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Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism by Alanna E. Cooper (review)

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 87, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 287-290 | 10.1353/anq.2014.0005

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As anthropologist Alanna Cooper notes in her book, Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism, Jewish studies long rested on the presumption of global Jewish unity, or what she calls Jewish Peoplehood. Contemporary anthropology, however, deconstructs such assumptions, asking how, when, and why identity emerges from (or is submerged in) lived experiences of difference. Cooper combines these perspectives, analyzing two centuries of historical and ethnographic material to show how a small population of Central Asian Jews instantiates more general processes of global articulation and local differentiation. In other words, she describes how “Bukharan” Jews produce both Jewish Peoplehood and Bukharan Jewish difference.

Cooper also uses the case of Bukharan Jews to critique two dominant models that Jewish studies has mobilized for thinking about the problem of identity despite the lived experience of difference: center-periphery and edah, the biblical Hebrew term that Cooper understands as “ethnic group.” Whether they were Hegelians like Heinrich Graetz or social historians like Simon Dubnow, the founders of the late 19th century “Science of the Jews” (Wissenschaft des Judentums) tended to resolve the problem of Jewish identity despite diversity by invoking historically variable Jewish “centers” to which scattered Jewish populations deferred, particularly in matters of religious orthodoxy (25-27). Cooper sees the power of this kind of narrative—and its pitfalls—behind the handful of academic texts that treat Central Asian Jews. Many of these texts depict Bukharan Jews as socially isolated and religiously ignorant until the arrival of an emissary from Ottoman Palestine at some point in the 18th century (35-36). In these stories, the emissary settles among the Bukharan Jews, teaches a grateful population how to authentically practice their Judaism, and reconnects the community to the wider Jewish world (35-36). But Cooper notes that the sources for this neat narrative are actually quite messy. There may have been many emissaries, suggesting that Bukharan Jews had long been connected to the wider Jewish world. Those emissaries may have encountered a population deeply invested in local forms of Judaism, forms whose “authenticity” was hardly in doubt for its practitioners. And these emissaries’ authority to reshape local Jewish practice may have been contested (38-56). By tracing out the gap between these extant academic accounts and their very complicated source materials, Cooper suggests that a simple center and periphery model may mask the real work of continuously creating Jewish Peoplehood. This work, she argues, happens in the messy details—in the power struggles over and arguments about what constitutes appropriate Jewishness.

These stories about Jewish centers and peripheries style Jewishness as an unevenly possessed religious identity; in them, some people are “more” Jewish or at least more “authentically” Jewish than others. In contrast, the edah model more closely mirrors anthropological conceptions of culture (121). In an edah paradigm, Jewish groups are not more or less Jewish, but are differently Jewish, with expressive practices that are irreducibly tied to their bodies and geographical locations. Cooper writes: “Like other edot [plural for edah], Bukharan Jews are popularly portrayed as a Jewish diaspora group with colorful cultural attributes that are static and enduring” (123). While noting that such a model gives more voice and weight to “marginal” Jewish populations, Cooper shows that it too elides some of the important work of identity construction—namely the politics behind the creation and recognition of certain Jewish populations as sui generis cultural communities. To illustrate this, Cooper describes the invention of the term “Bukharan” to designate certain Central Asian Jews. Far from being an identity that emerged organically in the mists of Central Asian Jewish history, Cooper argues that a specifically “Bukharan” Jewry is tied to the politics of fundraising in late 19th century Palestine (128-129). She then brings the term into the present, showing that its meaning changes across geographical and historical contexts. She particularly explores how global forces can push on or explode deeply rooted local understandings. For example, in the context of Soviet-controlled Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, many of her informants understood “Bukharan” Jews as “real,” unassimilated, and religiously-devoted, a stark contrast to the Russified Ashkenazim (182-183). But the arrival of Chabad—a Hassidic, Eastern European, proselytizing movement—and the Jewish Agency for...



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