One thing about dictatorships, they’re either very expensive or very cheap to fly to. There’s no such thing as a midrange regime: Extremities charge extremities. I know a guy, it cost him $4,600 just to get to North Korea (Newark-Beijing-Dandong, and then across the DPRK border in a Jeep). I know another guy, it cost him $2,800 just to get to Laos (Newark-Tokyo-Bangkok-Vientiane). I flew nonstop from JFK to Baku, Azerbaijan, visa included, for all of $500. The plane was a brand-new Airbus A340; the pilots were military-grade, and the senior or just older pilot wore medals on his chest that resembled poker-chips: two black, one yellow, which at Trump casinos, back when there were Trump casinos, would’ve been redeemable for $1,200. The flight attendants, uniformed in sky-gray and blood-red, were gorgeous: The men were creatic gym creatures bursting out of their shirts, the women were dripping with makeup and curvaceous, their skirts slit as high as it gets, at least in the world of Islamic female flight attendant fashion. The three exorbitant meals they served over the course of the 10-hour, 30-minute, 5,812 mile/9,353 kilometer flight were culturally specific (mutton stews and breads) and hot (very hot). The in-flight-entertainment selection was operated by individual seatback touchscreen and generous and included, alongside the standard Hollywood and Russian offerings, an impressive selection of Azeri content, all of it bearing the seal of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan. I tried to catch up on Star Wars, the prequel trilogy, in order to prepare for the upcoming release of the sequel trilogy, though by the middle of Episode II, Attack of the Clones, I’d had enough and switched to an Azeri property, but it was only in Azeri—no subtitles, no dub—and so I wasn’t able to ascertain whether the lawyer was the good guy, or the bad guy, or not a lawyer at all, and instead a slick plastic surgeon on trial for corrupting his wife.
Most of the plane was empty, with no more than two dozen other passengers, about half of whom would terminate in Baku, with the other half Israeli—Russian-Israelis, Parsim (Persian Israeli), and Teimanim (Yemeni Israelis). Leave it to the Jews to find out that AZAL, the Azerbaijani government’s official airline, or flag-carrier, had been subsidizing ticket prices from America, and so that the cheapest way to get from New York to Tel Aviv was to go through Baku and wait. I’m not sure that this subsidy policy was created for the express purpose of saving Jews money, but then neither am I sure that it was created to encourage visits by American tourists and business travelers. Instead, dictator president Ilham Aliyev just cares about being able to boast domestically that his country now has a biweekly direct flight to New York. The airport, which Aliyev is constantly renovating, as if he were intent on expanding it in tandem with the expansion of the universe, is named for his father, Heydar Aliyev, the previous dictator president. At its center is a glitzy foreign-flights terminal that resembles the Galactic Senate from Star Wars. The landing was baby-gentle; the deplaning swift; the Israelis dispersed to window shop duty-free caviar and Rolexes until their departure for Ben-Gurion. I was processed through immigration and customs, asked no questions, but photographed twice. The first person in Azerbaijan to ask me any questions was my cabdriver: What you doing here? And, What you pay?
I answered the what I doing here? with, I’m a tourist, because to say that I’d come to this majority-Muslim authoritarian country as a writer, let alone as a journalist, would be like saying I’d come to prey on your youth, or to masturbate into the Caspian. I answered the what I pay? with, How about 20 manats?—because that was the amount suggested by “Zaur J” on a msgboard on tripadvisor.com. Other posts had suggested 14, 16, 25, 30, and taking the 116 shuttlebus to the 28th of May train station for 40 qepik, which was roughly a quarter. I settled on 20, because it wasn’t my money. A bit over $12. The driver suggested 25. Which was a bit over $15.
He still hadn’t asked where we were going.
Azerbaijan is a nation bordered by threats and built atop lies. This makes it not too different from any other nation, except: To the south is Iran, to the north is Georgia and a hunk of Russian Dagestan (which doesn’t do much to buffer the rumblings of Chechnya and Ossetia); to the west is a short border with Turkey and a long troubled ton of border shared with hated Armenia, with which Azerbaijan has been engaged in an on-and-off war over the Nagorno-Karabakh exclave since 1988; while to the east is the largest enclosed inland body of water on earth, the oil-and-natural-gas-rich Caspian, whose greatest local landlord is SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic), which partners with and administers contracts for the AIOC (the Azerbaijan International Operating Company), a consortium of extractors headed by BP (UK), and including—in order of declining equity—Chevron (USA), INPEX (Japan), Statoil (Norway), ExxonMobil (USA), TPAO (Turkey), ITOCHU (Japan), and ONGC Videsh (India). To make it clearer, Azerbaijan is a seabound country with dwindling but still significant reserves of oil, outsize reserves of natural gas, the highest Shia population percentage in the world after Iran, an ongoing conflict with an Orthodox Christian neighbor, close-enough experience of the Georgian/Abkhazian and Chechen Wars, a sense of Russia as representing the highest of culture, yet a sense of Putin as the lowest of thugs, bent on recapturing a toxic mashup of Soviet/Tsarist glory, and so perpetually reconnoitering the Central Asian steppes for the next Donbass, or Crimea. Dropping oil and natural gas revenues have sparked a rising interest in the previously inimical—because Sunni—Salafism blowing north from Iranian Kurdistan and south from Ciscaucasia. Over 1,500 Azerbaijani citizens are currently in Syria fighting for ISIS.
Baku, the capital, a city of approximately two million people, is a brash glam cesspit of new construction—newly stalled since the global banking crisis and again, since oil and gas have plummeted—surrounded by ruined farmland. To pass from Baku to the countryside is to pass from the twenty-first century to the nineteenth, skipping the twentieth entirely, which was such a downer anyway, everyone pretends not to notice. Throughout the country there isn’t a dominant culture, but an only-culture. Azerbaijani state power, though notionally secular, has the force of Islam and the same vertical structure: bow and scrape. The country’s best criminals are treated like businessmen, and the country’s best businessmen happen to be members of the ruling family. To get a good job, you have to have good connections. To get good connections you have to be born to a good family. To be born to a good family you have to be blessed by a good God. If you find yourself—like, say, the 7.4 million people in Azerbaijan who don’t live in Baku—unlucky enough to be excluded from this system of patronage, or nepotistic oligarchy, you’re fucked. All you can do, in your fuckedness, is put on a fake face and submit. Spend all your money on your car, or your clothes, so that you seem wealthier. Name your firstborn male child after the president or the president’s father so that he seems more employable. Have more female children, because only women can marry up. Take pride in the new pedestrian promenade, along the waterfront. In the skyscrapers you don’t work in. The malls you can’t afford to shop in. Embrace the falsehoods and lead a double life.
So, the truth of why I’d come here—if truth can be spoken, or even spoken of, in Azeri (whose word for truth, haqq, also means justice, and payment):
I was in Baku, only to get the hell out of Baku—to go to the edge of Azerbaijan and up into the Caucasus, the easternmost of the western mountains, or the westernmost of the eastern mountains, where, tectonically, Europe crashes into Asia. I was headed there to enact a submission of my own: to fall down at the Adidas-sneakered feet of the Mountain Jews—a sect of overwhelmingly short, hairy, dark-skinned Semites—who, as craggy cloudbound slope-dwellers, seemed perfectly positioned to offer me the wisdom I was seeking, without any annoying lectures on Orientalism.
