Exploring Jewish Culture in Kolkata, India – A Journey Through History

Introduction to Jewish Kolkata

Jewish Kolkata is a city with a rich and diverse Jewish history. For centuries, Jewish people have lived in the city, bringing their culture and traditions to the bustling metropolis. From the Jewish Quarter of Bowbazar to famous Jewish figures who have left an indelible mark on Kolkata’s cultural identity, there is much to explore when it comes to this unique aspect of Indian heritage. This article will take you through a journey of discovery as we uncover the Jewish roots of Kolkata and explore some of its most important sites, people, and places associated with its Jewish past. Let us begin our exploration into one of India’s most fascinating cities!

Kolkata | Attribution: © Vyacheslav Argenberg / http://www.vascoplanet.com/, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Jewish Culture and History in Kolkata

Early Jewish Life in Kolkata

Jewish people have been living in Kolkata for centuries, with the earliest Jewish settlers arriving in the city as early as 1798. These pioneers of Jewish life were mostly Baghdadi Jews who had come from Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. They quickly established a thriving Jewish community, setting up businesses and places of worship such as synagogues. Life for these early Jewish settlers was hard but rewarding, with many finding success through their entrepreneurial spirit and industriousness. Despite facing prejudice and discrimination from some quarters, they managed to persevere and build a strong sense of Jewish identity within the city’s diverse population.

Jewish people in Kolkata have been contributing to the city’s economy and culture for centuries. They quickly established businesses in various sectors such as trade, banking, manufacturing, and retail. They also contributed significantly to social development projects such as education initiatives for Jewish children and support for Jewish refugees who had fled persecution elsewhere. Their hard work enabled them to thrive despite the prejudice they faced from some quarters. It is clear that Jews played an important role in helping Kolkata become what it is today – a vibrant metropolis full of opportunity where cultures mix and mingle freely.

Recent and Contemporary Jewish Life in Kolkata

Jewish life in Kolkata today is a vibrant mix of Jewish traditions and modern culture. Jewish people continue to play an important role in the city’s economy and culture, though their numbers have dwindled over the years. Today, there are approximately 3,000 Jews living in Kolkata, most of whom live in the Jewish Quarter of Bowbazar. The Jewish community here is close-knit and supportive, with multiple synagogues providing spiritual guidance for those who seek it. Despite its small size, this community has a strong sense of identity which can be seen through its commitment to preserving Jewish customs such as celebrating Shabbat each week or observing traditional holidays like Passover. In addition to its religious practices, members of the Jewish community also actively participate in cultural events hosted by other religions or organizations within Kolkata – evidence that they remain firmly embedded within India’s melting pot society today.

Iconic Attractions and Events in Kolkata

The Jewish Quarter in Kolkata

The Jewish Quarter in Kolkata is a testament to the vibrant Jewish heritage of the city. Located in the heart of Kolkata, this area has been home to Jewish people for centuries and is filled with places of Jewish cultural and religious importance. The Jewish Quarter consists of several synagogues, schools, cemeteries, shops, and other establishments that are frequented by Jews from all over India. It is also home to some famous Jewish figures who lived or died in the city such as Sir Elijah Moses Mocatta and Rabbi Solomon David Sassoon. Visitors can explore this quarter’s rich history through its various monuments and buildings which have been preserved since colonial times. A visit to the Jewish Quarter will provide an insight into Kolkata’s fascinating past while allowing visitors to experience its unique culture firsthand.

Neveh Shalome Synagogue

The Neveh Shalome Synagogue is a Jewish place of worship located in the Jewish Quarter of Kolkata. Built in 1884, it is one of the oldest synagogues in India and has been an important part of Jewish life since then. As one of the few surviving Jewish monuments in Kolkata, this synagogue is a reminder to all visitors about Jewish history and culture. It serves as a spiritual home for many Jews living in Kolkata today and continues to be used for religious services on certain days throughout the year. The synagogue also hosts special events such as lectures, concerts, and exhibitions that celebrate Jewish heritage and culture. Visitors can explore its rich interior filled with artifacts from different eras that tell stories about Jewish life over time. A visit to Neveh Shalome Synagogue will provide insight into the unique history and culture of Jews living in Kolkata today while allowing visitors to experience its beauty firsthand.

