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Controversies and Customs in Uzbekistan

By Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

In what country are the shuls relatively new, yet the customs ancient; very few Jews, yet two distinct communities; a population that is mainly Muslim, yet relations with the Jews and Israel are quite warm? If you recall Ari and Ari’s article before Pesach about matzos, you know the answer: Uzbekistan. Now our intrepid travelers have sharpened their knives for their next halachic adventure in this land that was home to the Bukharian community for centuries.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

old judaica


EXCERPT: When we decided to visit Uzbekistan, we offered our services to shecht meat and birds for the Jews, since there is only one active shochet in the country, a young man in Bukhara, and he rarely gets to the other cities. Our friend, the Israeli ambassador, Dr. Hillel Newman, jumped at the opportunity. He and his wife are shomer mitzvos and thus maintain a kosher ambassadorial residence in Tashkent, the country’s capital city. He explained the difficulty that the Jews of Uzbekistan have in obtaining kosher meat, because no kosher meat is imported to the country. But there was one problem: our large knives might raise eyebrows at the Tashkent airport.


Dr. Newman solved this problem by suggesting that we send the knives from Israel via diplomatic pouch, a first for us. The knives and stones were wrapped and delivered to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. When we arrived at the Ambassador’s Residence in Tashkent the knives were already there and waiting.


That turned out to be just the first of many interesting challenges that awaited us in Uzbekistan, a country which today has only about 10,000 Jews, but whose rich Jewish heritage stretches back more than a thousand years.




Is There a Shochet in the House?


Although the main beneficiaries of our shechitah were to be the Jews of Tashkent, which is where most of Uzbekistan Jews now live, our itinerary was arranged in such a way that our first stop was actually in Bukhara, a small city that can boast of having two shochtim among its residents.


The elder shochet is referred to as the rabbi and is a religious functionary in the town’s larger shul. While he is about 75 years old, with a long, white beard and a large handlebar mustache, he, like many of the people who have lived hard lives, looks much older than his years. He trained during the difficult Soviet years and related to us how his rebbi was exiled to Siberia for the crime of teaching Torah. When his rebbi was banished, he fled to Dushanbe, the current capital of Tajikistan, to continue his studies. He ultimately returned to Bukhara, and following the fall of the Soviet Union he made several trips to Israel to further his knowledge and acquire Israeli certification as a shochet.


Because he now rarely shechts, we were surprised to hear that he would be shechting on Motzaei Shabbos, and we were keen to observe him. But it was not to be. We requested — almost begged — to accompany him, but to no avail. He informed us that he would be going to a place 15 kilometers (about nine miles) outside of town, and since he would be butchering the cow as well, he wouldn’t return until near midnight. He then blithely informed us that he was doing all this for a Muslim! Why? “The Muslims also know that the meat tastes better when a Jew shechts it,” he explained.


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