I wanted to ask these Jews—these fellow Jews—what to do: about how to handle, how personally to handle, for example, the tragedy of capitalism, as it withers into kleptocracy; or Islamic fundamentalism, and the compounding quandary that is Zionism; about how to survive as a writer, when 99% of the world doesn’t read, and when the 1% that does just reads to get offended; about how to deal with publishers, who underpay; and with editors, who overedit; with publications that cut columns and cut rates; with schools that string me along as a lecturer without insurance.
While I didn’t seriously suppose that the Mountain Jews had all the answers, I did suspect, or hope, that they themselves would be the answers. After all, they—their community—might comprise the longest-running mafia in recorded history.
Or semi-recorded—because the Mountain Jews have never written their own history, because writing is too fixed, too fixing, and surely too unremunerative. Instead, they abide in strangers’ pages, shrouded in the oral.
Among their legends are the following, which I’ll list in order from “OK, I’ll Give You the Benefit of the Doubt,” to “Definitely Didn’t Happen”:
Toward the end of the eighth century BCE, the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Samaria, and deported between one and ten of its tribes—between one and ten of the so-called Lost Tribes—for resettlement in their capital, Nineveh, present-day Mosul. But the Assyrian king, Ashur, whom the Mountain Jews associate with Shalmaneser V, mentioned in II Kings, grew so enraged by the Israelites for refusing to forsake their God and for the success they had in commerce that he exiled them to the edge of the empire—to the Caucasus Mountains, where they flourished.
Toward the end of the eighth century BCE, Hoshea, last of the Israelite kings, attempted to gain his kingdom’s independence from Assyria and, as recorded in II Kings, stopped paying the official tribute—10 talents of gold, 1,000 talents of silver—upon Shalmeneser V’s ascension to the throne. Shalmaneser V moved to recoup his losses by imprisoning Hoshea, laying siege to Samaria, and seizing the property of between one and ten of its tribes—the property of between one and ten of the so-called Lost Tribes—whom he or his successor, Sargon II, exiled to the edge of the empire—to the Caucasus Mountains, where they flourished.
Toward the end of the eighth century BCE, under the reign of Hoshea, around 20,000 Israelites fled the destruction of their kingdom—or left to seek unimperiled trade routes between east and west—or traveled en masse to Nineveh to post bail and free Hoshea from debtors prison, but failed—or traveled en masse to press an alliance against the Assyrians with the Egyptian King So (either Tefnakht of Sais or Osorkon IV of Tanis) but went astray. They passed through Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia before settling atop the Caucasus Mountains, where they flourished.
The more scholarly proposals of Mountain Jewish origin, the few of them there are, prove just as fascinating/unsatisfactory:
Jews came from the Israelite Kingdom to Persia ca. eighth century BCE; Persian Jews came to Greater Caucasia—the area between the Black and Caspian Seas—ca. fifth century CE. With the incursions of Goths and/or Huns from the Black Sea region, across the Pontic steppe, the Parthian and/or Sassanid Empires (third century BC to third century CE, the former) (third century CE to seventh century CE, the latter) required a border defense force. Considering the Jews to be exemplary warriors, the Parthian and/or Sassanid kings resettled them in the Caucasus.
In the fifth century CE, Sassanid King Yazdegerd II forced all the peoples he conquered to convert to Zoroastrianism and embarked on violent persecutions of Assyrian and Armenian Christians, and Persian and Armenian Jews, with the result that the latter two fled, either together or separately, to the Caucasus.
By the eighth century CE, a nomadic Turkic people called the Khazars, or Kuzari, had relinquished their syncretic religion of Tengriism (worship of the Turkic sky god Tengri), Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and converted exclusively to Judaism. Formerly a trading partner between Byzantium and the Sassanids, and then between Byzantium and the Ummayads, the Khazars now became enemies of both, as well as of Kievn Rus, whose prince, Sviatoslav I, razed their de facto capital, Atil—located along the Volga—whose population sought shelter in the Caucasus.
In or around the ninth century CE, one or more of the minor khanates around the Caspian attempted to break what it or they regarded as a Jewish monopoly on maritime and overland trade by expelling its or their Jews from the coastal plain to the Caucasus, where they flourished. Or one or more of the minor khanates sent its or their Jews up into the mountains to act as a frontier guard. Or sent its or their Jews up into the mountain passes to act as basically inspectors and toll collectors—enforcing tariffs, imposing duties. Or else the Jews, either compelled to quit or perhaps even quitting the coastal plain of their own accord, went rogue up in the Caucasus, and appointed themselves frontier guards, inspectors, and/or toll collectors—extorting tribute and/or protection payments from any and all passing through.
By the late 1600s, Jews of Persian descent, fleeing the persecutions of the Persian Safavids for the fraying borders of the Lak Gazikumukh Shamkhalate, had established themselves on the shores of the Caspian near Derbent—today the second-largest city in Dagestan, and the southernmost city in Russia—in a settlement called Aba-Sava. The Shamkhalate, in a bid to prevent the Safavids from advantaging its weaknesses and annexing its holdings, struck an alliance with Catherine the Great. The Jews, who traded with everyone—the Shamkhalate, the Russians, the Safavids—had alliances with none. Aba-Sava was destroyed in either the second, or third, Russo-Persian War, and its Jews were half slaughtered, half scattered, and found shelter only under the Russian-aligned reign of Fatali Khan, ruler of the Quba Khanate, and conqueror of Derbent, who dispersed them to remote mountain towns of his dominion.
Regardless of which interpretation you hold with, the situation seems to be this: Somehow, a loose group of Jews that spoke a dialect of Persian that contained elements of Hebrew—a dialect now called Judeo-Tat, or Juhuri, or Gorsky—found themselves virtually alone high up in the rebarbative Caucasus, where—for a period of 200 years, or 2,000 years, give or take a grain of salt—they seem to have controlled most of the mountain passes, and so most of the caravanning traffic, on that tangle of routes as gossamer as thread that the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833–1905) immortalized as the Silk Road (die Seidenstraße).
Few goods could cross the Pontic steppe—between Persia, Arabia, India, China, etc., and Europe—without the Mountain Jews taking a cut. Few good merchants could avoid saddling and gapping their peaks—unless, just before the Bolshevik Revolution, they wanted to take the Transcaspian Railway from Tashkent, Samarqand, or Bukhara, to Turkmenbashi, and then a steamer across the Caspian Sea to Baku, then the Trans-Caucasian Railway to Batumi, and then a steamer across the Black Sea to Odessa—unless, just after the Bolshevik Revolution, they wanted to take an airplane.
But then even since the invention of the airplane and intermodal freight, the Mountain Jews haven’t done too poorly.
