Jewish Studies Jews in Central Asia
by
Zeev Levin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0137

Introduction

This bibliography presents some major publications related to studies of Jews in Central Asia. Modern geographical designation usually describes Central Asia as the territory of the Muslim Republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. This review will relate to the Jewish population that resided in the territory of those defined republics. The Jewish population of Central Asia can be divided into two general groups: those who are generally tagged as “Bukharan” or Central Asian Jews, and the “Ashkenazi” or “Russian” Jews. The first group is composed of Jews who lived in Central Asia for centuries, with the oldest ancient archeological evidence of their settlement in the region dating back to the 5th century of the Common Era. Over the centuries, Jewish communities flourished and declined under the impact of internal waves of migration set in motion by edicts issued by the regimes, economic crises, and conquests. The term “Bukharan Jew” as a collective designation for “native Jews of Central Asia” (and not for Jews of the city or emirate of Bukhara), was coined only after the conquest of Central Asia by the Russian Empire, following the need to set different legal designations for various Jewish subjects of the empire. Although they lived in separate neighborhoods and kept their faith and autonomous communities, Bukharan Jews were well integrated into the Central Asian urban environment. They adopted many local traditions and customs, were fluent in local languages, and became an important part of regional music and performing traditions. Unlike Bukharan Jews, the arrival of Ashkenazi Jews in the region was comparatively recent and tied to Russia’s conquest and colonization of the region. The newly established Turkistani Governor-Generalship was beyond the Pale of Settlement where Ashkenazi Jews were allowed to live under the Russian Empire, and therefore only Jews with special permits could immigrate to and live in these regions. Most of the Ashkenazi Jews arrived in Central Asia only after the Bolshevik Revolution, in two consecutive waves. The first, during the early 1920s, was sparked by the Russian civil war, pogroms, and famine in the heart of Russia and the Ukraine, while the second occurred during World War II. Being a part of a colonial settlement of European populations in Central Asia, Ashkenazi Jews had settled in Russian neighborhoods and did not integrate much with local populations, but kept their Eastern European traditions and were subject to higher rates of Russification and assimilation. Overall, the population rates of Bukharan and Ashkenazi Jews were marginal within the general population, but due to their concentration in the major cities of Central Asia, their numbers there were relatively high (up to 10 percent, with Bukharan Jews forming a second- or third-largest native group after Uzbeks and Tajiks). The Bukharan Jewish population had concentrated primary within the boundaries of modern Uzbekistan, with Samarkand and Bukhara as major settlement cities, but also in the cities of the Fergana Valley and in Tajikistan. Most Ashkenazi Jews settled in Tashkent, the biggest industrial hub of Russian and Soviet administration, and in many other capitals or industrial centers of the Central Asian republics. Jewish communities had existed in Central Asia for centuries, but due to their peripheral location with regard to major Jewish population centers, they were disconnected, and for centuries little was known about them. They were literally rediscovered by zealous missionaries from the Holy Land who arrived in Persia and then Central Asia in the late 18th century. Following the Russian conquest, Bukharan Jews established connections with Eastern European Jewish communities and were reconnected to the greater Jewish culture. As with other minority groups, documentation and studies on Bukharan Jewry as Ashkenazi Jews in Central Asia were influenced by various political trends in the region: Russian imperial orientalism, Soviet nationalities policies of the 1920s, the great purges of the late 1930s, Russification during the era of Great Friendship of the Peoples in the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet glasnost. All of these had a great impact on research and documentation of various nationalities and national minority groups of the region. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the sociopolitical crises the region has undergone since then, the Jewish populations of Central Asia have rapidly declined. In many locations there are no Jews left at all, while in others a few still remain, but probably not for long. This reality, combined with opportunities of access to archives in Central Asia, which were reopened in many of the successor republics, has fostered research and documentation on the subject, which has seen rapid growth during the last decades. In this framework, up to today, most of the research has focused on Bukharan Jews while Ashkenazi Jews of Central Asia have drawn only little attention. This could be explained by greater interest in Bukharan Jews, considered to be a unique Jewish group, while Ashkenazi Jews were seen as being a minor and less appealing part of the larger Eastern European group.