Neveh shalome synagogue | Attribution: Santanu072, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Jewish Cemetery of Kolkata

The Jewish Cemetery of Kolkata is a historic landmark that serves as a reminder of the Jewish community’s long history in the city. Located near the Jewish Quarter, this cemetery dates back to 1864 and contains hundreds of graves that tell stories about Jewish life in Kolkata through the years. It is an important site for many Jews living in Kolkata today, providing them with a place to remember their ancestors and reflect on their culture. The cemetery also hosts several events throughout the year which celebrate Jewish heritage, such as lectures and exhibitions highlighting Jewish contributions to local society. A visit to this cemetery will allow visitors to explore its rich history while gaining insight into Jewish life in modern-day Kolkata.

Jewish Cementery of Kolkata | Attribution: Rangan Datta Wiki, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Popular Purim Carnival and Masquerade Ball

The Jewish community of Kolkata celebrates the Jewish holiday of Purim each year with a grand carnival and masquerade ball. This popular event is held at various locations around the city, attracting both Jewish and non-Jewish people alike. The carnival features traditional Jewish food, music, dance performances, games and activities for children, as well as costume competitions that bring out some of the most creative costumes from participants. Visitors can also enjoy a variety of attractions such as art installations, puppet shows and magicians to keep them entertained throughout the day. At nightfall, the festivities culminate in an extravagant Masquerade Ball where guests can dress up in elaborate costumes inspired by their favorite characters from Jewish folklore and literature. The Purim Carnival and Masquerade Ball provides an opportunity for everyone to come together to celebrate Jewish culture while having fun doing so!

Iconic Personalities of Kolkata

Sir David Sassoon

Sir David Sassoon was a Jewish businessman and philanthropist who left an indelible mark on the city of Kolkata. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, he moved to India as a young man and quickly established himself as one of the most successful traders in the region. He used his wealth to give back to the Jewish community by building factories, schools, hospitals and other institutions that helped improve Jewish life in Kolkata. In addition to providing economic opportunities for Jewish families, Sir David also supported Jewish culture through his patronage of Jewish festivals such as Purim Carnival and Masquerade Ball. His legacy lives on today through these institutions which continue to serve people from all backgrounds living in this vibrant city. Sir David Sassoon passed away at his home in Kolkata at the age of 91 after living there for over 70 years.

David Sassoon | Attribution: Arnold Wright, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was a Jewish writer from a Polish-Jewish background living in India when she won two Academy Awards for her screenplays ‘A Room With A View’ (1985) and ‘Howards End’ (1992). She was one of the first female authors to win this prestigious award while writing about Indian cinema with its unique history intertwined with Jewish culture. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s life and works are closely linked to the city of Kolkata, where she spent many years researching Jewish culture and discovering stories that would later become part of her work. Her writings shed light on Jewish identity in India during a time when it wasn’t easy to be different or express oneself freely. Through her work, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala not only made an impact on Jewish communities in Kolkata but also around the world. Although Ruth Prawer Jhabvala passed away in 2013 at the age of 85 in New York City, she will always be remembered for her contributions to both Indian and Jewish culture throughout her life.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala | Attribution: Gotfryd, Bernard, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Summary of Kolkata’s Jewish Story

Jewish culture in Kolkata is a unique and fascinating story of struggle, success, and resilience. From Sir David Sassoon to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the city has been home to Jewish figures who have left an indelible mark on both Jewish life and Indian cinema alike. Today, visitors can explore this rich history by visiting places like the Jewish Quarter or attending events such as Purim Carnival & Masquerade Ball which celebrate Jewish culture while having fun doing so! Whether you’re interested in learning more about how Jews lived during British rule or discovering stories of iconic Jewish personalities from India’s past, Kolkata offers something for everyone looking to uncover its Jewish roots.

