For two decades, Aron Aronov has transported embroidered garments, oil portraits of rabbis and other examples of traditional Bukharian Jewish culture from his native Uzbekistan to a small museum in New York.
"Here is all my money, all my life, all my time," Aronov, 71, said as he unbolted the door to the crowded, three-room Bukharian Jewish Museum, which he said is the only such museum in the world.
It tells the 2,500-year history of the Bukharian Jews of Central Asia, where they lived as a pious, insular ethnic community until leaving the region in droves in the early 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
They come mostly from Uzbekistan, and were concentrated in the Uzbek city of Bukhara.
"This museum is a desperate attempt to stop time," said Aronov, gesturing to an elaborate display of a Bukharian yard, including a wooden sofa covered with colorful rugs, cooking pots and an outdoor stove. "I don't want all this to go."
Bukharians had lived in relative harmony with their Muslim neighbors, but fled Central Asia as soon as it became possible to leave the Soviet Union, whose secular policies had long frustrated pious Bukharian Jews.
Now, they are struggling to protect an ancient culture they fear could vanish. Unlike some other ethnic communities in Queens, New York City's most ethnically diverse borough, Bukharians have no real homeland.
Most of the estimated 300,000 Bukharian Jews have settled in Israel but the second-largest concentration of about 50,000 live in the Queens neighborhoods of Rego Park and Forest Hills - earning the area the nickname Queensistan.
Only a few hundred remain in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, local leaders say.
Today, a stretch of Queens Boulevard is dotted with Bukharian synagogues, restaurants and cultural centers. There is also a theater staging plays in Bukhori, a Jewish dialect of Farsi, a newspaper, a cemetery and the museum.
Malika Kalantarova, a Bukharian from Tajikistan, was a celebrated dancer in the Soviet Union and now operates a dance studio in a Queens subway station.
"It's like a new Bukhara in New York City," said Itzhak Yehoshua, the head rabbi for Bukharians in America, a reference to the Uzbek city that gave Bukharians their name.
Bukharians attribute their success in keeping their heritage to their strong tendency to marry within the community and stick together. Of the 500 Bukharian weddings registered in 2007, Yehoshua said 400 were among Bukharians, 60 were between Bukharians and other Jews and 40 were between Bukharians and non-Jews.
"By the way, we hate the word melting pot," Aronov said.
The mayor of 'Queensistan'
Aronov, often called the mayor of Queensistan, is leading the effort to collect and preserve cultural artifacts. He travels frequently to Central Asia and has brought back a wooden carriage, traditional jewelry, and dozens of silk robes in brilliant shades of pink, purple and orange.
Billionaire diamond dealer Lev Leviev owns the Queens yeshiva where the museum is housed rent-free. Still, Aronov dreams of opening a more impressive facility.
"Some people come in here and they burst into tears because they recall their lives," said Aronov. "When we came into this country, we lost our social status in one second."
Aronov came to New York in 1989 and used to think about returning to Uzbekistan. Some Bukharians here say they plan to move to Israel.
"I don't think this is our homeland. Israel is," said Emma Rafailov, 25, as she walked with her husband and two children through the neighborhood. "All of us are getting just a little too comfortable here."
On Saturdays, the Tandoori Bukharian Bakery fills after sunset as Bukharians end the Sabbath. Musicians play traditional Bukharian instruments; the doyira drum and the rubob, a two-string guitar. Patrons feast on lagman, a spicy noodle soup, cumin-scented rice called plov, grilled meat on skewers with raw onions and crusty bread from a tandoor oven.
On the wall, the restaurant's Bukharian owner has posted the address placard that once marked his home in Uzbekistan.
At the Vostok bookstore, a group of Bukharian men said while Bukharans are happy here they are fighting assimilation.
"Our history does not die because we have good people taking care of it and we are very close," said Sam Yakutilov, 37. "What we used to have there, we brought here."
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