Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Jewish Traces in Unexpected Places: The Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan

During the past two years we have profiled Jewish life in unexpected places in the world:  Uganda, Indonesia, Guatemala, Beijing, Vietnam, and Japan.  Now we have come across a community of Jews living in the mountainous regions of Azerbaijan and Dagestan.

As Kevin Gould reported in the London Jewish Chronicle,
Gyrmyzy Gasaba (in Russian, Krasnaya Sloboda or "Red Roofs") is perhaps the world's only all-Jewish town outside Israel. It sits across the Gudialcay river from the Muslim town of Guba.  Where Guba seems poor and perhaps a little care-worn, Gyrmyzy Gasaba appears to be prosperous and thriving - 3,600 mountain Jews live here, wearing their Judaism with pride, and without fear. Boys wearing kippot on their heads bustle about, and each house displays at least one large Magen David.
Azerbaijan is proud of its tolerance towards minorities. The national religion is Shia Islam, but Azerbaijanis are scorned by their Iranian neighbors to the south as bad, lax Muslims. That Azerbaijan enjoys friendly relations with Israel seems only to prove the Iranian point.
The Jews of Azerbaijan speak Juwuro-Tat, a language based on ancient Persian, then seasoned with Aramaic, Arabic and Hebrew.
There are many theories as to who the mountain Jews are, and how they came to be here. One suggests that they are descended from the Khazars (unlikely - the Khazars came later), another that they are ethnic Persian Tats converted to Judaism; some ethnologists regard Tats as mountain Jews converted to Islam.
Outside the yeshiva, Rav Adam subscribes to none of these schools. "Our people came here from southern Persia around 720 BCE," he says, slowly. "It seems there were some upheavals in what is now southern Iran and Iraq . We were Jewish military colonists loyal to Parthian and Sassanid rulers, sent here to the Caucasus to guard against Mongol invasions from the Pontic steppe."
Mountain Jews settled the eastern Caucasus in towns all over Dagestan, Chechniya and Azerbaijan . "There were times we were persecuted, and times of peace," says Rav Adam. "Arabs came in the 8th century, and there were forced conversions…" The Safavid ruler Nadir Shah was especially cruel, but following medical intervention by a Jewish doctor who saved his son's life, Fatali, the Khan of Guba, granted the mountain Jews sanctuary in his lands. Thus, in 1742 ,was Gyrmyzy Gasaba formally established. "It was known then - and now - as 'Little Jerusalem ' and as a centre for Torah learning," explains Rav Adam.
In 1917 there were 18,000 Jews in Azerbaijan, but Soviet persecution and attendant famines caused many thousands to flee to Baku, Azerbaijan 's capital, and beyond. Between 1979 and 1990 many of these moved to Israel , and some to Russia and the United States . Prosperity followed, and in recent times mountain Jew oligarchs Telman Ismailov and Irmik Abayev have been energetically supporting the rebirth and growth of Gyrmyzy Gasaba. As well as owning local property, retail businesses and agricultural land, mountain Jews are also instrumental in the financial and oil services industries in Baku . Rabbi Elezar is proud to relate that his community now has two shuls, 30 boys and 20 girls studying at the yeshiva, and a mikvah.
Oligarchical and community support is especially evident a five-minute drive away, where finishing touches are being put to the Bet Knesset synagogue, which has air conditioning, and a lighthouse-like roof light from which a huge menorah beams out in all directions. The Azerbaijani taste is for ornamented zinc roofs, and in Gyrmyzy Gasaba this takes the form of metal Magen Davids that sprout everywhere above downpipes, on ceiling overhangs, and in the eaves of the well-kept houses, shops and banqueting suites.
In this video report from Jerusalem Online, you can get a closer look at the mountain Jews as they go about their daily life.  Enjoy!

(A tip of the kippah to Sheila Zucker for bringing this story to our attention.)


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