Ancient Jewish Rome with Marco Misano | Julius Caesar and The Jews: A Close and Friendly Relationship

Gaius Julius Caesar (12 July 100 BCE – 15 March BCE) was given military support by Jews at a critical moment in his fight in Egypt against Pompey. Due to this cooperation, Caesar granted religious tolerance and security for Jews.

Thus, both gave Jews freedom to practice their religion, without interference granted them security and had a positive view of them. Rome will mark the Ides of March and the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 2023. While many tours in the eternal city will focus on this historical re-enactment of that fateful day in 44 BCE. The licensed tour guides from the Jewish community of Rome, such as Marco Misano, offers educational Jewish heritage walking tours in Rome and throughout Italy from a Jewish perspective.  As the anniversary of the Ides of March soon approaches, I reached out to historian Samuele Rocca in Jerusalem to ask him about the Julius Caesar and the Jews of Rome.

When the Egyptians besieged Julius Caesar in Alexandria, planning to murder him just as they had killed Pompey, the Jews living in Judaea, modern Israel sent in over 3,000 soldiers to help.  In gratitude, when Caesar took over Rome, he changed some of the civil laws, such as, to allow the Jews to better observe the Sabbath and revoke the harsh decrees and taxation. How did this impact the Jews of Rome?

Historian Samuele Rocca:

The Jews living in the Rome of the Late Republic were active in politics. The most important sources on the participation of the Jews living in Rome in the years before the civil war between Pompey and Caesar to the political life of the city are Cicero and Suetonius. Cicero Pro Flacco presents us with much data on the Jews living in Rome.  Some of it can help us in reconstructing the legal and social position of the Jews living in Rome in 59 B.C.E. Thus Cicero writes that the Jews “stick together”, that “every year it was customary to send gold to Jerusalem on the order of the Jews from Italy and from all our provinces” (Cicero, Pro Flacco 28, 66-69). It seems then the Jews living in Rome in 59 B.C.E., had a certain type of communal life, as the reader was accustomed to think that the Jews “stick together” and that they sent each year from Rome as well as from Italy the Half – Shekel too the Jerusalem Temple. This could have been possible only if the Jews of Rome would have been organized together in some way, as to collect money from various sources, to deposit it and to send it all together, thus organizing the effort through land or sea to Judaea and Jerusalem could have been possible through a communitarian effort. Thus, it seems that the Jewish community of Rome in the Late Republic was organized following informal lines, although the Jews had the right as individuals or as a group to send the Half – Shekel to the Jerusalem Temple.

However, Cicero’s text is important because it shows the political activities of the Jews. Cicero thus accuses Laelius, who directed the defense that brought the Jews, knowing “what a big crowd (turba)” it is, and “how influential they are in informal assemblies (contiones)”. Cicero hints that the Jews could be brought together to form a crowd, and that they could be active in informal assemblies (contiones), as opposed to comitia, or the legally recognized organization of the Roman People to elect magistrates and to vote a law. This makes clear that most of the Jews involved were just foreigners or liberti, who had not the right to take part in comitia. On the other hand, from this group are excluded the Jews who were slaves, and the few Jews who were Roman citizens. The first as slaves could not have taken part in these assemblies, and the latter were too few to influence a contio, and anyway they could participate in the various comitia.

