According to one of their legends, Bukharan Jews consider themselves to be descended from members of the Ten Tribes of Israel who, after the seizure of Israel in 733/732—722 B.C. by the Assyrians, were driven deep into the Assyrian empire. They associate one particular place in Assyria in which they settled, Habor, mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 17:6), with Bukhara; the identity of consonants in the two names is offered as proof of this. In the opinion of some scholars, Jews settled in Central Asia in the sixth century, but it is certain that during the eighth to ninth centuries they lived in Central Asian cities such as Balkh, Khwarezm, and Merv. At that time, and until approximately the sixteenth century, Bukharan Jews formed a group continuous with Jews of Iran and Afghanistan. Arabic sources of the tenth century describe large Jewish populations in Central Asia, and early eleventh-century sources note a significant Jewish population at Balkh. Benjamin of Tudela, visiting Central Asia around 1170, wrote of the populous Jewish community in Samarkand. According to Bukharo-Jewish traditional history, after the invasion of Iran by Mongols under the leadership of Chinggis (Ghengis) Khan, many Jews, particularly those residing in the Sabsavar district near Meshed, fled to Samarkand and Balkh, increasing the populations of those communities. The first mention of a Bukharan Jewish community (apparently small at that time) dates from 1240. In the sixteenth century, after the destruction of Samarkand, Jews migrated to Bukhara, which was becoming the center of Central Asian Jewry. Later, some of the Jewish population of Bukhara migrated to China, soon losing contact with Central Asia, although retaining genealogical knowledge.
At the end of the sixteenth century the Bukharan Khanate was formed, and its rulers propagated Islam in lands under their control. Having no right to live in other parts of the city, Jews of Bukhara began to settle in a special quarter called Old Makhalla. They were forbidden to buy horses from Muslims and were forced to wear a special sign on their clothing to distinguish them from Muslims. Jews were also compelled to pay a special tax, the collection of which was accompanied by a slap, intended to humiliate, and Jewish shops had to be one step lower in elevation than Muslim shops.
In the eighteenth century Islamic fanaticism in Bukhara had grown to the point that by midcentury, mass forced conversions of Bukharan Jews to Islam began. In response, many Jews became outwardly Muslim but secretly retained their Jewish faith; they were known as chala (neither this nor that). Forcible conversions continued in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the number of chala increased. By the beginning of the twentieth century their number reached several hundred families. Other Jews were almost completely Islamicized and began to merge with the surrounding population, retaining only insignificant relics of Judaism. These people were, as a rule, those whose families had been longest converted. Second-and third-generation converted families were often half-Muslim and half-Jewish. After the Sovietization of Central Asia in the 1920s, when people began to be distinguished by ethnicity rather than by religion, many chala became outwardly Jewish once more. Others identified themselves with Uzbeks and Tadjiks and remained Muslims. To this day there are families among these Muslims who trace their descent to Jews and have retained certain Jewish practices.
Remoteness from centers of Jewish culture, cruel oppression, and a wave of forcible conversion to Islam brought the Bukharan Jewish community to the verge of disappearance, and it was in this state that Joseph Mamon of Tetuan (Maghribi or ha-Ma'aravi), envoy of the Safed community, found it upon his arrival in Bukhara to collect money for Palestinian yeshivot (religious academics). Finding the community in such a desolate condition, Joseph Mamon decided to remain in Bukhara. He procured books on Judaism and began to instruct local Jews. As a result of his activity, and, later, thanks to the influx of Jewish refugees from the Iranian city of Meshed, there was a rise in ethnic and religious awareness among Bukharan Jews.
The Jewish population of Bukhara continued to grow, and a second Jewish quarter appeared, called New Makhalla. In the mid-nineteenth century a third area, Amirabad, was established, and 1843 Jews bought a district in Samarkand that became yet another Jewish quarter. At the head of the community was a leader, or kalontar, chosen by the members of the community from among its most respected men.
In the second half of the nineteenth century the Russian conquest of Central Asia began. Bukharan Jews welcomed Russian occupation because Russian authorities imposed no discriminatory policies toward Jews. A significant number of Bukharan Jews emigrated from Bukhara, which remained under the control of an emir, to Samarkand and Tashkent, which were governed by Russians.
Bukharan Jews were allowed to have trade with internal regions and developed a small but influential group of merchants and capitalists. At the end of the nineteenth century, Russian authorities issued a number of limitations on the residence of Bukharan Jews in Turkestan, the Russian part of Central Asia. Jews were divided into the categories tuzemniye (local, native), those who had lived in the territory before its occupation by Russians, and "foreign" Jews, who had migrated there after the occupation and who were deprived of some of their rights. In practice, authorities rarely enforced the limitations on the "foreign" Jews.
