Rabbi Yosef Maman

Rabbi Yosef Maman and the Bukharan Jewish Diaspora

 Reconsidering the Tale of Rabbi Yosef Maman 

and the Bukharan Jewish Diaspora

Alanna E. Cooper

An ancient Diaspora group, situated in the heart of Central Asia, disconnected for generations from the wider Jewish world—these exotic and faraway images of the Bukharan Jews, which fill the popular Jewish imagination, have been heavily informed by the writings of historian Avraham Yaari. In three separate books, Yaari tells of the Bukharan Jews’ spiritual decay, caused by centuries of isolation from other Jewish communities. And he recounts the dramatic story of their reconnection, facilitated in the late eighteenth century by Rabbi Yosef Maman, an emissary from the Holy Land.

Since the publication of Yaari’s works some 60 years ago, scholars and journalists have come to refer to this story of isolation and reunion as a critical chapter in the history of the Bukharan Jews. Indeed, over the years this portrayal has been so widely disseminated that it has been commonly accepted as fact, and Yaari—as the author of the tale—is often no longer cited.

Close examination of Yaari’s narrative, however, reveals that it is woven together from a few fragments of unreliable sources that contradict one another in significant ways. Yaari’s methodologically flawed analysis of the documents seriously calls into question the factuality of
his portrayal of the Bukharan Jews. But more than that, it begs the question of why he chose to portray the history as he did, and why—despite its flaws—the story has been uncritically accepted in both academic and popular discourse. In this article, I suggest that Yaari’s history is strongly informed by a paradigmatic approach to the study of Jewish diaspora history,

which identifies a dominant “Center” and privileges its voice while muting contesting voices by relegating them to marginalized positions. Furthermore, I argue that this story of the Bukharan Jews ought to be reexamined— not only to gain a fuller understanding into the Jewish condition in Central Asia but, more important, to gain more critical nsight into the dynamics of Jewish diaspora history in general. Historical Background Jews had been living in Central Asia


 for over a millennium prior to Maman’s arrival. In fact, historians trace back their presence in the region since the time of the first exile. However, little source material about
their situation prior to the 1800s is available, and few scholars have attempted to piece together their early history. Yitzhak Ben-Tsvi, Walter Fischel, and Mikhael Zand are among the few who have undertaken the task, and they structure their narratives around a tale of the Central Asia’s Jews’ gradual isolation from the wider Jewish world.

Through the twelfth century, the Jews of Central Asia remained connected to the Babylonian (and later Baghdadi) Jewish academies and communal institutions.

According to Ben-Tsvi, Fischel, and Zand, those ties were severed in the early thirteenth century, when Genghis Khan’s army swept through the region and the Jews, together with their neighbors, faced massive destruction. Some Jewish communities were decimated and others relocated.

The Jews of Central Asia, from that time onward, are portrayed as cut off from the Jewish centers
that had emerged in the Sephardi and Ashkenazi worlds.

Despite their (supposed) severance from the wider Jewish world, the Jews of Central Asia remained closely connected to the Jews who lived in the territories that would become Iran and Afghanistan. Their liturgy was shared, and they created a common library of Judeo- Persian biblical commentary and poetry.

Historians note, however, that—as a result of macro-geopolitical changes

9—the Jews of Central
Asia gradually became isolated from these neighboring communities
as well.10 As a result of this isolation, they reached a state that has been
described as “ignorance” and “religious dissolution.”11
A new chapter of their history was said to have opened as the eighteenth
century drew to a close. At that moment, historians introduce
Yosef Maman on the scene. His arrival is portrayed as a pivotal juncture
in Bukharan Jewish history; he rejuvenates their religious life and
ushers them back onto the stage of world Jewry.12
[In fact, there is no concrete evidence pointing to the isolation of
Central Asia’s Jews from the neighboring Jewish communities or even
from the Jewish centers in Europe. Indeed, some Bukharan Jewish
writers argue that, throughout their diaspora history, Central Asia’s
Jews remained in contact with other Jewish communities both near
and far.13 Evidence supporting this claim appears in an article written
by book collector and traveler Elkan Adler, who tells of his trip to
Bukhara in 1898. While he was there, he bought many books and
manuscripts from local Jews. Adler compiled a list of these works,
which includes their titles, brief descriptions, and other information
available in the books’ frontispieces and manuscripts’ colophons.
In analyzing Adler’s list, Fischel, Ben-Tsvi, and Zand focus on the
Judeo-Persian works that appear, which consist primarily of local poetry
and biblical commentary. This body of literature is unique to the
region and is not part of the canon of texts shared by Jews throughout
the world. While highlighting this uniquely Judeo-Persian tradition,
the historians overlook the works on Adler’s list that are shared by
much of the Jewish world. Some of these works contain colophons and
inscriptions indicating that they were printed (or hand copied) long
before the eighteenth century (when Maman supposedly arrived and
facilitated procurement of Jewish books from the West). These colophons
and inscriptions also tell the books’ travel histories: where they
were printed, who owned them, and where their owners bought them.
Some suggest that the books had a cosmopolitan existence involving
travel far beyond the boundaries of Central Asia and that their Central
Asian owners had remained in contact with Jews to the West in the centuries
following the destruction wrought by Genghis Khan.14 How
much contact is still questionable, but the evidence challenges the tale
of isolation told by Fischel, Ben-Tsvi, and Zand.
Significantly, these historians all wrote after Yaari published his
story about Maman’s encounter with the Bukharan Jews. Yaari’s narrative
is a powerful one, and Zand, Ben-Tsvi, and Fischel had clearly
come under its sway. The following sections analyze Yaari’s presentation
of history, call its accuracy into question, and suggest why the story
has remained so compelling despite its flaws.
Constructing the Tale of Yosef Maman
Avraham Yaari (1899–1966) was an academic historian, translator, bibliographer,
prolific writer, and librarian in Israel’s national library.
Among his many works is Sifrei yehudei bukharah (The Books of the Jews
Rabbi Maman
and the
Bukharan Jews