The Jews acted like that because they had a certain clientelar obligation, towards Pompey and Gabinius, supporting them informally in contiones and formally during comitia. Pompey, after he defeated Aristobulus II, the Hasmonean prince who dared to defy Rome, had Hyrcanus II, his brother appointed as High Priest of Judaea. As the ruler of Judaea, at least till Pharsalus, Hyrcanus II was Pompey’s cliens or liege. According to Appian, Hyrcanus II’s soldiers could be found in Pompey army fighting at Pharsalus. This implies only that Hyrcanus, as cliens of Pompey, had to take his side during the civil war against Caesar. Obviously Pompey death absolved Hyrcanus II from any further obligation towards Pompey or his party (Appian, Civil Wars II, 71). It seems that, as Josephus hints, Hyrcanus II collaborated with Gabinius as well, during the later tenure in 58 B.C.E. in his campaign against Ptolemaic Egypt. According to Josephus, Gabinius was assisted by Antipater and Hyrcanus in his campaign against Egypt. He was supplied with grain, arms and money by Antipater. Moreover the Jews of Pelusium were won over and acted as guards of entrances of Egypt (Josephus, AJ XIV, 98-99).  The Jews living in Rome, therefore, would have been clientes of Pompey, as their far away ruler, the High Priest Hyrcanus II, to whom they sent each year the Half-Shekel was his cliens. Moreover Pompey was probably the only politician who could have pushed for a legalization of the right of the Jews to send money from Rome to the Temple. However, some of the Jews living in Rome were clientes of Gabinius. Although Gabinius was in the East as consul in 58 B.C.E., he was before together with Pompey as one of his legati. It is worthwhile to remember that in this period, when Cicero wrote the Pro Flacco, nor Pompey or Gabinius were exactly in good terms with Cicero. Thus when in 58 B.C.E. Cicero was exiled, under the consulship of Gabinius and Piso, Pompey did not help Cicero in any way.

Courtesy of Marco Misano | Marco Misano standing in front of the bronze statue of Julius Caesar located at the Roman Forum

Yet, once Civil War came, the Jews stood by Julius Caesar, Pompey’s legitimate rival. In fact the Jews living in Rome just followed the steps of their leader in Judaea, the High Priest Hyrcanus II, who switched his allegiance from Pompey to Julius Caesar after the latter defeat at Pharsalus and death in Egypt, which absolved them from any allegiance to Pompey’s party. It seems that Julius Caesar tried to gather the support of the Jews living in Rome already at the beginning of the Civil War. Therefore Julius Caesar showed his support for the Hasmonean pretender Aristobulus II, then living in Rome as exile. Aristobulus II was sent by Julius Caesar with two legions in Syria, but he was poisoned by the Pompeians. His son Alexander met a similar fate, as he was soon afterwards beheaded by Scipio at Antioch (Josephus, AJ XIV, 123-125). Julius Caesar could not have done otherwise, as Hyrcanus II, the legitimate Hasmonean ruler, stood firm by Pompey. Besides, Julius Caesar wanted to support Aristobulus II, because he was aware that the Jews living in Judaea preferred him to his brother, perceived as a weak figure. It was probably through the auspices of Gabinius that Julius Caesar got in touch with Aristobulus II. When he was governor of Syria, Aristobulus and his son Alexander tried to uphold the flag of rebellion against Rome twice, but they were easily defeated. Gabinius showed pity and refrained from harsh actions, sending the two Hasmonean pretenders back to their Roman golden exile.  It seems that Hyrcanus II stood by Julius Caesar through the offices of Antipater his main councilor, who had a special relationship with Mark Antony, Master of the Horse, second in command to the dictator Julius Caesar. Mark Antony, as a young man served in Judaea in the wake of Gabinius and there he became friend with Antipater, the father of the future King Herod the Great. Josephus, taking as primary source the historical writing of Strabo of Amaseia, narrates that ”after Pompey was dead, and after that victory Caesar had gained over him, Antipater, who managed the Jewish affairs, became very useful to

Caesar when he made war against Egypt, and that by the order of Hyrcanus; for when Mithridates of Pergainus was bringing his auxiliaries, and was not able to continue his march through Pelusium, but obliged to stay at Askelon, Antipater came to him, conducting three thousand of the Jews, armed men….So Mithridates marched out of Syria, and came to Pelusium…(which) was taken.

