27 August 2010

Azerbaijan: The Mountain Jews

Learn about the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan in this issue of Tablet magazine.

Sarah Marcus' story provides a good look at this community.

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.

The town of Oguz, Azerbaijan is about 4 1/2 hours from Baku, the oil capital on the Caspian Sea, where some 80 Mountain Jews live.

Mountain Jews, who speak Judeo-Tat (a Farsi dialect), live in Azerbaijan and Dagestan. Some 2,500 years ago they were exiled from Israel, passed through Persia and settled in the Caucasus.

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.

At one time, there were 40,000 Jews in Azerbaijan, today, some 8,000-25,000. Although 90% of the population is Muslim, and the Russian influence is also felt strongly there, they are still praticing Jews.

“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.

The Persian influence is also not far away. A description of a breakfast here is the same as what we ate in Teheran: egg, salty cheese (panir), fresh bread, and thick homemade strawberry preserve. However, we preferred sour cherry (albalu) preserves.

Krasnaya Sloboda is a famous more prosperous Mountain Jewish village in the Caucasus, known for its rugs. Some 2,000-5,000 people live there. It was established as a Jewish settlement (mid-18th century) by Hussein, the khan of Guba.

Some of them now live in Israel, others in Moscow, and are successful businessmen. Many former residents return to visit.

Worshippers remove their shoes - a Persian/Mizrahi and Moslem tradition - to enter synagogues with carpet-covered floors

The story details political developments, restrictions on freedoms and religious groups and more, and the fact that the village is often showcased on tours to high-level foreign delegations.

Read the complete story and the comments at the link above.

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