Of the approximately 200,000 Judeo-Tats, or Juhuros, or Gorsky Jews in existence (gora means mountain in Russian), half live in Israel, and about 20,000 in the States; many of the rest are in Russia, mostly in Moscow—and in Azerbaijan, mostly in Baku. Only a few still live in their ancestral auls (fortified, or once upon a time fortified, settlements), midway up the flanks of mountains along two of the Caucasus’s three major ranges, many of which are inaccessible today because the lines they obey are of faults, not borders; and though the armies camped atop the crust can’t stop the sediment, Azerbaijanis can and do stop Armenians from crossing, and Armenians can and do stop Azerbaijanis from crossing, and each stops the other from crossing into the de facto independent but unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh; Turks stop Armenians from crossing and Armenians stop Turks from crossing; Georgians stop Russians from crossing, and Russians stop Georgians from crossing (not only the Russian republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia, but also the partially recognized breakaway-from-Georgia state of South Ossetia; the partially recognized breakaway-from-Georgia state of Abkhazia; and the breakaway-from-Georgian autonomous republic of Adjara).
The Mountain Jews are a sect of overwhelmingly short, hairy, dark-skinned Semites, who, as craggy cloudbound slope-dwellers, seemed perfectly positioned to offer me the wisdom I was seeking.
What unites all these lands, besides their tramontane routes, are their Jews, whose ancestors had known all these lands under earlier names and under no names, and had traded with all of their peoples in their own languages. It was this ability to slip between states, endonyms, exonyms, and tongues that enabled the Mountain Jews’ survival—their continuity like rock—and earned them the contempt of countless dynasties that withered. It was also what caused the Nazis to recognize them as Jews, and to treat them accordingly—indeed, they were the most Eastern Jews the Nazis ever encountered and, after studying their customs, not excluding polygamy, it was decided that their Judaism was more “religious” than “racial,” though that didn’t prohibit the occasional massacre. The Soviets, however, in compiling their statistics on national minorities, formally indexed them not as Jews but as Iranians. With the Soviet collapse, Sunni extremists started kidnapping Mountain Jews for ransom in Dagestan and Chechnya (Mountain Jewish communities always pay ransom), so that today, Azerbaijan seems to be their safest haven in the Caucasus—the only country to have realized the benefits of touting its Mountain Jews as mascots of ethnic comity, while shrewdly using them as regional dragomans and trade intercessors with Russia.
Because if Azerbaijan has become the Mountain Jews’ sanctuary, Russia is now their bazaar—its appetites have made their fortune. Mountain Jews of my own generation, who came of age under Yeltsin’s two terms of larceny and greed, moved into Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the vast cities of Siberia that have less name recognition, but more manufacturing infrastructure and coal mines. There they went about privatizing. Here’s what privatizing means: When a state that owns everything disintegrates, suddenly everything’s up for grabs; if you want a shop, or a factory, or an entire industry, say, you just show up and claim it as yours; the cops can’t kick you out, because there aren’t any cops—the cops don’t stay cops when they’re not getting paid—and so you dig in, and, should other parties arrive to stake their claims, you just have to hope that you have more and bigger men, and more and bigger guns, than they do. To give two examples—not to accuse them of having done anything like this, but merely to admire them if they had—God Nisanov (b. 1972), and Zarah Iliev (b. 1966). Both moved to Moscow in the early ’90s and immediately went underground, taking over kiosks throughout the drafty cavernous Metro, whose stations had been designed to serve as bomb-shelters, but now were also becoming groceries and malls. Nisanov and Iliev began shipping produce to the capital, setting up construction firms, and investing in real estate. Today, they’re the largest commercial real-estate developers in Moscow, with properties including the Evropeyskiy Shopping Center, the Radisson Royal Hotel, the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel, myriad office parks, and wholesale and retail commodity markets (food, appliances, electronics, etc.). As of 2015, Forbes estimated the net worth of each at $4.9 billion, which tied them for the title of twenty-fourth richest person in Russia. In 2014, Nisanov was awarded the Order of Friendship by Putin and was elected to the executive committee of the World Jewish Congress.
Both Nisanov and Iliev were born in the most venerable of the Mountain Jewish auls, Quba. Pronounced Guba. Actually, they’re from a Jewish enclave located just outside Quba, which in Azeri is called Qırmızı Qəsəbə, and in Russian is called Yevreiskaya Sloboda (Jewish Town), though under the Soviet period its name was changed to Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Town). Now, it shouldn’t seem particularly strange that a village of fewer than 3,800 people produced two childhood friends who grew up to become billionaires together. But it should seem particularly strange that this village currently boasts four billionaires, and at least twelve (by one count) and eighteen (by another) worth in the hundreds of millions. They include, as already noted, major property developers and commodity importers, but also car importers, clothing importers, and the managers of the Azerbaijani government’s oil and gas portfolios.
I’d been introduced to the existence of the Mountain Jews, and of Quba, by a man a friend of mine met at the banya—a Russian bathhouse, in Brooklyn. This man happened to know, or in the course of sweating conversation claimed to know, my friend’s relative, a Brooklyn (non-Mountain) Jew who does something I’d prefer not to understand with slot machines, and has spent time as a ward of the state. I was told that this man from Quba, whose phone number my friend obtained for me, imported apples to New York—to the Big Apple, which, last time I checked, grows plenty of its own …
In any event, I called the man’s number, introduced myself, in English, as a novelist—not as a journalist. I figured, because my friend had told him to expect the call, that he already had my name, and I was searchable online; I also figured the man lived in America, he knew what a novelist was—he knew that it meant “vicarious thrillseeker,” or “coward.” He immediately tried frustrating my interest, but I continued to pester, and finally got him to set a meeting. Which he canceled. I got him to set another meeting, and he canceled again, but at least had pretensions to courtesy, and txted me a local, Baku, number. I searched the number online, and it was the same one listed on the site for the Mountain Jewish community office, whose address was the same as that of Mountain Jewish central synagogue. But by the time I realized all that, I’d already signed a contract, and a check for expenses had cleared my account. Not only that: I’d already flown halfway across the globe and was sitting on the bed of my hotel, the Intourist, laptop on my lap, phone suctioned to my cheek, being reminded—as the number I kept dialing kept ringing—why I’d given up writing nonfiction, for fiction …
I went to the address listed on the site, ostensibly just a leisurely stroll from the Intourist, but either the address was wrong, or the street sign was: Under the Aliyevs, many of the streets in Baku have been stripped of their Russian names and given appellations in Azeri. Some of the more conscientious businesses list both street names on their sites. Most, however, don’t bother. Then there’s the issue of Azeri orthography, which further complicates map usage. Formerly, Azeri had been written in Perso-Arabic; in the 1920s the Latinesque Common Turkic alphabet was adopted; in 1939, the Soviets forced the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet; after Sovietism, Latinesque Common Turkic was reinstated, and it was only in 1992 that the schwa, or ə, so prevalent in the name of the street I was searching for—Şəmsi Bədəlbəyli—was called into service to replace the diaeresistic—umlauted—a. One map listed Şəmsi Bədəlbəyli as Shamsi Bedelbeyli, and another as Shämsi Bädälbäyli (apparently a formidable Azeri theater actor and director). Whatever its spelling, the boulevard I eventually stumbled upon was a double-boulevard, and wide, but composed of many tiny lanes thronged with many tiny cars; its northbound and southbound congeries were divided by an island of freshly planted parkland—the grass not yet sprouted over the sprinklerheads—beyond which, on the distant side, was the dormant worksite of a massive condo project: Beaux-Arts trimmings atop concrete bunkers separated by gravel lots like bulldozer caravanserais. Catercorner to the condos, I found it: the community office, the central synagogue—the Baku HQ of the Mountain Jews. It was an immense new building of austere Art Deco detailing that, given its sharpcornered cleanliness and shine, seemed two-dimensional, like an architectural rendering, a placard of itself: This Will Be Built On This Site.