But it happened that the Egyptian Jews, who dwelt in the country called Onias, would not let Antipater and Mithridates, with their soldiers, pass to Caesar; but Antipater persuaded them to come over with their party, because he was of the same people with them, and that chiefly by showing them the epistles of Hyrcanus II the high priest, wherein he exhorted them to cultivate friendship with Caesar, and to supply his army with money, and all sorts of provisions which they wanted; and accordingly, when they saw Antipater and the high priest of the same sentiments, they did as they were desired. And when the Jews about Memphis heard that these Jews were come over to Caesar, they also invited Mithridates to come to them; so he came and received them also into his army. And when Mithridates had gone over all Delta, as the place is called, he came to a pitched battle with the enemy, near the place called the Jewish Camp. Now Mithridates had the right wing, and Antipater the left; and when it came to a fight, that wing where Mithridates was gave way, and was likely to suffer extremely, unless Antipater had come running to him with his own soldiers along the shore, when he had already beaten the enemy that opposed him; so he delivered Mithridates, and put those Egyptians who had been too hard for him to flight. He also took their camp, and continued in the pursuit of them. He also recalled Mithridates, who had been worsted, and was retired a great way off; of whose soldiers eight hundred fell, but of Antipater&#39;s fifty. So Mithridates sent an account of this battle to Caesar, and openly declared that Antipater was the author of this victory, and of his own preservation, insomuch that Caesar commended Antipater then, and made use of him all the rest of that war in the most hazardous undertakings; he happened also to be wounded in one of those engagements…When Caesar, after some time, had finished that war … he honored Antipater greatly, and confirmed Hyrcanus in the high priesthood; and bestowed on Antipater the privilege of a citizen of Rome, and a freedom from taxes (Josephus, AJ XIV, 127-136).

Photograph by Brenda Lee Bohen | Marco Misano is showing the original inscription inside the Colosseum that reads the original Latin inscription that reads: “The emperor Titus Caesar Vespasian Augustus had the new amphitheater build from the profits of the war” Clearly, the inscription refers to the huge loot taken by Titus, after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem!” (Louis H. Feldman, “Financing the Colosseum,” Biblical Archaeology Review 27.4, 2001).

Julius Caesar recognized with a series of decrees approved during two senatus consulta held respectively in October 47 BC and in 44 BC, during his dictatorship. various privileges to Hyrcanus II, evidently as a result of the help of Antipater. The Roman dictator confirmed Hyrcanus II as high priest, and furthermore appointed him ethnarch, or ruler of all the Jews living in the territories ruled by Rome. The territories under Hasmonean rule, Judea, Idumea, Galilee, and part of Samaria and Perea, were partially exempted from paying tribute to Rome, for example during the Sabbatic year. Furthermore, the treaty of alliance and friendship with Rome, which existed before Pompey treacherously put an end to the independence of Judaea was renewed and Judea was given the title of socius and amicus Populi Romani, that is, an ally of the Roman people. The walls of Jerusalem, demolished by Pompey, were rebuilt. Besides, Antipater and his family were given Roman citizenship, a very precious gift (Josephus, AJ XIV, 192-212).

Moreover, Julius Caesar gave ample privileges to the Jews living in Rome. In fact, the legal and successful framework for a communitarian organization was created during Julius Caesar’s dictatorship. Thus, although Julius Caesar in fact restricted the number and the activities of the collegia in Rome, the corporate bodies, which were in the Roman Republic the framework for any type of communal organization, the Roman leader viewed the Jewish communities as licit and legal communities. Hence, during the years 49 – 44 B.C.E., Julius Caesar renewed with the Lex Iulia De Collegis the earlier prohibitions passed by the Senate against the various corporate organizations and guilds or collegia, dissolving most of the collegia, with the exception of the oldest (Suetonius, Divus Julius I, 42).

