On the weekend of Shabbos HaGadol, the largest Bukharian shul in the country, Beth Gavriel in Forest Hills, hosted a concert by the Atid Boys Choir, a unique ensemble led by Conductor Itzhak Haimov and Chazan Ezro Malakov, a veteran of radio and stage for many decades. “After many centuries, Bukharian Seder songs have returned to a new generation of children. Along with songs, I also teach them the customs of the Seder,” Malakov said. “We will record our model Seder with the songs on video.”
A native of Shahrisabz, Malakov is a walking encyclopedia of Bukharian musicology, having performed on state radio and television in Uzbekistan before immigrating to New York in 1992. In his new home, he serves as the chazan of Beth Gavriel, while performing before global audiences throughout the year.
Haimov was born in Samarkand and studied music at the conservatory in Tashkent. His musical career began in opera theater, where he worked for 35 years. He immigrated to New York in 2003 when he was hired to lead the services at the Hamptons Synagogue. “This choir was started in 2015 and we are in our fourth generation of singers. They range from ages six to 13, at which point they graduate,” Haimov said.
Particularly impressive is the blend of languages in which they sing, such as Omer Adam’s Modeh Ani in English, Hebrew, Spanish, and Russian. Their ability to code switch comes from home, where their parents speak English, Hebrew, Russian, and Bukhori. “Nearly all of them attend Jewish schools, where they learn to speak and read Hebrew. But the Bukhori language is not as easy. It is the language of grandparents. Most of their parents are under the age of 35, having arrived in America at a young age. They do not speak it fluently.”
While Haimov admits to being firm with the boys, Malakov is more patient, recognizing the language difficulty and determined to keep passing on Bukhori songs to the young generation. “My grandfather was Eliyahu Nektalov and he was a nephew of Gavriel Mullokandov,” said Benyamin Nektalov. “We have ancestors who passed on these traditions.”
Mullokandov lived in the last years of the Russian Empire, when Jewish performers were honored as court musicians in the royal palace of the Bukharian Emirate. After the revolution, they transitioned towards public concerts, radio, and television. Mullokandov was honored as a People’s Artist of Uzbekistan and performed before Soviet troops during World War II. The family musical dynasty lives on in Nektalov’s sons Yosef and Joshua, who respectively attend fifth and fourth grade at the Yeshiva of Central Queens.
“They sing in many languages. Ezro Malakov is very patient with them and he does it from his soul. His approach works,” Nektalov said.
Oscar Rakhmanov’s son Itay Yonah, a third grader at HAFTR, already knows how to lein the parshah from lessons at the Ner Mordechai shul in Kew Gardens. “He wanted to join the choir and learn to sing. He’s recorded his own shashmaqam in a studio and I’m now looking forward to his solo performances,” Rakhmanov said. The genre of shashmaqam is known as the classical music of Central Asia, with its specific vocal arrangement and instruments. It serves as a cultural bridge, bringing Bukharian Jews and the native people of that region together in concerts and public events. Long after settling in Queens, Malakov is still popular among his compatriots, including Uzbekistan president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who invited him to sing at official functions.
Igor Aminov does not come from a musical dynasty but values the role of the choir in his son’s growth. “My older son Yosef passed the audition six months ago. His confidence has improved and he is not shy to sing in public. I do not know how to sing. It is an important part of Judaism. It looks nice to lead the service and read the parshah with a nice voice.”
Most of the choir’s performances are local, but they’ve also sung before audiences at Carnegie Hall, the recent Chazaq Legislative Dinner, and other public events. But don’t expect them to perform at high-end Pesach resorts. “We have plans to tour but it is not easy. Our parents are very religious and have large families. On our tour in Israel, only 20 of our boys were able to be there. It is very expensive to travel,” Haimov said.
The concert at Beth Gavriel was funded by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the New York City Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, and sponsored by Rabbi Imanuel Shimonov of Beth Gavriel and SAMI: Sephardic American Mizrahi Initiative. “When people Google ‘Bukharian Jews,’ the choir is an extension to the vision that I have in engaging the pride of the Bukharian Jewish people,” said SAMI founder Manashe Khaimov. “It is a great opportunity to work with kids in the community.”
Bukhori is not the first, or second, language of the boys in Atid; but when they sing in this language, the feeling of pride among their grandparents is unlimited. “My children do not speak Bukhori, but they sing in this language, which their grandmother understands,” Aminov said. “It means a lot to her.”