On the fifth floor is our Sefer Torah, and a goat

By Paul Berger, November 26, 2010
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The fifth floor of a yeshivah in Queens is about the last place you would expect to find a typical Samarkand courtyard with Persian rugs, clay urns and a goat staring out from behind a chicken wire fence.

"When I look at it, I am surprised myself how one man did it," says Aron Aronov, the 72-year-old founder and curator of the Bukharian Jewish
Museum.

Mr Aronov's collection, which includes handwritten prayerbooks, a 400-year-old Sefer Torah, and hundreds of colourful shawls and robes, spills out over three rooms and a hallway.

In the corner of one room stands an imposing wooden cart, about 4ft tall and 6ft wide, that Mr Aronov shipped from Uzbekistan. (The goat, by the way, is a life-size model.)

The US has done more to endanger Bukharanian culture than Communism

According to Mr Aronov, Bukharians trace their history to the period following the destruction of the first Temple, 2,500 years ago, when the Jewish people moved east.

Some settled in the Emirate of Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan.

They rode camels, learned Farsi, listened to Arabic music and developed a cuisine that draws on Central Asian, Chinese and Indian influences. Until recently, large communities could be found in Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and surrounding villages.

"We lived with Muslim people like brothers and sisters because we had a common enemy," Mr Aronov said. "The Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

"The party wanted us to be Homo Sovieticus. They wanted us to forget about our rights, our identity."

Sadly for Mr Aronov, immigration to the United States has done more to endanger Bukharian culture than Communism.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, 150,000 Bukharians left Central Asia. An estimated 1,500 stayed behind.

About 100,000 Bukharians went to Israel. Most of the remainder moved to Queens.

Few of the younger generation speak Bukhori, a dialect of Farsi, today.

"We lost our environment," Mr Aronov said. "The TV doesn't say, 'Salaam aleikum,' any more. They say, 'Good morning, America!'"

Hence Mr Aronov's seemingly Quixotic attempt to gather as much Bukharian culture as possible before it disappears.

He relies on donations and loans for most of his acquisitions and begs, borrows and barters for the rest.

Until recently, Mr Aronov's museum was stored in the basement of his modest two-storey home.

But when the Bukharian diamond dealer Lev Leviev heard about the collection he offered Mr Aronov rent-free space in his yeshivah.

At Chaikhana Tandoori, a kosher Bukharian restaurant, Mr Aronov marvels over the food: a steaming hot bowl of spicy soup, called lagman; a greasy, stuffed meat-filled pastry, called samsa; and a hearty rice dish, called plov.

America has made many Bukharians wealthy. And Mr Aronov is grateful for their generosity.

One day, he dreams his museum will have its own building or perhaps space in a Bukharian community centre; two such buildings are being built.

But he is under no illusions that the museum will become a memorial of sorts. "It's like a gravestone for my ethnic group. As a philosopher said: 'I am not afraid to pass away. I am afraid to disappear from this world without leaving a trace,'" he said.

Last updated: 10:51am, November 26 2010