ABC Books for Bukharan Jews (Central Asia)

ABC Books for Bukharan Jews (Central Asia)

The two pictures are of ABC learning textbooks published in Soviet Central Asia for the national Schools of Bukharan Jews. They were written by Rakhmin Badalof (1924) and Jakov Kalontarov (1938), both Soviet cultural activists. The two books represent shifts in Soviet Nationalities Policy from the 1920s to the late 1930s.

Spread over the urban centers of Сentral Asia, Jewish communities were present in the region for many centuries. Over the years they developed an inner community dialect which was based on spoken Tajik into which Hebrew words were incorporated. Although printing in this language began already in the second half of the 19th century, and the first newspaper using this language began circulating since 1910, it become a formal language only during the Soviet era.

It was in the early 20s when Bukharan Jews were recognized as a titular (native) national group of Soviet Central Asia, and thus in the framework of Soviet Nationalities Policy entitled to develop their separate form of national culture (with Soviet content). In this framework the Soviet authorities invested in the development of a unique and defined national language, schools that would teach this language and a press that would use it to disseminate Marxist and Soviet ideas. Although initially the language still used the Hebrew script, already in 1924 a simplified version of it was introduced in the first study book (secondary images). In the late 20s and early 30s, as with other Central Asian languages, the script of Judeo-Tajik changed to Latin. In the late 1930s following an additional shift in the Soviet Nationalities Policy, the unique national enterprise of Bukharan Jews was scrapped, cultural activists were purged and their separate schooling system incorporated with that for Uzbek or the Tajik. Due to this, the language wasn’t included in the further conversion to Cyrillic of the late 30s as other languages were. Abolition of the unique schooling system pushed many toward greater russification on one hand and on the other, brought back the “mother tongue” into home and close circle family premises where it could not be abused by Soviet propagandists.

There is an important difference between the two editions of the ABC books. They are different not only in script, but also in their vocabulary, the content of the short stories and the images used. The first version (and there were many between that of 1924 and that of 1938) uses many Hebrew words, the short readers are based on traditional social realities, and the same is true of the images used in it. While the later version uses more words borrowed from Russian, provides Socialist content and pictures based on the Socialist-realist paradigm (although boys were still wearing traditional caps while combining them with the red scarf of the pioneers). 

In historical perspective, although the social engineering of the Bukharan-Jews enterprise was a relatively short-lived project, it succeeded in uniting the separate and different Jewish communities of Central Asia and forming a united “imagined community” of Bukharan Jews. A notion which is still present among community organizations to this day, although they don’t credit the Soviet policies for this.

Further reading:
Levin, Zeev. Collectivization and Social Engineering, Soviet Administration and the Jews of Uzbekistan, 1917-1939 (Brill Academic Publishers, 2015). Ch.7.

Levin, Zeev. “Soviet language policy and the Nations of the Soviet East, a case study: Sovietization of Bukharan-Jewish language,” eds. Dominique Arel, Juliette Cadiot, Larissa Zakharova, Cacophonie d’empire. Le gouvernement des langues dans l’empire russe, en URSS et dans les États post-soviétiques (Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2010), pp. 153-172.

Zeev Levin is head of Central Asian and Bukharan Jews Research Unit at Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem and a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Author of Collectivization and Social Engineering, Soviet Administration and the Jews of Uzbekistan, 1917-1939 (2015) and editor of Jewish Communities in the East in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Central Asia: Bukhara and Afghanistan (2018), and Jewish Evacuees and Deportees in the Soviet Union, 1939-1946 (2020)