Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 3, 2018

Uzbek Jews and the Pittsburgh massacre

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

Uzbekistan has been on mind for a while for a couple of reasons. To start with, I send nearly a thousand dollars each month to my mother-in-law to pay for the Uzbek housekeeper/caregiver we hired a couple of years ago to look after her husband who was suffering from dementia. After he died a few months ago, we decided to keep her on since it would make the mom-in-law’s life easier as well.

It is not unusual for Turks to employ emigres from the margins of the former Soviet Union. My wife’s brother-in-law had a maid from Moldova before he moved to the USA. Those women fleeing post-Soviet poverty frequently become prostitutes, operating in small brothels that are legal in Turkey, a legacy of Mustafa Kemal’s defiance of Muslim norms.

Some emigres end up in dead-end jobs despite the professional qualifications they accumulated in their home country. For example, the woman—a Muslim—who looked after my father-in-law was an accountant in a bank. When she arrived in Turkey, those qualifications made little difference.

A few days ago I had a chat with an Uzbek Jew who was cutting my hair. If you are looking for a great barber on the upper east side that charges only $16, I recommend Albert, the owner of L’Mosh Aliz. I have no idea what “mosh aliz” means but he is established enough as a barber to have been quoted in The Awl for his views on Donald Trump’s hairdo:

“If he’s a man, and wants to show he is a true leader, he would make it shorter. Take out the piece and walk like a businessman. Trim it close and keep it natural. Don’t try to cover it up.”

— Albert, L’Mosh Aliz Unisex Salon, Upper East Side

Those are my views exactly. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a comb-over. I told Albert that I wanted him to use a number one razor that gives the closest cut and added that I liked the military look.

A minute into the haircut, I asked him a question that has been on my mind for years now. All of the barber shops in the neighborhood, as opposed to the hair-styling salons I used to go to, seem to be operated by Jews from the primarily Muslim, southern mountainous regions of the former Soviet Union, especially from Uzbekistan. It appears that some Uzbek Jews also end up running combination shoe and watch repair shops like the one my wife and I patronize a block away. How did that happen, I asked Albert?

He explained that barbering is a craft ideally suited to immigrants who have not mastered English. He said that for many, putting 3 or 4 pictures of different hair styles on the wall of a shop was sufficient. You’d ask someone sitting in the chair to point to a picture of the kind of haircut he needed and that was that. My guess is that the shoe repair business amounts to the same thing. My maternal grandfather had a shoe repair shop in Kansas City and never learned a word of English, as was the case with my grandmother who peddled clothing in the Mexican-American neighborhoods. In fact, her command of Spanish was much greater than that of her English as was the case with my mother when she was young.

Albert provided some details on how his family ended up in the USA. Working with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the same group that provoked Robert Bowers to murder 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, his father was given the choice of immigrating to the USA or Israel. He chose the USA—a wise choice in my view. Like my mother-in-law’s housekeeper, his prior professional experience meant little. He taught music in a high school in Uzbekistan but ended up being trained as a barber, just like his son.

The other question on my mind was how Jews related to the national culture in Uzbekistan. I was under the impression that unlike Ashkenazy Jews they tended to adopt the cuisine, dress and broader cultural affinities of the Muslim majority. Albert confirmed that. His father played in a band that consisted mostly of Muslim men and could count on Muslims for friendship and support. The sizable donations that Muslim organizations provided to the synagogue in Pittsburgh reflects the affinity that has been lost in decades of Israeli depredation. Some analysts argue that as long as there is Islamophobia, Judeophobia will follow in its trail. I find this argument convincing.

After I returned home fresh as a daisy with my buzzcut, I decided to do a little research on Uzbek Jews. The findings were eye-opening. Although the July 24, 2004 Washington Post article referenced below does not mention Uzbekistan, the mention of Bukhara should indicate that it is talking about Albert and his countrymen. Bukhara is in Uzbekistan, as is Tashkent, the capital and largest city that was a cauldron of support for the Bolsheviks in 1917.

Rafael Fuzailov’s place is a traditional barbershop. The smells, both astringent and fragrant, are familiar. The steel chairs look as if they’ve been used for years. Once in a while, one of the men grabs a broom and cleans up. A sign out front advertises haircuts for $12.