In 1905, with the rise of anti-Semitic sentiments throughout the country, Bukharan Jews were accused by the Russian administration of "exploiting" the local population, although this led to no serious incidents. The Bukharo-Jewish newspaper Rahamin appeared in Skobeler (now Fergana) in 1910 but it folded in 1916. After the 1917 February Revolution the new Russian government declared all peoples equal, and this was echoed in the Bukharan Emirate's new constitution. In March 1918 there was an attempted pogrom, but Jews, with the help of the emirate guard, averted it. On the other hand, a heavy tax was imposed on the Jewish population for the purchase of arms for the emir's army, which was fighting the Bolsheviks. War between Communists and the emir was perceived by Bukharan Jews as a natural stage in the war between Russians and Muslims, and for this reason their sympathies, as traditionally, lay with the former. The Communist ideology among Bukharan Jews found some adherents, who later formed the basis of the local Jewish Soviet organization. In 1920 Bukhara was occupied by Soviet troops and the Bukharan Soviet Republic was formed, but in 1925 it lost its semblance of autonomy and was incorporated into Uzbekistan. Local Jews held the same legal status as the rest of the country's population.
In the nineteenth century Palestinophile ideas made definite progress among Bukharan Jews, and in 1868 emigration to Palestine began. At the end of the 1880s this movement increased, and a "Bukharan quarter" appeared in Jerusalem, the population of which reached 1,500 in 1914, or about 8 percent of all Bukharan Jews. By this time a sizable number of adherents to Zionism had appeared among Bukharan Jews. The illegal exodus of Bukharan Jews continued in the 1920s and early 1930s, and during that period approximately 4,000 Bukharan Jews emigrated to Palestine. In Jerusalem, Shimon Hakhama inspired a literary circle that published about 100 books in the Bukharo-Jewish dialect.
After the 1917 Revolution Bukharan Jews began to develop an educational system with Hebrew as its language of instruction. The Tarbut (culture) society, united youth with Zionist sympathies, conducted active cultural work in many cities, and played an important role in the ethnic consolidation of Bukharan Jews. In 1922 the society's activities were forbidden, and instruction in the Jewish dialect of Tajik replaced instruction in Hebrew in Bukharo-Jewish schools. Schoolteachers underwent training at a Bukharo-Jewish pedagogical trade school opened in 1921 in Tashkent. In 1925 the newspaper Rushnoy began publication in Samarkand; in 1930 it was renamed Bayroki mikhnat (Flag of Labor).
Another manifestation of the Sovietization of Jews was their organization into kolkhozy: about ten Jewish kolkhozy were established in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Jews often received land unfit for agriculture, and the majority of the kolkhozy broke up rather quickly.
From the second half of the 1920s, Soviet authorities actively fought Judaism, waging an extensive campaign to close synagogues and religious schools. (This campaign subsided temporarily during World War II.) Anti-Semitism continued to manifest itself among the local population. There were specific cases of blood-libel charges in 1926 and 1930, and in 1961 and 1962 as well. At the end of the 1940s anti-Semitism took on an official appearance; anti-Jewish satires appeared in print, and in the 1960s a campaign against the use of matzo (unleavened bread eaten during the ten days of Passover) was conducted. Bukharan Jews were made to participate in anti-Israeli demonstrations, especially following the 1967 Six Day War. In Central Asia a significant number of anti-Zionist books and brochures was published, including some in local languages.
Nevertheless, Zionist sentiments strengthened among Bukharan Jews after the Six Day War. In the early 1970s mass emigration to Israel began. In the first half of that decade more than 10,000 Bukharan Jews left, approximately 15 percent of their total population in the USSR. From the second half of the 1970s the stream of emigrants was redistributed between Israel and the United States, where approximately 2,000 Bukharan Jews settled, primarily in New York. During the same period ethnic self-awareness grew among a large portion of Bukharan Jews. Hebrew teachers appeared among them, organizing Hebrew study groups. The authorities actively fought these study groups, frightening teachers and students. In 1983 Moshe Abramov, a Samarkand Jewish ritual slaughterer and Hebrew teacher, was arrested and sentenced to three years' imprisonment.
In 1987 a new wave of emigration of Bukharan Jews to Israel and the United States began. Ethnie tensions and the rise of pan-Muslim sentiment led to the rise of anti-Semitism in Central Asia. By contrast, the politics of glasnost (openness) of Gorbachev permitted the legalization of many aspects of Bukharan Jewish ethnic life. Bukharo-Jewish clubs and cultural associations sprang up in many cities. In Uzbekistan a Bukharo-Jewish sector of the Writers' Union was founded, and it became possible to openly study Hebrew.