It was amazing to me that this structure had another dimension—it was amazing that I was able to step inside. Though only for a moment.
A man strode up and, in response to my asking in Hebrew, said he spoke Hebrew. He was tall, skinny like he had a parasite, and wore a flatcap and trenchcoat indoors. He was between thirty and forty, I’d guess, but had a sparse scraggly beard—like he’d five-fingered it off the face of a surly teenager. He wouldn’t give his name—I mean his own name—or he couldn’t. It turned out that he couldn’t speak Hebrew, or what he spoke of it wasn’t just jumbled, but jumbled with rigor: morning (boker) was evening (erev) and vice-versa, six (sheysh) was seven (sheva) and vice-versa, the ark (aron) was a prayerbook (siddur). After showing me around the synagogue proper, he took me into the facility’s community center portion and showed me a wall of portraits of Mountain Jewish heroes of Azerbaijan’s wars, and another wall of portraits of Mountain Jewish leaders posing alongside Putin, Netanyahu, both the Aliyevs, George W. Bush, Sheldon Adelson, and assorted Azerbaijani mullahs from the government’s Committee for Religious Organizations. Then he hit me up for a donation—he didn’t confuse the word for charity, tzedakah. I gave him 5 manats, and asked if he knew any Mountain Jews who’d be willing to take me to Quba. He shook his head—meaning he didn’t know? or didn’t understand?—shook my hand, and ushered me out the door.
From the six or so years I lived and worked as a journalist throughout Eastern Europe, I was used to this stripe of wariness. No one who grew up in an authoritarian regime likes to or, honestly, can, answer a question directly. Everyone hesitates, dissembles, feels each other out. Feels out, that is, the type and degree of trouble that truthfulness, if they’re even capable of truthfulness, might get them into. In most post-Soviet countries this Cold War ice can usually be broken or, at a minimum, thawed, by a bribe, or through the vigorous application of alcohol. But here, in this Muslim country whose signature intoxicant was tea, alcohol wasn’t an option.
So I headed back to Brooklyn.
By which I mean: I went to find the Azerbaijan Chabad House.
Chabad Lubavitch is a Hasidic religious movement based in Brooklyn, which—like a yarmulke-wearing, spiritually focused version of a UN taskforce or NGO—dispatches its rabbis all over the world, to provide essential religious services in places where there aren’t many Jews—in Asia, Africa, even Antarctica, though they’re especially active in places where there haven’t been many Jews for a while, thanks to the Soviets, or Nazis. They’re basically a missionary organization, except they don’t convert so much as reclaim: They bring the unaffiliated back into the fold. Now, that’s a laudable brief for an organization to have, but there’s also a dark side, in that Chabad, at one extreme, is something of a messianic cult (some of the rabbis proclaim an uncomfortable fealty to their deceased leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe), and insists on imposing its parochial brand of Ashkenazi Judaism—Eastern European Hasidic Judaism—no matter the local tradition, or preference.
There’s also this pesky issue that a few of their rabbinic emissaries have had with, OK, money-laundering.
What might’ve licensed that behavior is a quirk of history: European Jews, not just in the East but throughout the continent, had almost always been required by the governments of the countries they lived in to identify as Jewish. Even after forced registrations became census requests, Jews tended to continue the practice on their own: If they gave charity to or attended their synagogue, there was a fair chance their home city or province’s community had their name and address on file. These community rolls made the Nazi genocide that much more efficient. After the fall of Sovietism, amid the aforementioned rash of privatization, nascent independent countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia found themselves steeped in unclaimed property, a lot of which had belonged to Jews, a lot of whom were dead. Meanwhile, young ambitious Jews of the postwar generations, many with limited Jewish education and even limited Jewish identification, were busy reorganizing their official communities into nonprofit religious entities. Having varying levels of access to their prewar rolls, they applied to state, provincial, and city governments, not just for the restitution of their rightful infrastructure—their synagogues, and cemeteries—but also for the restitution of the properties of their exterminated members who’d left no next of kin. Not many of these Jewish communities had rabbis; Chabad had rabbis—trained in America and Israel. Chabad sent its rabbis to open Chabad Houses—from which they directed prayers, classes, food-and-clothing drives, and lifecycle ceremonies (mostly funerals)—and while the preponderance of the sect’s emissaries stuck to mission principles and successfully renewed Jewish life, a few were tempted, or invited, to infiltrate the administrations of their governmentally-sanctioned communities, and took up posts as official Chief or Head Rabbis—which gave them nominal power over the management of community real-estate portfolios. Some of this real estate was extraordinarily lucrative. For instance: much of the downtown tourist districts of Krakow and Prague. Local influential Jews, inured to the inversions of Sovietism, in which the state was the criminal, and they were merely businessmen, would cut deals with the Chabad rabbis assigned to them, supporting the movement and smoothing its way in return for using this reclaimed infrastructure to clean their money—say, a Russian Jew from Odessa who in the 1990s amid the ludicrous inflation and loan defaults of independent Ukraine gets involved in the counterfeit luggage racket, and launders his profits through a storefront in a community-owned, because community-restituted, building that before it’d been nationalized by the Soviets and devastated by the Nazis had belonged to a Jewish family that’d been liquidated in the camp at Bogdanovka. I once, at a very tender, pious, and moronic age, tried to report on this phenomenon—a phenomenon that, in retrospect, I now find utterly rational and tolerable—and, in return for my sanctimony, in the course of a single day, one man threatened my life, and another man handed me an envelope crammed with cash that kept me housed and fed and working on a novel for nearly all of 2004. Suffice it to say, I’m no Chabad booster. But still, if I could never completely bring myself to trust Hasidim, I could at least trust Hasidim to be Hasidim.
Chabad has its Azerbaijani House on Dilara Aliyeva Street, which used to be called Surakhanskaya, and under the Soviets was Pervomayskaya. I couldn’t figure out whether Dilara Aliyeva was related to the dictator president Aliyevs, or just shared their surname (two people said yes, the Internet said no), but I do know that she founded an anti-domestic abuse organization, and was a member of the opposition People’s Front, who died in what Russian media described, not without bias, as a mysterious car accident on the Azerbaijani/Georgian border in 1991.
