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Mountain Jews

Despite diminishing numbers, a historical Jewish community thrives in Azerbaijan

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A synagogue in Krasnaya Sloboda, Azerbaijan. (Leigh Newton; used with permission)

Russia’s great expanse stretches south from the Arctic for many thousands of miles until it comes to a halt at the long spine of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The republics on the northern side of the Caucasus, including turbulent Dagestan and Chechnya, still belong to Russia. Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, on the southern side of the mountains, gained their independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. The high slopes are home to shepherds and the descendants of clans who have long lived there. Lower down, where sleepy towns look up from valleys to the snowy peaks, bigger communities try to scratch out a living.

In one of these towns—Oguz, Azerbaijan, a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Baku, the country’s oil-booming capital on the western shore of the Caspian Sea—live up to 80 Mountain Jews among a population of more than 6,000. The history of the Mountain Jews, who live mainly in Azerbaijan and the Russian republic of Dagestan is, according to members of the community, rooted about 2,500 years ago in their exodus from Israel, their gradual passage through Persia (where they picked up the Farsi-based language they still speak), and their eventual settlement in the Caucasus mountains.

Sitting in the dark-stone building that houses Baku’s Mountain Jewish synagogue, Semyon Ikhilov, the Mountain Jews’ national leader, shakes off the idea that his people might be descended from indigenous Caucasian mountain dwellers who converted to Judaism. “We’re real Jews who came out of Israel,” Ikhilov said, explaining that they acquired the moniker “Mountain Jews” because they settled in the peaks. “We were not mountain people.” And according to a recent genetic study led by researchers in Israel and Estonia, Mountain Jews share a common origin in the Levantine region of the Near East with other Diaspora Jewish communities.

While once there were as many as 40,000 Jews in Azerbaijan, today there are between 8,000 and 25,000. The estimate varies widely in part because many of them live in Israel or Russia but still retain Azeri passports. Among those who remain in Oguz, many seem to practice a Judaism guided by the spirit of the religion rather than by the letter of its law. They live in a country where more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim, and the demanding rhythm of working on the Soviet-era kolkhoz, or collective farm, coupled with the atheism of the Soviet Union, may all have, over time, muted the zeal of the Jews of Oguz.

Yet push a bit further and an attachment to Judaism emerges. “Last night we lit the Shabbat candles,” says 30-year-old Gunai Iusupova, sitting in the airy dining room of her wooden-balconied Caucasian house. “We said a brucha and ate salted bread. I served up food prepared fresh for Shabbat.” The garden outside was bright with pale pink and deep red summer roses. “And that’s not just us, that’s all the Jews here in Oguz,” she adds, explaining that although they may not observe all the rules of Shabbat precisely, Friday night dinner is sacrosanct.

Standing in the hot sun outside one of the town’s two synagogues, Temur Natalinov, 54, who maintains both houses of worship, explained that he opens them every Shabbat. The men leave quickly, he said, but the women often linger.

Arranged marriages are not uncommon here, Racim Hananayev, 50, the leader of Oguz’s Jews, told me, even for those who leave the town. Hananayev’s wife, Dilbar, served a breakfast of egg, salty cheese, fresh bread, and thick homemade strawberry preserve. She offered met, a bitter, uniquely Caucasian condiment made from the green cherry plum.

Nowhere is the mix of Azeri and Jewish cultures more fascinating than in Krasnaya Sloboda, which sits across a river from Guba, famous throughout the Caucasus for its woven rugs. Just beyond the two settlements looms an imposing mountain, white and icy even in summer.

The two towns seem similar enough, though Krasnaya Sloboda looks more prosperous, full of houses with freshly painted brickwork, new windows, and new iron and lattice roofs mixed in among a few dilapidated wooden homes.

