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Boro’s Bukharian Jews enjoy open Passover fest

The sign in the window of an Asian-owned dry cleaners on 108th Street in Rego Park advertised a special service for people with dirty prayer shawls: it read “Free Cleaning Tallis For Passover.”

On Monday afternoon, crowds bustled in and out of the kosher specialty shops that line 108th Street between 63rd Road and 67th Avenue, the stretch that is known as Bukharian Broadway.

From the butcher to the baker, Passover was in the air.

Ruben Kandov, who opened a Bukharian bakery on 108th Street a year ago, was getting ready to close up shop for nine days. Rather than engaging in the extensive cleansing of chametz, or leavened residue, from the bakery, which would be required if he wanted to bake matzoh, Kandov was looking forward to going to synagogue and spending time with his family.

“It’s a big holiday for us,” said Kandov, who came to the United States from Uzbekistan in 1994.

The Jews of the Bukharian Kingdom in what is today Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were taken as captives to Babylon after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C. Many wandered eastward as merchants following the Silk Route. When Babylon was conquered in the 6th century B.C., most of the Jews went back to Jerusalem.

But those who remained fought to maintain their cultural identity despite being isolated from the rest of the world’s Jews.

During the reign of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, synagogues were shuttered and religious persecution was commonplace, but that did not stop Bukharian Jews from maintaining such traditions as circumcising newborns and fasting on Yom Kippur.

When Kew Gardens social worker Yaffa Haimoff grew up in Uzbekistan, Passover was celebrated in secret because of government repression. Now here in Queens, she will cherish the freedom to celebrate in the open as she gathers around the table with her two sons and their families.

“The government didn’t allow us to celebrate. I heard a few stories that they would tell us that we killed children and put their blood in the matzohs,” she said. “Here I was surprised when I came to the store and saw packs of matzohs,” she said. “I was like ‘Whoa!’ It was really very surprising for me.”

As far back as she can recall, Passover was the most important holiday in Haimoff’s home.

“I always remember how my father explained the story of Passover, though it was prohibited,” she said. “We would close the door and my father would tell the story of why we eat matzoh.”

Kandov, who said his father would be at the head of the seder table, agreed.

“Back in Russia I couldn’t take a couple of days off for Passover,” he said. I was forced to go to school. Here it’s so nice because you can take a couple of days off, go to synagogue. You feel more secure here, that you have more freedom.”

Jews such as Haimoff and Kandov from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia have immigrated in large numbers to Queens in recent years, settling in Rego Park, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens. Community groups estimate as many as 50,000 Bukharian Jews live in the area, making it the second largest such community in the world after Israel.

Many Bukharian Jews, who are known for a strong desire to preserve their cultural identity, said Passover provides a chance to keep that heritage alive in an adopted homeland.

“I am the oldest in the family,” said Haimoff. “I tell the children why we celebrate Pesach and tell them we do so not to forget our Jewish roots.”

Haimoff said her family planned to sit around the table, reading from books called Haggadahs in both English and Russian, as they prepared to feast on bitter herbs, fish, chicken and a pilaf mix of rice and meat.

“We also hide the matzoh,” she said. “The grandchildren are always so excited. They ask, ‘When will we be looking for the matzoh?’”

But not everyone was happy that Passover has arrived. Jimmy Kim, manager of Key Food on 108th Street, said the supermarket has lost a lot of business due to the holiday.

“There are a lot of Russian people [in the neighborhood],” he said. “We’re losing money because they’re only buying matzoh.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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