Leisah Woldoff

Lag b’Omer, Bukharian-style

Dancers in national Bukharian dress perform at a Lag b’Omer celebration on May 26, 2005.

Inside a restaurant in a Phoenix strip mall, Russian music blared from speakers as women in colorful, sparkly costumes performed national Bukharian dances.

About 200 people sat around long tables heaped with platters of traditional Bukharian food: bowls of beets, rice noodles, green olives, eggplant, mushrooms, peppers and shredded pickled carrots; meat and potatoes wrapped in dough, described as a Bukharian pierogi; and a large round cracker called noni toki.

Rabbi Amnon Zadikov, head of the recently established Bukharian Congress of Phoenix, welcomed guests to the synagogue’s Lag b’Omer celebration, then said the Hamotzi prayer over bread and walked up and down the aisles of tables distributing pieces of challah and greeting guests.

Open bottles of vodka, cognac and other liquor prompted several “l’chaims” throughout the evening as speeches in Russian congratulated the hostess’s father on his birthday, and her daughters and their classmates on their graduation. The hostess, Ora Biniaminov, coordinated the family’s milestone events with a big Lag b’Omer bash for the local Bukharian community on May 26 at Jan’s European Restaurant. The food was catered by Samarkand, a kosher restaurant named after an old city in Uzbekistan at 19th and Northern avenues supervised by Zadikov.

Bukhara is a city in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic in central Asia.

In the past few years, the Bukharian – or Bucharian – community has grown significantly in Phoenix, making it the largest Bukharian community in the United States outside of New York.

The first locally established Bukharian synagogue was organized in 1998; worshippers met in the founders’ home. Since then, the community has gone through many transitions. From 2000-2004, the Buchori Jewish Community had a facility at Glendale Avenue and 10th Street in Phoenix. Rabbi Zalman Levertov, Rabbi Laibel Blotner and Rabbi Dan Hayman, all of Chabad of Arizona, have worked with the community through the years.

Last year, with assistance from the Phoenix Community Kollel, a group from the Buchori community merged with Shaarei Tzion Ohel Bracha, an international network of schools based in Israel.

In February, the Shaarei Tzion Ohel Bracha Phoenix Bucharian Community, led by Rabbi Baruch Cohen, dedicated two new Torahs and moved into a new synagogue at 6516 N. Seventh St. in Phoenix. Two additional rabbis lead services in their homes. The group runs Sunday school classes at the Phoenix Hebrew Academy and plans to establish a nearly five-acre development at Seventh Avenue and Bell Road in Phoenix, to build homes, a shul, a mikvah and a preschool, says Rabbi Zvi Holland, director of the Phoenix Community Kollel, who has worked closely with the community.

Meanwhile, Levertov, who has been working with the community for the past 10 years, also helped the group find a rabbi. He requested assistance from Levi Leviev, a wealthy Israeli businessman who heads the Bukharian Jewish Congress and supports many Bukharian communities throughout North America.

Through the congress, Rabbi Amnon Zadikov moved to Phoenix about four months ago to head the Bukharian Congress of Phoenix. Since then, he and his wife Mazal have established a Sunday school, classes for young couples, a social group for seniors, after-school programming for children and a Rosh Chodesh class for women. The synagogue is located at 1425 E. Charleston – off 14th Street near Bell Road in Phoenix, although the congregation is quickly outgrowing the facility and is looking for something larger, Levertov says.

Levertov estimates that there are more than 500 Bukharian families in the Greater Phoenix area, with an average of five to six people per family. The main draw for them, Levertov says, is the similarity of Phoenix’s climate to that of Bukhara. About 80 percent of local Bukharian children attend the Phoenix Hebrew Academy, says Nisan Amnon, Zadikov’s son.

The Bukharian-born Zadikov moved to Israel at age 17 and earned a degree in psychology from Tel Aviv University. He moved to New York a little more than a year ago and has been in Phoenix for about four months. He uses his background in counseling to assist families in the Bukharian community, such as advising young couples how to have a peaceful home.

The Bukharian community has a different mentality from Eastern-European Russians, Amnon says. Since Jews from Bukhara weren’t persecuted for observing Judaism, they were able to practice Judaism freely and therefore lived more traditional lives, he says.

Traditions of the Bukharian community are indeed different from other Russian communities, says Lana Binyaminov, a member of the synagogue. She was born in the Ukraine and moved with her family to Uzbekistan, where in college she met her future husband, Dmitriy Binyaminov, who grew up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Both sets of parents were initially opposed to the marriage because Lana’s family is Ashkenazic and Dmitriy’s is Sephardic, Lana says.

One difference is language – although they speak Russian in their home, Lana was raised with Yiddish in her home, and her husband speaks Farsi. Other differences include food, holiday observances and other customs. “They have Sephardic customs,” Levertov explains, while Eastern-European Jews follow Ashkenazic customs.

Holland is impressed by the growth of the Bukharian community in the five years he’s lived in the Valley. “It’s really an unbelievable community,” he says. “It’s a really exciting group of people. It’s just amazing what they’ve accomplished in such a short period of time. It’s a real testament to the undying spirit of the Jewish people.”

This article first appeared in the June 10, 2005 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.