Whether the Bukharan Jews are descendants of ancient traders or the remnant of the Babylonian Captivity is lost in the murky darkness of history. They were a presence in Central Asia until the fall of the Soviet Union. Now the great majority have left. About 50,000 of them have settled in Queens, NY, centered in the Forest Hills neighborhood.
Forest Hills started as an early-20th century development of faux-Tudor brick houses on quiet streets—the kind seen in inner-ring suburbs all over America. But in recent years, the neighborhood has been remodeled almost out of recognition by Bukharan incomers.
Their Uzbek-vernacular aesthetic is strikingly different from the previous one, more Russian-Asian than Olde England. My friends have an apartment in one of these remodeled houses. It has been refaced in reddish, polished granite with granite balustrades. The tiny front garden is paved in contrasting brick. Their windows are of a swing-out kind not generally seen in America; their door is massive, metal, and apparently able to withstand attack. And inside is a lovely 1920s pure-New-York flat—but only because the tenants asked that it not be remodeled while they live there.
The Bukharan houses are much bigger and gaudier then the faux-Tudors. At times, they seem to overreach their lots. They’re both fascinating and jarringly out-of-place, and they have been criticized since the beginning of the Bukharan building boom. In recent weeks, however, someone has taken their disapproval to a new level. Seven homes undergoing transformation have been torched. According to the police, a single arsonist is responsible.
What’s motivating this guy? It’s hard to imagine an angry preservationist burning down houses. Since Forest Hills has always been a Jewish neighborhood, it’s equally unlikely that it’s straight-up anti-Semitism. Is the perpetrator anti-Asian? Anti-Russian? Or just plain nuts?
However, there is no question that these are so-called hate crimes—all seven properties were owned by Bukharan Jews. What baffles me is: what’s there to hate?