The Bukharian Language: 
a Historical and Linguistic Journey
of Judeo-Iranian Heritage


Jewish children with their teacher in Samarkand. Photograph by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, 1905-1915

Bukharian Jews

Bukharian Jews are an ethnic and linguistic group concentrated in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Bukharan Jews celebrating Sukkot in Israel, circa 1900 (Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Bukharian Jews first arrived to Central Asia following the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, King of Persia, in 539 BCE. Following the 70 year exile, the majority of exiles did not return to Israel. Some turned eastward, spreading out from Babylonia into territory that is today Iran, probably moving as merchants along trade routes. Some continued to Afghanistan and Transoxiana. It was not until the sixteenth century that this territory became known as “Bukhara.” When Uzbek dynasts came to power, they divided the land into two khanates - Bukhara and Khworizm (later Khiva). Jews could be found across the entirety of the region, which came to encompass both Bukhara and Khiva as well as, later, a third, Kokand; but they clustered primarily in the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, both hubs on the silk route located within the Bukhara Khanate. A resilient community, Bukharian Jews have survived brutal Mongol invasions in the early 13th century, forced Islamization through the 18th and 19th centuries, and discrimination and oppression by ruling forces throughout their history.

The term ‘Bukharian Jew’ was created by Russian colonizers following the anexation of Turkestan in the late 19th century. However, they always called themselves yahudi or isroel. Their main centers were in Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Shahrisabz, Dushanbe, Kokand, Andijan, Margilan, Fergana, Khatyrchi, Karmina, Paishanbe, and Katta-Kurgan.

Following the demise of the Soviet Union, Bukharian Jews fled Uzbeksistan due to religious persecution and tumultuous Uzbek economy - settling mainly in areas of Israel and the United States (namely, New York). Thus, a new chapter of Bukharian Jewish history is written - this time, one of assimilation, a narrative known well to Jews. Culturally rich in heritage, Bukharian Jews merge Eastern traits with Jewish traditions. The overwhelming majority are followers of Orthodox Judaism.

Grand Synagogue Bumbaz, Samarkand

Bukharian Jews in Uzbekistan celebrating Sukkot (Culture Club/Getty Images)
Jewish girls, Samarkand (1905-1915) - Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorsky via Library of Congress

Judeo-Iranian Languages

Jewish presence on the Iranian plateau dates back to the first milennium BCE, comprising one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Centuries of history in the region has led to the Jewish adoption of various Iranian languages, and the development of region-specific dialects.

Tang-I-Azao inscriptions, the first known instance of written Judeo-Persian (Central Afghanistan, 752/3 CE)

Iranian languages are native to the Iranian plateau, parts of the Caucuses, and Central Asia. Until medieval times, these areas belonged to the Iranian cultural domain. Researchers generally break down Iranian languages into three chronological stages - Old, Middle, and New Iranian - which are only known for Persian, the language that arose in the southern province of Fars (lending its name to the word Farsi). Old Persian was first recorded in the cuneiform inscriptions of the Achaemenids (6th - 4th century BCE), Middle Persian having been written in modified Aramaic scripts under the Sansanians (3rd - 7th century CE), and New Persian has been written in modified Arabic alphabet since the 9th century CE. Interestingly, the oldest document of the New Persian language is an 8th-century letter in Judeo-Persian, the Persian language written in the Hebrew script.

It’s important to note that the concept of “Judeo-Persian” was created by Western scholars. Jewish speakers of Persian have always called their native tongue fārsi. New Persian, then, became the lingua franca of Iranian-speaking peoples and neighboring countries, and dialects were formed over the centuries of its use.

via Handbook of Jewish Languages

Fragment of trading document in Judeo-Persian found on the route of the Old Silk Way

‘Let Them Enter’ (1871) by Vasili Vereshchagin, depicting the capture of Samarkand by Russian Imperial troops
The Soviet regime conquered the Emirate of Bukhara in the Bukhara Operation in 1920. The region became Soviet Uzbekistan, with Persian being replaced by Uzbek as the state language. Uzbek is a Turkic language, predominantly spoken in Uzbekistan. It is not customarily spoken by Bukharian Jews. Soviet Tajikistan was carved out of the eastern highlands of Bukhara, where Persian retained official status under the name Tajik, setting a new standard for the language based on local Persian varieties. The Soviet regime recognized the Persian-speaking Jewish communities of the former Bukharian emirate as a distinct nationality, with Judeo-Persian as their written language. They defined them as Bukharian Jews. Because the term fārsi was forbidden, their language was officially called zaboni yahudihoyi buxori - the language of the Bukharian Jews. Today, it is known as Judeo-Tajik, Bukharian, Bukhori, or Judeo-Bukhari.


