Saturday, April 4, 2009
American Gypsy: Rego Park, New York’s Bukhari Community
My gypsy spirit has taken me around the world only to discover there are cultural gems hidden in our own backyard. Think of them as tiny countries tucked into our most cosmopolitan cities, where one can uncover an entire culture without having to travel very far.
Today we are headed to Rego Park. For more 2,000 years, Central Asia was home to the Bukhari—one of the most isolated Jewish communities in the world. After the fall of the Soviet Empire, the Silk Road came to Queens, bringing tens of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Afghanistan and western China.
Rego Park (or Regostan), located in the borough of Queens just minutes from Manhattan, is known as Bukharian Broadway. It is a cultural commercial strip along 108th Street and has several kosher restaurants and stores stocked with imports from the Silk Road: Iranian nuts, Turkish coffee, Hungarian spices, Russian samovars for brewing tea, and fine china (probably from China.)
I found myself standing on the corner of 108th street convinced that I was not in New York anymore. The long street was filled with little old ladies wearing babushkas as loud Russian voices echoed from the local produce stand. Down the road, the light strains of a violin spilled from a restaurant that seemed to be getting quite busy. It was time to dine.
Every table in Restaurant Fortuna was packed with families speaking Russian, Uzbek, Hebrew, Farsi, and Tajik languages. I had no idea how to greet the host so I simply said, “Shalom” and he “Shalom-d” me back.
I felt like I was sitting in the middle of 10 countries and the menu was literally the Silk Road on paper. My options were chebureki (deep-fried lamb dumplings from the country of Georgia), manti (Turkish steamed dumplings), borsch (Russian beet soup), a warm samsa (like an Indian samosa), shish kebobs (from the Middle East and Turkey) and shurpa (hearty spiced lamb soup from Central Asia), which is noted in an old Kazakh proverb “Meat brings strength, shurpa brings beauty.” Of course I ordered the shurpa!
While waiters passed around dishes of warm plov, (Uzbekistan's national rice dish), live musicians played Russian music on the small dance floor, and vodka took the place of water. As I always say, “When in Bukharian Broadway, do as the Bukharians do!” So for this one night I became a Bukhari kid, stuffed with plov, drunk on vodka, and dancing with the best of the babushkas.
Throughout the celebration I noticed that the kitchen was all women and the waiters were all men. I discovered that it’s a Bukhari requirement that a woman must know how to cook for at least 500 people.
As I danced and chatted with a young Bukhari couple from Uzbekistan, who had emigrated to the U.S. in search of the proverbial better life, I asked and I learned. I learned that Bukharians observe an Orthodox form of Judaism and New York's Bukharian community consists of about 15 percent of the Russian-speaking Jews in the city. But their customs are different, their religion is different, and their food is different. Discovering the differences is what the gypsy does.
Bukharian Broadway is a joy for anyone with a whisper of a gypsy spirit. The people, the food, the music, the shopping, the language, the religion were all new to me but for that one night, the people became like family. I went home with a new tea set, a Russian samovar, Hungarian paprika to sprinkle over my kabob, Russian vodka, Turkish coffee, and a whole new understanding of a culture that resides practically next door.
(In Tajik and Uzbek one can say: Salom)
Georgian: didi madloba
Russian: Do svidanja
Ukranian: Do pobachennya
(In Uzbek, Tajik and Afghan one can say: Khair)