A visit to Bukharian New York, an area that stretches along Queens Boulevard from Rego Park through Forest Hills to Kew Gardens, is not complete without the consumption of regional delicacies, insists Aron Aronov. But for this community activist, who has a Bukharian Jewish museum stashed in his cellar, a pit stop at the Uzbekistan Tandoori Bread shop on 83rd Avenue quickly becomes an opportunity for kibitzing more than noshing.
Greeting the mostly male, black-clad crowd with warm handshakes, Aronov appears to be in his milieu. He sets his chair toward the middle of the plain dining room and sends back the round of lagman (zesty meat and noodle soup) for more broth.
A middle-aged man who landed recently in Brooklyn introduces himself in Bukharian and asks Aronov to teach him English. A younger man wearing an Armani Exchange shirt asks Aronov in Russian to teach him Bukharian.
“That’s why we need the cultural center,” Aronov explains, referring to the long-planned multipurpose building whose construction in Forest Hills has been suspended because of internecine legal squabbles.
“We want to be integrated in U.S. society; at the same time we want to preserve our ethnic identity. We’re not just Russian or Jewish but Bukharian Jewish,” he says.
Jews have faced this battle in New York since 23 Sephardim arrived here in 1654, but Aronov lends it unusual urgency.
“My generation has great responsibility,” he says, rising and stretching his arms to his sides. “On one side is the past,” waving his right hand, “and on the other side is the 21st century,” waving his left hand. “We are the bridge.”
Centered in Queens, the Bukharian Jewish community of roughly 50,000 has countered assimilation with dance troupes, a national theater and, naturally, dozens of restaurants and bakeries. The one thing missing, Aronov says, is a center to knit all the strands together.
When it appeared the community center would not be built anytime soon, Aronov found room for his collection by moving from an apartment to a modest two-story house in Rego Park. There a separate basement door leads to Merros: The Bukharian Jewish Heritage Museum, an eclectic array of sundry and priceless artifacts from a 2,000-year-old Central Asian culture that has been in rapid decline since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Aronov also tore down the detached single-car garage to make room for a planned tandoori oven, garden and tea nook to re-create those of the old country. Some other Queens residents are privately doing the same, he says.
With financial and emotional support from philanthropist Daniel Rose and museum president Yuri Sadikov, Aronov has used his vacations to return to Uzbekistan and go from house to house to gather items abandoned by the exodus of Jews to Israel and America. Sadikov pulled some strings to import part of the collection, including a 400-year old Torah, but much more remains in Tashkent.
Featured in recent articles in Newsday and The New York Times, Aronov, 63, has also become something of the community’s public face. Fluent in 10 languages — he was Richard Nixon’s guide during the president’s visit to Uzbekistan in the late 1960s — Aronov has served as a translator and community liaison at the New York Association for New Americans since shortly after his arrival here in 1989.
A stop in his basement was a highlight of Hebrew Free Loan Society board members’ visit to the community last summer, says executive director Shana Novick. “He’s got the makings of a good ethnographic museum there.”
“His enthusiasm and knowledge are infectious,” said one visitor, Frances Degen Horowitz, a loan society board member and the president of the CUNY Graduate Center.
Nearly every inch of wall space of the small dim basement is covered with hanging textiles and shelves of urns, platters, pottery and tea sets. Intricate souzanis rest in stacks. Much more is hidden in the inlaid metal trunks.
Many of the materials are decaying in the dank atmosphere, but Aronov, who has no experience in museums of archives, is unwilling to entrust them to Manhattan museums. He is committed to keeping the collection close to the community in Queens.
Another wall is lined with photographs of rabbis. “These people risked their lives to keep us on the Jewish track. We should never forget their names,” says Aronov, who would like to commission an artist to render the photographs into painted portraits.
Aronov prefers to collect “dirty things” like a worn wooden cutting board and a brass hand-washing device. “We didn’t have golden menorahs,” he says, holding up a soot-covered tin one his mother used.
It is Aronov’s dream to get the items off the shelves and arranged in domestic tableaus, with wax models styling traditional colorful robes. “I need to open my boxes,” he says.
Aronov is not the only one to collect Bukharian Jewish material culture (one man is doing it in Israel), but Bukharian artifacts are still rather rare in this country.
“There’s not much to find,” says George Anavian, who runs his family’s 75-year-old Oriental rug and antiquities business near Madison Avenue.
With few resources save his own quixotic enthusiasm, Aronov is still a long way from seeing his dream a reality. The community center project is mired in a succession of legal disputes with a neighboring synagogue.
Sylvia Herskowitz, director of the Yeshiva University Museum, tried to borrow Bukharian textiles from Aronov for the current exhibition on Jewish trade routes, “Traders to Tartary,” but lost patience after he failed to return her messages.
“I gave up after 100 calls,” Herskowitz says. “He’s just too busy finding people apartments.”
The public is welcome to visit to Aron Aronov’s collection. Appointments can be made by calling (718) 896-8465.