Beyond the Veil Domestic Abuse in the Shadow of the Silk Road
Behind an embroidered lace curtain, three young girls slyly snicker. They lean knobbly elbows on Russian prayer books and sneak bites of challah bread, as they listen to the cantor’s fervent, wailing, Judeo-Farsi Shabbat chant. Past the partition, men cradle and kiss a tall torah, encased in ornate mahogany, silver, and soft scarlet cloth.
With wide toffee-colored eyes, the smallest girl peels back the delicate ivory drapes, eagerly peeking at the throng of loudly davening, hairy neck napes before her.
Abruptly the curtain gets yanked back into place.
“What did I tell you?” one clean-shaven thirty-something hisses back at them. All three shrink back. “I told you to stop. Be silent. Don’t touch that.” He smoothes the lace back into place. One nearby woman halts her prayer to cluck her tongue at the girls. But she casts a raised, worried eyebrow at the man.
Tradition teaches that women and men sit separate in orthodox Jewish synagogues. It teaches respect, piety – and for women, modesty – above all. And for the Bukharian Jews of New York, tradition is the very fibrous weft with which they weave their vibrant cultural tapestry. It has served them well: as an immigrant group, Bukharians have thrived. Today, over 60,000 reside in New York alone, mostly in Forest Hills and Rego Park. Many own their own businesses and homes.
Their resilience has forged success – but it has also fostered isolation. Bukharians express a deep bond with their heritage – an intricate webbing of faith and defiance, in the face of oppression traded down over thousands of years and miles. But the friction between old and new ways has unearthed longstanding trouble at the hearthside. A serpent preys upon their Queens Eden: domestic violence, spurred on by clashing cultures, shifting gender rolls, and emotional upheaval, plagues Bukharian homes.
Bella Zelkin, MSW, director of émigré services at the Jewish Child Care Association and women’s advocate, has front row seats to the protracted upheaval immigration causes for Bukharians at home, and in relationships.
“Immigration is a life crisis, one that can be compared to a death in the family,” says Zelkin. “The whole family structure is being shaken.”
The richly cultured but insular community now grapples with the realities of a vastly different world. Bukharian gender dynamics face a seismic shift, as women drift from traditionally subordinate roles, towards education and empowerment – and threaten the status quo. These new Americans now must navigate the inscrutable gap between revering their all-important heritage – while at the same time, indicting antiquated customs.
Before carrying on, we first must establish that Bukharians are no anomaly: as with many immigrant groups, adjustment to new social systems has bred friction – and a violent seismic shift in family dynamics. Even the most educated, compassionate groups know the shadowy crime of domestic violence. Bukharians are not alone, nor should this issue of global significance wash them with villainy: the unique light they shed on the problem comes from the intersecting values they espouse, and the cultural crossroads at which they now stand.
Their resistance to assimilation has become equally the core of their survival, and yet the milk of their destruction. So often unreported, often swept under the carpet, domestic violence within the Bukharian community has emerged as an issue gathering steam, and in this, national Domestic Violence Awareness month, demands redress. As support group initiatives breathe new power – but scatter 21st century seeds – into the community, New York’s Bukharians stand with toes curled over the precipice of change.
Bukharian Jews hail from Central Asia’s Uzbekistan, where they lived in a heady blend of Babylonian, Persian, Spanish, and Slavic influence. They served as merchants, silk dyers, court musicians, doctors, and teachers to the Muslim emirs along the Silk Road. For millennia, they have maintained a staunchly insular stance, and no wonder – their culture has perennially endured an onslaught of imposed mores. Yet their tight-knit enclave equally exhibits a permeable membrane, absorbing influences from their neighbors: their language, Bukhori, reflects a Tajik-Farsi-Hebrew amalgam, later russified. Until Soviet sanctions in the early 20th century, the Bukharian marriage system was mainly polygamous. Like their Muslim neighbors, Bukharian men paid bride money; women wore the veil, and were charged with traditional domestic duties.
Cynthia Zalisky of the Queens Jewish Community Council describes that Bukharian women carried the weight of the home, but curried no favor; she says little has changed.
“These women were treated as second class citizens. Back then, you were either chained to the kitchen, or the bedroom.” says Zalisky. She is executive director of the QJCC, and founded Bukharian Ladies’ Night, an event series that incorporates lecture series, skills workshops, crisis counseling, and community outreach. “No one listens to them. They have such a beautiful culture, but some of the stuff brought over is toxic.”