of Bukhara), an annotated bibliography that he published in 1942. In
the book’s preface, Yaari provides historical background on the
Bukharan Jews, focusing in particular on the story of Maman:
The centuries-long severance of the Jews of Bukhara from the rest of Israel
brought them to a state of spiritual decay which would have surely ended
in total assimilation had it not been for an emissary from the Land of Israel
who arrived at the end of the eighteenth century. He brought news to
them from the Land of Israel, he aroused their self-awareness, he formed
connections between them and the rest of Israel, he fought against their
illiteracy, he taught them Torah and the Jewish commandments, he circulated
[religious] books among them, he established teachers for them,
and he transformed them from an atrophied limb into a living limb of the
body of the Nation of Israel. With the appearance of this emissary in the
land of Bukhara, the Jews of Bukhara entered the stage of Jewish history.
The name of this emissary is Rabbi Yosef Maman.15
Yaari retells this story of Maman and the Bukharan Jews in his books
Masa le-erets ha-kedem (Journey to the Land of the East), published in
1947, and Shluhei erets yisrael (Emissaries of the Land of Israel), published
in 1950. He constructed this story by weaving together information
from four travelogues written by Westerners who passed through
Central Asia in the nineteenth century. Additionally, he used one family
memoir, written by a young man who was born and raised in
Bukhara. Transcriptions of these texts appear in Appendix 1, and a
few notes on each of the sources are presented below.
David D’Beth Hillel, who was born in Lithuania to a family of rabbis
and religious scholars, moved to Palestine in 1815. There, he spent
eight years studying in the yeshivah of the Vilna Gaon. He then set
forth on his travels, reaching as far east as India. Fischel, who edited
and reprinted D’Beth Hillel’s travelogue, surmises that his travels were
driven “by a vehement desire . . . to search for his brethren, the forgotten
‘Remnant of Israel’ in far-off lands.”16
D’Beth Hillel himself never reached Bukhara, though he did meet
two travelers in Baghdad who had come from Bukhara. Through them
he gathered information about Maman’s influence on the Jewish community
there, which he presented as a footnote in his travel diary published
in Madras, India, in 1828.17
Joseph Wolff, who was born into a German Jewish family, converted to
Christianity at the age of 17. In 1832, at the age of 37, he traveled to
Central Asia as a Christian missionary to “proclaim the Gospel of the
kingdom of Christ among the Jews” and to search for the lost “tribes of
Israel.” While he was in Bukhara (March 4–21, 1832), he met and con[
versed with local Jews. In his published travelogue,18 he relays the information
that he gathered from them about their community and
about their leaders, including Maman.
Ephraim Neumark was born in Poland in 1861 and fled to the Land of
Israel in 1881. In 1884, he left his home in Tiberias and set out on his
travels east. Yaari, who edited and published Neumark’s travelogue, surmises
that Neumark traveled in the capacity of religious emissary representing
Tiberius. In addition, Neumark traveled as a researcher,
interested in the traditions, history, and contemporary situation of each
Jewish community he visited. He carefully recorded his impressions as
he made his way through Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Afghanistan, and
Bukhara. In 1947, his travelogue was published for the first time by
Yaari, who edited the work and wrote an extensive introduction.19
Elkan Adler, book collector and bibliographer, traveled from England
to Bukhara in 1897. While he was there, he went through the Jewish
neighborhood “from house to house” to “beg for a sight of all the
books the inhabitants possessed.” With an interpreter alongside him,
he visited some one hundred homes, examined the owners’ books,
then put in “bids” for those that he wanted.20
Among the works he collected were several prayer books that were
written according to Sephardic liturgy and printed in Europe in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His most dramatic findings,
however, were two prayer-book manuscripts “containing the old Persian
[Jewish] Ritual, a complete liturgy.” Based on this evidence, Adler
concluded that the Jews in Bukhara were originally “Persian Jews” and
that they had adopted the Sephardic liturgy only during the previous
century. He attributed this switch in liturgy to the emissary, Maman,
who “persuaded his co-religionists that, like himself, they were descended
from the Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal, to whose ritual
it was therefore their duty to conform!”21
Pinhas Hakham, a descendent of Maman,22 was born in Bukhara in
1876. He died at the age of 18, four years after having immigrated to
the Land of Israel. Shortly after his death, his grieving father, Shimon
Hakham, published a book in his memory entitled Zekher tsadik (In
Memory of a Righteous One). The book contains eulogies delivered in
Pinhas’s honor and pieces that Pinhas himself wrote during his short
life. In one such piece, Pinhas explains that he found a transcript of
the sermon his forebear, Maman, delivered in synagogue on his first
Shabbat in Bukhara. The sermon, according to Pinhas, was written in
“Spanish writing.” Pinhas’s translation of that sermon, which appears
in Zekher tsadik, is the closest thing we have to a primary source.23
Using these five references, Yaari paints a portrait of Maman that in[
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and the
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cludes biographical information about when he arrived in Bukhara,
from where, and how long he remained there: “Rabbi Yosef, the son of
Rabbi Moshe Maman, was born in Tetuan, which is in Morocco. He
moved to the Land of Israel and settled in Tsfat. As an emissary of Tsfat
he went to Persia and to Bukhara. He arrived in Bukhara when he was
20 years old, which was in the year 1793.”24 Close examination of
Yaari’s sources, however, reveals that they do not easily lend themselves
to such a coherent portrait because they contradict one another
in key spots. (See Appendix 2.) For example:
Year of the emissary’s arrival: both D’Beth Hillel and Pinhas Hakham’s
reports indicate that the emissary arrived either in 1792 or in 1793.
These are the only two sources that concur. The other sources cite 1747,
1805, and sometime before 1771 as the year of the emissary’s arrival.
The emissary’s route: Wolff and Pinhas Hakham are the only two
sources to map out the emissary’s route of travel. According to both,
the emissary began in Morocco, but after this initial point of departure
their reports diverge. According to Wolff, Maman traveled to Bukhara
from Jerusalem via Baghdad, whereas, according to Hakham, he traveled
to Bukhara from Tsfat via Persia.
The emissary’s name: Adler calls the emissary “Abraham,” whereas the
other sources call him Joseph (or Yosef). Although seemingly insignificant,
there are also discrepancies between the sources regarding the pronunciation
of the emissary’s family name (Maimon, Maman, Mammon).
The length of time the emissary remained in Bukhara: Wolff reports that
the emissary lived in Bukhara for 61 years (from the time of his arrival
until his death at the age of 81), and Neumark writes that the emissary
“settled” there. D’Beth Hillel, however, reports “there passed there a
traveller,” suggesting that he did not remain there for a significant period
of time. The other sources do not mention the length of the emissary’s
Yaari overlooks most of his sources’ discrepancies and does little to
reconcile the contradictions that he does address, commenting only in
a footnote:
The missionary Joseph Wolff, whose reports about Rabbi Yosef Maman we
should not trust, copied his name incorrectly. He wrote, “Maimon.” The
traveler Ephraim Neumark . . . made a mistake in the year that he [Maman]
came to Bukhara, and he also did not know that he was an emissary
from the Land of Israel. The scholar E. N. Adler . . . mistakenly called him
“Rabbi Avraham Mammon” and does not know that he was an emissary
from the Land of Israel, and he mistakenly said that the time of his arrival
in Bukhara was about 50 years earlier than it actually was.25
With these comments, Yaari dismisses three out of his five sources, explaining
that they contain gross factual errors. Although not explained
explicitly, the two sources that Yaari does deem reliable are
those in which the data concur: the reports of D’Beth Hillel and of Pinhas
Hakham. While this methodological approach may be justifiable,
it is weakened both by a logical flaw and by a rhetorical flaw.
First, Yaari does not follow the approach through to its logical conclusion.
Despite discrediting Wolff, Adler, and Neumark, he actually
depends heavily on much of their information in order to develop his
portrait of Maman. For example, Yaari’s assertion that the emissary
was 20 years old upon his arrival in Bukhara is based on a simple mathematical
manipulation of Wolff’s data, which state that Maman spent
61 years in Bukhara and died there at the age of 81. Even if we allow
Yaari to momentarily suspend his distrust of Wolff, a grave flaw in his
logic remains. We can assume that Yaari trusts Wolff’s report that the
emissary did live in Bukhara for 61 years and that the emissary was deceased
by the time Wolff arrived. Additionally, it seems most likely that
Yaari would agree that Wolff did travel to Bukhara in the year 1832 (as
stated by Wolff in Researches and Missionary Labours). Given these three
facts, a straightforward calculation points to the conclusion that the
emissary had to have arrived in Bukhara before the year 1771. Yaari
completely disregards this last fact—which is deduced from the very
same information that he uses to determine the emissary’s age upon
arrival—stating instead that the emissary arrived in 1793 (the date of
arrival provided by Pinhas Hakham).
Second, Yaari does not acknowledge a possible alternative explanation
for his conflicting data, presented in an article published some 20
years earlier in the journal Mizrah U-maarav (1920). In “The Jews of
Bukhara,” historian A. Tz. Edelzon uses the same primary sources that
Yaari would later use, and he complements these written materials with
personal reports that he received from Bukharan Jews who had moved to
Jerusalem. Through his textual and ethnographic research, Edelzon
concludes that there were two different Yosefs: one, Rabbi Yosef, who came
to Bukhara as an emissary from Baghdad; the other, Hakham Yosef
Maman, who came to Bukhara via Persia as an emissary from Palestine.26
Edelzon’s interpretation solves the problem of contradictory data.
He explains that the travelers’ reports do not correspond simply because
they refer to different people. Although Edelzon’s reading of the
material contains technical flaws,27 his approach is important in that it
opens the possibility that the story of Rabbi Yosef Maman is not really
about a single emissary who arrived to Bukhara at a single moment in
history. Rather than a revolutionary moment, sandwiched between a
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Alanna E.
distinct “before” and “after,” Edelzon’s interpretation suggests that the
emissaries’ arrivals occurred within the context of a long-standing and
complex relationship between the Jews of Bukhara, the Jews of the Holy
Land, and the Jews of nearby communities.
Yaari, though, chastises Edelzon for this interpretation, stating:
And those who wrote about the Jews of Bukhara, based on [the information]
that they heard from the mouths of the Jews of Bukhara themselves,
were not accurate in their reports. Rather, they distorted the information
and twisted the rumors beyond recognition: [For example,] A. Tz. Edelzon,
in his article on the Jews of Bukhara . . . writes [about two Yosefs] . . .
and Edelzon did not sense that these two Yosefs were one and the same.28
Although it is difficult to say which of the scholars—if either—won this
debate, it is clear that Yaari’s argument is one of a man impassioned by
an idea, whose methodological approach to dealing with contradictory
data is neither clear nor consistent, and who uses rhetoric rather
than logic to substantiate his point.
What exactly is the idea that moves Yaari so strongly? And what does
he have to gain by spinning a singular narrative out of his contradictory
source material? The answer to these questions, which will bring us to
the heart of Yaari’s agenda, will be unpacked following an analysis of
the emissary’s impact in Bukhara.
The Emissary’s Impact
Yaari tells his story of Maman in three distinct segments. In the first
part, he introduces a Jewish community living in religious darkness:
spiritually starved, isolated, and ignorant of Jewish law and tradition. In
the second part, the emissary arrives on the scene, bringing spiritual
nourishment and the light of the Land of Israel with him. In the third
part, Yaari tells of a religiously enlightened community reconnected
with their Jewish heritage and their Jewish family.
How accurate is Yaari’s interpretation of the source material? In the
following analysis, Yaari’s source material is organized in an effort to
demonstrate that his portrait of Maman is informed more strongly by
a particular agenda than by the available data. (See also Appendix 3.)
State of the Jews in Bukhara Before the Emissary’s Arrival
According to Wolff, the Jews in Bukhara had no religious leaders before
the emissary’s arrival. They had “forgotten their laws, rites, and
customs,” they ate from the meat of the Muslims, and they were no
longer able to distinguish between “clean and unclean.” Neumark, in
contrast, rather mildly states that the Jews of Bukhara had become “far
from Torah.” D’Beth Hillel writes that the Jews in Bukhara were “very
ignorant of the Hebrew . . . customs” and yet notes that they had not
abandoned the practice of circumcising their sons.
Yaari uses the data in these three reports to conclude that, when
Maman arrived, the Jews of Bukhara were in a “state of religious dissolution
that would have surely ended in total assimilation.” Was this so?
The unsubstantiated statements of D’Beth Hillel and Neumark, each of
which could have been invested with a particular religious perspective,
do not provide evidence to answer this question with a bold “yes.” Wolff,
however, does offer concrete examples that support Yaari’s claim.