But the difference is more than surface deep. Krasnaya Sloboda is inhabited almost exclusively by Mountain Jews, between 2,000 and 5,000 of them, according to various estimates. In the mid-18th century the khan of Guba, Hussein, established Yevraiskaya Sloboda, literally “Jewish settlement,” as a place for Jews to live safe from attack. His son and successor, Feteli, so the story goes, decreed that if anyone came to attack the town, the Jews should light fires and he would see them from across the river and send help to defend the inhabitants.

The town, which was renamed “Krasnaya,” or “red,” in honor of the Soviet Red Army, has seen its population dwindle from its Communist-era height of 18,000. Some emigrants have gone to Israel, others to Moscow, where many are successful businessmen—hence the prosperous appearance of some buildings here—and where a few have become multi-millionaires, with their reputations becoming legendary back home. According to one Jewish local I spoke with, one of these titans “holds half of Moscow in his hands.”

Those that stay while away the hot days in an outdoor chaikhana, a typical Azeri teahouse, sucking on sugar cubes soaked in tea. Nearby, under the shade of chestnut trees, old men play nard, a traditional board game.

Iunus Davidov, a Jewish 19-year-old, explains that there was no work in the town and that in winter there is hardly a soul to be seen there. “It is hard,” he says. “And in winter it is so cold, it can fall to minus 35 degrees, and sometimes there is no gas or electricity.”

Nonetheless, Krasnaya Sloboda has three schools and two synagogues, with a third being beautifully restored, and in the summer nearly all the émigrés return to spend some time in their hometown, Davidov said.

“There is always a minyan, indeed we always have at least 50 people at prayer time,” says Boris Simanduyev, a community leader. “There has always been a rabbi from Krasnaya Sloboda, and there always will be.” On entering the town’s main synagogue, which is covered wall-to-wall in overlapping oriental rugs, we had removed our shoes, as is the custom here.

Rugs also cover the floor of the cool central room in the Yevdaev family home, where 32-year-old Sara Yevdaeva gathered leaves to stuff with meat to make dolma, food for relatives who were due to arrive from Moscow and Baku for the first anniversary of Sara’s mother-in-law’s death. Sara explains one of the customs of her community. “Whether it is here or in Moscow or elsewhere, Mountain Jews don’t allow their wives to work,” she says.

The hardships of winter make year-round life in the town impossible for Sara to imagine, but Moscow, where she lives for most of the year, has its difficulties too. The rise of extreme nationalism in Russia means Sara, who like many Mountain Jews looks much like any other person from the Caucasus, has experienced the racist abuse frequently leveled at people from Russia’s southern borderlands and beyond. The Mountain Jews all concur that, unlike in Russia, in Azerbaijan they have never experienced any prejudice.

This is all the more surprising, perhaps, in a country where international observers have documented increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and where dissent is often quashed. The current president, Ilham Aliyev, took over from his late father, Heydar, in 2003. Posters of both Aliyevs, in action and thoughtful repose, are everywhere. In 2009 the government amended the constitution to tighten controls on religious groups, making all unregistered religious activity illegal. Those who received their religious education abroad, for example, are banned from leading religious activities.

The Azerbaijan State Committee for Work with Religious Associations, though, argues that the changes in the law on religion strengthen tolerance in the country. The committee’s press office explains that some religious leaders educated abroad had come under the influence of radicals who aimed to destroy Azerbaijan’s “tolerant atmosphere,” and the minister in charge of such matters has previously linked the 2009 moves on religion with combating Islamic fundamentalism—the threat of Wahhabism and of Islamic violence in the North Caucasus spilling over into Azerbaijan.

In late 2009, a Baku court jailed 26 people for an August 2008 attack on a mosque in the capital, in which two people were killed. Those convicted claimed to be members of a radical Islamist group that is believed to have roots in the north Caucasian republic of Dagestan. Also in 2009, two Lebanese men were jailed in Baku for conspiring to attack the Israeli embassy there. In 2007, the Azeri authorities said they had prevented attacks on oil installations and the British and U.S. embassies planned by what they called a “radical Wahhabi group.”

