Immigrants Bring Dreams and Combs to N.Y. Shop
By Peter Goodman
Saturday, July 24, 2004; Page B07
PLAINVIEW, N.Y. -- Rafael Fuzailov's place is a traditional barbershop. The smells, both astringent and fragrant, are familiar. The steel chairs look as if they've been used for years. Once in a while, one of the men grabs a broom and cleans up. A sign out front advertises haircuts for $12.
But around a corner in the back of the shop, a Russian-language newspaper lies under a ceramic teapot. There is a silver-plated samovar against one wall, and the barbers' accents are foreign -- the shop is a long way from the cities of the Great Silk Road of central Asia where the men were born.
Rakhmin Izgelov, who is administering a trim, is from Tashkent. Working the chair next to him is Rafael's son, Daniel Fuzailov, from Samarkand. They are Bukharian Jews, barbers transplanted to this shop far from the mountainous land that was home to their people for centuries.
"I never thought I would be here," said Izgelov, a stocky man with a thick, neat mustache and a serious expression, who has been cutting hair since 1968. "The customers are different. But hair is hair."
The Bukharians trace their origins, through Iran and Iraq, to the Persian Empire, in the centuries after the kingdom of Israel was conquered and its inhabitants first forced into exile. Today, Bukharians live in Queens, part of a community of about 50,000 immigrants from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan and Kazhakstan. For generations, the barbers of central Asia were Jews.
The barbers at Rafael Barber Shop -- nestled in its strip mall near a Starbucks and a hair salon -- are following a hallowed immigrant path. They are working their way into American society with the skills they brought from their home countries, much as how Jewish tailors, Greek cooks and, years ago, Italian barbers have done.
"There are not too many Italians in the business anymore," said Mike Zholendz of the American Barber Institute in Manhattan. "Now we have a new breed of people: The Bukharians are coming."
It helps that it doesn't take much capital to get into the business -- as little as $10,000, said Gloria Blumenthal of the New York Association for New Americans, which aids immigrants. She said barbering is the Bukharians' top profession.
Bukharians are barbering throughout Long Island, though it's difficult to know exactly how many there are.
"I see a Jewish community. I like to work in a Jewish community," Rafael said, explaining how he chose Plainview.
He does not work at the shop -- he's got his fingers in other enterprises, including buying and selling cars -- but his son and his wife, Rachel, do. The Plainview store also does a little shoe repair, a little jewelry work -- crafts that Bukharians dominated in the cities of central Asia.
"During Soviet times, most of the professions like barber, photographer, watch fixers, shoemakers, most of the jobs were controlled by Bukharian Jews," said Peter Perkhasov, 26, a political science major at Queens College who is director of www.bukharianjews.com, one of a number of Bukharian Web sites. "There were barbershops where only Bukharian Jews worked, 20 or 30 people."
Documentary photographer Frederic Brenner made a portrait of one such establishment in 1989 in Leninabad, Tajikistan, showing 10 Jewish barbers and their Muslim customers. Eight years later, Brenner found and photographed seven of the same barbers together in Israel. Along with the 50,000 or so in the New York area, there are an estimated 100,000 Bukharians in Israel, with a few thousand more in Austria, France, England, Australia and Argentina. Only about 2,000 are left in Central Asia.
The Bukharians lived in the cities along the Silk Road for hundreds of years, practicing their own, isolated form of Judaism and speaking a Tajik or Farsi dialect. As a result of continuous repression and persecution mixed with occasional periods of free movement, they lost touch with many of their religious roots.
According to lore, a rabbi from Morocco went to Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan, in the 18th century and instigated a Sephardic religious revival. "He changed it from the Persian religious tradition to the Sephardic tradition, but we are not Sephardic Jews," Perkhasov said.
The Bukharians are proud of their Jewish heritage, if not Orthodox in their observance -- Saturday, the Sabbath, is one of the shop's busiest days. Dmitri Izkhakov, who also works at Rafael Barber Shop, indicated clearly that he immigrated because he is Jewish. He arrived in New York in April 2002, because "there are now 15 [Jewish] families left in Samarkand. There were 10,000 families, and now the synagogue is closing because there is no minyan," he said, referring to the 10 adult males needed to conduct prayer services.
Barbering is a bit different, both for the newcomers and customers who recall the old-time practitioners. The Bukharian barbers don't strop their razors the way the old Italians did; they don't use fragrant oils as much or keep their scissors and tools in alcohol-filled glasses. "The Italian guys are very slow and precise," Izgelov said. "We have a little less attention to detail."
And American customers are not the same as the Uzbeks. "In Tashkent, there is more a standard haircut -- three types of haircuts," he said. "Here, everybody is different, different kinds."
Ultimately, though, a barber is a barber. Daniel Fuzailov carefully shaved Alan Sternberg's head while Sternberg's son Jake, 3, perched on his dad's lap. Then Billy Hunter of Jericho, who had been the store's very first customer, came by for his regular shave.
"There are very few barbershops that do shaves anymore," Hunter said, settling back under Izgelov's ministrations. "There's a family atmosphere here. They make you feel right at home."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
All the barbers at Rafael Barber Shop are Bukharian Jews from Uzbekistan. Standing behind Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov, in the chair, are, from left, Dmitri Izkhakov, Michael Itskhakov, Rakhmin Izgelov and Daniel Fuzailov.
(David L. Pokress -- Newsday)
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