Yet Yaari’s historical methodology must again be called into question.
He uses Wolff’s information when it fits with his narrative. However,
as illustrated below, he omits contradictory information and skips
over illicit tidbits that have the potential to undermine the image of
Maman he has so carefully constructed. Yaari chooses not to cite the following
excerpt from Wolff’s journal, which indicts Maman of disobeying
religious dietary proscriptions, of chauvinism by favoring one
segment of the Jewish population over another, and of alignment with
the “followers of Jesus”:
[Maman] told them [his “initiated disciples”] that it was no sin to drink
milk immediately after meat, provided that none of the unlearned Jews
were present; that the religion of Moses may be divided into two parts: the
one part to be taught to all, and another part reserved for wise men. Rabbi
Pinehas Ben Simha, a young man of extraordinary talents, tells me that
his continued prayer had been: “Oh Lord, King of the worlds, when will
the time come that the followers of Jesus will take possession of these
It is difficult to determine how this information should be used.
After all, Wolff was a Christian missionary who visited the Jews of
Bukhara with the stated intention of spreading “the Gospel of the
kingdom of Christ among the Jews.” He was not an objective observer,
nor did he claim or strive to be one. For Yaari, though, the situated nature
of Wolff’s report is irrelevant. He discards the information that
does not fit in with his own agenda by deeming it untrustworthy, and
he uses the information that supports his portrait of the emissary as a
spiritual light from the homeland.
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Encounter Between the Emissary and Local Jews
According to Wolff, the emissary exclaimed upon his arrival in
Bukhara, “Woe is me, Oh my brethren! To find you in such a condition,
that you have forgotten the Law of Moses and the Prophets, and the
words of the wise men!” Information on how the local Jews responded
to the emissary’s outcry is absent.
Neumark, however, tells us a story of interaction that goes like this:
upon his arrival in Bukhara, the emissary watched the local Jews. One
time, he saw them coming from the washhouse (beit ha-rahatsah) on
the Sabbath. Surprised to see them there on the Sabbath, he asked
them for an explanation. They, probably surprised by his surprise, told
him that their activities were permitted on the Sabbath. The emissary
must have responded with a skeptical gaze. They, realizing that their
observance and understanding of religious law were being doubted,
took out a religious book30 and pointed to a reference that legitimated
their activities. The text read: “In a city where there is a washhouse
(merhats), you may wash on the Sabbath!” The emissary read the text
with them and then explained that they had not taken into consideration
the next point, which makes it clear that their activities were, in
fact, prohibited on the Sabbath.
This story is of particular interest because it is one of the rare spots
where the sources depict an interaction and exchange between the
emissary and the local Jews. It suggests that the locals did engage in the
study of Jewish law, that the emissary’s understanding of the law conflicted
with their own, and, finally, that they may have entered into
dialogue or debate about their differing approaches.
Along these lines, we turn to the writings of Pinhas Hakham, who
provides us with the sermon that the emissary was said to have given on
his first Sabbath in Bukhara. Although the sermon is a monologue in
which we hear only the voice of the speaker, the words were spoken
with an audience in mind. If we were to accept Yaari’s historical interpretation,
we would assume that the emissary, who was supposedly
speaking to an audience that had little or no Jewish knowledge, would
begin with a basic review of Judaism. Instead, the sermon he delivered
was a complex religious argument woven from citations found in the
Torah, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and Tosfot. Below is a distillation of
the main points covered in the sermon:
Generally it is taught that, if one does good deeds for the deceased (such
as tending to their graves), one is not rewarded for these deeds, since the
dead have no means of repayment. This notion, that the dead have no
means of repayment, is not completely true. The deceased, on account of
their merits, can come before God to plead for our redemption. It is important,
therefore, to maintain the graves of deceased holy men. The
righteous men who live in Tsfat maintain the graves of the holy rabbis who
are buried there. Charity money should be given to them in support of
their important work.31
Given Yaari’s portrait of the historical meeting between the emissary
Maman and the Jews of Bukhara, who had supposedly been isolated
from other Jewish communities for centuries, this sermon is surprising
on many levels.
Regarding the content of the speech, it appears that Maman and the
Jews in Bukhara share a common set of assumptions. At a very basic
level, there is an apparent agreement between the emissary and the locals
as to what “holy” is and who the “holy men” are. On a more esoteric
level, there is an apparent agreement between the emissary and the locals
that there is such a thing as “redemption” and that redemption can
be achieved.
Regarding the structure of the speech, Maman’s argument is built
upon citations from the Torah as well as from a complex body of rabbinical
literature. Based on his apparently unself-conscious use of
these sources, it appears that he is speaking to an audience who is familiar
with them and who shares his basic understanding of their significance
and authority.
Regarding the time and place that the speech was delivered,
Maman—according to Pinhas Hakham—gave this sermon in the synagogue
on Sabbath. The local Jews, therefore, were not so disconnected
from religion that they did not gather together on their Sabbath to
pray in a Jewish forum. And, the fact that the local Jews allowed
Maman a platform to speak is significant. To them, he was a total
stranger except for the fact that they knew he had come from the
homeland. Their diaspora state, therefore, was not so deep or so distant
that their association between homeland, holiness, and religious
authority had been severed.
Perhaps, then, this moment of contact between Maman and the
Jews of Bukhara was not a dramatic singular moment of reunion, and
in fact the three-part story is much fuzzier than Yaari portrays it to be.
If, indeed, the Jews of Bukhara had not been totally isolated from other
Jewish communities for generations, as Yaari suggests they were, then
is it not possible that they had been involved in long-standing discussions
about religious issues with other Jewish communities? If so, then
perhaps they did not readily and passively accept the authority of an
emissary named Yosef Maman. Instead, it is possible that conflict
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emerged, as documented in Neumark’s report, over whose interpretations
and understandings of Jewish tradition and law were correct.
Yaari, however, suppresses the possibility of such multivocality, both
by overlooking the factual discrepancies between his sources and by
overlooking the conflict of religious authority that may have unfolded
between the emissary and the local leaders.
Yaari’s Macro-view of the Dynamic Between the Homeland and the
Lands of the Dispersion
Yaari’s story of Maman and the Jews of Bukhara fits into his broad understanding
of the historical relationship between homeland and diaspora.
In fact, his portrait of Maman appears only as a case study in his
monumental 947-page book, Shluhei erets yisrael. The central argument
holding this massive book together is that the work of the emissaries of
the Land of Israel was an enduring institution with canonized expectations,
regulations, and goals. He writes:
Emissary work from the Land of Israel to the diaspora has been a continuous
institution that has lasted for almost 1,900 years, from the time of the
destruction of the Second Temple [71 c.e.] until today. Although the
ways and means of this emissary work may have changed as conditions of
history have changed, its aim—to strengthen the connection between the
Land of Israel and the lands of the diaspora—has remained constant.32
With this statement, Yaari creates order out of centuries of Jewish
emissary activity. Although the emissaries’ work stretched over territories
and epochs, Yaari claims that they all worked toward a common
goal. He justifies the massive scale of his book by explaining that the
stories of the various emissaries should be read as a unified whole,
rather than as separate, disjointed pieces of history. Furthermore:
The portrait of the emissary from the Land of Israel that has been painted
by the great historians . . . is a distorted one. They have portrayed the emissary
as a wandering beggar whose main activity was collecting donations.
In truth, the emissary’s work was two sided. One side was taking—which
was not done through begging but rather through claims and raising
taxes—and the other side was giving. He saw the giving as part of his job,
and the diaspora community members expected to receive from him.33
Yaari’s efforts here are to transform the emissary from a “wandering
beggar” to a respectable professional, one who collects money in a sys[
tematic, official manner and who “repays” donations through his valuable
services. With this polemic, Yaari creates a sanctioned institution
out of a seemingly disorderly illegitimate occupation.
In short, Yaari’s central argument is that emissary work was not random,
spontaneous, or subject to particularities of history or to the
whims of individuals. Rather, it was an enduring institution with canonized
expectations, regulations, and goals. The story of Maman,
therefore, is not about one particular man or about one particular Jewish
diaspora community. Rather, it should be read writ large as a story
of Jewish diaspora history. The story goes like this:
Maman, like every emissary, served as a human bridge that bound
together the diaspora and the homeland through his work, which was
two-sided. One side was the “taking,” which involved the collection of
donations from Jews of the diaspora communities, used as sustenance
for the Jewish inhabitants of the Holy Land. The other side of the emissary’s
work was “giving.” He would bring the peoples of the diaspora
news from the Land of Israel, spiritual invigoration, and religious
guidance. In other words, the diaspora communities provided the
practical material means for the homeland’s sustenance, whereas the
homeland provided the Jewish communities of the diaspora with spiritual
nourishment. Although the relationship was a reciprocal one, it
was unbalanced. Yaari explains in poetic and symbolic terms:
This emissary had a spiritual task; he had to bring news from the Land of
Israel into the darkness of the diaspora, to bring holy vision into secular
reality, and to bring the stirrings of redemption into the mundane of foreign
lands. He had the responsibility to wake the nation from its spiritual
Diaspora in this description is dark, secular, and mundane, whereas
the Land of Israel is holy, spiritual, and the locus of redemption. Without
ties to the homeland, the diaspora Jews in Bukhara could not preserve
their connection to God, to Jewish history, or to the Jewish laws
and traditions. Disconnected for centuries, they had withered and
stood on the brink of spiritual death. We can also look at the relationship
from the other perspective: had the connection between the Jews
of Bukhara and the Jews of the homeland been totally severed, the
homeland would have suffered loss of a limb but the heart and soul of
the Jewish People would have remained unaffected.
In sum, Yaari’s portrayal of Maman’s moment of contact with the
Jews of Bukhara encapsulates his broad understanding of diaspora history:
when they were at Home, the Jews were a People, living in a state of
unity and wholeness. Sharing the land that was their own, they were tied
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to one another, to their history, to the traditions of their ancestors, and
to God. For a few generations after their exile, their remembrance of
home served as a thread tying them to their normal state of unity. With
the passage of time, however, the thread began to fray and weaken.
The emissary came to mend the link. By bringing spiritual messages
from the homeland, teaching the language of the homeland, and reteaching
the laws that the dispersed peoples had forgotten, he repaired
the fissures that had disrupted the unified relationship.
According to Yaari’s legend, Maman, who facilitated the process of
ingathering the Bukharan Jewish exiles, represents the possibility for
reunion of the fractured components: people, land, God, and law. As a
symbol of reunion, Yaari paints Maman with sharp edges. Smudges and
blurs would undermine the symbol’s integrity, and so Yaari dismisses
the contradictions that point to the fact that there may not have been a
“first” emissary or a particular moment of reunion. He reduces the
emissary into one figure, thus unambiguously depicting the dramatic
change between the diaspora’s pre-emissary state and its post-emissary
The Center/Periphery Paradigm
Yaari’s story of Maman is a tale that has been reworked and retold in
various other guises. In his book about the Bukharan Jews published in
1985, author Shlomo-Hai Niyazov tells the story of another emissary to
Bukhara that sounds strikingly familiar to Yaari’s tale of Maman. Unlike
Yaari, however, Niyazov, a Habad Hasid, tells not of an emissary
who represented the Land of Israel but rather of an emissary who represented
one of the early Habad rebbes.
Niyazov’s account is the tale of Rabbi Shlomo Lev Eliezerov, who
traveled to Bukhara in 1891, over a hundred years after Maman supposedly
arrived there, and who—according to Niyazov—transformed
the community from its condition of spiritual degeneration to a state
of religious rejuvenation:
[When] Rabbi Eliezerov arrived . . . [he] saw the terrible spiritual condition
[of the Jews there]. . . . And so he stayed with them for seven years.
. . . He dealt with repairing the mikvahs [ritual baths] and shehitah [ritual
slaughter]. . . . Rabbi Shlomo Eliezerov taught the Jews about all areas of
religious life: [the laws of] the Sabbath, Kashrut, Family Purity, etc. And,