Critics, however, suggest that the authorities are using the threat of fundamentalism to tighten the screws on religious communities and restrict free speech.

Evidently, the government perceives no threat from Azerbaijan’s Jewish communities, nor from Israel, with which it has a developing relationship. Shimon Peres’ 2009 trip to Baku was the most recent and highest-level visit by an Israeli dignitary, a move that angered Iran. Azerbaijan—which is locked in an unresolved territorial conflict with neighboring Armenia—buys arms from Israel, and there is an Israeli embassy in Baku. This relationship is doubtless appreciated by Azerbaijan’s Jews, who are courted by the authorities with official greetings on Rosh Hashanah and Pesach and visits to synagogue openings.

According to Alexander Murinson, an expert on Azerbaijan’s Jews and Azeri-Israeli relations, Azeri respect for the Jews is genuine and deeply rooted—in part stemming from the fact that in Soviet times, Jews, especially Ashkenazim, were well represented among the Azeri intellectual elite. Those Jews who stayed, he said, still have some leverage, with the Mountain Jews wielding power due to the strength of their trading clans.

There is also a more calculated political element to the relationship. In the early days of Azeri independence the authorities deliberately reached out to the Jewish communities, realizing that they could be a magnet for the organized Jewish community in the United States, with its impressive lobbying power, said Murinson. And for a government sometimes accused of intolerance, its relationship with the Jewish minority seems to be put on display, not least by Jewish leaders, two of whom insisted to me that President Aliyev had repeatedly described the Mountain Jews as his brothers. Many foreign dignitaries visiting Azerbaijan find that Krasnaya Sloboda is on their itinerary, as what Murinson called a “showcase.” The state, by email, disagreed: The visits are not for show, a spokesman explained, but to meet its own high standards of tolerance.

Sarah Marcus is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia, and has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph.

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allenby says:

Thanks for this fascinating story!
If Tablet could bring us more of the stories like this one, about other places around the world with rich Jewish history, would be really great!
More of this type stories and please less of political garbage, because every single political story is based mostly on a pile of lies and misinformation. These stories stink big time.

allenby says:

something else I want to add..more stories about Jewish places around Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan… Although Lithuanian Jewry was the richest in Europe before WWII in terms of Jewish education and culture, all other places in former USSR we know very little.

Riva Blechman says:

Kudos to Tablet! I found myself thinking while readying this article that I would never have known about this Jewish community if I hadn’t clicked on this link. More, please.

Michael Greenspan says:

I had the priviledge of visiting Krasnaya Sloboda in 1991, just after Azerbaijan became an independent state. I wss part of a film crew shootng a documentary there and, evidently, among the first — of very few — Israelis to visit there. We arrived on a Friday and I will never forget the scene that greeted us: people who’d heard of our presence came running and driving into the center of town, shouting, “Shalom. Shalom. Shabbat Shalom!” All of us were moved to tears by this reception. Later, we visited the small wooden synagogue (one of two in the town) and also met with the headmaster of the local school, who proudly showed us a family tree he’d drawn up, tracing the roots of the community back to the time of the Babylonian exile.

The hardy spirit of the people was impressive. So was their ability to carve out a reasonable existence for themselves in harsh surroundings and in difficult economic times. I was left wondering if those who planned to immigrate to Israel — where they might be considered “primitive”, would manage to achieve the same sense of dignity and self-worth. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that the word I heard most frequently from the people I met that day was, “budishe” — “the future”, in Russian. And so, I imagine they felt a sense of confidence in their ability to surmount any challenges they might face.

I’m so happy that you had a chance to share some of the same experiences. Thanks for writing about them.

I was there too, in ’93, took a cab from Baku, still have a hat I call my Mountain Jew hat, fur, wear it all the time. I have some darkly beautiful photos of the rabbi showing off some silver ritual objects, snow reflecting light outside the window. There are Jews everywhere.

I’d love to see some more pictures, maybe a photo essay to go with the text?

Excellent article! How about a profile on Jews in Iran today?

