The Outliers

By Allan Arkush
Friday, March 29, 2013

At first glance, Alanna Cooper’s Bukharan Jews looks like a conventional ethnographic account of one of those exotic Jewish communities about which most of us know very little.  The Bukharans are, to be sure, a little more high-profile than some other such groups, thanks to their well-known and centrally located quarter in Jerusalem.  But one of the many surprising facts one learns from this new book is that this neighborhood did not derive its name from its inhabitants.  It’s the other way around—sort of.  The organization that founded the Bukharan Quarter in 1891 bore the name “The Society of Lovers of Zion to Build Houses for the People of Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, and Their Outskirts.”  The subsequent streamlining of this group’s name eventually led to the shorthand designation of the indigenous Jews from all of these Central Asian locales as “Bukharans.”  

Cooper tells us a lot about the history, religious characteristics, and folkways of these people.  Her primary intention in this book is not, however, to describe them so much as it is to utilize them to consider what her subtitle refers to as “the dynamics of global Judaism.”  The Bukharans, Cooper asserts, “illustrate just how variable Judaism can be, and how different Jews can be from one another.”  Their very existence lead one to ask: “Is there a single Judaism and Jewish People?  And if so, how might these entities be defined in the light of the great diversity of Jewish forms that developed across the far reaches of the diaspora?”  

Yet the Bukharans, on Cooper’s account, are not so different from other Jews that there ever seems to have been any real question about their membership in the same people.  Indeed, despite their long isolation and their uniqueness, no one in the Jewish world cast doubt, when they were rediscovered, on the authenticity of their ancestry.   Yosef Maman, the young traveler from Safed who came upon the Bukharans at the end of the 18th century, wanted not to convert them but only to correct their ways, to teach them to live more like other Jews.  

It is the various manifestations of this urge over the past two centuries, as well as the Bukharans’ reactions to it, that most concern Cooper.  She first encountered it in 1991, when she taught Bukharan immigrant youngsters in an Ashkenazi school in New York.  There she witnessed what she calls efforts on the part of the establishment “to strip Bukharan Jews of features it characterizes as misguided or not authentically Jewish.”  What she saw, she later learned, was not an isolated phenomenon but one of many “similar efforts undertaken over the course of two hundred years of history.”  

One of the highlights of Cooper’s absorbing narrative of this ongoing give-and-take is a controversy over ritual slaughtering that took place back in Samarkand, perhaps at Passover time, in 1904.  The problem began with Shlomo Lev Eliezerov, a Chabad rabbi from Hebron who served for a while as a fundraiser, emissary, and ritual slaughterer in the city.  He eventually broke loose from the authority of his supervisor, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Palestine, and upheld stringent and unfamiliar Ashkenazi standards of kashrut.  Even after Eliezerov returned to Palestine, his disciples among the local slaughterers continued to follow in his footsteps—and thereby to create, according to Shlomo Tagger, the rabbi of Tashkent, “great distress” in the community, in part because “the poor are lacking meat and there is none for the sick.”  

Tagger wrote these words in a 1904 letter to Eliezerov’s superior, Palestine’s Sephardic chief rabbi, who was standing behind the policy that had been introduced by his former emissary.   Tagger urged the chief rabbi “not to get involved in this matter.”  Whether his letter had any effect is unknown, for “the archival record trails off here.” 

This rather obscure controversy “might be characterized as an encounter between center and periphery, and between local and global Judaism.”  But matters aren’t quite that simple, Cooper reminds us.  For one thing, Tagger himself had just one foot in the Diaspora.  The other was in Palestine, where he grew up; it was Palestine’s Sephardic chief rabbi to whom Tagger deferred, albeit from a distance.  

In the book’s final chapters, we find Cooper on the scene, or rather, the scenes, in Central Asia, New York, and Israel, to witness and describe the transformation of Bukharan Jewry from a mostly territorially based community to a widely scattered one.  It is also a group whose members are in many instances losing their distinct identity.  One of the Bukharan Jews whom Cooper meets in Israel, a woman identified only as Rahel, was born to Bukharan parents and immigrated to Israel in 1948.  She is intensely interested in all things Bukharan Jewish; but her daughter, Ilana, married to a man of Moroccan origin, doesn’t share her concerns at all.  “Sure,” says Ilana, “the traditions are very nice . . . and my roots are important . . . but I am different than they are.  I am a sabarit [native-born Israeli].” 

Ilana is something of an outlier in this book, however.  Overall, the story of the Bukharan Jews is one not of their disappearance into a melting pot but of their persistence as a marginal group, over a long period of time, in “continual negotiation and contestation about what is legitimately Jewish and what is not.”  This history only fortifies Cooper’s conviction, expressed on the book’s final page, that Judaism “is a single religion, and the Jewish people are a single people.” 

 Allan Arkush is senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and editor of Jewish Ideas Daily.

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