The first morning at the Bukharian school Sha’arei Zion may thrum with steady send-offs, but no crazed whirlwind of tearful stress.
The principal’s office door is open; Rabbi Label Lam sits behind his desk surveying the traffic of small sneakers scuffing on freshly waxed floors. He eats a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, but puts the bowl down abruptly. “Nope, sorry, no interviews! Absolutely no journalists!” he exclaims, dabbing milk from his long gray beard.
He doesn’t trust the press, and he’s busy: Principal Lam says the first few weeks of school present the biggest challenge, and the most important part of the year. Kids return fresh-minded, but in need of structure. “We prep the tone for the year to come. We have to ensure comfort, security, clarity, and encouragement.”
Principal Lam explains that his reluctance to talk mirrors his community’s insular attitude: for fear of severing their roots, many Bukharian families, who hail mostly from the Uzbek cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, are wary of outsiders, and of assimilation. No wonder: Bukharian history reveals a tangled tale of stubborn survival under Persian, Mongol, Arab, Russian, and Soviet rule.
They arrived in droves during the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Bukharians number over 60,000 in New York alone, their population growing exponentially: since the early aughts, approximately 25,000 more have registered in New York.
Under Soviet rule, Bukharians were forbidden to openly discuss, study, or practice their religion. As immigrants now tasting cultural sovereignty, Bukharians hold tight to heritage, relying on institutions like yeshiva Sha’arei Zion to make sure students don’t forget their past, and their faith.
The new term presents a heady blend of many endings and beginnings for Bukharian children: it comes on the wing of the High Holy Days, and the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. As youngsters return to their studies, so too they bid goodbye to summer, and farewell to last year. Harvest celebrations and a time of atonement typify trips to Staples for three-ring binders and colored pencils.
In his school’s curriculum, and in his impassioned description of his faith, Principal Lam emphasizes a symbiotic relationship between ancient texts and modern thought. “The Torah has teeth, it’s full of life,” he says. “And we want to teach how you can interpret it today.”
Some students, however, fear the path to which Sha’arei Zion may point them. Now on the threshold of his final year at the yeshiva, David Aronov, 13, worries his education has not left him with a balanced outlook. David’s family emigrated from Samarkand when he was 3. His parents staved off English, to preserve their native language, a Tajik-Farsi dialect, blended with Hebrew and Russian.
“I didn’t learn English until I was six or seven,” says David. “My parents were afraid I’d lose my Bukhori.”
But Principal Lam cites the importance of a yeshiva education, especially for the next generation of Bukharians in New York. He says rebellious kids lacking proper discipline, something that won’t happen at the yeshiva, find their way to delinquency in the streets. Instead, at the yeshiva school, students engage in activities that blend fun with history and faith: Talmudic study meets foosball. “We want to nurture [the children’s] innocence. Here, we are the Ark,” says the rabbi, which in Hebrew translates to teacher.
Daniela, in her late-20s (she requested keeping her last name private) emigrated to New York as a child. She says the school helps her feel connected to a larger nexus of Bukharian families, especially since the start of school coincides with the Jewish High Holy Days. “It’s our job to help kids navigate between the old world ways and the new,” she says, unloading several kids from a beige minivan. “We’ve already been ripped out of our homeland, had to safeguard ourselves from the misery of oppression. So every time the school year starts, I look forward to this wonderful support network.”
As a growing community of strangers in a strange land, New York Bukharians also maintain the customs of their foster-soil to preserve and celebrate their roots. Tradition and scholarship go hand-in-hand in the New Year – even in the playground.
At midday, school children can sit in clusters beneath a teal slide, and unpack brown paper bag lunches. But the standard fare gets a time-honored twist: they dip their apple and dates in plastic ampoules of honey – a Bukharian tradition at Rosh Hashanah time, to sweeten the year to come. Until the bells chime a call to class, children may eat and play, and flavor their back-to-school with hallowed ritual.