he established Jewish schools for the children. . . . Everywhere he went,
he found favor in the people’s eyes, and this is how he succeeded in his
holy work.35
Like the story of Maman, the story of Eliezerov unfolds in three distinct
segments: spiritual starvation, nourishment, and enlightenment. And,
like the story of Maman, dialogue between the emissary and the Bukharan
Jews is absent.
In the early 1990s, I was witness to the unfolding of this same story
again in a Jewish day school in New York, which served primarily
Bukharan Jewish immigrants. The Agudath Israel Ashkenazi administration
had established the school with the stated goal of “using
all . . . efforts to bring the students closer to Judaism and guide them
in their spiritual growth.” The general assumption was that—coming
from the USSR—these Bukharan students had a profoundly undeveloped
sense of their Jewish identity and that only through the teachings
of the school could they be brought back into the Jewish world. This assumption,
which overlooked the voices of the students, who often discussed
their family’s continued observance of Jewish ritual throughout
the Soviet era,36 was articulated often and in many forms.
For example, when an article about the school appeared in a local
newspaper, the principal copied it, distributed it to all staff members,
and posted it outside his office door. The article, which described these
Bukharan Jewish students as having arrived in the United States “knowing
nothing about being Jewish,” was entitled “Heritage 101,” portraying
the school’s curriculum as an introductory course on Judaism for
students with no prior knowledge. Just like Yaari’s story of Maman,
which took place in the eighteenth century, and Niyazov’s story of
Eliezarov, which took place in the nineteenth century, this article depicted
the Bukharan Jews as having been severed from Jewish centers
for so long that they had lost all connection to their Judaism. Only with
the help of the “Center” (which is, of course, defined by the storyteller’s
perspective) can they be brought back onto the stage of world Jewry.
In his book Jewries at the Frontier, Sander Gilman notes the “pervasiveness”
with which the “center/periphery model” is invoked to conceptualize
Jewish history.37 Indeed, these three stories about the
Bukharan Jews unfolded in three different centuries, yet they are all
structured around the same paradigmatic approach to which Gilman
refers. The narrator situates himself 38 in a Jewish Center, which may
be a geographical locale, such as Palestine, or it may be a particular
hashkafah (religious orientation), such as the approach to Judaism
taken by Habad or by Agudath Israel. From the narrator’s perspective
(whatever it may be), those who have lost ties with “the Center” have
stagnated or strayed from Jewish norms—no longer keeping kosher
properly or observing the laws of the Sabbath properly, for example.
Having deviated from these norms, their own story loses legitimacy (in
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the eyes of “the Center”). The tale of reunion, therefore, is told as an
uncontested narrative.
In Yaari’s story, we hear the voice of Maman: “Woe is me, Oh my
brethren! To find you in such a condition.” We do not, however, hear
the voices of the Bukharan Jews themselves. How did their religious
leaders react when Maman challenged their interpretation of the texts?
How did their community leaders react when Maman made an appeal
in their synagogue to raise money for the upkeep of graves in Tsfat? In
Yaari’s story there was no one to contend with Maman, no one to negotiate
or debate with him. The voice of the Center, in other words, is the
only voice heard.39
This approach is a compelling one because it offers a simple solution
to the challenge that diaspora history poses for students and
scholars of Jewish history, philosophy, and theology as well as all invested
others: How can we speak about a singular Jewish People and an
authentic Judaism given the great range of change and variation
among the dispersed peoples? This challenge comes to the fore in encounters
and confrontations between peoples with different diaspora
histories, different interpretations of Jewish texts, and different forms
of ritual practice. In some such situations, the rabbinic category minhag
(local tradition) may legitimize divergent Jewish practices. In
other situations, the center/periphery paradigm is invoked, sidestepping
the difficulty by silencing debate and difference. While this approach
has served to preserve a sense of Jewish unity and authenticity,
it has done so by simplifying and flattening a reality that is, in fact, dynamic
and highly ambiguous.
An Alternative to the Dominant Paradigm
The writing of history is shaped by our conceptualizations of it, which
are often so taken for granted that they appear natural and perfectly
real. Rather than viewed as constructions of the past, these conceptualizations
come to form an invisible veil that we look through without
even knowing it. Such a veil has hovered over the story of Maman since
Yaari manufactured it some 60 years ago. Today, however, as new, alternative
models of diaspora come to the fore, a reevaluation of old
understandings has become imperative.
In recent years, as the world has undergone massive changes linked
to globalization and transnationalism, the term “diaspora” has become
an increasingly popular analytical category in the social sciences.
Whereas it was once written with a capital “D” to refer to the Jewish case
specifically, over the past two decades scholars in other fields of study
have expropriated the term and now use it to refer to a vast array of
As the term has come to refer to an increasingly broad segment of
the world population, its definition has also expanded. Once, the most
salient features of “diaspora” were understood to be the dispersal from
a common homeland and the continual memory and yearning for a
return to that homeland. In today’s social science literature, however,
the notion of homeland has lost its status as one of diaspora’s key defining
In addressing the black diaspora, for example, anthropologist Paul
Gilroy notes that the connectedness between the black populations of
the Caribbean, the United States, Europe, and Africa is not derived
from aspirations for a return to a common homeland or to a “homogeneous
African culture.” Rather, what is shared—according to Gilroy—
is “empathy” that is based on “a common experience of powerlessness.”40
In other words, the people are not situated between two timeless moments
of history (pre-dispersion from the homeland and return to the
homeland), and they are not joined through common ties to a central
locale (Africa, in this case). They are, rather, joined through lateral
ties that need not cross through the homeland “center” and that unfold
within the movement of time.
In this redefined model of diaspora in which the homeland disappears
from center stage, the relationship between Center and Periphery
is necessarily reconsidered. The following section retells the story
of Maman by drawing on this decentralized view of diaspora. Seen
from a perspective that privileges lateral ties above centralized ones,
Yaari’s grand narrative of diaspora history is shattered.
An Alternative Reading of the Story of Maman
In 1970 a very different version of the Maman story appeared in a book
that was published in Jerusalem, entitled Toldot yehudei bukharah (History
of the Jews of Bukhara). Written from a perspective that is generally
considered “peripheral,” it has thus far been overlooked in the
scholarly literature and has not entered into mainstream discourse on
the Bukharan Jews.
Nissim Tagger, author of Toldot yehudei bukharah, is a Bukharan Jewish
folk-historian rather than a scholar trained in the Western academy.
In putting together his version of the Maman tale, he did not use
written texts as source material but, rather, oral history passed down to
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him through his family. Furthermore, his primary informant was his
mother, whose authority might be labeled dubious not only because of
her gender (she is, after all, the first female to play any role in the
story) but also because she holds no position of rabbinic or scholarly
authority. Finally, Tagger himself is a Bukharan Jew, rather than a supposedly
un-invested scholar.
For all these reasons, Tagger’s story of Maman lends itself to being
labeled a folktale or legend, rather than history. However, the exercise
of deconstructing Yaari’s tale, above, demonstrated that Western historian
Yaari also wrote from a heavily invested perspective. Furthermore,
his sources, which were simply written recordings of spoken
testimonies, are no more authoritative than Tagger’s oral history.
Most important, though, Tagger offers a new way of understanding
Bukharan Jewish history and new insight into the history of diaspora
relationships. His approach exposes all of the difficulties surrounding
questions of Jewish unity and Jewish authenticity to which Yaari sought
a single, simple answer. Yet it is precisely the analysis of these challenges
that does justice to the contested and complex nature of the
question about what Jewish Peoplehood and Judaism are all about.
Toldot yehudei bukharah, in which Tagger presents a history of Maman,
was written with two audiences in mind: Bukharan Jews (those
who had immigrated to Israel as well as those who remained in Central
Asia), and the wider Jewish public. In addressing these two audiences,
he wrote in two languages, which appear side by side: Hebrew and
The introduction to his book speaks to both of these groups:
The Bukharan Jews had a rich history . . . [and they had] superior qualities.
. . . They were Zionists, their homes were always opened to guests,
they were generous, and, above all, they were faithful to the eternal values
of the Nation [of Israel]. . . . I have decided to publicize everything, in
order that all of our diaspora brothers and our brothers in the Land of
Israel will know the past of this great tribe, the Bukharan Jews. . . . Books
like these have the power to bring hearts close together, they allow that
which separates us to become distant, and they facilitate the ingathering of
the exiles.
With this opening statement, and with his decision to write in two languages,
Tagger simultaneously works toward two separate goals. He
aims to single out the particular talents and strengths of the Bukharan
Jews while working toward Jewish unity.
It is Tagger’s tension-ridden approach—which emphasizes both the
notion that Israel is divided into subgroups (which he calls “tribes”),
each with their own qualities that should be highlighted and celebrated,
and the notion that Israel is one unified group that shares a
common history, tradition, and destiny—that structures his presentation
of the story of Maman. In fact, Tagger positions himself in a place
that straddles both the particular and the universal. He traces his genealogical
descent from Maman himself as well as from Nasi Mullah Yosef
Hasid, who—according to Tagger’s report—was an important leader of
the Jewish community in Bukhara before Maman’s arrival. Tagger, therefore,
identifies himself as an embodiment both of Bukharan Jewish diaspora
tradition (as a descendent of Nasi Mullah Yosef Hasid) and of a
unified Jewish People (as a descendent of Maman).
Tagger’s dual interests are revealed in his ambivalent depiction of
Maman’s role in history. On the one hand, he attributes the Bukharan
Jews’ love of the land of Israel to Maman, and he praises Maman for increasing
Jewish knowledge in Bukhara by building up schools that
made Torah study accessible to all.42 On the other hand, Tagger is also
highly critical of Yaari’s “twisted and distorted” portrait of Maman as
the savior of the Bukharan Jews, and he structures his own story of
Maman as a rubuttal to Yaari’s:
The Bukharan Jews were not cut off from the other [Jewish] diaspora
groups, as some have claimed. . . . [Religious] wise men flowed to Bukhara
from all the diaspora lands of the east. Many settled in the lands of
Bukhara and had many students there. . . . Though others have claimed
differently, the Jews of Bukhara had great Torah scholars in every
generation. . . . [They were not] left without spiritual leaders.
Further on we will discuss the claim that the great Rabbi Yosef Maman
found the Jews of Bukhara to be very far from traditional Judaism. This is
unequivocally false. There was never a break in their traditional and
halakhic way of life.43
With these bold statements, Tagger refutes Yaari’s basic assumption
that the Jews of Bukhara were isolated from contact with other Jewish
groups. Accordingly, his description of Maman’s first moment of contact
with the Bukharan Jews differs dramatically from that of Yaari.
Unlike Yaari’s depiction of the encounter as a moment of reunion,
in Tagger’s depiction the encounter took place between the emissary
rabbi from abroad and the already existing local religious establishment.
When Maman arrived in Bukhara, Tagger writes, Nasi Mullah
Yosef Hasid and Hakham Yitzhak Cohen “received [him] with great
honor.”44 This reception, honorable though it may have been, does
not suggest harmonious relations. Rather, it portends dialogue—even
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confrontation—between local authorities and the foreign emissary.
Indeed, it was not long before conflict erupted:
[Maman] did not live peacefully during the first years because there was a
second hakham [wise man or religious authority] in Bukhara at the time
by the name of Hakham Zacharia Matzliach from Yemen. Strong arguments
between the hakhamim erupted, which caused a division of the
edah into two factions. The hakhamim did not identify with one another;
not in their ideas, and not in their traditions. Hakham Zacharia did not
honor the Zohar. . . .While Hakham Yosef Maaravi revered the Zohar
very much. . . .
Their arguments over the Zohar seeped into other domains, such as
[laws concerning] ritual slaughter, ritual bath, and primarily style of
prayer, and caused the community to split into two factions. Hakham
Zacharia forwarded the traditions of the Persian Jews, which were similar
to the traditions of the Jews of Yemen. Hakham Yosef, however, wanted
the Jews of Bukhara to follow the traditions of the Jews of Morocco and
other Jews who had come out of Spain.
The argument between the teachers extended to their camps of students,
