Preserving the ways of Bukhara

SUN JOURNAL

Culture: In New York's melting pot, an emigre from Uzbekistan labors to keep up 2,000-year-old traditions of Central Asian Jews.

July 13, 2004|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Not long after buying his bungalow in the borough of Queens, Aron Aronov knocked down the garage behind his house and began building a proper courtyard. He planted grapes, Russian sour cherries and an apricot tree; he ripped up the concrete and laid bricks in patterns; he built a low-slung wooden veranda where he and his guests can sit cross-legged on pillows, drinking tea for hours; and he bought a little grill for cooking lamb and liver shish kebabs. When the weather is warm, he sleeps on the veranda, as he did in Uzbekistan.

When fellow emigres see his creation, they are delighted.

"Whoever comes to my house, they forget they are in America," says Aronov. "They say, `Ooh-la-la, it was exactly my back yard in Central Asia.'"

Aronov is one of about 50,000 Central Asian Jews who have settled in New York. Dozens of Bukharans, as the group is known, have created similar oases in their yards.

Over the past decade, the group has established a thriving community: In Rego Park, a middle-class section of Queens, an eight-block stretch of 108th Street - "Bukharan Broadway" - is home to scores of Bukharan establishments, including barbershops, bakeries, restaurants and synagogues.

But in the midst of this vibrant little world, Aronov, 66, sees worrisome signs that America is weakening the old ways. Young people prefer English and rarely learn their parents' native Bukharan. They prefer hip-hop to the traditional melodies called Shashmaqam. People work longer and spend less time with relatives and friends, fraying the bonds that have secured the community.

Aronov is trying hard to preserve Bukharan traditions. For 10 years, he has been obsessed with creating a museum of history and culture.

Aronov, who works for a Jewish charity, helping Bukharans adjust to the United States, is not wealthy, and supports the project mainly with his own funds. But over the past decade he has managed to collect thousands of Bukharan relics and antiques, gathering most of them on trips to Central Asia.

His collection runs the gamut of Bukharan life: dazzling red-and-gold silk ceremonial robes; ornate gold and silver jewelry; tiny handmade prayer books; and an enormous wok-like pot for cooking plov, a fried rice dish eaten at many celebrations.

"His work is very important," said real estate agent Lana Levitin, one of the community's cultural leaders. "Our kids should know where we came from."

Aronov, who speaks 10 languages, has lived in the United States since 1989, when he emigrated from Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. Most Bukharans hail from that country. Just north of Afghanistan, it is an arid place whose culture blends Turkish, Persian and Asian influences.

Aronov combines a patriarchal gruffness with a dry humor. Riding around Queens, he bemoans the timidity of U.S. motorists, and urges the American behind the wheel to ignore a stop sign. "Go! Go! You are with me. I have special permission," he says, with a twinkle in his eyes.

Aronov has an ambivalent relationship with this country. He loves the opportunities - he and his wife live comfortably and can go to synagogue openly. But he finds many of the customs hard to fathom - for example, the approach to time management. "This is cultural shock, when you see each other by appointment," he says emphatically. "This is great insult. People never call me, they come."

While immigrant acculturation is nothing new, Bukharan assimilation holds a special irony. For most of the 20th century, the Soviet Union, eager to stamp out religion, especially Judaism, discouraged Bukharan traditions. But the insular culture survived, as it had for more than 2,000 years, creating a tradition that differs from both the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe and the Sephardic Jews of the Mediterranean. With the demise of the Soviet Union, nearly all of the 300,000 or so Bukharans - the name comes from the Uzbek city famed for its Jewish population - have left Central Asia for the United States or Israel. But now it is the United States - its grueling pace and pervasive pop culture - that is undermining Bukharan identity.

"It is a major paradox we face," Aronov says. "It is a free country - but the influence of radio, TV, school. So, we want to preserve, to tell children, `Don't forget!'"

For years, the museum occupied Aronov's small, dank basement. Last year, a Jewish school donated three vacant sixth-floor classrooms, giving him a well-lit, climate-controlled place to display part of his collection.

Showing a visitor the new setup - officially called the Bukharan Heritage Museum - Aronov beams. "You don't have to buy a plane ticket for $1,000," he says. "You take elevator and you are in Bukhara."

He is accompanied on the tour by 20-year-old Igor Rybakov. A business student at Queensboro College, Rybakov arrived five years ago from Tashkent. He is fascinated by Bukharan traditions and has become Aronov's protege.

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