As the Iron Curtain rusted away in the late 1980’s, stringent atheist rule gave ground to fears that Islamic fundamentalism would further erode their spiritual vitality. Bukharians immigrated en masse to the U.S. and Israel.
Once here, Bukharians swiftly established a well-buttressed cultural enclave. Tight-knit aspects of their community let in little outside influence. Communities are largely patriarchal; many marriages are still arranged by parents and matchmakers. Divorce is not common, but frequently criticized.
“In the old country, you never spoke about divorce. You worked on things,” says Yaniv Meirov, Bukharian founder of the community nonprofit, Chazaq. Meirov cites baggage that it’s both the husband and wife’s responsibility to shoulder. “The marriage crisis can be solved, if you know your partner, or it’s a spiral going downward,” says Meirov. “You need to know the true meaning of love, or you learn the hard way.”
David Aronov, 20, remembers his own parents’ divorce at 11 years old. “I got a lot of criticism from friends,” he says, “but not as much as my mom. In Bukharian culture, it’s never the guy’s fault. My mom just tolerated it – the getting drunk, beating your wife, never being there. I know some girls don’t want to marry Jewish, just to get away from the trauma.”
Yet Aronov says the most destructive aspect of the system is lack of proper communication: a convoluted gossip grapevine typifies Bukharian conversation, tangled scandal mongering which often conceals the truth, and pollutes relationships. “If you cut your finger, by the time the rumor gets back to you, they’ve taken your whole arm,” says Aronov. “But people don’t realize they could be destroying somebody’s life.”
As with all stories, there is an alternate narrative: one where angry spouses, both women and men, use manipulative tactics to work the system against each other. Boris Nektalov, editor-in-chief of the Bukharian Times newspaper, feels litigation is sometimes used too loosely – that it isn’t fair, and it weakens the family system. “It becomes like blackmail,” says Nektalov.
Permanent splits must happen with good reason – but Meirov says the reasons seem to crop up with introduction to American culture. “Hollywood, America, have been a big influence on giving up – but if something is broken, you fix it. You don’t just throw it away.”
Widely discussed are the dually pathogenic and nourishing effects of the U.S. on Bukharian ways.
Rarely discussed – the secret shame of domestic abuse, sparked by chafing cultural fault lines. It lurks behind closed doors, and coils in the corners of conversation.
Much of the time, Zalisky says, the women are liable for domestic discord. She recalls a recent case:
“This woman, maybe 25 or 26, she was battered by this son of a gun. They have a kid with cerebral palsy – and the guy blamed her! The kind of damage he was doing her, she would be dead. Finally, she had to get a divorce, to help her child.”
If a woman comes forward, she brings shame to her family, a shanda. Often, the plaintiff will not be believed, especially if her (or his) spouse is well liked.
Sarah*, 26, a domestic violence survivor, was married three years before leaving. Her husband had hit her, constantly criticized her, and may have drugged and raped her – though Sarah is still not sure. He also kept her passport as well as her children’s’, and controlled all household cash flow: Sarah registered for her first credit card this year.
However, her husband had a good reputation; people liked him. And even Sarah’s mother would not believe her.
Rita Kluyov, MSW, is executive director of Beit Shalom, a grassroots nonprofit that specifically combats Bukharian domestic violence. She highlights the opprobrium that often tethers abuse victims.
“There’s a huge stigma of social services in the Bukharian community,” says Kluyov. “And a sense of weakness in asking for help with the women – that she can’t handle herself. That the decision-maker is the man.”
This is especially the case where money is concerned.
“He bruised my body with his hands,” says one survivor, 31. “But he also strangled me with his purse strings.” She revoked permission to use her name after interviewing, because her divorce is not yet finalized. The survivor left her husband in Florida and moved to Forest Hills with her four-year-old son two years ago. She is now a paralegal at a Queens family law and personal injury firm. “I had to get out. But I’m still afraid.”
Yet women in the community have begun to out-earn their male counterparts. In New York, families often cannot survive on one husband’s salary alone; the women therefore take up housekeeping employment. Men, once doctors, lawyers, and jewelers in Uzbekistan, now scoff at the menial labor positions women don’t mind assuming.
“It makes the husbands feel like they’ve lost control,” says Zalisky. “They’re used to their wives relying on them.”
On Bukharian Ladies’ Nights, Zalisky says, successful Jewish women come to speak, and demonstrate the possibility of independent ambition. Zalisky also hosts financial literacy classes for the women.
“I tell them, you have to be in the system. You have to be in the system as your own self. You have to exist. Don’t be an appendage to your husband,” Zalisky says. “It’s so important for these women to build their self esteem and buck the norm.”