The head of Chabad in Baku, conforming to expectations, introduced himself as the Chief Rabbi of Azerbaijan; his business card read “Cheif Rabbi” [sic] of “The Jewish Community of European Jews.” Whatever. I addressed him in Hebrew, just to be a schmuck, but also because it felt like the only language to use in Baku for a conversation with another guy from New Jersey. Rabbi Shneor Segal—robustly obese, copiously bristled, the suit I’d bet from Shemtov’s on Empire Boulevard, the Borsalino I’d bet from Primo’s on Kingston Avenue—asked me to put on tefillin and tallis to pray, and after I did, because prayer is the price of admission with Chabad, he asked me to explain my presence. I was a tourist, I said. From where? Brooklyn. Ah, he said, Brooklyn. Born there? Born in Atlantic City. Ah, he said, New Jersey.
It was English after that.
I told him we had mutual acquaintances, and named the rabbis in Prague and Krakow. He knew them. I named their wives, their children. He softened, reclined, released his belly over his belt. We talked about his difficulties getting a lease on a space to open up a kosher restaurant—there were so many people to “pay,” and so many people he might slight through a failure to “pay,” and all of them would be his only customers. We talked about my difficulties getting in with the Mountain Jews, and I wondered if he was in touch with any—if he knew any who’d take me around.
His face lit, and then his phone lit, and he was scrolling Contacts. He was giving me a number, but what he said was: I’m giving you a mitzvah.
There was this Mountain Jewish kid, he said, who was an orphan. His father had absconded, way back when. His mother had just died. He was having problems earning a living, but at least he had a car.
Some SMSing, and emailing, later, everything was arranged. This Mountain Jew agreed to pick me up, next day, at the Intourist.
One thing about the Intourist, before I continue: The original Intourist—the hotel of choice, or of no-choice, for foreign visitors under Sovietism—had aged so shoddily that it had to be demolished. But after the demolition, some oil and gas execs, feeling so nostalgic for what’d surely been a heap of reeking plumbing and intermittent electricity, commissioned a replica built on a plot just a block away.
The Mountain Jew, who was late to pick me up, was a companionable slab of stymied maleness aimless in his middle twenties, in too tight blue jeans, too tight black T-shirt, swart face with lots of scruff, lots of Asian: epicanthic folds.
If I’d had to guess his ethnic or racial affiliation from his appearance alone, I definitely wouldn’t have said Jew, or Azerbaijani or any other of the undifferentiatable (to me) Caucasians, so much as Man Boy—a peaceful beaten international tribe whose members are usually unemployed and single.
No surprise, then, that he seemed happy to be of help to me. Though I didn’t understand straightaway what that meant—to be hanging outside of his clan like this—to have to depend on the whitebread Jews, the Chabad crowd …
I’m going to have to make up his name, of course, because some of the things he explained could get him in trouble with other Mountain Jews, and some could get him in trouble with his government. Also: He requested. I couldn’t deny that I was a writer, I couldn’t have been anything else: As he drove his dirtcolored but punctiliously tidy Hyundai I was writing down everything he was saying.
He spoke Judeo-Tat, or Juhuri, which he called Gorsky, and also Azeri, and Russian—and to me in bits of broken Hebrew and English.
I’m going to call him U. Because that’s as close as I can get to You—and that’s whom I’ve been trying to talk to.
We’d agreed on two days, 40 manats a day. He’d be driving me to Mountain Jewish sites. In Baku and in Quba—beyond. But after we’d stopped at a SOCAR station and I’d paid to fill up the tank, he took me to a Zoroastrian Fire Temple.
There’s so much gas—“natural gas,” as the English phrase goes, to distinguish it from what Americans call “gasoline,” and the rest of the world calls “petrol”—seeping out from under the earth here that in certain areas you can light a match and the air will burn, and will keep burning, until the gas deposit runs out. Zoroastrians erected their temples around such natural fires—around “vents”—though now this temple, the Baku Ateshgah, is lit artificially, its ancient flame having been snuffed by the substrate damage done by adjacent oil drilling. Because of the subterranean deposits, you can’t really dig (for anything but oil or gas) and if you can’t really dig (for anything but oil or gas), you can’t really bury. That explains Zoroastrian air burial. Zoroastrians put a corpse out on a rock. The vultures swarm. Put it all together: Flames springing up from the ether; a corpse up on a rock; vultures plucking out its liver: Prometheus.
U took me to mud volcanoes (which locals explain as “vents” from which only mud erupts, after the exhaustion of their flammable deposits); he took me to what he called the Olympic Stadium, and the Olympic Village—driving me through their abandoned concourses grinning at my incredulity. The issue here—though it only seemed to be an issue for me, not U—is that Baku never hosted an Olympics. Earlier in 2015, it hosted the European Games, which the government apparently insisted on referring to as the Olympics—the bona fide quadrennial gold-silver-bronze Olympics™—intellectual property laws be damned. In 2017, these facilities are slated to host the Islamic Solidarity Games, which U called the Islamic Olympics. I wondered, Do women compete? U said, How can they compete? Later I found out that not only were women excluded, but also that they didn’t even have a bogus Olympics of their own anymore—not since the Women’s Islamic Games was discontinued after Tehran-2005.
I took U to a dinner of kebabs, and he reciprocated by taking me to meet his friend, another Mountain Jew, he said, though the friend denied this, and it was only after I admitted my confusion that he said, If you’re not in the business, then it doesn’t count [which meant: being an ethnic Mountain Jew was not quite the same as being a professional Mountain Jew: a mafioso]. U and I met him, let’s call him Asshole, in a video-game parlor above a carwash, and played video Monopoly—alas, not the Atlantic City but the London version. We hunkered around the console and drank tea—always black, never green or red, nothing herbal—compulsively, Asshole and U smoked compulsively, and I went bankrupt—every game. U wouldn’t play anything else in the arcade, because Asshole wouldn’t—not Pac-Man, not Tetris, not the vintage-Soviet foosball table encased in a plastic bubble so pockmarked and cloudy that the guys who yanked at the bars could only guess at the ball—at its position—at its existence. Indeed, there were too many guys, doing too much bar-yanking. There weren’t any women in the place. But then there weren’t any women in any place in the country—not without their husbands, or brothers. I asked U how he went about meeting women, and Asshole replied—in a sense. He ashed his cigarette, right onto the console, and said that all women who smoked cigarettes were whores. All women who drove were also whores. He didn’t mean “women who had sex a lot for fun or free,” but “women who had sex a lot for money.” I asked, What about women who smoked while driving? According to Asshole, they were “double whores,” who’d cost me even more than landing my pixelated thimble on his Regent Street, which he’d outfitted to capacity with flashy red hotels. I went bankrupt again and put on my jacket, to signal that I was ready to head back to the Intourist. That’s when Asshole asked, Didn’t [U] tell you not to wear red? He hadn’t—no one had—Why? Only gay men wore red, Asshole told me, as a signal to other gay men.