Overviews and Articles Collections

Generally speaking, literature on the Jews of Central Asia is quite limited in its scope. There were only two defined periods when studies on this subject relatively bloomed. The first one was when the Soviet central government initiated the national delimitation of Central Asia into national republics in the mid-1920s. During this short period, which ended with the great purges of the late 1930s, the Soviet government initiated and encouraged research on national minorities. One of the key researchers of Central Asian Jews at that time was Zalman Amitin-Shapiro, who published extensively on the subject within the limits imposed by Soviet dogma and censorship (see Amitin-Shapiro 1925 [cited under Anthropology and Ethnography], Amitin-Shapiro 1931 [cited under Pre-Imperial and Russian Imperial History], Amitin-Shapiro 1933 [cited under Soviet History], and Amitin-Shapiro and Iuabov 1935), In the late 1930s, Amitin-Shapiro, like many other Soviet scholars, was purged and imprisoned in a Stalinist labor camp. It was claimed that his publications hailed a chauvinist Jewish nationalism. From the late 1930s—through most of the Soviet era—almost nothing was published on the subject, as the issue of national minorities was almost taboo in the Soviet academy. A short review, Kolontarov 1963, was a rare exception. There were some limited studies conducted on the subject as well, mainly by Israeli scholars, but due to the impossibility of accessing archives, they were based mainly on secondary sources. One of the most prominent is Zand 1989. It was only when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, and new independent republics were formed, that it became possible to conduct new research on the topic of national minorities once again. Since then, constantly growing scholarship has been published on the subject, originating in various academic disciplines. One of the first collections of articles was Dvorkin 1995, a product of a Saint Petersburg Jewish University ethnographic expedition to Uzbekistan. Another, Rtveladze 2004, was the outcome of a conference on this subject initiated by the Open Society Institute in Uzbekistan and attended mainly by Central Asian scholars. In 2008, yet another collection was jointly edited by Baldauf, Gammer, and Loy (see Baldauf, et al. 2008); this volume was a result of a research project conducted by German and Israeli scholars. Parallel to the rising academic interest in the subject, there were some enterprises initiated by local Jewish communities (sponsored by Jewish international organizations) that attempted to document and write their own history. Within this framework, some multivolume article collections have been published, including Fazylov 1993–2003 in Uzbekistan and Grimberg 2002–2006 in Kazakhstan.

  • Amitin-Shapiro, Zalman L., and I. Iuabov. Natsional’nye men’shinstva Uzbekistana. Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Gosudarstvennoe Iztatel’stvo UzSSR, 1935.

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    One of the few accounts on the national minorities of Uzbekistan written in the early Soviet era, this book mainly describes the developments achieved by the Soviet regime. The chapter describing the Bukharan-Jewish population in Uzbekistan is most substantial and informative.

  • Baldauf, Ingeborg, Moshe Gammer, and Thomas Loy, eds. Bukharan Jews in the 20th Century: History, Experience and Narration. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert, 2008.

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    A very important collection of articles written by leading experts in their fields, dealing with the history, demography, language, and culture of Bukharan Jews in 20th-century Central Asia and beyond. The collection is the outcome of a joint German-Israeli research project (funded by GIF) that brought together scholars from different fields and disciplines.

  • Dvorkin, Ilia, ed. Evrei v Srednei Azii: Proshloe i nastoiashchee. St. Petersburg: Peterburgskiĭ Evreĭskiĭ Universitet, 1995.

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    This collection of articles was compiled almost immediately after the independence of Uzbekistan and the opening of its local archives written by a group of scholars, mainly from St. Petersburg. It consists of historical articles and inventory lists of photographs and documents that were presented to the Samarkand Historical Museum Archive.

  • Fazylov, Mark, ed. Gody, liudi, fakty. Samarkand: Kulʹturnyĭ Tsentr Bukharskikh Evreev, 1993–2003.

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    A three-volume compilation of various articles. Some of them are written by professional scholars and some by members of the community who were dedicated to preserving the memory of the rapidly diminishing Jewish community of Samarkand. The articles cover a wide spectrum of themes. Most of them deal with issues of the 20th century.

  • Grimberg, Isaak, ed. Evrei v Kazakhstane: Istoria, religia, kul’tura. Almaty: Tip. “Iskander”, 2002–2006.

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    This three-volume collection of articles was compiled following a biannual thematic conferences initiated by the Association of Jewish Organizations of Kazakhstan—“Mitsva.” The volumes present various topics on the history and culture of the Jews of Kazakhstan (mainly Ashkenazi), including documents and reviews of various collections in the State Archives of Kazakhstan.

  • Kleban, Avraham. Letoldot hayehudim beasia hatikhona. Jerusalem: Makhon Ben Zvi, 1989.

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    A short and poorly annotated review of the history of Jews in Central Asia. It is clear that the author had seen many relevant documents, but he rarely refers to sources. The book is important mainly as a basic reader and one of the first publications on the subject.

  • Kolontarov, Ia I. “Sredneaziatskie Evrei.” In Narody mira: Ethnograficheskie ocherki. Vol. 2, Narody srednei azii i Kazakhstana. Edited by S. P. Tolstov, 610–630. Moscow: Akademia Nauk, 1963.

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    A short, but very informative, review of the history, community formation, major occupations, and traditions of Central Asian Jews. It is important mainly because its publication framework represents and documents official Soviet approaches to anthropological and ethnic research.

  • Rtveladze, E. V., ed. Evrei Srednei Azii: Voprosy istorii i kul’tury. Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Fan, 2004.

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    A collection of essays compiled by Central Asian scholars on issues of Jewish history and culture in Central Asia. The volume presents some early archaeological findings of a Jewish presence in Central Asia, while most of its articles relate to with various issues of the post-Russian colonization of Central Asia.

  • Zand, Michael. “Bukharan Jews.” In Encyclopedia Iranica. Vol. 4, Fasc. 5, 530–545. New York and London, 1989.

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    A very informative, short review of the history of Bukharan Jews. It was written before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is thus based on pre-Soviet literature, official Soviet reports, and some published memoirs of Jews who emigrated from Central Asia. Available online

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