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.
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.
The palace of the Khan is still visible from the windows of the synagogue, standing across the river atop a bluff. The synagogue, whose wooden floors are covered with the colorful carpets traditionally woven in this community, still has the ancient Torahs they brought, one more than 500 years old.
From a handful, the Jewish town grew to about 18,000 by the time of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, when this region became part of the Soviet Union. Relative to the European Jews of Russia and Ukraine, the Jews living in mostly Muslim-populated parts of the Soviet Union were far freer to practice their religion. Until 1932, this town was called "Evreskaya Sloboda," in Russian literally "Jewish settlement," a time when there were 11 synagogues operating here.
Then, in the late 1930s, the black hand of Stalinist repression finally reached up into these mountains. Cantor Ben Yakov was a teenager, studying the Torah, preparing to follow 10 generations of his family into becoming a rabbi:
"In August, 1937, my father was seized by the KGB as he was reading prayers in a synagogue here, and shot.... After my father was taken, I abandoned the Torah," he recalls. All the synagogues were closed, the main synagogue turned into a vegetable warehouse. People secretly entered it at night to pray. In 1948, only the main synagogue reopened.
Ben Yakov, who worked for 41 years as a barrelmaker, picked up the prayer book again when his son was born, finally fulfilling his family tradition of service to Judaism.
After an amazing 2,500 years of preserving their faith and identity in the Diaspora, the Mountain Jews are finally returning home. Emigration to Israel is now taking place at a steady pace. Some 27,000 have left since 1989 from Azerbaijan alone, most of them Mountain Jews, several thousand of them from this Jewish town. In an afternoon's walk through the streets and alleys of this small town, it is impossible to find a family that does not have at least one member already in Israel.
On Nov. 21, garbage collector Asher Chaimov, his wife, Marusa, and four of their children, were scheduled to join a son who emigrated to Israel a year ago. "Our son wrote that he has problems with language, with housing, and he doesn't have work yet," said Mr. Chaimov before their scheduled departure, "but we are ready to leave."
Butcher Taylo Zarbaiyelo, the descendant of seven generations of woodcutters who lived here, is not eager to go. "The Azerbaijanis live beyond the river and we live here," he says, sitting in the tiled living room of his sturdy home by the river. "But so far, may God save us, we have no problems." Still, last March a daughter left for Israel, and the rest of his four children want to go. "Why should I change?" the butcher says. "But if everybody leaves, we will leave, too."