Mon, 01 Mar 2021

KHUJAND, Tajikistan -- A close-knit community in the old quarter of Khujand, a historic Tajik city on the banks of the Syrdaryo River, buried one of its most respected members last week.

The death of 83-year-old Jura Abaev on January 15 marked the end of an era for Khujand: He was the last Jew in the predominantly Muslim city, once home to a strong Jewish community of several thousand that had lived in the region for centuries.

Affectionately known among his neighbors as Jura Ako -- local slang for the 'elder brother' -- Abaev lived his entire life in the Under The Big Mulberry Tree neighborhood in the heart of the vibrant city of nearly 200,000 people.

A retired factory worker, Abaev was also the last rabbi of Khujand's only synagogue until it was closed in 2015 after having been empty since the 1990s.

There were an estimated 15,000 Jews in Tajikistan in the late 1980s, but most of them left the Central Asian country after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Among those who left were Abaev's five adult children and their families, his half-sister, and many friends and relatives.

After the death of his wife in the 1990s, Abaev also decided to immigrate to Israel to be closer to his children. In fact, he moved to Israel three times between 1990 and 2008 -- each time returning to Khujand, calling it the only home he ever had.

In several interviews with local media in recent years, Abaev said that while he was in Israel he missed his home city, where "everybody knows me, greets me, and calls me Ako."

The Jewish cemetery on the city's southern outskirts is the final resting place for some 1,000 Khujand Jews buried there since the early 20th century.

Abaev said he was given an apartment and a monthly pension in Israel, enough to lead a financially comfortable life.

But he told friends in Khujand that he felt lost and lonely in the new country, where he didn't speak the language, Hebrew, and struggled to adjust to the Israeli way of life.

"Abaev used to say, 'I felt like I'm a nobody in Israel. When I go out in Khujand, people in my neighborhood smile at me and say, 'Look, Jura Ako is coming.' But nobody knows me in Israel,'" says Tajik journalist Tilav Rasulzoda, a longtime friend of Abaev.

Bustling Bazaar, Vibrant Neighborhood

During his retirement, Abaev's favorite pastime in Khujand was going to the Panjshanbe Bazaar, a centuries-old, bustling outdoor market selling fruits and vegetables and dotted with shops, cafes, and kebab houses.

The ancient bazaar is also famous for its old teahouse, where mostly elderly men gather for traditional meals like rice pilaf or lamb soup, and fresh bread from its own bakery.

Over endless cups of tea, the men play and watch others play chess. During long, hot summer days, the chess games sometimes continue until the early hours of the next morning.

"Abaev was the happiest when he rode his bike -- with a basket attached to its front for groceries -- to Panjshanbe Bazaar, some 200 meters from his house," a neighbor recalled.

"It was a short trip, but it would take him a long time as he would make several stops along the way, chatting with neighbors, friends, shopkeepers, butchers, barbers, and so on. He was a popular member of a lively community in a vibrant neighborhood where everyone knows each other," the neighbor said.

Abaev's large family house on Under The Big Mulberry Tree's Shuro Street didn't stay empty for long after his children left the country.

When an impoverished Tajik family of six lost their own home many years ago, Abaev offered them several rooms in his house, where they still live.

In return, the family looked after Abaev until his death, providing much needed care, especially in his later years.

Last Rabbi

Born into the Khujand family of a factory-worker father and a mother who was a theater actress, Abaev experienced many hardships as a child, including his parents' divorce, deep poverty, and hunger during World War II. Once he recalled a wartime rationing system in which the family received 300 grams of bread a day.

Since 1967, Abaev had been the rabbi of Khujand's synagogue, just a stone's throw away from his house. His duties included conducting funerals, safekeeping the synagogue's only copy of the Torah, and taking care of the house of worship.

During the Soviet era, the religious practices of all faiths were under strict government control, while the organized practice of faith was almost nonexistent.

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