It seems, however, that the Roman dictator legalized in Rome the Jewish communities as collegia licita. The only document, quoted by Josephus, which refers to the privileges given by Julius Caesar specifically to the Jewish communities of Roman Italy is a decree sent by Publius Servilius Isauricus to the city of Parium in 44 B.C.E. slightly after Julius Caesar’ murder (Josephus, AJ XIV, 210-212). This document is part of a collection of various decrees collected by Josephus, which concern the Jewish communities of the Province of Asia, dated to the years of the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. The decree states clearly that although Julius Caesar in the Lex Iulia forbade all religious societies, or collegia, which Josephus calls thiasoi, however an exception was made for the Jews living in Roman Italy. According to Josephus, &quot;for even Caius Caesar, our imperator and consul, in that decree wherein he forbade the Bacchanal rioters to meet in the city, did yet permit these Jews, and these only, both to bring in their contributions, and to make their common suppers&quot;. The decree, which concerns the Jews living in Parium, mentions only indirectly the legal privileges enjoyed by the Jewish communities of Roman Italy.

Photograph by Brenda Lee Bohen | Marco Misano giving an introduction about the history of the Jews of Rome in room 2, Jewish Museum of Rome

However, the decree mentions only indirectly the legal privileges enjoyed by the Jewish communities in Roman Italy. Yet, a careful reading of the various decrees collected by Josephus, already mentioned, which concern the Jewish communities of the Province of Asia, allow to reconstruct these privileges. From then onwards, Jews living in Roman Italy would be permitted to create collegia licita, or communities, as they were permitted to assemble, to collect contribution of money for the Temple of Jerusalem, and to hold common meals. However, once the passage of Suetonius and this passage of Josephus are compared, there is a problem, namely that Josephus quotes a decree and not a law, the Lex Julia De Collegis. Possibly, Julius Caesar on one hand enacted the law that allowed a few collegia legittima, while forbidding many others. There is no motivation to think that this law also legitimated Jewish community, recognizing them as collegiate institutions as it was formulated in general terms. Possibly, when the Jews of Rome wanted to secure a specific legal recognition for their communities, Julius Caesar ruled through a decree that the legal status of the Jewish communities in Rome would correspond to that of the collegia legittima.  And this is the decree mentioned by Josephus, and it can explain why the passage of Josephus refers to a decree and not to a law. No wonder that Suetonius (Suetonius, Divus Julius I, 84: 5) reports the sincere mourning of the Jews at the funeral pyre of Julius Caesar, writing that“At the height of the public grief a throng of foreigners went about lamenting each other after the fashion of this country, above all the Jews, who even flocked to the funeral pyre for several successive nights.”

As the prominent American Jewish scholar Harry J. Leon once said “The Jewish community of Rome has had a longer continuous existence than any other community of Europe—since the Jews have lived in that city for more than two thousand years—yet no complete study of its ancient period has yet been extensively made.” For this very reason, I have been interviewing world renowned experts of the Jews during antiquity to consider and specifically evaluate the little-known history of the Jews of Rome and their contribution to the foundation of the eternal city.

Discovering a Timeless Legacy: The Story Behind Jewish Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Introduction to Jewish Samarkand

Samarkand, a city located in Uzbekistan on the ancient Silk Road, has been home to Jewish people for centuries. Its rich and diverse history is deeply intertwined with its vibrant Jewish culture, which can still be seen today in its architecture, synagogues, mosques, mausoleums and monuments dedicated to famous figures from Samarkand’s past. This article will explore how Jews have shaped this city over time and what it means to experience modern-day Jewish life in Samarkand. It will also provide an overview of places of cultural and religious importance for those wishing to discover this unique part of Central Asia’s history as well as introduce some of the famous Jewish figures who lived or died there.

Historic Holy Cemetery of Shahi Zinda in Samarkand, Uzbekistan | MehmetO via Canva

Jewish Culture and History in Samarkand

Early Jewish Life in Samarkand

When Timur-Leng, the Turco-Mongol conqueror who founded the Timurid Empire in and around modern-day Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia, made Samarkand the capital of his empire. He brought there many thousands of carpet weavers, silk dyers, artisans, and merchants from many cities he had conquered, and among them some Jews and Christians from Kurdistan and Northern Syria. In Samarkand, the Jewish deportees adopted the Eastern Persian idiom of the local Jewish (and Muslim) inhabitants. Those Jews, who shaped the character of the community, would much later be known as “Bukharan Jews.”