The next morning, it was unavoidable. Rainy, dreary, unavoidable. From the moment that U picked me up at the Intourist, he was suggesting itinerary-alternatives. Still, I held firm: We were driving up to Quba.
Which should’ve been an ascent of an hour and a half, but U took two hours, three, like he was dreading it.
I tried to suss out why, by asking him questions—trying to seem guileless—about himself, and then about Asshole, before moving onto Quba, and then to its more notorious natives, but U just hunched at the wheel and turned every answer around on me: He wanted to know how much my apartment cost (including electricity? but what about Internet?), how much my phone cost (included with the plan? but what was the plan?), how much his car would cost in America (where cars are cheaper), how much it would cost to fill up his tank in America (where, ridiculously, fuel is cheaper too), and I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about cars, and I didn’t want to waste my phone’s data, or its battery, on enlightening him.
Women in America no care if you no have car?
No, I said. At least not in New York.
Why—because you must to have also plane, helicopter, yacht?
We passed a roadside stand that sold sturgeon wraps—hunks of BBQ’d sturgeon squirted with pomegranate sauce, sprinkled with saffron, wrapped in lavash—and U insisted: lunch. As we ate, U pointed across the highway toward a mountain, and said that up in that mountain was a cave, and that in that cave was a bevy of stone growths that resembled penises, and that Muslim women, just after they were betrothed, would visit said stone penises and kneel down to kiss them, to ensure the prima nocte potency of their husbands. Out of courtesy, I finished all my slick greasy fish, which now wobbled perilously atop the summit of my stomach of yogurt and eggs and unwashed veg from the Intourist breakfast buffet. It was time to go, but U was unrelenting: tea.
But I was still meth-level caffeinated from the night before—between that and my jetlag, I hadn’t even gone to sleep yet …
We drove up toward the mountains, passing apple orchards. Apparently Quba is famous for its apples. I mentioned the apple importer guy from Brooklyn who’d introduced my friend, and so me, to Quba, and realized, from U’s response, that the guy’s occupation had been a joke, or a putdown. If you’re from Quba and a rube asks what you do for a living, you say, I import apples.
It’s the gangster version of Ivy League pricks who when they’re asked where they went to school say, In New Haven. In Boston.
Quba isn’t a one-horse town. It’s a half-horse town. The rear half. Smelly (from car emissions, outlying factories, sewage), hideous. Besides apples, Quba’s also known for its carpets—known for its carpets whose woven wool must inevitably soak up all the smells—and while the few formal stores display their wares flayed in windows, the bazaars roll them up and tie them and lean them against walls like they’re about to be executed by firing squad: carpets like multicolored, arboreal-patterned bodies—carpets like multicolored, arboreal-patterned bodybags.
The town ends with a river, the Qudiyalçay. I asked U what Qudiyalçay meant and he said, Qudiyalçay. He wasn’t in the mood to talk, but then he sensed my disappointment and said, The name is to do with water.
On the other side of the Qudiyalçay was the only town in the world outside of Israel that still has a 100% Jewish population: Qırmızı Qəsəbə/Yevreiskaya Sloboda/Krasnaya Sloboda. Jewish/Red Town.
We stopped at the cemeteries first—the new, the old next. U went to pay respects, to say kaddish, at his mother’s grave. The newest graves were set with stones engraved with classy/cheesy full-body portraits: There were guys who’d died in their twenties, dressed in suits straight out of Scarface. How did they die so young? I asked, but U didn’t answer. Instead, he pointed to a grave depicting an obese Mountain Jew who’d died, U said, at age thirteen from diabetes. Another grave featured the portrait of a family who’d died in a plane crash over Siberia. The plane itself was etched into the stone above the family’s group-hug. The pilots had been inexperienced or drunk, apparently. Or inexperienced and drunk. The oldest graves were on another hill, crowding the pagoda tomb of Rabbi Gershon ben Reueven, the Admor Gershon, the town’s founding rabbi, supposedly a miracle-working sage but legendary among no other community.
At my prodding, U roused Yury Naftalovich, the Azerbaijan State Deputy for Quba, who kept the keys to the synagogues, yeshiva, and mikveh. Physically, he was as spare and thin as his rhetorical style, strictly facts: About 2,000 Jews currently live in Krasnaya Sloboda; the settlement has suffered a 75% loss of its population over the last decade, with most going to Baku, Russia, and Israel; Krasnaya Sloboda’s last chief rabbi, Rabbi Davidov, left for Jerusalem; another rabbi, Rabbi Lazar, left for Moscow. I had to tug all this out of him—through U, who turned my English into Gorsky and Russian, and Yury Naftalovich’s Gorsky and Russian into English. How many synagogues are there now? Two. How many before Sovietism? 13. The Gilaki synagogue, named after Gilan Province in Iran, is the winter synagogue, because it’s heated. The Kuzari or Six Cupola synagogue, which has six cupolas, is the summer synagogue, because it’s unheated. But wait—why name one synagogue after an Iranian province, and another after the Khazars? Does this mean the Mountain Jews claim descent from Persia, or from a tribe of shamanistic bartering Tatars who converted? Yury Naftalovich shrugged, Some do, and hustled us along. The perverse pleasure this fascistic beadle seemed to be taking in prevailing upon me and U to remove our shoes at every site seemed to have less to do with preserving the preciousness of the rugs, and more to do with power—with cutting an American down to size, on holy ground in holey socks. My feet were cold, and then the rest of me got cold and irritated, not least because the questions I was asking were still innocuous—100% historico-theological—but were being rebuffed. Do the Mountain Jews follow the prayer order and pronunciations and Torah cantillations of the Ashkenazim, or the Sephardim, or the Bukharans—or do they, or did they ever, have their own? No comment. Do the Mountain Jews accept the Talmud, like the Krymchaks, or reject it, like the Karaites? No comment. I’d read that the primary Mountain Jew holiday is Tisha B’Av—the ninth day of the month of Av, which commemorates the destruction of both Temples—why? Yury Naftalovich just held up his palms as if to say, Why not? I decided to pursue an easier, number-based, and Yes/No line of inquiry: I asked U to ask Yury Naftalovich how many Torahs the community had, but the totalitarian janitor just handed me a prayerbook, printed in 2014 in Israel on what felt like toilet paper. I asked U to ask Yury Naftalovich if he would unlock the ark, but Yury Naftalovich refused, until I dropped 5 manats—and then another 5 manats—into the donation box, and he, with a bitter twist to his mouth, opened the doors and there, inside, was a panoply of Torahs, the scrolls encased in olivewood filigreed with silver and gold and draped with silks. How old was the oldest? Over 300 years. From where? Iran. Wouldn’t this appear to substantiate the theory that the Mountain Jews came up from Persia under the Safavids? And, while we’re at it, if your winter synagogue that, by the way, doesn’t seem heated, contains an intact Persian Torah scroll over 300 years old, which would make it one of the oldest intact Persian Torah scrolls in existence, why didn’t you mention that earlier? But Yury Naftalovich was already shutting the ark, locking it, heading outside, and U was on bended knee doing up his laces.