and each side began to slander the opposing side. It got to the
point that [each faction] imposed a religious ban (herem) on the ritual
slaughtering of the opponent.45
This section of Tagger’s story offers a new way to look at D’Beth Hillel’s
and Wolff’s reports that Maman would not eat the food of the
local Jews, suggesting that it was not because of the locals’ ignorance or
their slack in observance, as Yaari would have us believe, but rather on
account of religious politics.
This section of Tagger’s story also offers us a new way to look at the
switch to Sephardi liturgy explained by Adler, who wrote that Maman
“persuaded” the Jews of Bukhara that “like himself, they were descended
from the Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal, to whose ritual
it was therefore their duty to conform,”46 thus portraying the Jews of
Bukhara as passive accepters of Maman’s charismatic authority. Tagger,
instead, depicts a struggle between those who supported Maman
and those who did not. The struggle, according to Tagger, was resolved
in the following manner:
[In the end,] the Jews of Bukhara accepted the opinions of Hakham Yosef
and to this day they continue to pray according to Sephardi traditions. . . .
The students of Hakham Yosef claimed that, if it were not for their
rabbi, the Jews of Bukhara would have assimilated and become distant
from Judaism. . . . Contrary to their opinion, the students of Hakham Zacharia
claim that before Hakham Yosef arrived in Bukhara . . . there were
rabbis in Bukhara. . . . The Jews of Bukhara knew what Judaism was and
were not ignorant.47
In effect, the switch to Sephardi liturgy occurred because the students
of Maman won the struggle for religious authority in Bukhara. It
was these students, the victors, who propagated the pre-Maman myth
of spiritual dissolution and who highlighted the post-Maman religious
enlightenment, thereby creating a heroic image of their rabbi. The
students who lost the struggle were, of course, silenced. So too their
story, which tells of the great religious leaders who preceded Maman,
is silenced. According to Tagger, the pre-Maman myth that Yaari presents
is simply the propaganda of the winning side.
A final point of contention between Tagger’s version of the Maman
story and Yaari’s has to do with their conflicting views of the mechanism
by which Maman was able to win the religious struggle in Bukhara. Tagger
[T]he faction of Hakham Yosef . . . won because Yosef Maman’s daughter,
Sara, married the brilliant scholar from Meshed, Mulla Avraham Cohen,
and his second daughter, Miriam, married Mulla Niyaz . . . the grandson
of the Nasi Mulla Yosef Hasid, the richest man in Bukhara. . . . Mulla Niyaz
was very influential, and after he became Hakham Yosef’s son-in-law, he
built up his father-in-law’s camp so that it became very powerful.48
According to Tagger, Maman did not prevail on account of the fact that
he was infused with the holiness of the Land of Israel. Rather, his marriage
ties allied him with the community’s preexisting financial and religious
authority structure and allowed him to prevail.
In Yaari’s version, religious authority and legitimacy are contained
within the homeland, and Maman derives his power from there. In
Tagger’s version, religious authority and legitimacy are contained
within the diaspora community itself and Maman’s rise to power was
on account of his alignment with the host community’s inner resources.
The story that Tagger tells is a multivocal one, in which we hear the students
of Maman as well those who opposed him. Above the din of their
contention, Tagger’s own narrative voice wavers, leaving the reader
wondering whether the protagonist should be viewed as a hero or a villain.
Maman is depicted as an important, influential leader who con[
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tributed to the shape of Bukharan Jewish identity and practice. Yet his
image is tainted by great fissures that he created within the community,
and by his presumptuous imposition of Sephardic traditions on
the local Jews.
Just as Tagger’s portrait of Maman’s character is surrounded by uncertainty,
so too it is unclear whether or not Tagger’s version of this
chapter in history carries a moral message and, if it does, then what it
might be. Whereas Yaari’s story offers a singular teleological argument
about how diaspora history unfolds, Tagger offers three separate messages.
First, he claims that the particular qualities and traditions of the
Bukharan Jewish diaspora group should be highlighted. Second, he
suggests that the Bukharan Jews are part of a greater diaspora, which includes
the Jews of Yemen and Persia as well as other Jews from Eastern
lands.49 Along this vein, he takes issue with Maman not simply for imposing
his own traditions on the local Jews but also for not recognizing
the legitimacy of the traditions of Edot ha-mizrah. Finally, Tagger celebrates
Jewish unity, praising the Jews of Bukhara for their commitment
to the Land of Israel and for their faithfulness “to the eternal values” of
the Jewish People.
Tagger’s multilayered message is unsettling. He is not clear about
how Jewish unity can be preserved if the Jews of Bukhara (and other diaspora
groups) develop and maintain their own versions of Judaism.
Can there be such a thing as normative Judaism, if the dictates of the
religion are not centralized? Can the delicate balance between the assertion
of local authority and autonomy, on the one hand, and the
maintenance of Jewish unity, on the other, be maintained without
It is in no way coincidental that Tagger’s version of history, which
raises these difficult questions about the nature of normative Judaism
and unitary Jewish Peoplehood and leaves them unanswered, is the
version that has been “marginalized.” I am not suggesting that scholars
and journalists have consciously relegated Tagger’s reading to the periphery
because of the difficult questions that he raises. Rather, I believe
that the process of centralization in which emissaries such as Maman
engage is a powerful one that has, in fact, helped to maintain Judaism
and Jewish Peoplehood throughout the many centuries of Jewish diaspora
history. Furthermore, this process derives its strength by overlooking
and even delegitimizing those, like Tagger, who speak from a
position that the Center labels peripheral.
Yaari is not just a strong supporter of this centralization process; he
engages in it himself by employing the same methods as the Maman
whom he portrays. Rather than listening to (and making heard) those
voices of dissent, Yaari, like his Maman, silences them by overriding
them with a singular voice that is clear, strong, and authoritative.
Until recently, Yaari’s portrayal of Jewish diaspora has been the classically
accepted model. Today, however, contemporary social scientists
offer an alternative, decentralized model of diaspora. As illustrated in
the analysis of Tagger’s writings, this alternative paradigm brings very
difficult questions to the fore, challenging the very essence of the Jewish
People and Judaism. And yet, it is this approach that endeavors to
present an honest portrait of the complex and dynamic historical processes
surrounding the Jewish diaspora experience.
Appendix 1: Texts That Yaari Uses as His Sources
David D’Beth Hillel
The following excerpt appears in a footnote in D’Beth Hillel’s travel
diary (1828). It is also reprinted in Fischel’s edited version of the diary
On my being the first time in Bagdad I had the opportunity of meeting
there two Israelites from Bochara, a father and a son going to visit Judea.
I became very well acquainted with them, they were both very fair and
handsome. I was told by them that in Bochara there are three thousand
families of Israelites: that they are very rich and speak broken Persian.
They were formally very ignorant of the Hebrew language and customs,
having no Hebrew books nor manuscripts, nor anything relating to the
Hebrew law, but only a few prayers in Manuscript which they have received
from their forefather: but about thirty five years ago there passed
there a traveller, an African Israelite from Judea, by the name of Rabbi
Joseph Marobi: This man found them so ignorant that he would not even
eat with them. They however attended him as their Rabbi and teacher of
law. After being there for some time, not being able to get any Hebrew
books or anything belonging to the law, except those that he had brought
along with him, he sent a letter through Astracan to Sklow to the Israelites
which are there. . . .
This letter was transmitted to all parts of Poland and Turkey. I was very
anxious to meet with some of these people, and the Lord at length fulfilled
my wish during my visit to Bagdad. I had with them a long conversation
enquiring about their customs and manners. They told me that they
are now walking after the customs which they were taught by Rabbi
Joseph, even before they were circumcised, and told me that they have no
Levites. . . . All my conversation with them was in Hebrew. They are the
disciples of the above Rabbi, and I found them to be men of good talents,
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having a good knowledge of the Hebrew books and customs, and fear
God more than any other Israelite I have met with in Khoordistan.
Joseph Wolff
The following excerpt appears in Wolff’s travel diary (1835):51
The Jews of Bokhara and the surrounding places . . . fell into great ignorance,
forgot their laws, rites and customs, and did eat the meat of the
Musselmans indiscriminately. There was no Rabbi among them who was
able to teach them the Law of Moses and the Prophets, or who was able to
tell them what was clean and unclean, until Joseph Mooghrebee, the African,
or as the Jews of Bokhara pronounce his name, Joseph Maarabee
from Tituan, arrived at Bokhara. . . .
Rabbi Joseph of Tituan, of the family of Maimon, was the son of Rabbi
Moshe Maimon. . . . He went from Tituan to Jerusalem, thence to
Bagdad, and from thence to Bokhara; and arriving in the latter place he
preached: “Woe is me, Oh my brethren! to find you in such a condition,
that you have forgotten the Law of Moses and the Prophets, and the words
of the wise men!” He refused to eat of their meat for six months, during
which time he taught them to kill animals according to the law of the Jews,
ordered them to perform ablution, induced them to send a man to Constantinople,
Wilna, Leghorn and Capusta (in Poland), the seat of the Jews
residing in that country, for the purpose of purchasing talmudical books;
he sent for a Sopher, who wrote for them the Law of Moses upon parchment;
he then took under his instruction several young men, and thus
made of Bokhara, as they expressed themselves, a little Jerusalem. He
married at Bokhara a second time, though his wife at Tituan was still alive;
he spent there 61 years, lived to the age of eighty-one, and died lamented
by every Jew of Bokhara, by whom he is styled the “Light of Israel.” His
more initiated disciples, however, tell some anecdotes about him, which
makes me doubt his orthodoxy: for instance, he told them that it was no
sin to drink milk immediately after meat, provided that none of the unlearned
Jews were present; that the religion of Moses may be divided into
two parts: the one part to be taught to all, and another part reserved for
wise men. Rabbi Pinehas Ben Simha, a young man of extraordinary talents,
tells me that his continued prayer had been: “Oh Lord, King of the
worlds, when will the time come that the followers of Jesus will take possession
of these countries!” But still he had the bigotry to destroy the New
Testament, which came here a few years ago from Orenburg. He knew
mathematics and astronomy, and was an enthusiastic freemason, as it appears.
Rabbi Pinehas Ben Simha is his son-in-law, and a man of the most
extraordinary talent; he is now convinced of the truth of the Gospel, and
several others with him. Rabbi Joseph Mooghrebee’s sons, Abraham and
Isaac, are not endowed with the talents of their father. They are bigoted,
and proud of being the sons of Rabbi Joseph Mooghrebee. He was consid[
ered by the Musselmans as a great Mullah, and he proved to them, that
the Jews were the possessors of the revealed book of Moses, which saved
them from slavery.
Ephraim Neumark
The following excerpt appears in Neumark’s travel diary (1947):52
These Jews who were so far from their brothers, were also far from Torah.
But 80 years ago, one of the wise men of the West arrived there; his name
was Hakham Yosef Maman. When the people of the city recognized that
this man was honorable, they pleaded with him and prevailed upon him to
remain in Bukhara. Once, when he saw pure people [anashim ksherim] coming
from the washhouse [beit ha-rahatsah] on the Sabbath, and he asked
them about this, they answered him that the law explicitly permits this. And
when they saw that he did not believe them, they brought the book to him
and showed him that it is written, “In a city where there is a washhouse, [you
may] wash on the Sabbath!” but they did not pay attention to the end of the
section. Little by little, he began to teach them Torah, until he had trained
teachers from among them. And today in Bukhara there are also those who
learn Talmud. Before, they had very few [religious] books . . . since they
were located far from any printing house. But when the Russians began to
come to Bukhara . . . the way to Russia was opened to the Bukharans and
they began to come to Moscow to trade there, and they brought back whatever
books their hearts desired. Among the Bukharans are also those who
have learned Talmud in Moscow, so much so that the edah of Bukhara has
become a very important edah in Israel. . . .
After the aforementioned hakham—who is singled out by our Bukharan
brothers as the first to have taught them the ways of Torah and to have
developed their talents—I also heard the names of Mullah Pinhas Gadol
and Mullah Pinhas Katan.
Elkan Adler
The following excerpt appears in Adler’s article “The Persian Jews”
[T]here seems to have been a curious reason for this [switch in liturgy
from Persian to Sephardi], more potent than the uniformity imposed by
the printer. Some 150 years ago, they say, a learned man, R. Abraham
Mammon, whose descendants are to-day of the elite of the Jews of Central
Asia, journeyed from Morocco to distant Bokhara and persuaded his coreligionists
that, like himself, they were descended from the Jews exiled
from Spain and Portugal, to whose ritual it was therefore their duty to
Rabbi Maman
and the
Bukharan Jews

