English Feature #7-37115 Broadcast January 20, 2002
In the last ten years vast numbers of immigrants belonging to various ethnic groups have come to the United States from the countries that used to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Today on New American Voices, the focus is on Bukharan Jews who immigrated from Soviet Central Asia and settled in the Queens section of New York City.
About 50 thousand Bukharan Jews, mostly from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, now live in the bustling neighborhoods of Forest Hills and Rego Park in Queens, New York.
“The area is very beautiful, with beautiful houses – there are private houses and apartments – and a lot of parks. In the ten years that Bukharan Jews have settled in this area, a lot of things have changed. They opened new stores, new businesses, restaurants, and it looks very nice. Before the Bukharan Jews settlement here the area was in a bad situation, financially, and right now, it’s good.”
Twenty-five year old Potar Pinkhasov came to the United States as a refugee from Uzbekistan nine years ago. His family eventually gravitated to Queens to become part of the vibrant Bukharan community there. Mr. Pinkhasov says that while life in the United States is better in many ways than the one he and his family knew in Tashkent, there is one overriding difference.
“In America we have freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of organizing a political party. And the Bukharan Jews use this freedom –and especially freedom of religion. In Uzbekistan in Soviet times there were only a few synagogues. And in America right now, only in New York you have dozens of Bukharan synagogues open. Life in America made big changes in our community.”
Mr. Pinkhasov says the Bukharan Jews who settled in Queens became involved in the full spectrum of New York professional life. They are lawyers and photographers and barbers and video technicians and architects and musicians. Quite a number of Bukharan Jews work in New York’s thriving jewelry industry. Many took advantage of the opportunities they found in the United States to become entrepreneurs.
“Many Bukharan Jews were business-minded people. And when they came to America they used this to open businesses, and they make good profits. And especially many people in our community became very successful, and right now there are many philanthropists who donate money to many organizations to promote our culture and traditions.”
Potar Pinkhasov, who is an activist in young Bukharan Jewish circles in Queens, says the community is very close-knit. There are dozens of Bukharan Jewish organizations, including professional groups and women’s clubs and an umbrella organization called the Bukharan Jewish Congress of the USA and Canada. The community publishes a Russian-language newspaper and five journals. Nevertheless, Mr. Pinkhasov says the main focus of Bukharan Jewish life continues to center on religious dates and events celebrated with the extended family.
“Bukharan Jews are very religious people. Even in times of communism they were very religious and they were saving their religion and teaching children Torah and Judaism. And right now in America, where it’s free to practice religion openly, they celebrate many holidays, openly, such as Passover, Rosh Hashana, Hanukkah, Purim. Family is the center of our community. Everything is done in the family, and mother and father are very respected in the Bukharan family.”
Mr. Pinkhasov admits, however, that there can be tensions between the generations – between the Bukharan Jews who immigrated to this country as adults, and their raised-in-America children.
“For example, young people who were born here, or who came to America when they were very young, they become very much American, and they think like Americans, and it creates many problems and differences between them and their parents who still think like they were thinking in the Soviet Union. But right now we are trying to address such differences. We are trying to create Bukharan Jewish youth organizations which would unite young people with different ideas, and we would like to save our culture this way. Because young people will take our culture into the future.”
Potar Pinkhasov, who graduated from college with a degree in political science and plans to go into politics, is not unduly concerned about young Bukharan Jews adapting to the country that is now their home.
“Merging into American life doesn’t always make the person to leave the Bukharan community. He can be very modern and very American-minded, but he may think that he is Bukharian, and he or she can be proud of being Bukharian. But of course there are people who marry non-Jews, and their children, of course, do not feel as Bukharian as they would feel if their parents were both Jews.”
Potar Pinkhasov has developed an Internet web page for Bukharan Jews. In addition to providing information about the Bukharan Jews of Queens and their activities, Mr. Pinkhasov is conducting a poll, asking visitors to the site, “Are you proud of your Bukharan Jewish heritage?” As of now, eighty-two percent of his respondents have answered "Yes".