Yury Naftalovich led us past a former synagogue, now a pharmacy. Yet another former synagogue would be converted into a Mountain Jew museum, he said, but only if they raised 200,000 manats. Restoration was expensive. Exhibits—with interactive computer terminals, because no Azerbaijani museum was complete without interactive computer terminals (which half the time didn’t function)—were expensive. Suddenly, everything became about money, as Yury Naftalovich just continued with the community chest version of U’s pricing habit: talking about how much it cost to run the mikveh, and how much it cost to run the yeshiva—to buy the desks and chairs and books, to pay for all the meals. About a dozen kids sat in a classroom in the yeshiva, studying the Hebrew alphabet—which was strange. In that it felt staged. Potemkin villagey. Walking into a yeshiva at some random hour on some random weekday at the end of October—two months after the Azerbaijani secular school term started, and a month after the Jewish New Year—and finding a dozen kids just starting to puzzle out the first few letters of the aleph-bet, is like happening to drop by Citi Field on a whim, only to find out it’s Opening Day, and there’s a home-game v. the Phillies.
On the wall of the yeshiva was a calendar illustrated with images of Mountain Jewish synagogues, one for each month (it’s amazing they had enough for the year)—the synagogue in Derbent (the photograph taken either before, or after it was repaired from, its firebombing by Chechen Muslims in 2012), in Makhachkala (the photograph taken either before, or after it was repaired from, its vandalizing in 2007), in Nalchik (the photograph taken either before, or after it was repaired from, its vandalizing in 2000; a Chechen Muslim plot to blow up the synagogue was foiled by the Russian FSB in 2002), in Buynaksk (now closed), and in Oğuz (open sporadically). The synagogue of this month, October, was the newest, dedicated in 2013, a glistening white Oriental pile in Grozny. The calendar was published by STMEGI, a Russian acronym for the International Mountain Jewish Charity Fund, a serious philanthropic but also seriously tax-exempt organization, founded by German Zakharyayev, a Quban (b. 1971) now resident in Moscow, who, beyond being another billionaire developer (the Sezar Group), has the singular distinction of having contributed a new Jewish holiday to the calendar, through his successful petitioning of the Israeli government to establish the 26th of Iyar—which corresponded to May 9, 1945, or Russia’s WWII V-Day—as “The Rescue Day of European Jewry.” I flipped back to spring, and sure enough, the holiday was there. I asked U to asked Yury Naftalovich if I could have the calendar. No. I asked U to asked Yury Naftalovich if I could buy the calendar. No. How can I buy my own copy, then? You can not to. You’re telling me this is the only copy? Yes.
None of this crying poverty was making any sense. Because, as I couldn’t help but notice—as Yury Naftalovich couldn’t help but ignore—cropping up among the old Jewish sites he’d been bringing me and U to, overshadowing all of their carved wood and stained glass and even the six cupolas with their six-pointed stars, was some of the most lavish, most ugly-lavish, new real estate I’d ever been around. I’ll clarify: On the Quba side of the Qudiyalçay were chickens, cows, tractors, and hovels—grimness. But on this side, here in Krasnaya Sloboda, were Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and villas that intermarried craven faux-Euro fin-de-frippery with the crassest of Stateside suburban McMansionism. If every Baroque has its Rococo, every Vegas has its Dubai, but this architecture was so outlandish, it verged on the extraterrestrial—there was nowhere to go beyond it. Some of the villas had five floors, some had six, most had turrets, many had elevators. Fountains in the yards, gargoyles, putti. Guardtowers, spiked fences, CCTV cameras surrounded. One had a helipad on its roof. Another had a rooftop pool. I asked to be taken to Zakharyayev’s—to ask him if he had another of his calendars lying around—but U hesitated to transmit the request, as if he’d forgotten how to speak Gorsky, or Russian, while, at the same time, Yury Naftalovich frowned, as if he were gradually remembering that he understood English after all. I persisted, and asked where God Nisanov’s house was, where Zarah Iliev’s house was, and snap, just like that, my audience with the officious offseason caretaker of the summer homes—at least of the summer vacation destination—of some of Russia’s most wealthy and most powerful men, was over. Yury Naftalovich, that dignified creep with a hedgehog for a moustache, bum-rushed us into the car, and stalked back to the yeshiva—gone.
Leaving, U was gritting his teeth. I was silent but angry, so U jacked his phone into the stereo and cranked the volume on some Israeli Mizrahi snakecharmerish club-music, before switching to a Chabad chorus nasal-singing niggunim, Sabbath songs: ayayayayay. We were headed back to Baku, chased by rain. But then U drove off the highway, and, putting cheer in his voice, or just yelling, declared that we were stopping—again. He explained that there was this seaside joint he’d just suddenly recalled, but then—a half hour later, as we were parking in its empty lot—he was getting misty relating how ever since he was a child it was always really the most very special [to him]. It was a restaurant, whose theme might’ve been that it was too forlorn to even remember its theme, comprised of clusters of dacha-like dining cabins scattered out on the beach, and as unoccupied as the beach, which backed onto a cement apron with a rusted kiddie carousel and a crumbled dysfunctional zoo, all of whose animals appear to have escaped except a pair of chimpanzees—a species that was supposed to be intelligent. The two flailed around their cage, howled as if the cold had driven them insane, and quieted only after U slipped them cigarettes. Not to smoke, of course, but to eat. This, according to U, was all the chimps here ever ate: cigarettes. U’s brand was Marlboro Red (ersatz made in China). A giant waiter stomped up, barely acknowledging us, and we higher primates fell in behind him and were conducted to the cabin farthest from the central pavilion containing the kitchen—a gesture that, like every other Azerbaijani host/guest gesture, seemed simultaneously respectful, insulting, and arbitrary. The cabin was a log affair, with gaps between the logs that let the wind in, and a wall-wide acrylic window to the Caspian. The surf was mean and thrashing. I was shivering, and in response to my asking whether the radiator was working, and whether it was adjustable, U just assured me that it was nicer here in summer. He’d come here, he said, this past summer, with this girl from Baku he was in love with, who worked as a supply liaison for a business that contracted with the U.S. military, which had a presence—a base? refueling rights? U waved off my questions—in Azerbaijan. Every discussion, about every person in U’s life, began and ended with the same two (redundant) facts: what kind of job they had, and what kind of money they made. Either they had a bad job or a good job, either they made bad money or good money—there was nothing between, nothing decent.