The term “Bukharan Jews” refers to the Central Asian Jews of the khanate of Bukhara, those of Samarkand, and the Ferghana Valley. Today, the region is divided between the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The majority of Bukharan Jews live in the Uzbek cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, and Kokand, in Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, and in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek. Also, a large number of Bukharan Jews have made aliyah and have congregated in Jerusalem.

Shrine of Timur in Samarkand, Uzbekistan | Willard84, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, the Jews of Central Asia are either “Bukharan” because they are descendants of the former subjects of the Emir of Bukhara, or else they are Ashkenazi Jews who settled there in the Russian Imperial period beginning in the 1860s, with the addition of political deportees in the Soviet period and Polish refugees who were fleeing Hitler.

Recent Jewish Life in Samarkand

In territories under direct Russian rule, Jews enjoyed personal liberties and economic opportunities unheard of under the ancient régime. Jewish families made big fortunes on trade with Russia proper, India, Persia, and Western Europe. The growth of the community attracted immigrants from Meshhed (Muslim crypto-Jews) and Afghanistan, where in 1885, the government confiscated the property of 250 Jews and expelled them, with their families, to Termez, wherefrom they proceeded to Samarkand. It also attracted Baha’is from Persia, some of whom were former converts from Judaism. 

Jewish Children with their Teacher in Samarkand | | Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1889, the new wave of immigration from Samarkand to the Holy Land began, being thus the third “modern” wave of ‘aliyah in the 1880s. In 1891, a new neighborhood—Rehoboth, or Rehoboth ha-Bukharim—arose in Jerusalem, with some 500 persons participating in the project. The neighborhood would evolve into the famous Bukharan Quarter of New Jerusalem, a beautifully built area with “palaces” of rich merchant families.

Jews in Modern-Day Samarkand

Approximately 4,200 Jews remain in Uzbekistan, mainly in Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, the major Jewish cultural centers. The Jewish Agency, Chabad and the Joint Distribution Committee are the most visible Jewish organizations in the country, providing Jewish education through schools and summer camps. The Jewish Agency sponsors a moadon (youth center) in several cities, including Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and some smaller cities in the Fergana Valley, like Andijan. 

In July 2001, more than 250 children attended the Jewish Agency’s summer seminar on the outskirts of the capital, Tashkent, a 10-day lesson on Israel and Judaism. The campers, ages 10-16, came from all over Uzbekistan (which is slightly larger than California). And while their knowledge of Jewish topics ranged widely, they all shared a Jewish identity, singing Hebrew songs, baking challah and drawing pictures of the Kotel. Some even spoke Hebrew, others kept kosher and rested on Shabbat.

Most Uzbek Jews today speak Russian. Historically, they spoke a Jewish dialect of Tajik which is still spoken in Bukhara and Samarkand. In addition, some speak English, Hebrew and Uzbek. Unfortunately, among adults, there is little mixing between Ashkenazim and Bukharim.

About 2,000 Jews live in Samarkand today and some of the top Jewish attractions include a synagogue, the old Jewish quarter, and a Jewish cemetery.

Jewish Quarter in Samarkand, Uzbekistan | Uzbek Travel https://uzbek-travel.com

Iconic Attractions and Events in Samarkand

The Jewish Quarter

The Jewish Quarter of Samarkand is a vibrant and bustling area that has been home to the city’s Jewish population for centuries. Located in the heart of the city, it is full of synagogues, religious schools, and other places of worship that celebrate this unique cultural identity. The quarter also houses some of Samarkand’s most important monuments dedicated to famous figures from its past such as Alexander Sverdlin and Shimon Dubnov. Visitors will find an abundance of restaurants offering traditional Uzbek cuisine as well as shops selling handmade crafts by local artisans – all within easy reach from this historic neighborhood. It’s no wonder why so many people flock to experience what it means to discover a timeless legacy in Samarkand today!

