Since Rockefeller Center and the surrounding streets are among the most watched and protected blocks in the city, fifteen separate surveillance systems captured images of the shooter. But not one produced a decent shot of the killer’s face, even after some of the footage was taken to FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, for enhancement. “The quality of the images is so bad,” Moroney says, sitting in his impossibly narrow, almost bowling-alley-like office tucked in a back corner of the precinct house, “that you can’t even tell the shooter’s race.”
Roman Nektalov decided to bring his family to America in 1973. Getting out of the Soviet Union in those days was difficult, if not impossible, especially for Jews. Roman managed, however, to deftly navigate the bureaucracy and get permission to leave. But at the last possible moment, Soviet authorities detained him. The official charges were never clear, but this was a common form of harassment in that era.
The rest of the family went to Israel and waited. In a matter of months they were reunited. They settled in Queens, where there were three other Bukharan families who’d also managed to leave around that time, and another twenty that had immigrated years earlier. Most of these families had escaped across the border to Afghanistan, then worked their way to Israel, and eventually the U.S.
Roman had been a watchmaker in Samarkand. Before long, he found an American Jew who took him to 47th Street and, in the words of a relative, “showed him the way.” He worked hard, and eventually opened a small booth selling gold chains in one of the large retail exchanges.
“This is a very easy business to get into,” says Benny Cohen, an Israeli native who has been a distributor of precious stones on 47th Street for 24 years. “It requires very little knowledge at its lower levels other than ‘buy cheap and make a profit when you sell.’ ”
There’s a steady stream of immigrants and Hasids arriving on 47th Street all the time to get their start. Usually a friend or a rabbi calls someone in the business on the newcomer’s behalf. All they have to do, Cohen says, is give him a couple of stones to take door to door. “So he will make 5 percent on every $10,000 worth of stones he sells,” he says. “That’s not bad for someone with no skill or training.”
Jews have a long history in the diamond business, owing largely to the fact that in Europe they were often not allowed to own land. Putting their money in diamonds had two advantages. The stones were essentially liquid, like cash, and they were easy to carry from country to country during times when Jews were forced to move. The business was revolutionized and took on much of its present shape at the hands of the Oppenheimers, German Jews who bought the De Beers cartel in 1926.
Up until the mid-nineties, De Beers controlled almost the entire global diamond market. As new mines opened up, however, more people were able to get into the business, and De Beers’ market share has now dropped, by most estimates, to less than 65 percent. But their archaic, ritualistic system of doing business is still intact.
Every fifth Monday, 125 people called sight-holders gather in a room in London, where they are each presented with an elegantly wrapped box. Inside the box is their diamond allotment. “You can’t haggle over price,” says Renée Rose Shield, a professor at Brown and author of Diamond Stories: Enduring Change on 47th Street. “And you must accept what you’re given or risk being dropped as a sight-holder. And the list of people waiting for one of these spots is very long.” The diamonds, which are in their rough, unfinished form, are then distributed throughout the world market.
Interestingly, one of the most successful challenges to De Beers’ dominance of the market has been mounted over the past decade by a Bukharan Jew named Lev Leviev. A native of Tashkent and a friend of Vladimir Putin’s who now lives in Israel, Leviev managed to outmaneuver De Beers and negotiate a deal with Angola for exclusive access to its diamond production. At 48, he is a multibillionaire and an enthusiastic supporter of Jewish causes—a result, according to a well-worn story, of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson’s having blessed one of his early, risky ventures. Leviev’s philanthropy is evident in Queens, where he built the yeshiva in Rego Park that houses Aron Aronov’s Bukharan Museum and that is also tuition-free.
On 47th Street, since much of the business is still conducted on the honor system, a man’s reputation is about as valuable a commodity as the stones themselves. Diamonds change hands all the time with little more than a handshake or a note scribbled on a scrap of paper.
“One accusation can make it impossible to do business,” says Benny Cohen. “In fact, sometimes you don’t even need an accusation. All you need is a whiff that something isn’t right. That’s enough to ruin someone. Everyone knows this, so they are very careful about what they say.”
But David Ribacoff, one of the founding members of New York’s Bukharan community, who helped start its first synagogue and who has assisted hundreds of immigrants in getting settled here, is scathing in his assessment of the Nektalovs. “I knew someday something was going to happen with these people,” he says. “If you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.”
Ribacoff’s family left Uzbekistan for Israel when he was 2 years old. The boat stopped in Alexandria, Egypt. Rather than continue on by train, which was the only way to complete the journey, they settled in Egypt. The Ribacoffs became a rich family of merchants who led a comfortable life in Alexandria until they were expelled in 1957. They lived in Brazil for seven years before settling in Queens in 1963. “My brother and another guy started the first Sephardic synagogue in Queens in September of 1963,” he says.
Ribacoff, now 79, spent twenty years in the jewelry business on 47th Street. “There are people in our community who lived too long under Soviet rule,” he says. “The only way they could survive is to cheat the government, and they do it here as well. Everybody on 47th Street knew if you had stolen stuff, you could bring it to the Nektalovs. I urge you not to praise these people.”