Kudos! I usually don’t care for reading long stories like this. In this case, I was so fascinated, I didn’t want the article to end! Excellent report on a community we know so little about.

Charles says:

The recent book by Tom Reiss entitled “The Orientalist” makes extensive reference to the Azeri.

Anna de Vincenz says:

I visited Georgia and Azerbajcan in 2008….a wonderful trip. Took the train from Tbilisi to Baku. The Azeri sleeping car attendant was quite worried that I am travelling alone and promised to watch over me. In the middle of the night I got up to breathe a little and he was right there asking me if all is fine. When I responded yes thanks and do not worry. He responded: how could I not worry about a fellow Jew!!
I never told him I am Jewish, neither did he see my passport….!!!!

Azeri people are the most fantastic and tolerant people I have ever met. Unfortunately I did not have enough time to visit the Mountain Jews, hopefully next time.
Thank you so much for the wonderful article, photos would be really great.

Marnieh says:

Now I can guess why it’s a family tradition to make sour sloe jam . . .

Natalie Lainoff says:

I was enthralled with this article and have read it twice thinking I had missed something. I did have it emailed to a friend as I believe he and his family are from those parts. I await his response. Thanks again and I’ll look for more of these articles.

Very moving and delightful article.

Susan says:

People interested in other “unknown” Jewish communities might look at kulanu.org.

naomi weinberg radtke says:

Sounds similar to Kurdish Jews plight to stay in Kurdistan or make “Aliyah” to Israel The Kurdish
Jews who did go to Israel did very well. They succeeded in areas of Intellect and Social Matters.
Mazel Tov for this wonderful story of the The Mountain Jews. Restores my Faith in our people to survive.

We truly are everywhere.

Naomi Weinberg-Radtke

One elderly man in the city of Nalchik told me this story:
During WWII the city was briefly occupied by Germans. When the German commandant started to establish in the city the “new order” he got confused: what he should do with the Mountain Jews? Are they “real” Jews or not? (In other words: should they be executed or not?). He sent a telegram to Berlin to the ministry of racial affairs asking for clarification. The elderly man said that nobody knows what the answer was because the city was liberated by the Red Army before it arrived.

philip windsor says:

Many thanks for an excellent article. There is indeed much truth in old saying ‘You Jews get everywhere!’ Yes we do, and long may this last!

Maria Kaatee says:

Last september 2010 I visited Krasnaya Sloboda in Azerbeijan. Nice to be able to read some back-ground information, so thank you for that. The town was very quiet except for schoolboys who could speak english very well. I recognize the description in the article, it looked a bit like a sleep-town, only awake in summer.

Romella says:

Thanks for an excellent article. Please explain a little more about the idea of Jews in Azerbaijan might be descended from indigenous Caucasian mountain dwellers who converted to Judaism.

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Well this is all azerbaijani propeganda there has always been racism and conflict between mountain jews and muslims..

shalom_mir says:

I’m from Azerbaijan right now i’m writing essay about “Azerbaijani Jews” !!! I’m proud of my country nd we love Jews nd respect them !!!

Even since the Babylonian attack of Jerusalem, perhaps even much earlier as the history of Bukhara Jewish cemetery demonstrates, Jewish folks have become a part and particle of Eurasia since thousands of years. They are highly educated and respected in every field. Of course Azerbaijani culture like other Central Asia-Caucasus cultures is extremely hospitable, but Jewish folks have also contributed towards the almost every aspect of life in these societies. The Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan is not a myth. With growing globalization Jewish folks of Central Eurasia have migrated, yet these people are still highly respected and valued throughout the region for the role they have historically played as ministers, doctors under various empires. Often under foreign attacks, together with local populations have also been subjected to prosecution. Briefly, Jewish people are as much indigenous to Eurasia just as they are to Israel, besides being a universal. I hold a very high regard for them.

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Mountain Jews

Despite diminishing numbers, a historical Jewish community thrives in Azerbaijan

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