In Search of a New Home

by Jesko Schmoller

The former Jewish quarter in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent is a quiet neighbourhood: old-style houses with generous courtyards surrounded by wooden-columned arcades stand next to flashy, palace-like constructions that could serve as settings for a Bollywood romance. “After the Jews left, the Azerbaijanis came,” an inhabitant tells me. “By now, the Azerbaijanis have made way for the new Uzbeks [the nouveau riche segment of the population].”

Even though the blank facades of the houses give nothing away, Jewish life has not vanished completely from the city. In the former Jewish quarter alone, the informed visitor can find a synagogue and the cultural centre of the Bukharan Jewish community that has lived in Central Asia for many centuries. A few years back, I spent many of my afternoons in the same neighbourhood. Stepping through a heavy door, I would nod to the security guard and enter the patio of the Jewish community centre. In the burning summer heat, the air inside the building was cool and refreshing. Usually, the house was in some kind of commotion: children coming from their language classes and running down the stairs to meet their waiting parents, community leaders stacking cardboard boxes of juice and sweets for the upcoming summer camp in the mountains, pensioners trying to talk to the secretary, while she in turn talked to someone on the phone. There, at the community centre of the Jewish humanitarian assistance organisation “Joint Distribution Committee”, I got to meet so many wonderful people, willing to share their life-stories and speak about their aspirations with me.

Tanya, in her early twenties, taught the children at the community centre art. Only her maternal grandfather was Jewish. According to religious law, Jewish descent goes through the matriline, which in turn would make Tanya non-Jewish. The question of descent is not taken too seriously at the centre, though.

Just as many of the other young people I met, Tanya was strongly concerned with the issue of emigration. With the difficult economic conditions in her native Uzbekistan, the prospects of staying there did not seem appealing to her. Some years before, she had applied with the German authorities to immigrate and was eventually accepted. Her father, however, did not pass the obligatory language test. What was Tanya to do? She wanted to start a new life in Germany, but could she really do so while her parents stayed behind? In the end, she decided not to leave.

Ravshan is only a little older than Tanya. Although his paternal grandfather is from the Bukharan Jewish community in Ferghana city, he strongly looks Uzbek. Since visiting Israel as part of an educational programme, Ravshan had been certain about migrating to the Holy Land. It was a pleasant surprise for him to discover that the Israelis he encountered were not very religious. Upon returning to Tashkent, Ravshan immediately began learning Hebrew to increase his prospects on the Israeli labour market. At that time, he worked as a self-employed translator. I hear that Ravshan did manage to find his way to Israel, taking his Tatar wife along. Finding an adequate occupation, though, proved to be more difficult. His current job as a chef in a restaurant does not enthuse him much. Disappointed, Ravshan is in fact considering migration again – this time to North America.

Presumably, only around 9,000 Jews remain in Uzbekistan, with the majority living in Tashkent. In contrast, the Jewish community may have approximated 100,000 people when the Uzbek SSR ceased to exist twenty years ago. Although anti-Semitism is a serious problem throughout the post-Soviet space, it is not very pronounced in Uzbekistan and therefore usually not an incentive for migration.

Other friends at the community centre were Anna and Ilya. Both are now in their mid-twenties and live in Germany. For Anna, who arrived about three years ago, the transition was an easy one. She was soon able to prove her German language proficiency and started studying finances in the city of Mainz. For Ilya, the process of acculturation took a little longer. Although he is multilingual, passing the German language examination to enter university was a real challenge. Coming to terms with what he calls the ‘German mentality’ is likewise not easy. “Compared to people at home, Germans live so much more for themselves,” he declares.

Ilya probably sometimes thinks back to the hours of amusement in the company of his old friends at the community centre in Tashkent. But then, if he went for a visit, he would only come across a few of them, as so many have left in search of a better life. By now, they live in Russia, Israel, Germany and the United States. Some of them have realised that they are ill equipped to meet the challenges at university and beyond. They do their best to adjust to their new surroundings and to better understand what is considered important in the societies in which they now live. And although this may sometimes cause resentment, they do not give up trying to establish a place for themselves.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Jesko Schmoller is a PhD-candidate at the Central Asian Seminar of Humboldt University Berlin. He is interested in issues such as youth, work and identity.