Alanna E.
Pinhas Hakham
The following excerpt appears in Zekher tsadik, which was published in
Jerusalem in 1894 by Pinhas Hakham’s father (Shimon Hakham)
shortly after Pinhas’s death, and reprinted in 1948. Although the book
is composed primarily of eulogies, a few sections, including the passage
below, were written by Pinhas himself:54
When I was in the land of my birth, Bukhara, I . . . Pinhas Hakham, found
books written in Spanish writing, and I could not read them, nor could
others. But from the chapter headings, it seemed that they were words of
Torah. So I took them with me, and when I came to Jerusalem I had the
merit of learning Spanish. Now I see that these writings are pleasant lessons
written by the holy hand of our teacher and rabbi, my ancestor, may
he rest in peace, Light of the West, the emissary, Hakham Rabbi Yosef
Maman Ma’aravi . . . in the year 5553 [1793] when he came as an emissary
from the Holy City of Tsfat to the cities of Persia and Bukhara. On his first
Shabbat in Bukhara, he gave a sermon in the synagogue that was about
the holiness of the Land of Israel and about charity. I have copied it . . . so
that his memory may endure.
Appendix 2. A Comparison of Five Writers’ Descriptions of Maman’s Biographical Information
Writer: David D’Beth Hillel Joseph Wolff Ephraim Neumark Pinhas Hakham Elkan Adler
When info was
1827 1832 1884–86 1890–94 1897
Emissary’s Title:
Last name:

