Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism

Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism

by Alanna E. Cooper


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Part ethnography, part history, and part memoir, this volume chronicles the complex past and dynamic present of an ancient Mizrahi community. While intimately tied to the Central Asian landscape, the Jews of Bukhara have also maintained deep connections to the wider Jewish world. As the community began to disperse after the fall of the Soviet Union, Alanna E. Cooper traveled to Uzbekistan to document Jewish life before it disappeared. Drawing on ethnographic research there as well as among immigrants to the US and Israel, Cooper tells an intimate and personal story about what it means to be Bukharan Jewish. Together with her historical research about a series of dramatic encounters between Bukharan Jews and Jews in other parts of the world, this lively narrative illuminates the tensions inherent in maintaining Judaism as a single global religion over the course of its long and varied diaspora history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253006509
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 12/03/2012
Series: Indiana Series in Sephardi and Mizrahi Studies Series
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Alanna E. Cooper is an anthropologist and cultural historian who has held research and teaching positions at Boston University, University of Massachusetts, University of Michigan, and Harvard University's Center for the Study of World Religions. Her publications have appeared in the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Review of Books, Anthropology of East Europe Review, Jewish Social Studies, and AJS Review.

Read an Excerpt

Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism

By Alanna E. Cooper

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Alanna E. Cooper
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00655-4


First Encounter: Bukharan Jewish Immigrants in an Ashkenazi School in New York

During the cold war, when tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States were high, the plight of the Jews of the USSR was on the forefront of the American Jewish public agenda. The refusenik movement, in particular, was given great attention and publicity. Among its heroes were Anatoly Sharansky, Ida Nudel, Vladimir Slepak, and others who attempted to leave their homes for a place where they could identify as Jews without stigma, and practice their religion without fear. As a consequence of applying for exit visas, they were declared enemies of the state, lost their jobs, and were imprisoned.

While I was growing up in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, the stories of these refuseniks played a formative role in shaping my Jewish identity. I was among the many Jewish youth who signed petitions on their behalf, wrote letters of encouragement to them, sent money to organizations that fought for their freedom, and wore bracelets signifying our solidarity with their plight. These activities sensitized me to the situation of Soviet Jews, but also strongly informed my own ideas about what it meant to be an American Jew. They instilled within me a strong appreciation for the freedom that I had to practice religion and identify proudly as a Jew, all the while maintaining my sense of belonging to America.

In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Jewish world as I knew it underwent dramatic changes. The Jews of the USSR began to migrate en masse to the United States and Israel, and I was compelled to meet these people whose own experiences had so strongly shaped my understanding of my own Jewish identity. As it happened, this event occurred when I was beginning graduate school in cultural anthropology, and was starting to formulate a research project. It seemed an auspicious time to find entrée into the lives of the Jews who were emigrating. I began studying Russian and took a job at Torah Academy, one of the many private Jewish high schools that had been established in New York to help this immigrant population.

I knew little about the school, other than that it was founded to provide the Soviet émigré student population with a Jewish education, which they had been denied in their home country. I learned much more on the opening day of the school year, the first time I was in the building since my job interview a few months before. I picked up a memo waiting in my mailbox, which in lieu of an orientation was my introduction to Torah Academy's agenda and to the administration's view of my position. Addressed to all staff members, the memo began by describing each student at Torah Academy as a "Jewish soul" that was "thirsting for the beauty of Judaism." The goal of the school, it continued, was to reach out to these students in an effort to quench their thirst, and its raison d'etre was to bring them "closer to Judaism and guide them in their spiritual growth."

This brief statement went a long way to explain the rather puzzling hiring process that had brought me to Torah Academy. After glancing over my resume, and exchanging what seemed to me to be no more than a few pleasantries, the principal had offered me the position of social studies teacher in the girls' division. I would be responsible for teaching four classes, five days a week. The money was meager, the very hasty hiring process was perplexing, but I was a graduate student, excited for the opportunity to have an entrée into the Soviet émigré community, and I agreed without hesitation. Not wanting to draw attention to the fact that I had no prior classroom teaching experience, I cautiously asked the principal before leaving his office if he might advise me on how to prepare for my classes. Just stay a few pages ahead of the students were his only words of advice. Everything will work out fine, he assured me with a smile, and sent me on my way.

As soon as the school year began and I had the opportunity to meet the other teachers, I learned that Torah Academy was run by an ultra-Orthodox administration, was funded by ultra-Orthodox donors, and was almost exclusively staffed by teachers who viewed the Judaic studies classes as the most vital aspects of the students' education. Many of the teachers who taught math, American history, science, and English in the afternoons also taught religious studies classes in the mornings, and aside from two or three exceptions, none had college degrees. Most were from a relatively tight social and religious circle, lived in a few neighborhoods in Queens, had studied in the same religious academies, and looked to the same Agudat Israel rabbis for guidance. As teachers at Torah Academy, they were fully committed to imparting their particular understanding of Judaism to their students, most of whom were from the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. I learned how strong this commitment was toward the end of the school year when I found out that most of the teachers had not received their paychecks in a timely, regular fashion. In the spring, as a result of a donor's serious lapse in payments, the school's financial crisis reached a peak. At a staff meeting I was surprised to discover that many of the teachers whom I saw each day in the hallways busily rushing from class to class, holding stacks of graded papers in their hands, had not been paid for four consecutive months. More surprising was the fact that there had been so little discussion about this issue in the photocopy room and teachers' lounge, and that I had been utterly sheltered from any knowledge about this situation.