The Gumbaz Synagogue

The Gumbaz Synagogue is the only Jewish landmark inside the city, and it dates back to the end of the nineteenth century, specifically to the year 1891. This Jewish landmark is characterized by being influenced by the Islamic architecture surrounding it, and added wonderful decorations and mosaics on its walls and domes, and made the merging of European and Islamic details of the building a matter. Very unique and an important tourist attraction. Visitors to the synagogue will also find pictures of former rabbis, Stars of David, carved doors, and much more. Learn more.

Gumbaz Synagogue in Samarkand, Uzbekistan | Demerzel21 via Canva

Gumbaz Synagogue in Samarkand, Uzbekistan | Demerzel21 via Canva

The Tomb of Daniel

The Tomb of Daniel reputedly holds the remains of the Old Testament prophet Daniel, revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike – although only Christians regard him as a prophet. As legend has it, Timur tried to conquer modern day Syria, but successively failed – apparently because the body of Daniel was preventing his success. 

Tomb of Daniel in Samarkand, Uzbekistan | Vaurien, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Samarkand Jewish Food Festival 

The Samarkand Jewish Food Festival is an annual celebration of the city’s rich and vibrant Jewish culture, where visitors can sample a variety of delicious dishes that have been prepared according to traditional recipes. Held in the heart of the city’s Jewish Quarter, this popular event draws people from far and wide who come to savor a range of authentic cuisine. From succulent meats cooked over open fires to sweet treats made with honey and almonds, there is something for everyone at this mouth-watering festival! Visitors can also enjoy live music performances while they eat, making it a truly unique experience. Whether you’re looking for a taste of history or just want some delicious food, the Samarkand Jewish Food Festival has it all!

Iconic Personalities of Samarkand

Alexander Sverdlin

Alexander Sverdlin was a Jewish scholar and rabbi who lived in Samarkand during the 18th century. He is best known for his contributions to Jewish thought and culture, which helped shape the city into what it is today. As one of the most influential figures in Samarkand’s history, Sverdlin wrote extensively on topics such as Talmud and Torah studies, religious law, philosophy, ethics, and literature. His works were widely read throughout Europe at the time and laid the foundations for modern Judaism around the world. He also founded a school in Samarkand that taught students from all backgrounds about Jewish faith, culture, and tradition – an institution that continues to thrive centuries later. To this day Alexander Sverdlin remains an important figure in Samarkand’s vibrant Jewish community; his legacy lives on through those who continue to practice their faith there.

Shimon Dubnov 

Shimon Dubnov is an important figure in the history of Samarkand’s Jewish community. He was born into a prominent family in the city and went on to become a renowned scholar, author, historian, and philosopher. Dubnov wrote extensively about Jewish culture and tradition, particularly focusing on the Silk Road area where he spent much of his life. His works helped shape modern Judaism around the world by introducing new ideas about religion, ethics, philosophy, and literature. Dubnov also founded several schools in Samarkand that taught students from all backgrounds about their faith – institutions that still exist today! Shimon Dubnov was instrumental in preserving Jewish heritage during difficult times for Jews around the world; he remains an integral part of Samarkand’s vibrant past and present.

Summary of Samarkand’s Jewish Story

Samarkand is home to a vibrant and long-standing Jewish community that has helped shape the city’s culture for centuries. From the Tomb of Daniel, an important pilgrimage site for Jews around the world, to the annual Samarkand Jewish Food Festival where visitors can sample traditional cuisine, there are plenty of opportunities to experience something truly special while visiting this historic city. Notable figures like Alexander Sverdlin and Shimon Dubnov have also left their mark on Samarkand’s history; they remain integral parts of its present-day identity as well. Whether you’re interested in learning more about Judaism or just want to explore some fascinating places with unique cultures, Samarkand should be at the top of your list!

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