But around a corner in the back of the shop, a Russian-language newspaper lies under a ceramic teapot. There is a silver-plated samovar against one wall, and the barbers’ accents are foreign — the shop is a long way from the cities of the Great Silk Road of central Asia where the men were born.

Rakhmin Izgelov, who is administering a trim, is from Tashkent. Working the chair next to him is Rafael’s son, Daniel Fuzailov, from Samarkand. They are Bukharian Jews, barbers transplanted to this shop far from the mountainous land that was home to their people for centuries.

“I never thought I would be here,” said Izgelov, a stocky man with a thick, neat mustache and a serious expression, who has been cutting hair since 1968. “The customers are different. But hair is hair.”

The Bukharians trace their origins, through Iran and Iraq, to the Persian Empire, in the centuries after the kingdom of Israel was conquered and its inhabitants first forced into exile. Today, Bukharians live in Queens, part of a community of about 50,000 immigrants from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan and Kazhakstan. For generations, the barbers of central Asia were Jews.

The barbers at Rafael Barber Shop — nestled in its strip mall near a Starbucks and a hair salon — are following a hallowed immigrant path. They are working their way into American society with the skills they brought from their home countries, much as how Jewish tailors, Greek cooks and, years ago, Italian barbers have done.

“There are not too many Italians in the business anymore,” said Mike Zholendz of the American Barber Institute in Manhattan. “Now we have a new breed of people: The Bukharians are coming.”

It helps that it doesn’t take much capital to get into the business — as little as $10,000, said Gloria Blumenthal of the New York Association for New Americans, which aids immigrants. She said barbering is the Bukharians’ top profession.

Bukharians are barbering throughout Long Island, though it’s difficult to know exactly how many there are.

“I see a Jewish community. I like to work in a Jewish community,” Rafael said, explaining how he chose Plainview.

He does not work at the shop — he’s got his fingers in other enterprises, including buying and selling cars — but his son and his wife, Rachel, do. The Plainview store also does a little shoe repair, a little jewelry work — crafts that Bukharians dominated in the cities of central Asia.

“During Soviet times, most of the professions like barber, photographer, watch fixers, shoemakers, most of the jobs were controlled by Bukharian Jews,” said Peter Perkhasov, 26, a political science major at Queens College who is director of http://www.bukharianjews.com, one of a number of Bukharian Web sites. “There were barbershops where only Bukharian Jews worked, 20 or 30 people.”

Documentary photographer Frederic Brenner made a portrait of one such establishment in 1989 in Leninabad, Tajikistan, showing 10 Jewish barbers and their Muslim customers. Eight years later, Brenner found and photographed seven of the same barbers together in Israel. Along with the 50,000 or so in the New York area, there are an estimated 100,000 Bukharians in Israel, with a few thousand more in Austria, France, England, Australia and Argentina. Only about 2,000 are left in Central Asia.

Frederic Brenner: Barbershop Barbers, Left to Right, with Their Tajik Muslim Customers: Ibrahim, Roshel Ya’akobov, Arkadi Dadabayev, Sa’id Hudja, Joric, Shlomo Ya’akobov, Adina, Asher Dadabayev, Shmaya Mushayev, Abraham Ya’akobov, Leninabad, Tajikistan, USSR, 1989

The Bukharians lived in the cities along the Silk Road for hundreds of years, practicing their own, isolated form of Judaism and speaking a Tajik or Farsi dialect. As a result of continuous repression and persecution mixed with occasional periods of free movement, they lost touch with many of their religious roots.

According to lore, a rabbi from Morocco went to Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan, in the 18th century and instigated a Sephardic religious revival. “He changed it from the Persian religious tradition to the Sephardic tradition, but we are not Sephardic Jews,” Perkhasov said.

The Bukharians are proud of their Jewish heritage, if not Orthodox in their observance — Saturday, the Sabbath, is one of the shop’s busiest days. Dmitri Izkhakov, who also works at Rafael Barber Shop, indicated clearly that he immigrated because he is Jewish. He arrived in New York in April 2002, because “there are now 15 [Jewish] families left in Samarkand. There were 10,000 families, and now the synagogue is closing because there is no minyan,” he said, referring to the 10 adult males needed to conduct prayer services.

Barbering is a bit different, both for the newcomers and customers who recall the old-time practitioners. The Bukharian barbers don’t strop their razors the way the old Italians did; they don’t use fragrant oils as much or keep their scissors and tools in alcohol-filled glasses. “The Italian guys are very slow and precise,” Izgelov said. “We have a little less attention to detail.”

