Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan

The history of Jewish settlement in Krygyzstan goes back as far as the 6th century CE when, according to the website BukharianJews.com, archeological evidence discovered by the Kyrgyz Academy of Science suggests that Jewish traders from Khazaria started visiting the Kyrgyz territory.

In Kyrgyz tradition, the website explains, the term dzeet (Jew) is found for the first time in the Kyrgyz national epic poem “Manas,” which dates back to the 10th century CE and probably incorporates earlier traditions. Manas mentions several cities with sizeable Jewish communities, among them Samarqand, Bukhara and Baghdad, as well as various places in the Middle East, including Jerusalem which is described in the poem as a “Holy City for Jews.”

An entire section of the poem is dedicated to “King Solomon’s times” (Sulaimandyn Tushunda). Several popular Kyrgyz legends refer to a 130-meter high mountain near the city of Osh called “King Solomon’s throne.” Local Jews compared the mountain with Mount Zion.

According to the Kyrgyz tradition, Adam is considered the father of sewing and weaving, Noah – of architecture and carpentry, David – of metallurgy and tinwork, and Abraham – of barbers. In the Suzak region of Kyrgyzstan there is a village named Safar – possibly a variant of “Sephard” – for Jews of Sephardic origin.

Jews arrived in the Krygyzstan region while traveling along the Great Silk Road. For the most part, they were traders who spoke and wrote in Aramaic. In his memoirs, Marco Polo, who passed through the territory of Kyrgyzstan during his voyage to China, mentioned numerous Jewish communities along the Silk Road as well as in China, where Jews were called the “people with colored eyes.” Jews in these areas were allowed to build synagogues. Indeed, according to some researchers, during the 10th century the Jewish population was larger than that of the Christians!

The regions of Khorezm, Osh, Kokand and Samarqand had Jewish communities that went by the name of khabr, an Uzbek word possibly derived from the Hebrew chaver (“friend, colleague”). The Arab geographer Al-Maqdisi (946-1000) mentioned the cities of Osh, Balasagun, Uzgen, Taraz and others as having communities of akhl-az-zimma (non-Moslems, assumed to be mostly medieval Jewish traders).

There is much more documentation about the Jewish communities from the 19th century and on. Here is a summary, culled from the BukharianJews.com website as well as from the Jewish Virtual Library.

At the beginning of the 19th century, there were about 19.000 Jews living in Central Asia, all of them of Sephardi descent. They were divided among speakers of a dialect of Persian, and Bukharian Jews who primarily speak a dialect of Uzbek. The majority of Jews lived in the territories of the Khiva, Kokand and Bukharian Khanates, with tiny numbers scattered in small communities in the countryside.

The Jewish community in Kyrgyzstan itself was never large, reaching no more than 2% of the region’s population. That number was confirmed by the Tsarist authorities in 1896 and again as the result of a census organized by the Soviets in 1926. By 2001, Jews represented only 0.03 percent of the total population.

The first Ashkenazi Jews began to arrive in the region after the conquest of Central Asia by the Russians, some of them arriving with the Russian army. These Jews settled mostly in the provincial cities of Kyrgyzstan. In the city of Osh, Jews of Ashkenazi and Sephardi origin lived separately. Ashkenazi Jews dwelled in the new, “European” part of the city along with Russians and Tatars.

The majority of Kyrgyz Jews lived in cities after the Russian Empire instituted a policy forbidding Jews to settle in villages.

Sephardi Jews kept a lifestyle similar to that of their Moslem neighbors, but lived in separate communities from the local Uzbek or Persian inhabitants. There was a separate Jewish cemetery near Osh.

The Jewish community of Osh bought their tefillin (phylacteries) and Torah scrolls from Bukhara. Some religious books, mostly editions of Torah and the Babylonian Talmud with commentaries in the Jewish dialects of Persian or Uzbek languages were published in Kyrgyzstan in the early 20th century.

Until 1915, there were no synagogues in Kyrgyzstan. The nearest synagogues were in Vernyi (now Almaty in Kazakhstan), Tashkent, Samarkand, and Fergana (now in Uzbekistan).

