By Erin Levi

A big weeklong festival celebrating Bukharian Jewish culture and heritage in North America is slated to take place September 15th to September 22nd in Queens.
The festival will commemorate several milestones: the 60th anniversary of the Bukharian Jewish Community Center, the 25th anniversary of Bukharian Jewish Congress of the USA and Canada, the 25th anniversary of a women’s organization, Esther HaMalka, and magazine Women’s World, and the 20th anniversary of the charitable foundation named after Eduard Nektalov.

Organized in partnership with the I. Mavashev Foundation, the festival program features an award ceremony by Esther HaMalka for «Women of the Year» and the Congress; a Bukharian Jewish film festival celebrating Boris Kimyagarov, Eldjon Abbasov’s «The Heritage: A Documentary About Bukharian Jews,» and other famed cinematographers; the Second Exhibition of Bukharian Jewish Artists; Shabbat led by Rabbi Baruch Babaev and different community leaders; and a one-day conference on Bukharian Jewish language and literature at the BJCC.
«This week promises to be a dynamic exploration of Bukharian Jewish culture,» said festival organizer and Bukharian Times Editor-in-Chief Rafael Nektalov. «We’ll dive deep into our language, music, and traditions, while reflecting on the remarkable journey of our community over the past three decades here in America.»

In October 2023, Nektalov and David Mavashev of the I. Mavashev Foundation organized a successful Bukharian culture week in Uzbekistan, showcasing their commitment to preserving and promoting Bukharian heritage and shashmaqom music globally.
«As Bukharian Jews, we feel our rich culture deserves wider study and appreciation. We would like to understand and popularize our culture, folklore, and literature,» said Mavashev, when asked about the significance of this festival.

The upcoming conference will bring academics from the US and Israel to speak about Bukharian Jewish literature. They will present on original Bukharian manuscripts, which they’ve studied, analyzed, and translated. A central focus will be a tragic poem titled «Ba yodi Khudoydod» («In Memory of Khudaydod») by Ibrahim (Abraham) ibn Abi-I-Khair. The poem tells the story of a young Bukharian Jewish man who was martyred for refusing to convert to Islam.

The poem is outside the mainstream of the Jewish-Persian poetic tradition not only in language, but also in numerous violations of the norms of classical Persian prosody, as well as in a number of stylistic features more characteristic of Tajik and Jewish-Bukharian folklore than of Jewish-Persian poetry. From a historical and literary point of view, the poem is an isolated phenomenon: until the end of the 19th century there is no information about written works of Jewish-Tajik literature.

The poem is in the Institute of the Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the I. Mavashev Foundation bought permission to publish it, and currently it is being researched by specialists, translated into Cyrillic, and translators are translating into Hebrew, English, Russian, Bukharian Hebrew languages.

«We will be the first in the world to translate this poem into Russian, English, Bukharian, and Hebrew,» said Nektalov. «People have talked about this poem for years, but no one has read it—till now. ‘Ba yodi Khudoydod’ tells a story of resilience in the face of oppression, a message that resonates deeply with the Jewish experience today.»
Mavashev adds, «The poem ‘Khudoydod’ reflects the situation of Bukharian Jews in the beginning of the 19th century. It’s very interesting to study from not only a historical and cultural perspective but a literary one, too.»

Eli Takhalov, who will speak at the conference on the importance of studying Bukharian Jewish literature and passing it on to future generations, said, «The I. Mavashev Foundation’s support for the study of Bukharian Jewish history significantly strengthens the community’s sense of identity and continuity. This not only helps the Bukharian community connect to their roots, but also adds to our overall understanding of Jewish history. This work makes a significant contribution to the broader field of Jewish studies by illuminating the understudied areas of Bukharian history and Judeo-Persian literature.»

Mavashev concurs. «It’s very important for our youth understand their history. One of the problems is we don’t know a lot about our history. For example, we have a lot of centuries-old sayings that are slowly disappearing because the younger generation doesn’t understand our Bukharian language. We are losing the wealth of expressions that we once had. From that perspective, it’s crucial to bring the youth into understanding our culture and history. Currently, what has happened to us is we’ve become multicultural from being spread across the world, with grandchildren speaking English in America, German in Germany, and Hebrew in Israel, which means cousins can’t communicate easily.»

Mavashev shared a personal story: «I found out I have relatives who came to Argentina in the early 20th century. They speak Spanish and have my last name, which they thought was Russian. I told him, ‘Your last name can’t be Russian because Mavashev is only a Bukharian Jewish surname. So, by definition, you are a Bukharian Jew.’ He had no idea that his great grandfather was the first guilty traitor in Russia at the end of the 19th century. We need people to recognize their heritage. Otherwise, all will disappear. Like many nations disappeared, there’s nothing left behind.»