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21 November 2011

The Jews of Uzbekistan

Various traditions state that the Jewish community of Uzbekistan, dates back between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago. These traditions tell of Jews going into exile after the destruction of the Temple, or fleeing Persian persecution. Which ever history is correct, it shows the long history of the Jewish people of the area now known as Uzebekistan. As they were forbidden to own their own land, most of the early Jews into Uzebekistan were merchants.

With a few exceptions, the Jews of Uzbekistan have lived under hardship and turmoil. Their homeland has over the generations been invaded by many people or groups who wrecked havoc on central Asia. During the 14th century, the land was under the rule of Tamerlane. The Jews of the time, especially those who worked as weavers helped the area prosper. In fact Samarkand, the capitol city was also became a major Jewish city.
After the death of Tamalane, the conditions under which the Jews were forced to live became worse. As new people took over they would enact laws that would take away rights from the Jewish people.

Under Muslim rule, Jews were forced to live in the Jewish quarter, they had to wear certain clothes, and they had restrictions upon the way the built their homes. These conditions stayed with the Jews until the 1868 Russian invasion.

After the Russian invasion, the Jews had some rights restored to them, and they were given equality with the Muslims. One right that was restored was the ability to freely acquire property, they could finally own their own homes. During this time the Jewish community flourished. Some became wealthy cotton merchants, while others owned large amounts of land and buildings. The Jewish community during this time reached about 75,000 people.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 again changed the lives of the Jews. Free enterprise and the freedom of religion were outlawed. Where before the revolution there were more than 30 synagogues in the city of Samarkand, by the middle of the 1930's there was only one. The Jews were being driven into communism.

The modern day Jewish community is not what it once was. It is believed that over a million Jews fleeing the Holocaust passed through the country. Of those, a little more than 200,000 stayed. By 1970, only about 100,000 remained. Today the Jewish population of Uzebekistan is about 20,000, and the majority of those live in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. Uzebekistan gained it's Independence twenty years ago in 1991. Times have not been easy and many have immigrated to Israel and the United States.

Through generations of persecution, the Jews of Uzebekistan have somehow been able to keep their Jewish identity. At this time of year as many around the world are celebrating Thanksgiving, I am thankful for all of our ancestors, who overcame much and never lost that identity.

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