Uncovering the Religious and Cultural Significance of Jewish Tashkent
Introduction to Jewish Tashkent
Tashkent is the capital city of Uzbekistan, known for its many museums and mix of modern and Soviet-era architecture. Located in the northeastern region of Uzbekistan, near the border with Kazakhstan, it’s the most populous city in Central Asia, with a population of 2,909,500. The name “Tashkent” comes from the Turkic tash and kent, literally translated as "Stone City" or "City of Stones".
[caption id="attachment_46731" align="alignnone" width="960"] TV Tower in Tashkent, Uzbekistan | Attribution: Lukas Bischoff via Canva[/caption]
In 1865, the city of Tashkent was conquered by the Russians, and the small community of Bukharan Jews living there at the time saw an improvement in their legal status. This led to a surge of Jews from neighboring Bukhara settling in Tashkent. Despite the Czarist rule prohibiting Jews from European Russia from settling in Tashkent, a small community of Russian Jews who belonged to categories that could settle outside the Pale of Settlement was formed during the latter half of the 19th century.
Jewish Culture and History in Tashkent
Early Jewish Life in Tashkent
In 1897 there were 1,746 Jews in the region of Tashkent, most of whom lived in the town itself. On the eve of World War I about 3,000 Jews lived there and maintained Jewish educational and cultural institutions in which the language of instruction was Hebrew. A Tajiki-language Zionist newspaper, Raḥamim, was published. With the establishment of the Soviet regime, the Jewish cultural and religious institutions were gradually liquidated and the Zionist newspaper was replaced by a Communist one, Bairaki Huriet ("The Flag of Freedom"). During the 1920s and 1930s Tashkent became one of the centers to which active members of the Zionist Organization and members of the pioneering youth movements were exiled. During World War II Tashkent became one of the most important absorption centers for refugees from the German-occupied regions. Many remained in the town after the war, and a large Jewish settlement was thus created.
Recent and Contemporary Jewish Life in Tashkent
In the 1959 census 50,445 Jews were registered in Tashkent (5.5% of the total population), most of them newly arrived Ashkenazi Jews and a minority of old-time Bukharan Jews. There was one synagogue for Ashkenazim and two for Bukharans all in the same compound. In 1963 the organized baking of maẓẓot was prohibited, but Jews continued to bake them at home. The synagogue buildings were damaged in the 1966 earthquake in the area; the Bukharan Jews repaired their synagogue, while Ashkenazim moved to a new synagogue building. Tashkent Jews applied for exit permits to Israel, particularly from 1968. After the mass exodus of the 1990s only a few thousand Jews remained in Tashkent, which maintained an active community center as part of the general revival of Jewish life.
Iconic Attractions and Events in Tashkent
The Jewish Quarter in Tashkent
The Jewish Quarter of Tashkent is a special place full of history and culture. It is home to some of the oldest synagogues in Central Asia, many of which date back centuries. These places provide insight into the lives of Jewish people throughout Tashkent’s long history, from its origins as an ancient Silk Road city to its modern-day status as a thriving cultural center. The area also features several renowned attractions such as the Great Synagogue, or Choral Synagogue, which was built in 1866 and is one of the largest Jewish houses of worship in Central Asia today. Additionally, visitors can explore other historic sites including cemeteries and monuments dedicated to famous figures associated with the city who have made significant contributions in fields such as literature, art, science and politics.
[caption id="attachment_46734" align="alignnone" width="1185"] Midieval Kukeldash Madrasah in Tashkent, Uzbekistan | Attribution: Monticello[/caption]
Midieval Kukeldash Madrasah in Tashkent, Uzbekistan | Attribution: Monticello
The Tero Synagogue
The Tero Synagogue in Tashkent is one of two active Bukharian synagogues. Mr. Arkadiy Isakharov is the chairman of the synagogue who often leads tours of the building and can explain the brief history to guests who wish to learn about the Jewish community of Tashkent. The synagogue's arc contains numerous Torah Scrolls, several of which survived a fire and others that are more than 250 years old! This synagogue was formed because of the Jewish cemetery, called Textile, that was nearby. In Tashkent there are two cemeteries that were used to bury Bukharian Jews. One being Textile, and the other being Chigatai.
[caption id="attachment_46732" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Tero Synagogue in Tashkent, Uzbekistan | Attribution: ТЕРО Ташкентская Еврейская Религиозная Община европейских евреев via Facebook[/caption]
The Textile Cemetery
European-Jewish cemetery, also known as the Textile Cemetery is located in the central part of the City, next to the “Textile factory.” The first graves here are dated back to 1944. The number of graves from 1944 to 1965 is 14,320 people, from 1965 to 1988 – 2,150 people, from 1988 to 2003 – 581 people, the total number of graves is 16,300. The cemetery consists of 8 sectors: 6 sectors are Jewish, 2 sectors are Russian.
Popular Folk Dance ensemble "Shalom, Tashkent"
Folk Dance ensemble “Shalom, Tashkent” is a popular dance group from the Jewish Quarter in Tashkent that has been performing for over 30 years. Founded by three brothers, the ensemble was created to celebrate and preserve traditional Uzbek-Jewish culture through song and dance. The performance features a colorful mix of music and movement inspired by both Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions, with costumes designed to evoke the rich history of Jewish life in Central Asia. In addition to their regular performances at local festivals and events, Shalom, Tashkent also offers special workshops for visitors interested in learning more about the city's unique cultural heritage.
Iconic Personalities of Tashkent
Barno Itzhakova was a famous singer born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, from a traditional Jewish family. She sang in various languages including Uzbek, Tajik, Bukhori, and Russian, reflecting the multicultural nature of Uzbekistan. She was known as the "Queen of Shashmaqam," a royal music developed to entertain the Emir of Bukhara and his court, in which Bukharan Jews played a prominent role. Itzhakova became a star of stage, radio, and television in Tajikistan, where she moved with her husband, who was also a singer. She won many government awards, including the Soviet Order of the Red Banner of Labor. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she and her husband migrated to Israel due to the volatile nationalist atmosphere in Central Asia. She died in 2001, but in 2017, the city of Petah Tikva named a street after her.
[caption id="attachment_46733" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Barno Itzhakova’s Grave in Jerusalem | Attribution: Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons[/caption]
Ilyas Malayev was a talented poet and musician who was considered a virtuoso in the tar, tambur, and violin. He mastered the traditions of Central Asian music known as Shashmaqam and became a national figure in Soviet Uzbekistan, particularly in Tashkent where he combined traditional Shashmaqam with his own songs, poetry, and comedy. However, anti-Semitism and Communist control of the arts limited his creative freedom, and he was unable to have his poetry published. Desperate to have his poetry published, he left Uzbekistan for the enclave of Bukharan Jews in Queens, New York, where he continued to perform, write, and lead ensembles. Despite being lionized by the local Bukharan community and praised by music scholars, he lived in relative poverty and anonymity. He died in 2008, questioning whether his move to New York was worth it.
Summary of Tashkent's Jewish Story
Tashkent is a city of great cultural and religious significance for the Jewish community. From its early beginnings as an important center for Bukharian Jews to its modern-day attractions, such as the Textile Cemetery and Tero Synagogue, and iconic personalities Barno Itzhakova and Ilyas Malayev, it's clear that this Central Asian hub has played an integral role in shaping Jewish life throughout history. Whether you’re interested in learning more about ancient customs or experiencing contemporary culture firsthand, there are plenty of sites within this vibrant metropolis where visitors can explore the rich legacy of Judaism in Tashkent.