Bukharian Jews:
A Vital Part of the Austrian Jewish Mosaic

Bukharian Jewish wedding in Vienna; screen capture YouTube

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

The Austrian Jewish community is in many ways a mosaic, whose strength is derived from the sum of its parts. A community rebuilt by Holocaust survivors after the Second World War has been augmented over the decades by immigration from Hungary, Poland, and the former Soviet Union. Some of its most notable cultural figures like the novelists Doron Rabinovici and Julya Rabinowitch were not born in Austria. But perhaps the most significant influx in terms of its impact on communal life has come from what the Austrian daily Die Presse called the ‘unknown Jews’: Bukharian Jews who, beginning in the late 1970s, left Soviet Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and established a new community in Vienna that is today integral to Jewish life in the Austrian capital.

Bukharian Jews, who globally number around 200,000, have millennia-deep roots and can trace their origins to the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, the King of Persia, in the sixth century BC. For centuries, Bukharian Jewish life was concentrated in what is today Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan and experienced largely under Muslim rule beginning in the ninth century AD. Bokhari, the language of Bukharian Jews, is a dialect of Tajik derived from classical Farsi that is also influenced by Hebrew, Aramaic, and Uzbek loanwords. Around 1800, as the result of a visit by the Maghrebi Rabbi Yosef Maimon, Bukharian Jews adopted the Sephardic religious tradition, to which they still hold.

The flight of Bukharian Jews from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan began in the early 1970s, when a ban on Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union was first relaxed. A community of Bukharian Jews began to establish itself in Vienna from the late 1970s onwards, at a time when the city served a gateway for Soviet Jewish emigrants to Israel, the United States, and other European countries. This new community, then, was a mixture of those who arrived in Vienna and elected to settle down as opposed to travel on and others who, having migrated onto Israel, elected to come back. Jews from the former Soviet Union, of which Bukharian Jews constitute a major part, today make up around 30 percent of the broader 10,000-strong Austrian Jewish community.

The historic reasons for Bukharian Jewish emigration are roughly the same as those for all Jews who fled the former Soviet Union: religious and national suppression and the pressure of authoritarian government in general. “Bukharian Jews were quite traditional, quite religious. It was not possible to observe Jewish traditions because law forbade it. They were hiding it”: not only their religion but their culture and language, Shlomo Ustoniazov, President of the VBJ, the Association of Bucharian Jews in Austria, explained. Although there was some degree of liberalization in the central Asian republics beginning in the mid-1970s, in general the hostile atmosphere towards religion and a climate of anti-Semitism made it terribly difficult to preserve Bukharian traditions.

The stifling of religion was one of the main incentives to leave the former Soviet Union, Ustoniazov said. Parents were reluctant to send their children to synagogue, for example, afraid of the consequences if they did. The Soviet Union “was a totalitarian system. It was quite restrictive in many ways. Many Bukharian Jews were not happy with the system,” not just for religious reasons but economic and social ones, too. “It was forbidden to do business. People were allocated to do certain jobs. There weren’t possibility to emerge, to develop, to study in a free way,” including for the reason that they were Jewish, Ustoniazov explained.

His son, Rafael, told me Ustoniazov’s own story. In 1978, when he was 30, the president’s family, including his two children, decided to emigrate to Israel. He was educated as an artist, was very ambitious, and sensed a great deal of anti-Semitism in Tajikistan – the experience of being young and feeling you couldn’t go out in the street without being set upon by a gang of anti-Semitic kids. He also felt in his adulthood as if he could not flourish under the restrictive, corrupt Soviet system. Ustoniazov lived in Israel for eleven years, working first as a teacher and then an independent businessman.

In 1989, his older brother, who ran his own business in Vienna, invited him to come to Austria, where he also moved because he believed he could have greater cultural freedom and opportunities as an artist. Rafael himself was twelve by the time his family came to Vienna and went onto study law and economics at college. This experience of Bukharian Jews of living through not one emigration but two, of moving twice between languages and cultures (and not to mention the challenges of moving from Diaspora to Israel and back again) was not an easy one, and to Rafael, the people of his father’s generation are “heroes,” in that sense.

The consequence of stories like Ustoniazov’s is that today, the Bukharian Jewish community is an international Diaspora, connecting by common traditions and a shared language, newspapers like The Bukharian Times or Menora as well as institutions like the World Congress of Bukharian Jews and Congress of Bukharian Jews of U.S. and Canada. Very few remain in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. While a 50,000-strong community of Bukharian Jews lives in Queens, New York, for example, only 3,000 remain in the central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, according to a JTA report from 2016. The New York Times reported this year that in the city of Bukhara itself – today, part of Uzbekistan – only 100 to 150 Jews are left in what is a “greying community.”

In Vienna, meanwhile, due to linguistic and cultural differences, Rafael described the integration of Bukharian Jews into the wider Jewish community as an “ongoing process.” Bukharian Jews face the challenge from assimilation (though Rafael believes that is less true of the Viennese community when compared to other parts of Diaspora), while Ustoniazov agrees with the position of the Austrian Jewish community and the State of Israel of non-cooperation with ministers and parliamentarians from the far-right Freedom Party, who today are the junior partner in the Austrian government.

In spite of these challenges, however, Bukharian Jews have established a foothold inside the existing Jewish community and over time have founded many of their own institutions in addition to the VBJ. Economically they constitute the majority of kosher restaurateurs and caterers in Vienna, while politically they have strong representation inside the IKG, the organizational body of the Austrian Jewish community. In the last Jewish communal elections in 2017, Sefardim, the list representing Bukharian Jews, won 27 percent of the vote and works in cooperation with community president, Oskar Deutsch.

The VBJ oversees five autonomous synagogues in Vienna, each with their own rabbi and social calendar. The Bukharian community also has two youth organizations, Jad Bejad and Club Chai (the latter of which is a Chabad organization), a cultural association, Kinor David, and a news outlet, Sefardinews, which reports on political and religious news and communal events. “The Jewish community is really active and well-organized and we have, in comparison to other cities in Europe, excellent Jewish infrastructure,” Ustoniazov’s son, Rafael, explained, “and a significant part of this infrastructure is also provided by the Bukharian Jews.”