— Joseph

Hakham/ Rabbi

Where the emissary
was from:
An African Israelite Tétouan [city in
Morocco; spelled
“Tituan” by Wolff]
One of the wise
men from the West
Light of the West Morocco
Route of the
From the Land of
Tétouan to Jerusalem
to Baghdad to
— Tsfat to
Persia to
Morocco to
When the emissary
arrived in Bukhara:
Extrapolation of
the year in which
the emissary
“about 35 years ago”
Thirty-five years
prior to D’Beth Hillel’s
arrival, so 1792
“he spent 61 years
there and then he
At least 61 years
prior to Wolff’s
arrival, so 1771
or before
“eighty years ago”
Eighty years prior
to Neumark’s
arrival, so 1805
“the year 5553”
1792 or 1793
“some 150 years
Some 150 years
prior to Adler’s
arrival, so ca.
Length of time the
emissary stayed in
“there passed there a
“he spent 61 years
“he settled in
— —
Rabbi Maman
and the
Bukharan Jews

Alanna E.
Appendix 3. A Comparison of Yaari’s Source Material on Maman
Source: David D’Beth Hillel Joseph Wolff Ephraim Neumark Pinhas Hakham Elkan Adler
State of the Jews in
Bukhara Before the
Emissary’s Arrival
Very ignorant of the
Hebrew language
and customs
Fell into great
ignorance; forgot
their laws, rites
and customs
Far from Torah — —
They were circumcised
Did eat the meat
of the Musselmans
— — —
Religious texts
and leaders:
No Hebrew books or
No Rabbi among
them who was
able to teach
them the Law of
Moses and the
Prophets, or who
was able to tell
them what was
clean and unclean
— — —
Reaction of the Emissary
Upon His
Arrival in Bukhara
What he said or
Would not even eat
with them
Proclaimed: “Woe
is me . . . that you
have forgotten the
Law of Moses and
the Prophets, and
the words of the
wise men!”
Refused to eat of
their meat
Once, when he saw
pure people
(anashim k’sherim)
coming from the
washhouse (beit
harkhatsa) on the
Sabbath, he asked
them about this
— —
The Reaction of the
Jews in Bukhara to
the Emissary
They attended him
as their rabbi and
teacher of law
— They answered
him that the law
explicitly permits
this. And when
they saw that he
did not believe
them, they brought
him the book and
showed him that
it’s written [that it
is permissible]
— —
Source: David D’Beth Hillel Joseph Wolff Ephraim Neumark Pinhas Hakham Elkan Adler
cont., Appendix 3
Rabbi Maman
and the
Bukharan Jews

Alanna E.
What the Emissary
Did in Bukhara
religious practice:
Taught them to
slaughter animals
according to the law
of the Jews; ordered
them to perform
— — —

the accumulation
of religious
— Not being able to
get any books or
anything belonging
to the law
. . . he sent a letter
through Astrakhan
to Sklow to
the Israelites
which are there
Induced them to
send a man to Constantinople,
Leghorn and
Capusta . . . for the
purpose of purchasing
books; he sent for a
Sopher [scribe],
who wrote for
them the Law of
Moses upon parchment
— —
Served as a
— Took under his
instruction several
young men
He began to teach
Torah among
them, until he had
trained teachers
— —
Source: David D’Beth Hillel Joseph Wolff Ephraim Neumark Pinhas Hakham Elkan Adler
Other: — — — On his first Sabbath
in Bukhara,
he gave a sermon
in the synagogue
. . . about the holiness
of the Land
of Israel and
about charity
Persuaded his coreligionists
. . . they were
descended from
the Jews exiled
from Spain and
Portugal, to
whose ritual it
was therefore
their duty to conform!
Source: David D’Beth Hillel Joseph Wolff Ephraim Neumark Pinhas Hakham Elkan Adler
cont., Appendix 3
Rabbi Maman
and the
Bukharan Jews

Alanna E.
I wish to acknowledge the Lady Davis Fellowship Trust in Jerusalem for generously
funding the research for this article. Unless otherwise noted, all translations
from foreign-language sources are mine.
1 See, e.g., Yitzhak Ben-Tsvi, “The
Jews of Bukhara,” in his The Exiled
and the Redeemed (Philadelphia,
1957), 61; Walter J. Fischel,
“The Leaders of the Jews of
Bukhara,” in Jewish Leaders:
1750–1940, Leo Jung, ed. (Jerusalem,
1964), 538–39; Audrey
Burton, “Bukharan Jews: Ancient
and Modern,” Transactions
of the Jewish Historical Society of
England 34 (1997): 48–49; Giora
Fuzailov, “The System of Succession
in the Bukharan Rabbinate:
1790–1917,” Shvut 8, no. 24
(1999): 38–40; Baruch Moshavi,
“R’yosef ben mosheh maman
shaliah tsfat be-bukharah,” Talpiot
9 (1970): 873–86; Tirza
Yuval, “The Last Celebration,”
Eretz Magazine (Winter 1993):
18–34; Perry Bialor, “The Bukharan
Jews,” Jewish Press Magazine
(New York), July 29, 1994; Phyllis
Glazer, “Plof from Bukharia,”
The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 27, 2000,
p. 25; “The Jews of Caucasus,
Central Asia,” Chicago Sentinel,
Apr. 21, 1994, p. 13; and Meir
Benyaminov, Bukharian Jews
(Union City, N.J., 1992).
2 Although it is standard to capitalize
“diaspora” when the term
is applied to the Jewish case, this
article challenges the conventional
use of the term and therefore
uses the lowercase form.
3 Here “the Jews of Central Asia”
refers primarily to those Jews
who lived between and along the
Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers,
the region that would come to be
known as Bukharan Khanate
under the Uzbek Khans.
4 Ben-Tsvi, “The Jews of Bukhara”;
Fischel, “The Leaders of the Jews
of Bukhara,” 535–47; Mikhael
Zand, “Bukhara,” Encyclopedia Judaic
Yearbook (Jerusalem, 1975),
183–92; Mikhael Zand, “Bukharan
Jews,” Encyclopedia Iranica
(London, 1990), 4: 530–45.
5 In “Bukharan Jews” (532), Zand
notes that information about
the relationship between the
Jewish leaders in Babylon and in
Central Asia is recorded in the
writings of tenth-century chronicler
Natan the Babylonian, and
in the writings of twelfth-century
traveler Benjamin of Tudela.
6 Zand argues that, in the latter
part of the thirteenth century,
remnants of Jewish populations
could be found in Balkh,
Khwarazm, Bukhara, and Gurganj
(“Bukhara,” 184). Ben-Tsvi
suggests that the Jews in Samarkand
who were not killed by
Genghis Khan’s army fled the
city, but that, not long after, they
returned from their temporary
places of refuge and reestablished
a community there (“The
Jews of Bukhara,” 72).
7 This assumption overlooks the
fact that, after conquering the
area, the Mongols maintained
strong control over their empire’s
communication and trade,
and travel routes became more
secure than ever. During the Pax
Mongolia era (best known by
Westerners through the stories
of the Venetian Marco Polo),
goods and ideas flowed freely between
Europe and Asia, and
intercontinental trade and travel
flourished. However, Zand,
Fischel, and Ben-Tsvi do not address
how this exchange may
have facilitated interchange between
the Jews in Central Asia
and those in Ashkenaz and
Sepharad during this time.
8 Vera Basch Maureen, In Queen
Esther’s Garden: An Anthology of
Judeo-Persian Literature (New Haven,
Conn., 2000); Fischel, “The
Leaders of the Jews of Bukhara,”
9 With the ascent of the Safavid
dynasty and its adoption of
Shi’ism, Iran cut off ties with its
Sunni neighbors, including
Bukhara. And with the ascent of
the Durrani dynasty in the eighteenth
century, the Afghani
Kingdom was formed, which cut
off ties with its rivals in Bukhara.
10 Note, however, that historian
John Voll argues that the development
of the Shi’ite Safavid
state in Iran did not necessarily
lead to the isolation of Sunni
Central Asia. While recognizing
that “Sunni Muslim scholars and
travelers were not as free to
travel across Iran” after 1500 as
they had been previously, he
contends that this “did not
mean a cessation of travel by
such people” (Voll, “Central
Asia as Part of the Modern Islamic
World,” in Central Asia in
Historical Perspective, Beatrice
Manz, ed. [Boulder, Colo.,
1994], 62, 81). Voll’s argument
that macro-political shifts did
not necessarily result in the severance
of informal relationships
in the region may be applied to
the Jewish case as well. Jewish
historian Mark Cohen also takes
this theoretical stance in a study
of the Jewish community in
Egypt. He contends that many
scholars are misled by the assumption
that relationships between
the Jewish community in
Egypt and other Jewish communities
mirrored macro-political
relationships. He argues that
there is not necessarily a one-toone
correspondence between
shifts in macro-political structures
and social organization
within the Jewish world (Cohen,
Jewish Self-Government in Medieval
Egypt [Princeton, 1980], 27, 28).
11 Ben-Tsvi, “The Jews of Bukhara,”
75; Fischel, “The Leaders of the
Jews of Bukhara,” 538.
12 Fischel, “The Leaders of the
Jews of Bukhara,” 538–39; Ben-
Tsvi, “The Jews of Bukhara,” 75–
76; Zand, “Bukhara,” 184.
13 Nissim Tagger, Toldot yehudei
bukharah (Tel Aviv, 1970), 5–7;
Yehuda HaCohen Rabin, Zarakh
kokhav mi-yaakov (Jerusalem,
14 For example, Aruch of Rabbi
Natan of Rome, a lexicon of terms
found in the Talmud and Rabbinical
Legends. The work was
written in Rome in 1101 and
published there in 1469. A copy
of this printed book traveled to
Isphahan. In 1502, a scribe
there penned a copy that made
its way to Bukhara. It was safe[
Rabbi Maman
and the
Bukharan Jews