It is this point that brings me to a few words about my place in the school, and the way in which my perspective informs the analysis to follow. Like the other teachers at Torah Academy, I had grown up knowing about the plight of the Soviet Jews who were not permitted to study or practice their religion. Also like the other teachers, I was excited by the school's project of filling this gaping hole left by the communist regime. However, if this task had fallen to my hands, I would have been at a loss. Although I was deeply invested in my own Jewishness, I did not closely identify with any single variant of Judaism and would have been hard-pressed to come up with an approach to teach the religion. As a young child my family belonged to a synagogue affiliated with the Conservative movement, and I attended an ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch summer camp. During my teenage years, my parents joined an Orthodox synagogue and sent me to a nonsectarian Jewish high school, in which many different religious perspectives were taught, each given equal weight. For college, I chose to attend Barnard both because of its large, active Jewish student population and also because of the highly liberal education it offered. After I completed my B.A., I remained committed to practicing the religion as an insider, but also enrolled in a Ph.D. program with the intent of studying Judaism and the Jewish world through a critical, analytic approach. As a doctoral student in cultural anthropology, academic inquiry entailed for me an effort to investigate the ways in which Jewish texts were translated into practice. By engaging in my own ethnographic research and drawing on the writings of others, I worked to gain an understanding of the great range of forms the religion had taken on across the far reaches of the diaspora.

At Torah Academy, then, I was primarily driven by a desire to learn about the ways in which my students' experiences in Soviet Central Asia had shaped their practices and understandings of Judaism. I also took note of the great divide between the religious outlook of the school's student population and its teacher population, and was intrigued by the conversations between them in which they negotiated claims to two very different views of Judaism. In short, unlike most of the faculty members, my goal was not to teach Judaism to the students. Rather, it was to enrich my understanding of it through discussions with my students and with the other teachers, and through my observations of the unfolding encounter between them.

In light of what I learned over the course of the year, I was able to make some sense out of the way the teachers handled the lapse in their paychecks, as well as about why I had been sheltered from the situation. Because my educational background, my social world, and my religious views did not neatly overlap with that of the administration, I had not been hired to teach courses that were integral to the school's agenda. My social studies classes, like the math, science, and English classes, were included in the curriculum for the purpose of securing state accreditation. This goal, however, was utilitarian, and was secondary to Torah Academy's central mission.

The peripheral nature of the relationship between the courses I taught and the school's primary agenda explained why I had been hired so quickly and casually. So, too, it explained why I continued to receive my salary in the midst of the school's grave financial troubles. Each time the principal handed me my paycheck and I accepted it, we jointly acknowledged that my work, unlike that of the Judaic teachers, was not organically linked to Torah Academy's core purpose. By contrast, the fact that the teachers who did not receive their paychecks voiced almost no public protest, and continued to work without any clear sense of when they would be compensated, brought into sharp relief just how strongly and authentically they identified with the school's objectives.

These objectives were articulated by a number of teachers in response to my survey question, "What are your goals as a teacher at Torah Academy?" One woman wrote, "I wanted to imbue my students with a love for Judaism, which unfortunately they don't get from the home." Another wrote that her energies were directed toward giving her students "an awareness and appreciation of who they are—as Jews." This teacher pointed out the urgency of her task by explaining that the "students have much opposition from their parents—many of whom find religious observance to be fanatical and a thing of the past." This trope, that the students did not grow up with an appreciation of Judaism and that they had to be taught it from scratch, was strongly articulated in Judaic studies lessons.

Toward the end of the academic year, a number of teachers gave me permission to sit in on their classes, which gave me the opportunity to watch them in action in their effort to "bring the students closer" to their religion. They read religious texts with their students, prayed with them, and taught the religious strictures pertaining to keeping kosher and to observing the Sabbath and holidays. So, too, they taught them moral precepts such as those related to dressing modestly, respecting elders, and refraining from gossip. But more than just teaching the rules of the religion, the teachers worked hard to convince their students to incorporate these practices into their lives. As part of their efforts to "sell" Judaism, the teachers told stories with moral lessons, highlighted the power of divine retribution, described the ways in which religious laws could add meaning to life, and chided those who did not observe them.

