MOUNTAIN JEWS of RUSSIA
In a Caucasus town, Persian refugees from Old Testament times form one of the oldest, most isolated communities of its kind.
KRASNAYA SLOBODA, AZERBAIJAN
ZVI BEN YAKOV, the cantor, stands at the altar, chanting Hebrew prayers. On the benches along the windowed room looking out on the rushing river, the men lean over their prayer books, joining their voices with his. Old men sit with their grandsons, the boys alternating between quiet distraction and intense listening.Skip to next paragraph
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It is the time of evening services in this Caucasus mountain town, a settlement populated solely by Jews. Its character is unique since the ghettoes of Europe were extinguished. The streets of the town bear Biblical names. Religious holidays are celebrated openly and with a fervor absent among the Jews of Moscow or Kiev. The children in the elementary school crowd around a visitor, shouting the traditional Hebrew greeting: "Shalom!" - peace.
This craggy region is home to one of the oldest and most isolated communities of Jews scattered across the globe by the Diaspora. Here, by both legend and accepted history, the Jews of Persia found their refuge from persecution about 2,400 years ago - persecutions described in the Old Testament's story of Esther.
Hillel Lazerovich Nisimov, a retired history teacher and the unofficial community historian, stands in the 250-year-old synagogue and tells the story as if it happened yesterday:
"At the time of Darius II of Persia, this nation was told, `Those who accept my faith can stay in Baghdad, and those who do not, must go.' Those who didn't, scattered about the mountains of the Caucasus. That is why we are called the Mountain Jews. Now we live in the mountain areas of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Dagestan, and other parts of the North Caucasus."
The precise history of that dispersion is still a matter of dispute. Darius II ruled Persia from 423-404 BC, but "The Atlas of Jewish History," compiled by Martin Gilbert, places the date of dispersion of the Persian Jews midway in the 4th century BC.
The clearest evidence of the origins of the Mountain Jews is the language they have maintained for more than two millennia - Tati, a Jewish dialect of Persian that was written in Hebrew letters until the Soviet era, when they were forced to use the Cyrillic alphabet. A large community of Tati-speaking Muslims also exists.
The Mountain Jews are the largest part of the population of Oriental Jews in the former Soviet Union, numbering about 140,000 according to Lev Bardani, the Baku-based representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel responsible for this region. Aside from the Mountain Jews, some 20,000 Bukharan Jews (they speak a similar Jewish dialect of Persian) remain in the former Soviet Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Tens of thousands have already emigrated to Israel.
Most Mountain Jews live in Azerbaijan, about 35,000, the majority of them in Baku. The next-largest concentration, about 20,000, live in the Russian autonomous republic of Dagestan. The largest concentration still in the mountains is this town of about 5,500 Jews across the Gudiyal-Chai River from the city of Kuba, founded some 350 years ago by Jews fleeing pogroms. They found refuge living near Fatalih Khan, the ruler of Kuba. "He was a progressive man and didn't make distinctions between nationalities, " says historian Nisimov.