Born and raised outside of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, Leora Eisenberg is a 3rd year PhD candidate in Russian and East European History at Harvard University, where she studies cultural production, nationality, and Jewish history in Soviet Central Asia. More specifically, she’s interested in music and dance. She also serves as a Research Assistant at Harvard’s Program on Georgian Studies at the Davis Center—the sole program on Georgian Studies in the US.
Prior to Harvard, she graduated from Princeton University (with Highest Honors, Phi Beta Kappa), where she majored in Slavic Languages and Literatures with a minor in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.
Aside from growing up bilingual in English and Russian, Leora speaks French, German, Hebrew, Farsi, Kazakh, Ukrainian, Uyghur and Tajiki. Her thrill of adventure and adaptable nature has led her to live in Tajikistan (where she studied the Persian language through State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship Program—and traditional dance), as well as Israel, France, Russia, and Kazakhstan. She’s also an avid Tango dancer.
I spoke with Leora following her first visit to the Bukharian Jewish Museum in Queens, as one Ashkenazi woman interested in Uzbekistan and Bukharian Jewry to another.
The interview has been edited slightly:
Erin: What a fascinating background and area of interest you have, Leora. Tell us more about your focus of research.
Leora: [Basically,] it’s about music and dance. I’m interested in how people of different ethnic groups were involved in the construction of and development of Uzbek dance and music. And I’m interested in how it became such a big phenomenon across the Soviet Union. Uzbek dance and music was very, very popular. And I’m trying to determine how that happened.
Erin: Were they like the Koreans of Central Asia?
Leora: A little bit, yeah! That’s a good way of thinking about it. I mean, if you’re interested Uzbekistan, maybe these names will be familiar to you, but there are groups like Yalla, if you’ve heard the song ‘Uchkuduk’ maybe when you were learning Uzbek?
Erin: Does Yalla have a song called ‘Shakhrisabz’?
Leora: Yes. That’s their song.
Erin: So that’s the only song I really know. I remember hearing it play on my Uzbekistan Airways flight to Tashkent in 2021. And then I met one of the band members on my last trip to Uzbekistan by chance. I didn’t know who he was. But my guide saw a mustached-man and approached him. Afterwards, she said to me, “He’s a very famous musician in a group called ‘Yalla.’” Then I connected the dots.
Leora: I probably know who it is. If it’s the same person that I think you’re talking about, I’ve met him and interviewed him.
I’m really interested in why that group became so popular as opposed to the kind of analogous groups elsewhere. And I’m very interested in how Uzbek dance became so well known. For example, dancers like Tamara Khanum and Mukarram Turgunbaeva, and Bukharian Jewish dancers like Isakhar Akilov.
I’m intrigued by how dancers like these gained such meaningful international renown. Certainly, Tamara Khanum more than the other two (she was honored as a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1956). And I’m curious how dance became so professionalized in Uzbekistan leading to the establishments of dance ensembles, like one called “Bahor” as of the late 1950s, which exists until present day.
Erin: You’re mostly looking at the Soviet period, correct? Is that what you’re studying?
Leora: Yes, I only look at the Soviet period, from 1917 to 1991.
Erin: I assume dance is similar to music, in that women were likely not dancing and performing in public for before pre-Soviet times?
Leora: Yes. Well, that’s kind of the point. One of the main initiatives of the Soviet Union, especially vis-a-vis Central Asia, was the “emancipation and liberation” of women. And this was incredibly important in the development of music and dance, because in order to have a musical and dancing society, you need to have women who are willing to go up on stage and sing and dance. And this was, as has been recorded, dangerous for women. Men engaged in revenge killings. There were considerable [risks]. [As a result] many of the first singers and dancers, specifically both singers and dancers, in Uzbekistan were actually non-Uzbek women.
Many, many Buharian women were involved in this. There were traditions, of course, of song and dance for the Emirs among Bukharian Jews. So, this was kind of a natural fit for them and it allowed the Soviet State to create an image of an emancipated Uzbek women. Whereas on the ground, this was not necessarily true.
Erin: So Bukharian women were more comfortable? How come?
Leora: Well, there was a tradition of it, and they weren’t bound by the local norms that applied to Muslim women that didn’t apply to men.
Erin: Interesting. And how did this become popular in other countries? Did they go on tour?
Leora: There’s something called a “Dekada,” which is a 10-day celebration of a different ethnic group’s culture. For example, you could have a Dekada of Georgian culture. The high-profile ones were in Moscow and Uzbekistan participated in one in 1937 [called the 1937 Dekada of Uzbek Arts and Music, held at Bolshoi Theatre.] That was [Uzbekistan’s] first exposure in the Soviet Union.
But Uzbek performers had gone abroad before then to Paris in 1925 [as part of the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts], and to England in 1935 [for the International (European) Folk Dance Festival]. So, there were certainly platforms such as these to perform at.
But in the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union engaged in something called “the Thaw”—Stalin died and the country liberalized a bit. This meant there were more opportunities for encounter as the Soviet Union participated in more international festivals and events and abroad and hosted them also at home.
For example, at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, an American was allowed to participate and won. There were more and more events and opportunities like that across the Soviet Union and abroad. Lots of like youth festivals, mostly in Soviet bloc countries, but not exclusively, which allowed for Central Asian performers to go abroad and become popular. For example, members of Yalla claimed that their songs were consistently in the GDR’s Top 10. I don’t know if that’s true—I’ve yet to see a billboard chart from the GDR!
