academy, where one can get a crash course on the history of Bukharian Jews in just a month from the comfort of their home.
“I woke up this morning to a Facebook message, and I could not believe what I saw: Another parent is desperately seeking my help with her son’s Jewish identity and heritage crisis,” said Khaimov to the Queens Jewish Link. For a decade, Khaimov has been working with the Jewish community by helping teens and young adults to develop their family narrative. Ever since he started teaching a Bukharian history course at Queens College, Khaimov has often received numerous private messages about Bukharian Jewish history and culture from around the country.
Chaim Aronov had the pleasure of taking Khaimov’s class, “My life was transformed after taking Manashe’s class on Bukharian heritage!” Aronov described to the Bukharian Jewish Link his dilemma. “When I was researching my heritage, I was lost and didn’t know where to turn.” Aronov desired to uncover the available resources. “Today, I am confident in my Bukharian roots, observance, and the future of the Jewish people,” said Aronov.
Abigail Levy is another student of Khaimov’s who also spoke with the BJL about her experiences in the course. “I became proud of being who I am after taking Manashe’s class on Bukharian heritage!” explained Levy, who has a deep love for Jewish history but was disappointed that Jewish history texts do not include the Bukharian Jewish narrative.
“Prior to the classes, I thought that Ashkenazi Jewry had all these great rabbis; however, I recall my family always mentioning Bukharian Rabbinic history but never really delving deeply into the details,” added Levy. At the classes, Levy discovered that the Bukharian community continues to boast a great number of respected rabbis nationally. “I found out that I am related to Rabbi Yosef ben Maymon. This is an amazing feeling that I discovered parts of my family tree to have this incredible connection to Bukharian Rabbinic Jewry,” noted Levy.
Before the Russian Empire conquered Central Asia, Bukharian Jews spoke more than six languages, including Russian. Following the fall of Tashkent, in 1865, this became known as the first victory for the Russian Empire, and the region grew to include its territories. In February 1917, the imperial region was overthrown, and the Soviet Union emerged, taking control of the Central Asian section. Up until Uzbekistan got its independence in 1991, Russian was the main language in Central Asia; prior, the Bukharian Jews spoke Bukhori-Judeo-Farsi, and Judeo-Tajik.
Yet another student, Michael Daniel, a Bukharian Jew, made a discovery while taking Khaimov’s class: “I found out about my Syrian Jewish roots after taking Manashe’s class on Bukharian heritage!” Daniel explained that history never really was appealing. “I fell in love with history after I learned that I am related to a wealthy merchant who had five wives,” said Daniel. “Before this class, I thought that Bukharian Jews weren’t religious or observant back in Central Asia. Learning that even merchants were observant and connected to Torah really made me proud of my identity and made me more interested in Judaism,” remarked Daniel.
Jacob Chadi, a Persian Jew, who was in Khaimov’s course, is now more at ease. “I finally understand the connection between Bukharian and Persian Jews. This class allowed me to appreciate the Bukharian Jewish community, but most importantly, it helped me appreciate my Persian Jewish roots,” said Chadi.
Finally, we meet Dov Kirshner, an Ashkenazi Jew who learned so much about his ancestry after taking the Bukharian heritage classes. “At first, I didn’t think I would learn much about my heritage since I’m not Bukharian; however, Professor Manashe always said, ‘Learning about Bukharian Jewish history, you consequently learn about Jewish history as a whole.’ Indeed, that was the case.”
The origins and history of the Jewish populations in Central Asia from the period beginning with the destruction of the first Jewish Temple and progressing on to the former Soviet Union migration of recent years and the subsequent establishment of new communities in Israel and the US, including here in Queens, will be discussed.
By Shabsie Saphirstein