From a dialectological point of view, no Tajik dialect can be identified as spoken exclusively by Bukharian Jews. Mainly, Bukharian Jews can be distinguished from other speakers of the language by their modest use of Hebraisms in religious and cultural contexts (e.g. using Shalom as a greeting rather than farsi Salam), as well as their use of comparatively more Russian words (as a result of living in the Russian-dominated cities of Tashkent and Dushanbe). The prevalence of Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Uzbek words in the Judeo-Tajik vocabulary serves as a reminder of how language accompanies cultures through their development and histories, and provides a historical record of how and where cultural interchange influence mediums of communication - especially as it pertains to long-existing Jewish communities that guarded cultural customs for millenia.

Until the end of the 1920s, The Bukharian Jewish Orthography utilized the Hebrew alphabet in the Rashi system (Sephardic typeface based on semi-cursive Hebrew writing), consisting of 22 letters. A latinized alphabet consisting of 31 letters was introduced and approved at the First Central Asian Convention of Bukharian Jewish Educators in Samarkand, in 1930. This alphabet was used in schools and publications until 1940. Since the 1940s, a Cyrillic alphabet was used to represent the language, consisting of 35 letters.

To this day, however, a variety of different alphabets are used to represent Bukhori, depending on intended audience and purpose. Prayer books and Talmudic literature often appear in Hebrew alphabet. Periodicals and magazines often appear in Cyrillic. Casually, the new generation might simply write Bukhori in the latin alphabet. This remains a unique factor of Bukhori - its spoken tradition is preserved while its writing system has taken on many forms over the course of Jewish presence in Central Asia (and beyond).

Latinized alphabet approved in 1930 and used until 1940
Kabbalistic Bukharian siddur (prayer book) brought to print by order of Rabbi Pinchas HaKohen, rabbi of Bukhara - Vilna, 1836 (via Winner’s Auctions)

Judeo-Tajik Literature

Judeo-Persian literature has existed since the 14th century, while Bukharian Jewish works more specifically began to appear between the 17th and 18th centuries.
Page from an illustrated version of Shahin Shirazi’s Ardashir-namah (1333)

Notable contributors of literature at the time were Hojayio Bukhori (16th-17th centuries), Alisho Ben Shamuel Samarkandi (Roghib, 17th century), Yusuf ben Itzhak Bukhori (1688-1755), and Ibrahim Abu-al-Khair (early 19th century).

Shimon Hakham (1843, Bukhara - 1910, Jerusalem) made great contributions to the development of Bukharian Jewish literature. He authored dozens of works, including the translation of almost all the books of the Tanakh into Judeo-Tajik, and elaborations on the infuential Judeo-Persian poetry of Shohin Shirazi (13th & 14th centuries). Starting in the 20th century, Hakham established a printing press in the newly established Bukharian community in Jerusalem. The outcome of this press was a large body of Judeo-Persian books and essays including traditional fields, biblical commentaries, prayer books, rabinical writings, poetry, translation of Ashkenazi literature, and even secular literature like Shakespeare.

In Central Asia, a reform movement was formed among Muslim intellectuals - mainly Uzbek and Tajik - from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1920s. Known as Jadidism, its members were inspired by political movements in the Islamic world, but each with their own views of culture and identity, social change, religion, and state. Some local Jewish circles exposed to Russian culture or influenced by Jadidism subsequently began publishing in their native Judeo-Tajik.

The 1920s and 1930s were a time of rapid development in the corpus of Judeo-Tajik literature. In the 1920s, the first study books written in Judeo-Tajik for Bukharian Jewish schools were published by Rahamim Badalov and Yakov Kalontarov. Simultaneously, social reforms intensified as the Bolsheviks seized power. Russian Jewish immigrants indroduced ‘modern education’ to the local Jewish population. Contrary to the former practice in traditional schools that used Persian as the language of instruction and Hebrew as the main subject matter, the new schools used Hebrew as the medium of communication between European teacher and Bukharian student. After 1923, however, this method was no longer used. In Soviet schools specific to Bukharian Jews, coursework was taught in their native Judeo-Tajik. Alternatively, students could attend Russian schools which admitted native students - both Muslim and Jewish - from privileged families. Education in Russia, therefore, showed a constant growth among Central Asians until the fall of the Soviet Union.