And American customers are not the same as the Uzbeks. “In Tashkent, there is more a standard haircut — three types of haircuts,” he said. “Here, everybody is different, different kinds.”

Ultimately, though, a barber is a barber. Daniel Fuzailov carefully shaved Alan Sternberg’s head while Sternberg’s son Jake, 3, perched on his dad’s lap. Then Billy Hunter of Jericho, who had been the store’s very first customer, came by for his regular shave.

“There are very few barbershops that do shaves anymore,” Hunter said, settling back under Izgelov’s ministrations. “There’s a family atmosphere here. They make you feel right at home.”

Frederic Brenner’s photo above reminds me of what was lost when Jews became part of the nationalist project known as Zionism. For the better part of a thousand years, they were part of a culture that they were happy to assimilate into while retaining their particular religious customs. Under the various more enlightened Muslim rulers, especially in the Ottoman Empire, they flourished. In Europe, they benefited from the Enlightenment, so much so that the Reform movement in Germany was seen as a threat to the hegemonic Orthodox sect.

Not much has changed apparently. Israel, which has become an Orthodox bastion closely affiliated with the Christian right, has tended to line up with the Republican Party over the killings in Pittsburgh. In September 2017, Haaretz reported on how Netanyahu’s son had developed a mindset associated with both Robert Bowers and Cesar Sayoc:

When he shared a cartoon full of anti-Semitic imagery on his Facebook page over the weekend, the son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not have understood he would be playing straight into the hands of notorious Jew haters. After all, he discovered the image on a Hebrew-language social media site whose fans and followers appear to be Israeli.

The cartoon, which Yair Netanyahu – known by the pseudonym “Yair Hun” on Facebook – has since removed, featured a photo of George Soros dangling the world in front of a reptilian creature, which, in turn dangles an alchemy symbol in front of a caricature of a figure evoking the anti-Semitic “happy merchant” image.

Leaders of the anti-Semitic far right in the United States couldn’t have been more delighted. David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, rushed to share the cartoon on Twitter, while The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi news website, called the prime minister’s 26-year-old son “a total bro” in an article headlined “Netanyahu’s son posts awesome meme blaming the Jews for bringing down his Jew father.”

Isn’t it obvious that class divisions in the Jewish population are sharpening today? Young Jews will have to make a choice between Zionism and socialism. I made that choice in 1967 and remain convinced that the only way to prevent murderous attacks like the one that took place in Pittsburgh will be the abolition of capitalism, a system that continues to exist because the ruling class learned hundreds of years ago how to divide and conquer. The answer to that is class unity and militancy in a period of capitalism rotting to its very foundations.

2 Comments »

  1. Interesting NY Times article (w/ photos): “In Bukhara, 10,000 Jewish Graves but Just 150 Jews”, April 7, 2018

    Comment by alan ginsberg — November 4, 2018 @ 3:49 pm

  2. Thanks for the interesting article. Decades ago, when the USSR still existed, I had the dream of a journey thru the Turkic SSRs in Central Asia, perhaps up to Xinkiang, formerly known as East Turkistan.

    Newer is that I learned that another part of the Jews from Persia went to Eastern Europe, actually the then United Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, which after the conquest of most of this by the Czarist Russia, became the “pale of settlement”, where Jews were allowed to live.

    The latest addition to my treasure of knowledge is that quite a number of German Jews managed to escape the Nazi exterminating antisemitism by going East, into the Soviet Union, and apparently many of those in the Central Asian republics.

    Abraham “Abi” Melzer, publisher and author living near Frankfurt (Germany), was born in Samarkand. At the end of the war, his paternal family was moved to a DP-camp from where they were more or less shanghaied to Israel. But in 1958, the family went back to Germany, because Abi’s father preferred to resume publishing books in German to Hebrew. Abi went back to Israel to make his military service, but today he his active in the Palestine solidarity, and is being vilified by the very pro-zionist position of all bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties in Germany and of the very conservative establishment of the Jewish community.

    The basic political rights, the right to free speech, free press, freedom of assembly and freedom of association are severely under attack in Germany.

    Comment by Lüko Willms — November 4, 2018 @ 11:23 pm


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