History of Bukharian Jews
Some folk tales say that Bukharian Jews were among the Lost Tribes, who arrived in this region after the Assyrian exile in 722 BCE. Most scholarship, however, suggests that the first to arrive were among those who were exiled from the Land of Israel at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. They take their distinct cultural identity from the Emirate of Bukhara (1785-1920) which stretched over most of modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, hence the name “Bukharian” Jews. In the 600s, the Arab conquest of Central Asia began and Islam became the dominant religion of the region. It was already evident here that the Bukharian Jews were taking steps to protect themselves from assimilation. They strove to live together in Jewish neighborhoods, and lived under their own rule with a community chief, called a kalontar.
After the second half of the 19th century, the region increasingly fell under Russian rule, and Bukharian Jews were subject to the sporadic anti-semitism that flared up elsewhere in the Russian Empire. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, the region was split between the newly independent republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Jews began leaving in large numbers in the early 1970s, when the Soviet Union relaxed a ban on Jewish emigration. It accelerated in the 1990s after Uzbekistan became independent because of a fear that this would inspire Muslim and nationalist extremists to target Jews. More than 70,000 Jews have left the country since its independence, many moving to Israel and the United States.
Read more about Bukharian Jewish history here.
Bukharian Jewish Music
At weddings, parties, and other internal community events, Bukharian Jews' music of choice is a cosmopolitan mix of popular music styles and languages. Although associated with the new and modern Bukharian Jewish identity, party music is rooted in traditional roles and repertoire (such as the female wedding entertainer called sozanda) and retains distinctive Bukharian Jewish elements such as poetry from ancient Persia.
Classical Shashmaqam music is a shared culture for Muslims and Jews of Central Asia. Originated in Bukhara, this musical genre started as spiritual sounds and words; a way to connect to the divine. The Jewish community was known to be particularly skilled at music and dance. They began to play more at Court, and take a more prominent role in music and dance when the Soviets controlled Central Asia.
Folkloric Bukharian Jewish music is characterized as upbeat, celebratory music still used today for weddings and family gatherings.
Women's life cycle music is also a distinct part of the Bukharian Jewish musical repertoire. Particular songs were used for weddings, qoshchinon (eyebrow threading ceremony for the bride) ritual, the birth of a child, mourning, and more.
Read about and listen to Bukharian Jewish music here.
Bukharian Jewish Dance
Bukharian dance one of the national dances of Uzbekistan. It is characterized by holding a regal and self-confident posture. The movement qualities range from soft and undulating to quick and staccato, providing unexpected contrasts. Jewish Bukharian dance is softer in its style. It's used more for social dance but is also performed on stage. Movements are more graceful and lighter and have less athletic level changes such as fast drops or knee spins.
Bukharian Jewish dance is used in celebrations such as weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, brit milahs (circumcision celebrations), birthday parties, and more. Traditionally dance was also used in life cycle ceremonies which were lead by the Sozanda (female singer, dancer, and entertainer). Professional dancers would come to these celebrations and were highly honored for their skill.
There is also a long legacy of famous Bukharian Jewish dancers. Among them include the father and daughter duo Isakhar Akilov and Viktoria Akilova. Malika Kalontarova, another well-known dancer was born with the name Mazol to a religious Bukharian Jewish family in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. She was given the country's highest honor when she was named People's Artist of USSR in 1984, becoming the only woman from Tajikistan to receive the title.