Erin: Haha, I wonder! (I should ask my German cousin’s husband who grew up in the GDR.) Did dancing evolve in any other ways during the Soviet period?
Leora: Sure. It becomes more professionalized, and canonized, certainly. It becomes less of the domain of super talented individuals in the 1920s and 1930s, and more of the domain of a group of trained professionals who can recreate a dance over and over again. They can obviously be super talented, but it’s kind of scaled up from the 1920s to the 1950s, and then after that it changes less at that point. It’s already a standardized, canonized art form.
Erin: I know there are different styles of dance throughout Uzbekistan. Is there like one that kind of is most representative of the country, especially when they’re performing abroad?
Leora: Not really. There are three schools of dance in Uzbekistan: Khorezm, Fergana and Bukhara. I don’t know enough about which one has been most represented to answer that. But as a professional dancer, you’re expected to know all three.
Erin: As a side note, are you familiar with a festival called Asrlar Sadosi of Traditional Culture (“Echo of Centuries”) in Uzbekistan? I went to the 6th one in 2013 that was held in Navoi Region with a friend of mine, Mickela Mallozzi, who at the time had a YouTube series called “Travel Bare Feet.” Since, she has become a four-time Emmy® Award-winning host of a national PBS series on dance called “Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi.”
Leora: That’s super cool.
Erin: When I moved to New York in 2007, I got involved with a group called Uzbek Initiative, founded by my friend Frank Muradov (he’s how I know Rafael Nektalov), and at all the events, be it for Navruz or even Valentine’s Day, the dancing was so much fun! Everyone was so welcoming that I thought Uzbekistan would be perfect for Mickela’s show, which is about experiencing the world one dance at a time. I was confident she would get great content and she did. I’ll have to share the clip with you (it can be found on my website: www.erinlevi.com) and connect you both, because she’s now teaching a new course on world dance called “Intercultural Dance” at NYU!
Leora: That would be great!
Erin: Back to our conversation: how did you end up connecting with the Bukharian community through your research?
Leora: I studied Bukharian Jews. While my dissertation is not about Bukharan Jews, it’s about Soviet Central Asia, it’s impossible to talk about the development of music and dance in Uzbekistan without talking about Bukharian Jews because they played such a huge role. I mean, truly massive. Some of the most renowned singers of Uzbek music have been Bukharian Jews, people like Muhabbat Shamayeva and Berta Davidova are extraordinary.
Erin: Berta Davidova is also a famous Shashmaqam singer, right?
Leora: Totally big. She’s considered one of the legends of Shashmaqam. But also, some of the most famous dancers, people like I just mentioned, like Isakhar Akilov [a highly revered dance master who founded modern Uzbek dance choreography] and his wife Margarita Akilova, and their daughter Viloyat Akilova, [with whom he danced]. It’s kind of impossible to talk about the development of this without talking about the role of Bukharian Jews.
And because I’m not Bukharian myself, it was kind of scary. I didn’t know anyone. I live in Boston. New York is not far away. And I figured this is something I can get done while I’m in the States before I go abroad for research.
Erin: Was it your first time visiting the Bukarian community in Queens, New York?
Leora: While it was not my first time doing Jewish research in Queens (I was involved with Harvard’s Georgia Diaspora Project—Harvard has the only US program on Georgia Studies), it was my first time doing Bukharian research in Queens. And it was my first time visiting the Bukharian Jewish Museum.
Erin: What did you think of the museum? Isn’t it fantastic?
Leora: It was great—I had a lovely time. You could tell how devoted Aron Aronov is to his job. And that museum is like a real treasure trove. I learned quite a bit of new information and am looking forward to going back.
Unfortunately, however, because of a funeral in the community, I was unable to conduct any interviews.
Erin: Well, now you have a reason to come back! So, returning to your research, was there a moment of inspiration for your dissertation? Was there a particular moment when you were witnessing a group of dancers that you had this epiphany?
Leora: My whole family on my mom’s side are Russian-born musicians. (I speak Russian because it’s my first language.) I grew up around musicians and have always loved music, although a lot of it was quite unsophisticated. My 12th birthday party was ABBA themed. That said, no one in my family dances, but when I lived in Tajikistan, I started taking lessons. I was pretty terrible. I was [maybe the worst person] in that class. But [dance] kind of lived rent free in my head for a long time. I didn’t do anything about it—apart from tango, which I take very seriously. It’s my primary hobby.
And then I was kind of confused. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My first year of my PhD program, I was interested in a completely different topic – interethnic marriage. And then my second year I had a meltdown where I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I couldn’t figure it out.
Over time I realized I was interested in cultural production—music, dance, theater. I decided to pursue that more seriously when I was there over the past summer as I was looking for material and I found that to be really fruitful.
Erin: What kind of dance lessons did you take into Tajikistan? What was that like?
Leora: I took traditional Tajik dance lessons from someone named Sharosat Rashidova. Some of the readers might know who she is. She was a very well-known dancer, and I took lessons from her when I lived there.
Erin: That’s so fun!
Leora: I really enjoyed it. I really did.
Erin: How many other dances do you know?
Leora: That’s it. Tango and traditional Tajik dance. That’s all I can do.
Leora Eisenberg is currently in Tashkent conducting research. More to come about her visit in the next issue.