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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Jews Are Leaving Uzbekistan in Droves

TASHKENT--It's 11 o'clock on a Friday morning and Rabbi Alexander Weisman -- the only rabbi in Tashkent -- is cleaning up his synagogue after morning services. Fewer than 10 people showed up today, and the rabbi, who is in bad health and will have to stay indoors all day due to a rainstorm, is in poor humor.


"It's been no fun around here lately", he says, pointing to the empty benches. "Fewer and fewer people show up every year, and in the last few years it seems like almost no one comes at all". He force's a smile. "Soon there won't be any Jews left in Uzbekistan anyway -- it might be time for a career move".


In Uzbekistan, which was once the home of a large Jewish population, a mass emigration is underway. Less than a year-and-a-half ago, before the August coup, there were nearly 60, 000 Jews living in Tashkent, a city with a population of 2 million. Since then, over 40, 000 have left, mostly to Israel.


Within the next two years, said Ben Hoffman of the Tashkent Jewish cultural center, "practically all of them will be gone. Very soon, there won't be a single Jew left in Uzbekistan".


There are several reasons why Jews are leaving Uzbekistan in such large numbers.


The foremost is cultural. In the new Uzbekistan, which in language, religion and politics is breaking away from its recent Soviet past and returning to its Eastern roots, Jews increasingly sense that they have no place in the country's future.


"My family and I have always gotten along well with the Uzbeks, but we're leaving anyway", said Igor Ostrovsky, who along with his wife and two children is going to Israel in December.


"The problem is that Uzbekistan is a Moslem country now, and before long Russian won't even be spoken here", he said. "My wife and I don't have the energy to learn to speak Uzbek to people to whom we've been speaking Russian all our lives, and our children have a better future in the West anyway. We could stay, but there's no point".


Boris Wolfshtein, another engineer planning to leave, was worried about the effects of homogenization at the work place. "If the director of a plant or a hospital was Uzbek", he said, "the next in charge was Russian or a Korean. Now, they're usually both Uzbeks. Who knows what it will be like in 10 years or 20. The smart move is to leave".


Not only are Jews leaving, but Russians too, creating a dearth of doctors and skilled workers in the former republic. As the Uzbek joke goes, "The golden minds are going to Israel, the golden hands are going to Russia, and only the gold teeth are left in Uzbekistan".


Most of the Jews in Uzbekistan came from the Ukraine in 1941, during the evacuation from the Germans. A small number of Bukhara, or Asiatic Jews, have been in the area for hundreds of years. The two groups are culturally and ethnically separate, and it's only the European Jews who are emigrating now.


Tashkent in the past was known as one of the great melting pots of the Soviet Union, home not only to Jewish refugees but to over 100, 000 Koreans who immigrated during the Japanese occupation of their country in the '30s.


Large numbers of Crimean Tatars, Russians and Ukrainians also resettled in the food-rich city in the late 1940s, after the war. But the collapse of communism now is bringing this fairy tale of perfect Soviet race relations to an end.


"A lot of us remember the pogroms, and like a lot of us here I myself came from the Ukraine in 1941, when we were all fleeing the Germans", begins Ben Manhovsky, whose 30-year-old son Yury is leaving for America in January.


"This current movement out isn't anything like those times", he said. "But there's a quiet revolution going on now in Uzbekistan. Slowly, everything that isnt Uzbek and Eastern is being moved out".


"It isnt about freedom of religion, or even ideology anymore", added Rabbi Weisman. "Even the Jews here by and large were good Communists, and didn't practice or keep the faith. It's just part of the narrow way of looking at things that everybody seems to be caught up in now. It's a sad business, and especially for me".


In any case, the rabbi thinks that this year's Sukkoth holiday services at the temple might be the last ever in Uzbekistan. "Sukkoth in Uzbekistan is always a mixed blessing", he says, laughing. "We've got plenty of fruit, but no people".