Bukharian Jews embrace life in Queens

Most often associated with Indian and Pakistani food, tandoor ovens are also used in Bukharian cooking. Bakers at Rokhat Kosher Bakery in Rego Park, Queens, make bread in a tandoor oven. It takes 10–15 minutes to bake a loaf. The breads are used as part of weekly Shabbat celebrations. (© David Finkelstein)

Thirty minutes by subway from New York City’s Times Square is Forest Hills Queens, a neighborhood known for its thriving community of Bukharian Jews. The community there, and in nearby Rego Park, numbers about 50,000.

The Bukharians, who immigrated mostly from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, interact constantly with their Queens neighbors, who include Asians, Hispanics and African Americans. Positive relations with local Muslims, many of whom also arrived from Central Asia, are a source of pride. Interfaith events include a Muslim-Jewish health fair where doctors offer free basic tests.

“Jews and Muslims are nice people who want to work hard and live good lives. We have good relationships here, and we are very proud of this.”

“We don’t keep anger inside,” says Dr. Zoya Maksumova, referring to past anti-Semitism in Central Asia. “Jews and Muslims are nice people who want to work hard and live good lives. We have good relationships here, and we are very proud of this.”

Bukharian Broadway

In Queens, 108th Street is commonly referred to as “Bukharian Broadway,” with good reason. Bukharian restaurants line the street, attracting Bukharian and non-Bukharian diners alike. On any given night, restaurants such as King David and Da Mikelle are filled with Bukharians celebrating weddings or remembering lost family members by lighting yahrzeit (memorial) candles.

Stix, a popular restaurant in Forest Hills, serves traditional, homemade Bukharian food like lagman noodle soup, samsa meat pastries and steamed mantu dumplings. Stix also attracts a diverse clientele of non-Bukharians who enjoy the delicious kebabs for which the restaurant is named. (Courtesy photo)

Music is vital to Bukharian culture, and some of the greatest performers of Central Asian classical music live, perform and teach in New York. “In the old days, the emir of Bukhara would have the best singers in his court singing traditional shashmaqam music, and most of those singers were Bukharian Jews,” says lawyer Boris Nektalov.

Shashmaqam melds musical influences from Jewish and Muslim cultures, combining instrumental melodies and poems set to music. The musical style has been performed by Bukharian and Uzbek masters at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall.

Jewish traditions are important to Bukharians, and the harvest festival of Sukkot is no exception. To mark the holiday, Jews of all ethnic backgrounds build sukkahs, small huts with leaf or palm frond roofs and holiday decorations inside. A trip through Forest Hills during the seven-day celebration reveals sukkahs constructed in front of temples, in front yards of houses and even on balconies of high-rise apartment buildings.

A hub of life in Forest Hills is the Bukharian Jewish Community Center, which houses an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, meeting rooms, social halls, a center for senior citizens, the headquarters of the Bukharian Times newspaper and the Bukharian Jewish Congress.

Cultural events draw participants from far beyond Queens. An annual Bukharian Jewish comedy night, for example, features notable comedians from Israel. The Bukharian Jewish Museum in Elmhurst, Queens, boasts a collection of more than 2,000 items, including musical instruments, Bukharian language books and a 400-year-old Torah.

Dr. Zoya Maksumova: Helping women and loving life

In her office just above Manhattan’s Union Square Park, radiologist Zoya Maksumova serves women through mammography and body imaging.

Dr. Zoya Maksumova works with women in her medical practice and her volunteer efforts. (© David Finkelstein)

Outside her medical practice, Maksumova helps women in another way — by serving as president of Esther-ha-Malka, a nonprofit organization of the Bukharian Jewish Congress that seeks to unite, educate and empower Jewish women from diverse ethnic backgrounds. To that end, Maksumova helps publish what she describes as the United States’ first monthly magazine for Russian-speaking women, called Ladies’ World. The magazine is read by Russian speakers throughout New York City and beyond.

“In America, I see my community reaching for greater education and opportunities,” Maksumova says. “This is the country where you can achieve whatever you want — just work hard, study and be a good and honest person, and you will receive everything you want. I am very grateful for the opportunities this country has given to me, my children and my husband.”

Boris Nektalov: Connecting with community

Walking into the Bukharian Jewish Community Center in Forest Hills, Boris Nektalov greets both staff and fellow community members in Russian with a handshake or hug. The 31-year-old criminal defense attorney is deeply involved in the community, organizing events, engaging in local politics and helping his father, the Bukharian Times’ editor-in-chief, Rafael Nektalov, chase down hot leads for articles.

Boris Nektalov, left, is a lawyer who is active in the Bukharian Jewish community. Marik Rubinov, right, is a photographer for the Bukharian Times newspaper, whose editor-in-chief is Rafael Nektalov, father of Boris. (© David Finkelstein)

Born in Uzbekistan, he immigrated with his parents, brother and grandmother at the age of 8. Like many American Bukharian Jews, he is trilingual, able to carry on conversations in English, Russian and Bukharian.

“Bukharian is a very separate language,” Nektalov explains. “It’s our equivalent of what Yiddish is for Ashkenazic Jews from Europe. Yiddish is a mix of German and Hebrew, while Bukharian is a Farsi dialect mixed with Hebrew and a little bit of Russian.”

Nektalov studied accounting and finance at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, before earning his law degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 2012. He spends his days serving clients in Queens.

Nektalov clearly cherishes his Bukharian Jewish roots. His family helped build the Bukharian Jewish Community Center in Queens, while his great-great-grandfather organized the first Bukharian Jewish community in Jerusalem.

“We are planning a ‘Nektalov Day’ soon,” he says. “It will be a great chance for all of the cousins in the community to … get to know each other.”

With so many connections and interests both within and outside the Bukharian Jewish community, Nektalov has a busy life.

“I spend so much time working within the community, I sometimes stop and ask myself what my hobbies are,” he says. “But a friend from law school told me something that I agree with: If it’s 8 p.m. and you’re not sure if you’re working or just having fun, you’re doing the right things.”