Although Jewish settlement in Central Asia dates back to the time of the Babylonian exile, Fred and Judi Kranz of Potomac, Maryland,discovered that finding traces of a formerly extensive presence requires searching away from typical tourist spots. Fred Kranz related their experiences following a portion of the Silk Road in a Jan. 23 presentation to Congregation Beth Sholom’s Team Tov program.
The Silk Road was an extensive trade route with several branches, connecting East Asia and Southeast Asia with Southern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The trade routes were in use during the Babylonian Exile more than 3,000 years ago and remained active at least through the 17th Century. The utilization of the Silk Road lessened after the fragmentation of the Mongolian Empire and the Black Plague in the 14th Century, but did not cease until Czarist Russia built railroads through the area in the 19th Century.
The Muslim majority in Central Asia tolerated Jews during most of the 2,000 plus years of Jewish settlement, but with restrictions. For example, during the period of Islamic rule, Jews were denied permission to build synagogues or ride horses. According to legend, one exception was in Bukhara (now part of Uzbekistan), a major commercial center along the Silk Road. The local caliph wanted to build a large, ornate mosque, but a Jewish woman owned the property and its large well, whose water was essential for the rituals for the mosque. The parties agreed — water for the mosque in exchange for permission to build a modest synagogue a few feet away. This synagogue remains and is still in use today.
In the late 18th Century, a Moroccan Rabbi, Yosef Maimon (or Mammon), heard reports that Jews living along the Silk Road were no longer following Torah laws and Jewish traditions due to their remote location. The nearest Jewish center at the time was in Baghdad, a substantial distance away. Rabbi Maimon went to Bukhara on his own initiative to revive Jewish life. Over time, the Bukhara community grew, restored Jewish traditions and learnings, developed more synagogues, and even opened yeshivas staffed by scholars from other parts of the Jewish world. When Czarist Russia annexed Bukhara, the resident Jews became wealthy trading local cotton, a valuable commodity and lucrative business.
During more recent times, many Jews emigrated away from communities along the Silk Road, largely to Israel and the United States. The few remaining Jews are primarly elderly or unaffiliated. The main remaining sign of Jewish life in Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent is large cemeteries, whose markers date back centuries. Uzbek investors are restoring some beautiful former Jewish quarters as hotels and boutiques. Many visitors from Israel and the United States have Bukharan ancestors and come to pay respect to the graves of family members.
The Silk Road provides significant insights into Jewish life in past centuries, as well as beautiful scenery and ancient walled cities, but touring Central Asia also requires fortitude. The Kranz family toured with a series of local drivers and English-speaking guides. Crossing closely guarded borders between adjacent countries sometimes required them to tote their luggage a few kilometers in extreme heat in a no-man’s land to change from one set of drivers and guides to the next ones.
By Hannah M. Fisher