Alanna E.
guarded in Bukhara, where
Adler bought it in 1898. Another
example is Sefer tolaat
yaakov, a mystical exposition on
the ritual of prayer written in
1507 and printed in Constantinople
in 1560. In that same year,
Joseph ben Moses Kalantar acquired
a copy of the book in
Constantinople (inscribing it
with his name and the date).
Sometime between then and
1724 (when a scribe added 15
pages of Hebrew manuscript to
the printed text), this book traveled
to Bukhara, which is where
Adler bought it in 1898.
15 Avraham Yaari, Sifrei yehudei
bukharah (Jerusalem, 1942), 1.
16 Walter Fischel, Unknown Jews in
Unknown Lands (New York,
1973), 12–14.
17 David D’Beth Hillel, The Travels
of R’David D’Beth Hillel from Jerusalem
Through Arabia, Koordistan,
Part of Persia and India to Madras
(Madras, 1828).
18 Joseph Wolff, Researches and Missionary
Labours Among the Jews,
Mohammedans and Other Sects
(London, 1835).
19 Ephraim Neumark, Masa b-erets
ha-kedem, ed. Avraham Yaari (Tel
Aviv, 1947).
20 Elkan Adler, “The Persian Jews:
Their Books and Their Ritual,”
Jewish Quarterly Review 10 (1898):
21 Ibid., 602.
22 According to author and family
historian Shulamit Tilayov, Pinhas
Hakham was the great-greatgrandson
of Maman from both
his father’s and his mother’s
sides. See Shimon Hakham,
Zekher tsadik (Jerusalem, 1894),
and Shulamit Tilayov, Shirat Shulamit
(Tel Aviv, 1981).
23 Hakham, Zekher tsadik, 161. Pinhas
Hakham translated Maman’s
sermon sometime after
1890 (which is when Pinhas
Hakham moved to the Land of
Israel) and before 1894, which is
when he died.
24 Yaari, Sifrei yehudei bukharah, 2.
25 Ibid.
26 Edelzon’s interpretation is supported
by a family legend recorded
by Aryeh Fuzailov in his
family memoir, Me-arayot gaveru
(Stronger than Lions), published
in 1995. Fuzailov writes
that his forebear Rabbi Yosef
Chacha left his home in Iraq and
traveled to Bukhara in the late
eighteenth century. Furthermore,
he writes that, at about the
same time, Rabbi Yosef Maarivi
(who was born in Tetuan and
had moved to Tsfat) traveled to
Bukhara. According to Fuzailov,
these two Yosefs—who were both
to become leaders in Bukhara—
crossed paths during their journeys
to Bukhara.
27 For a detailed discussion of
Edelzon’s inaccuracies, see
Moshavi, “R’yosef ben mosheh
maman,” 877–78.
28 Yaari, Sifrei yehudei bukharah, 2.
29 Wolff, Researches and Missionary
Labours, 135. Presumably this
statement was motivated by the
suffering the Jews endured at
the hands of the Muslim regime,
and by the hope that colonialization
by the Russians (“followers
of Jesus”) would better their lot.
Wolff, however, omits this exegesis.
30 Yaari, who edited Neumark’s
text, surmises that this book was
the Mishnah, Masekhet
makhshirin 2:5.
31 Hakham, Zekher tsadik, 162–63.
32 Yaari, Shluhei erets yisrael, xi.
33 Ibid.
34 Ibid., 1.
35 Shlomo-Hai Niyazov, Mesirut
nefesh shel yehudei bukharah (New
York, 1985), 52–63.
36 In fact, Bukharan Jews’ Jewish
identity remained strong
throughout the Soviet era as a
result of their weak tendency toward
Russification as well as
their weak tendency toward assimilation
within the local populations.
Furthermore, they
managed to preserve many of
their religious practices since
Soviet anti-religious campaigns
were not as harshly executed in
Central Asia as they were in the
Western parts of the Empire.
See, e.g., Alanna Cooper, “Feasting,
Memorializing, Praying and
Remaining Jewish in the USSR:
The Case of the Bukharan Jews,”
in Jewish Life After the USSR: A
Community in Transition, Zvi
Gitelman, ed. (Bloomington,
Ind., 2002), and Alanna Cooper,
“Looking Out for One’s Own
Identity: Central Asian Jews in
the Wake of Communism,” in
New Jewish Identities, Zvi Gitelman,
ed. (New York, 2003).
37 Sander Gilman, Jewries at the
Frontier (Chicago, 1999), 5.
38 Indeed, all those whose history
of the Bukharan Jews follows
this center/periphery paradigm
are men. Significantly, one of
the few decentered histories
about the Bukharan Jews (in addition
to my own) is told by a
woman. Her story, as told
through her son, Nissim Tagger,
is related in this article, below.
39 Gilman, too, notes that the center/
periphery model “demand[
s] a specific type of
hegemonic orientation” (Jewries
at the Frontier, 3).
40 Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black
in the Union Jack (London,
1987), 158.
41 The Hebrew appears on the top
half of each page, and the
Bukharit (written in Hebrew
characters) appears on the bottom
half. Bukharit is a dialect of
Persian that scholars often refer
to as Judeo-Tajik.
42 Tagger, Toldot yehudei bukharah,
43 Ibid., 7.
44 Ibid., 53.
45 Ibid., 52–53.
46 Adler, “The Persian Jews,” 602.
47 Tagger, Toldot yehudei bukharah,
48 Ibid., 54.
49 Tagger’s assertion that there
were Torah scholars among the
Jews of Bukhara in every generation
is immediately followed by
his claim that “without interruption
wise men flowed to
Bukhara from all the diaspora
lands of the east.” This link suggests
that Torah study in
Bukhara was intimately connected
to a much broader religious
community, presided over
by the sages of “the East.” In the
excerpts presented in this
article and in other segments of
Toldot yehudei bukharah, Tagger
clearly distinguishes this Eastern
community (in which he includes
the Jews of Persia,
Rabbi Maman
and the
Bukharan Jews

Alanna E.
Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iran)
from the Sephardim.
50 D’Beth Hillel, The Travels of
R’David D’Beth Hillel, 67–69; reprinted
in Fischel, Unknown Jews
in Unknown Lands, 93–94.
51 Wolff, Researches and Missionary
Labours, 134–35.
52 Neumark, Masa b-erets ha-kedem,
53 Adler, “The Persian Jews,” 602.
54 Hakham, Zekher tsadik, 161.