Judeo-Tajik Torah translation in Hebrew script, via
Shimon Hakham circa 1910

Literature began to take on a secular character that remained mostly unexplored within the body of Judeo-Persian works. Narrative, essay, dramaturgy, comedy were popular. Newspapers emerged as well. רושנאיי (Rušnoyi, ‘Enlightenment’) flourished in the 1930s, first in the Hebrew alphabet, then in a romanized script under the name Bajroqi Mihnat (’Banner of Labor’). Throughout the history of Bukharian Jews, too, this interwoven connection with classical Persian literature has incubated the musical tradition of Shashmaqom, an element that remains vital to Bukharian culture.

Bukharian shashmaqom ensemble led by Ari Babakhanov. Photo by Alexander Jumaev.

Soviet-era Judeo-Tajik literature grew out of amateur dramatic circles that met regularly in clubs and teahouses in Samarkand, Tashkent, and other towns. Dramatic works - like P. Pardozov and M. Boruvčov’s Hukūmati padar dar duxtar (’Father’s Authority over Daughter’, 1921) - set the tone for the principle genre of Bukharian literature for nearly two decades. M. Aminov expressed popular themes, too, by writing on the emancipation of women, the happy life brought by the Revolution, and the threats facing society. Fiction reflected similar themes, emerging first in the 1930s. Bukharian Jewish writers criticized the pre-Revolutionary past in this way. Their poetry, too, was “national in form and socialist in content”, thereby complying with Soviet norms.

This golden age of Bukharian Jewry was halted in the late 1930s. Suppressive Stalinist ethnic policy forced the closure of all Bukharian Jewish cultural establishments, periodicals, and publishing houses. The last books in Romanized Bukhori were released in 1940. Some authors began writing in other languages, like Russian, Tajik and Uzbek, while others stopped altogether. Occasionally, publications in Bukharian language would appear in the 1950s and 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1993 in Dushanbe when members of a division of the Writer’s Union of Uzbekistan were able to publish an anthology of Bukharian Jewish narratives, plays, poems, and essays entitled Guldasta (bouquet of flowers) to revive the language. During various periods of repatriation of Soviet Jews to Israel, poets and authors became especially active. In 1998, Aron Shalamayev and Chana Tolmas published a two-volume anthology of Bukharian Jewish works from the 14th to the 20th centuries, entitled Pages of the Bukharian Jewish Literature. In 2005, the Union of Bukharian Jewish Writers and Journalists of the USA was established. 

Bajroqi Mihnat - December 1931
רושנאיי / Rušnoyi - January 1929

Modern Use

Bukhori is still spoken within Bukharian communities worldwide. Varieties of Bukhori have been carried over to the new homelands of its speakers. It continues as a spoken language among the older generation of immigrants. Few youth speak it, though, posing doubts for the future of the language. It is considered to be an endangered language. Russian continues to be the lingua franca of Bukharian Jewish communities, though the younger generation is also fluent in English and/or Hebrew, the languages of their newly adopted homelands. This has led to a generally multilingual generation of Bukharian Jews.

However, few resources are dedicated today towards educating younger generations on Bukharian language and literature. Imanuel Rybakov, a Professor of Jewish Studies at Queens College, authored a study guide for the Bukharian Jewish language, published in 2011. He also teaches a course on Bukharian Jewish Language at this college, the first of its kind in the United States. He is a foremost scholar in Bukharian Jewish studies, and the president of the Association of Bukharian Jewish Youth of the USA.

Bukharian Jewish women performing traditional music (via Ezra Malakov, World Bukharian Jewish Congress, 2007)
Bukharian Jewish dancers perform during a celebration of the Ohr Natan congregation of Bukharian Jews in Queens, New York (via Tom Williams/Roll Call)

Listen to this Bukharian woman, Sara Yakubov, tell a story in the Bukharian language (turn on subtitles for transliteration and translation to English).

This research, authored by Max Berger, is part of a larger project to visually document and explore the history of Bukharian Jewry.

Other research by Max

From the Silk Road to 108th St — The Immigration & Integration of Bukharian Jews into 20th Century Queens.
A photo essay.

Read it online

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