Local Jews used to gather for prayer in the houses of local rabbis. The officials of the chevra kadisha (funeral association) were sent to Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The only Jewish cemetery was located in Osh; in Bishkek, the Jews had their own section of the Muslim cemetery.

There was no primary Jewish education for the Jews of Kyrgyzstan. Some Sephardi Jews sent their children to cheder in Samarkand. Ashkenazi Jews in general kept Jewish traditions only within the family and sent their children to Russian educational institutions.

The population census conducted in Turkistan in 1900 mentions among the city-dwellers of the region 400 Jews in Tashkent, 2,300 Jews in Fergana, 4,560 Jews in Samarqand, 800 Jews in Osh and 250 in Bishkek.

After the start of WW1 there were some changes in the status of the Jews in Kyrgyzstan. More Ashkenazi Jews arrived in the region after the start of the war; among them were representatives of different political parties and movements that had been exiled to Central Asia. Sephardi Jews, on the other hand, were mobilized by the Tsars for hard technical and manual labor on the battlefronts of WW1. Many Jews fled to Afghanistan.

By 1916, some Jews of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish war refugees and POWs from the German and Austro-Hungarian armies were sent to Kyrgyzstan where they were compelled to work in coal mines, irrigation projects, railway routes and as technical personnel in the local factories.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, new political activists arrived in Kyrgyzstan; many were Communists with a Jewish origin or background that was subsequently persecuted during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. A network of technical colleges was set up to create a “new type” of Soviet Sephardi Jews: factory workers and schoolteachers, instead of shop owners and money dealers.

During the Marxist years, Jews observed religious traditions in secret. For the Passover holiday, each family used to bake matzah at home; several families met together and celebrated the Sabbath and holidays. Circumcision too, was practiced clandestinely; a number of families organized a ceremony and paid for a mohel (Jewish ritual circumciser) who was specially brought to Kyrgyzstan from Tashkent, in neighboring Uzbekistan.

Alexander Volodarsky, an exile of Byelorussia due to his religious beliefs, became the unofficial leader of the Osh Jewish community. He served as a shochet and kashrut expert.

During World War 2, more than 20,000 Jews who fled from the Nazi occupied western territories of the Soviet Union were resettled in the cities and villages of Kyrgyzstan. The Jewish Theatre Company of Warsaw was evacuated to Kyrgyzstan; it performed in Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian and Byelorussian, before returning to Poland after the war.

In 1941, a public synagogue in Kyrgyzstan was allowed for the first time to be opened in Bishkek (then known as Frunze). Jews bought a building in the city center and Y. Levin, the first rabbi, donated a Torah scroll. Special shops selling kosher meat, challah for the Sabbath and matzah for Passover, opened near the synagogue.

The Jewish religious community of Bishkek gained official recognition in 1945. At the time, some 70 Jews visited the synagogue daily, while on Shabbat there were more than 200 worshipers. During the holidays, especially on Yom Kippur, more than 2,500 Jews went to the synagogue.

In the 1950s, the Jewish community of Bishkek was permitted to officially celebrate Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Pesach and Shavuot, but all other religious activities were forbidden.

By 1979, the community had diminished to 6,900, with 5,700 living in Bishkek. In 1989, it had shrunk to 5,800. Today, there are approximately 2,500 in the country. Continued immigration to Israel has been the main cause of the decrease in the Jewish population. From 1989 to 2001, 4,907 Jews made aliyah and, in 1990, just prior to Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991, more than 1,000 immigrated to Israel.

Since independence, the Jewish community, concentrated in Bishkek, has rebuilt itself. The Menorah Center in Bishkek, which is supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), is the center of Jewish life. It maintains a Sunday school, an Aish HaTorah education center, a Jewish theater and dance group, and a library. It publishes the Ma’ayan newspaper and organizes Maccabi youth sports activities. The center also provides aid to the community’s elderly.

Following ethnic riots that broke out in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, 12 Jews emigrated to Israel. Since Israel does not have an embassy in Kyrgyzstan, the Jews left with the help of the Jewish community in the neighboring country of Kazakhstan

There is additional information about the Jews of Kyrgyzstan here. A guide to “Jewish and Kosher Kyrgyzstan is here including links to present-day Chabad houses, kosher food and cemeteries.

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Shavei Israel
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