The work of the teachers was described in an article about the school that appeared in New York Newsday the year I taught there. Proud that his school was featured in the paper, and pleased with the story journalist Susan Berfield told, the principal hung the article on his office door and distributed it to all the teachers. When I picked up the copy in my mailbox, I was drawn to the headline, printed in large bold type, "Heritage 101." This title offered a preview of Berfield's description of Torah Academy's curriculum as an introductory course on Judaism for students who had arrived in the United States, "knowing nothing about being Jewish except to hide it." As a result of the restrictions posed by the Soviet Union, the piece began, the school's students, almost all of whom were from Soviet Central Asia, had been isolated from the rest of the Jewish world for most of the twentieth century. Over the course of this contemporary period of isolation they had forgotten how to practice their religion and had lost their sense of connection to Jewish history and to the Jewish People. They came to the United States with only the vaguest historical memory of their ties to the rest of the Jewish world. Upon arrival, the story continued, many had been fortunate enough to find their way to Torah Academy. Here, they were given the opportunity to learn about their religion and reconnect with their people.

Was the school successful? Did the teachers manage to imbue students with a "love for Judaism" and an "awareness" of who they are as Jews? Was the principal able to bring the students "closer to Judaism" and help them achieve "spiritual growth"? These were all critical questions for the teachers, who had invested vast stores of energy and time in working toward these goals. So, too, they were critical for the administration, whose primary directive was to carry out the mission they shared with the school's donors. Finally, they were essential to the donors themselves, whose funding was conditional on the school's success in meeting its stated goals. The answers to these questions were addressed in staff meetings and memos, and at the school's graduation ceremony, an ideal forum to assure the teachers, administrators, and donors of Torah Academy's success. The caps and gowns, the awards, the formalized speeches, the podium, stage, and performative nature of the event all served to imbue the graduation ceremony's message with a powerful aura of truth. This message was not just that the students had mastered a certain body of knowledge, or that the school had been successful in educating another cadre of young adults. More than anything, the students' receipt of their diplomas signified their passage from a state of religious ignorance to a state of Jewish knowledge and commitment, and from a state of disconnection from world Jewry to connection.

The marking of this transformation was foreshadowed in the invitation to the event, which urged recipients to come witness a "miracle": the transformation of children "from a world of atheism to a world of Judaism." It was the story of this miracle that was featured as the main theme of the ceremony. In the speech delivered by the assistant principal, the students were characterized as "young men and women ... [who] came from an oppressive, atheist society determined to suppress religion in general and Judaism in particular." He then turned to the audience, asked "Can you believe it?!" and with inflections of amazement continued, "Coming from the society that they did, that they now have the basic bedrock of belief?" This miracle was reiterated in a screening of a promotional film about the school. Against the backdrop of scenes of children actively engaged in a class, the narrator explained, "These young students come spiritually devoid of everything and anything Jewish." As a result of the education they receive in the school, the narrator continued, they develop "strong feelings for Yiddishkeit [Jewishness]," are "increasing their level of [religious] observance, [their] homes are being made kosher, Shabbat is being kept, and families are being drawn closer together."


Excerpted from Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism by Alanna E. Cooper. Copyright © 2012 Alanna E. Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface: Reining in Diaspora's Margins
Part 1. Introduction
1. First Encounter: Bukharan Jewish Immigrants in an Ashkenazi School in New York
2. Writing Bukharan Jewish History: Memory, Authority, and Peoplehood
Part 2. Eighteenth-Century Conversations
3. An Emissary from the Holy Land in Central Asia
4. Revisiting the Story of the Emissary from the Holy Land
Part 3. Nineteenth-Century Conversations
5. Russian Colonialism and Central Asian Jewish Routes
6. A Matter of Meat: Local and Global Religious Leaders in Conversation
7. Building a Neighborhood and Constructing Bukharan Jewish Identity
Part 4. Twentieth-Century Conversations
8. Local Jewish Forms
9. International Jewish Organizations Encounter Local Jewish Community Life
10. Varieties of Bukharan Jewishness
11. Negotiating Authenticity and Identity: Bukharan Jews Encounter Each Other and the Self
12. Jewish History as a Conversation

What People are Saying About This

Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Hagar Salamon

Innovative and thought provoking, this well researched and well constructed book . . . provides a valuable contribution to the understanding of the dynamics of Jewish identities. . . . The Bukharan Jewish community can be taken as a case study of Jewish diasporic dynamics and forces. The book demonstrates and analyzes—both historically and ethnographically—the mechanisms that underlie the sense of oneness between the Bukharan Jews and Jewish communities in other cultural contexts.

editor of Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries (IUP, 1996) - Harvey E. Goldberg

With the eyes of an anthropologist attuned to history, Alanna Cooper provides a path into the past, culture, and evolving identities of Bukharan Jews as they became enmeshed in global forces from the 19th century onward. The book's journey of discovery leads to a grasp of Jewish social and religious life that is transnational in its scope. Cooper's interweaving of anthropology and history contributes to a robust and expanding paradigm of Jewish Studies.

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