Anyway, this girl. Who worked as a supply liaison for some business that did something with, or for, the U.S. military—whatever that was, it was a good job, which made good money. She was beautiful, and loved him too. He wanted to marry her, but he couldn’t. Because she isn’t Jewish? Yes, he said, but not just that. What then? He couldn’t marry her because he had a bad job, he said, and made bad money. Actually, he corrected himself: Officially, he had no job, and made no money. And “no” was worse than “bad.” He’d brought the girl here for their final date—they both knew it had to be final. She was about to marry another man, who had the same good job and made the same good money with that same vague business—this other man who was also a supply liaison, which U kept repeating as if I was supposed to know what that was, because he so obviously didn’t. I just nodded, as U—recovering from awkwardness—went on to praise this rival, who wasn’t a rival; U was making a martyr of himself, as a way of solacing himself, swearing how happy he was for the groom. For the bride too. But especially for the groom. The waiter returned and just stood there, chair-sized hands on the chair at the head of our table, his concern for us—for anything—as absent as a menu. U ordered dumplings—qatabs. Stuffed dough fried on a convex griddle called a saj. Negotiations ensued, and the varieties that were compromised on were translated to me as Beef, Grass, and Camel. The Beef was beef, the Grass meant greens that might’ve been grass, and the Camel must’ve been diseased and/or lame and/or geriatric. We finished eating and smoked, and the tea came. The ineluctable tea. If you drink what you’re poured, you have to piss constantly. If you have to piss and your cabin isn’t bathroom-equipped, you have to go outside. I opened the door, which spooked a stray dog that was harassing the chimps. The dog roamed toward me and foamed. I pissed hurriedly on the sand, on the cabin’s steps, my shoes, and dashed inside.
Shalom chaver, what’s up? I’m just letting you know I’m back in New York, exhausted. How are you? That animal they were selling at the bazaar and you said you were always finding everywhere for free, I just remembered I was wrong, the English name for it isn’t “porcupine,” but “hedgehog.” Different animals. I’m going crusading for a girl for you, don’t worry. Though your chances/the crop certainly will be better in Tel Aviv. When are you going to be there? And Yury Naftalovich, is Naftalovich the patronymic (father’s name) or the surname? And if it’s the patronymic, what’s the surname (last name)? Also what’s his official title, just Head of the Quba Jewish Community?
Todah me’rosh, Josh
Yo yo, kak dela? What’s going on? I hope you got my last email—did you? Even if you’re busy or depressed or both just type me a line or two? Just so I know to roll doubles for you or else sell Whitehall or Fleet Street or the Water Works or the Electric Company to get you out of jail and passing Go again. Just so I know all’s kosher. I have a few other questions if you wouldn’t mind answering. Nothing too difficult.
OK ok kol tov, j
Habibi, kak dela? What’s the news? Is everything alright between us? Did you get my last emails? Doesn’t make sense to me that you wouldn’t because we were in touch without a hitch in Baku. I’m nervous. So even if you’re hassled as fuck running around a tourgroup of Russian blondes to Fire Temple #9, just take a moment and send up a flare, a smoke signal, whatever. Are you there? Are you angry with me? Are my emails being blocked? Do you/can you use encryption?
Writing you from a different address, after you haven’t responded to any of the emails I sent from G-mail so maybe my Columbia email will work. Can you Skype? Encryption? Is this Aliyev reading this now? Hey, Dicktator Prez, you reading my friend’s email? You better not have fucked with him. I’m a slightly important American writer, according to several glossy magazines, and the New York Times.
Nothing. I never got a single response—not a word.
I wrote the Chabad rabbi in Baku, and told him to tell … U to be in touch. I’m not sure whether the Chabadnik passed on the message, but at least I’m sure of this: I did nothing to offend U. I mean, I was just doing my good bad job for good bad money—I didn’t do anything on purpose …
I just slammed the cabin door behind me, and sat, panting. U grinned and refilled my tea, and then I let him light me a cigarette and as its sour formaldehyde fur taste came on, he picked up the thread of the girl:
How beautiful she was, how much they loved each other. How much he wasn’t able to regret anything.
And then he mentioned his mother dying, and his father—who’d crashed like a wave over his childhood and then, retreated.
How shaming that was—shaming of everyone, and even of the community.
It was just after his mother was diagnosed with cancer that he was given the chance to restore his honor and name.
U was telling me something, but I wasn’t sure what—something about his life, about the girl’s life, and about family—what all of that can mean to a Jew not jetting through, a Jew not from America but from the mountains.
What it was like to be a son, a fatherless son, who had to deal with the patriarchs of Quba.
He was explaining, not least, our reception there.
So: There was this man from the community. He was older, like of U’s mother’s generation—a Mountain Jew who might’ve known U’s father, but who never mentioned knowing U’s father, who owned a large commercial bakery at the foot of the Urals in Siberia. It made cakes, it made breads, to ship to groceries—supermarkets—hypermarkets throughout Russia. Don’t think of kerchiefed babas dusted in flour kneading and rolling and waiting for their loaves to rise. Think bulk, preservatives, plastic packaging. Still, this large commercial bakery was one of the smaller things this man owned. He also owned malls, and linen and clothing stores, and linen and clothing factories, not only in Siberia. But all that U would have to concern himself with was the bakery. This man needed a guy he could trust, one of his own guys, to serve as manager. And despite the hardness that some of his ventures required, this man’s emotions were such that he still wanted to do a young struggling Mountain Jew a favor. If U, who’d had some harsh breaks, hadn’t been calloused by them, why should he be? By his own success? But the way the successful wholesale bread baker and retail linen and clothing manufacturer would explain it to U was that this wasn’t a favor but a mitzvah. Which meant that U had to agree. He was flown to Siberia—to the city of Perm—to manage the bakery. It was a good job, which paid good money. He was given an apartment, the apartment had a flatscreen TV. It had a washer/dryer. It was centrally located, and spacious. U spent all his days at the bakery, supervising baking. Keeping the bakers in line. Ordering the baking ingredients. Equipment maintenance. Quality control. But more often than not, he did nothing. The breads and cakes baked themselves. Everyone behaved. At night he went back to the apartment and sat. He sat and did nothing. He had no friends in Perm. No family, of course. The bakery owner was never around. He was flying constantly among all his other properties. U would go weeks without talking to anyone. Without talking personally, he meant, in person. The bakery personnel feared him. He himself was afraid of fraternizing, and of being taken as soft, pliable, doughy. He ached he was so lonely. Phone calls with his mother just exacerbated. Her loneliness increased his, and her cancer was advancing. Russians on the street, taking him for a Chechen, a Muslim, would taunt and threaten. They’d try to beat him. But more often than not, he’d escape. He considered suicide.
Then one day, he left. He gave notice. He didn’t give notice. He forgot. He bought a ticket with what money he’d saved, what money he hadn’t sent back to his mother, and went back to his mother. Baku. The man who owned Siberia was furious, which meant the man’s business partners who were also his family were furious, and the man had an extended—an overextended—family. No one was going to do U a kindness again. He’d blown his chance, and was out. On the outside, permanently. He was no one’s mitzvah. Which limited his prospects for marriage within the community. And being broke and Jewish limited his prospects for marriage outside the community—with the girl he loved, the girl who loved him, the beautiful Muslim supply liaison. He’d only taken the job, he said, to earn enough to win the favor of her family. And a Jew has to earn a lot, he said, to win the favor of the family of a beautiful Muslim supply liaison. The rain picked up. The waiter, casting stones to ward the rabid dog off, brought the bill. U said he was paying, and not to argue. He was considering moving to Israel.
Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.