- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

BUKHARA, Uzbekistan As a boy, Aron Siyanov studied Judaism in secret in a neighbor's house for fear of arrest by Soviet authorities, who had closed all but one of the city's 20 synagogues.

Now he is 65, a rabbi who has been fighting for much of his life to keep Jewish tradition alive in the legendary Silk Road city of Bukhara. But just as Bukharan Jews are enjoying the new freedoms of their post-communist world, they are leaving. Even Mr. Siyanov expects to be gone soon.

After the fall of the Soviet Union 10 years ago, this centuries-old Jewish community was able to open a second synagogue, a day care center and a school that taught Hebrew and the religious texts.

But the Soviet collapse also opened the door for emigration, while the economy of newly independent Uzbekistan plummeted and the overwhelmingly Muslim state began to assert its Islamic identity.

The result: Some 18,000 of Bukhara's 20,000 Jews have left, mostly for the United States and Israel.

Now, men like Mr. Siyanov fear they will be the last to uphold the traditions in the city of 200,000. During Soviet times, "we never dreamed of having a school and learning our language," he said. "Now we are teaching kindergartners to speak Hebrew."

Leaving clearly will be hard for this heavyset man with a bushy white beard and fluffy lambskin cap. "I like everything here," he said, sitting in the corner of his whitewashed mud-brick synagogue.

But he added: "I am growing old, and if all my sons leave, I will have to follow." Already, six of the rabbi's eight children have left.

Rafael Davidov, president of the Jewish community, says he will wait.

"When a ship is sinking, it is the commander who goes down last," he said. "While there are Jews here, I will stay."

In the courtyard of his mud-brick home, Mr. Siyanov raises ducks, chickens, turkeys and pigeons both to eat and to sell for extra income.

"The food here is natural, not artificial," Mr. Siyanov said. "I can't digest American food. If I live in a natural environment and eat natural foods, I'll live longer. If I start breathing bad air and eating artificial food, I'll probably get cancer."

Bukharan Jews said their ancestors first came to Bukhara some 2,000 years ago. Historians said the claim couldn't be verified, but cited evidence that Bukhara was home to a large community of Jewish silk traders 400 years ago.

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