Mountain Jews – Wikipedia

Posted By on October 12, 2022

Jewish community of eastern and northern Caucasia


Mountain Jews or Caucasus Jews also known as Juhuro, Juvuro, Juhuri, Juwuri, Juhurim, Kavkazi Jews or Gorsky Jews (Hebrew: Yehudey Kavkaz or Yehudey he-Harim; Russian: , romanized:Gorskie Yevrei,[7] Azerbaijani: Da Yhudilri) are Jews of the eastern and northern Caucasus, mainly Azerbaijan, and various republics in the Russian Federation: Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Karachay-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. The Mountain Jews are the descendants of Persian Jews from Iran.[8][9] Mountain Jews took shape as a community after Qajar Iran ceded the areas in which they lived to the Russian Empire as part of the Treaty of Gulistan of 1813.[10]

The forerunners of the Mountain Jewish community were in Ancient Persia from the 5th century BCE; their language, called Judeo-Tat, is an ancient Southwest Iranian language which integrates many elements of Ancient Hebrew.[11]

It is believed that they had reached Persia from Israel as early as the 8th century BCE. They continued to migrate east, settling in mountainous areas of the Caucasus. Mountain Jews survived numerous historical vicissitudes by settling in extremely remote and mountainous areas. They were known to be accomplished warriors and horseback riders.[12]

Mountain Jews are distinct from Georgian Jews of the Caucasus Mountains. The two groups are culturally different, speaking different languages and having many differences in customs and culture.[13]

Mountain Jews, or Jews of the Caucasus, have inhabited the Caucasus since the fifth century CE. Being the descendants of the Persian Jews of Iran, their migration from Persia proper to the Caucasus took place in the Sasanian era (224651).[8] It is believed that they had arrived in Persia, from Ancient Israel, as early as the 8th century BCE.[14] Other sources attest that Mountain Jews were present in the region of Azerbaijan at least since 457 BCE.[15][16] However, Mountain Jews only took shape as a community after Qajar Iran ceded the areas in which they lived to the Russian Empire per the Treaty of Gulistan of 1813.[10]

Mountain Jews have an oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation, that they are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes, which were exiled by the king of Assyria (Ashur), who ruled over northern Iraq from Mosul (across the Tigris River from the ancient city of Nineveh). The reference most likely is to Shalmaneser, the King of Assyria who is mentioned in II Kings 18:912.[citation needed] According to local Jewish tradition, some 19,000 Jews departed Jerusalem (used here as a generic term for the Land of Israel) and passed through Syria, Babylonia, and Persia and then, heading north, entered into Media.[citation needed]

Mountain Jews maintained a strong military tradition. For this reason, some historians[17] believe they may be descended from Jewish military colonists, settled by Parthian and Sassanid rulers in the Caucasus as frontier guards against nomadic incursions from the Pontic steppe.

A 2002 study by geneticist Dror Rosengarten found that the paternal haplotypes of Mountain Jews "were shared with other Jewish communities and were consistent with a Mediterranean origin."[17] In addition, Y-DNA testing of Mountain Jews has shown they have Y-DNA haplotypes related to those of other Jewish communities.[17] The Semitic origin of Mountain Jews is also evident in their culture and language.[17]

By the early 17th century, Mountain Jews formed many small settlements throughout mountain valleys of Dagestan.[18] One valley, located 10 km south of Derbent, close to the shore of the Caspian Sea, was predominantly populated by Mountain Jews. Their Muslim neighbors called this area "Jewish Valley." The Jewish Valley grew to be a semi-independent Jewish state, with its spiritual and political center located in its largest settlement of Aba-Sava (1630-1800).[18] The valley prospered until the end of the 18th century, when its settlements were brutally destroyed in the war between Sheikh-Ali-Khan, who swore loyalty to the Russian Empire, and Surkhai-Khan, the ruler of Kumukh.[citation needed] Many Mountain Jews were slaughtered, with survivors escaping to Derbent where they received the protection of Fatali Khan, the ruler of Quba Khanate.[citation needed]

In Chechnya, Mountain Jews partially assimilated into Chechen society by forming a Jewish teip, the Zhugtii.[19] In Chechen society, ethnic minorities residing in areas demographically dominated by Chechens have the option of forming a teip in order to properly participate in the developments of Chechen society such as making alliances and gaining representation in the Mekhk Khell, a supreme ethnonational council that is occasionally compared to a parliament.[20] Teips of minority-origin have also been made by ethnic Poles, Germans, Georgians, Armenians, Kumyks, Russians, Kalmyks, Circassians, Andis, Avars, Dargins, Laks, Persians, Arabs, Ukrainians and Nogais,[19][21] with the German teip having been formed as recently as the 1940s when Germans in Siberian exile living among Chechens assimilated.[20]

Mountain Jews have also settled in the territory of modern Azerbaijan. The main Mountain Jewish settlement in Azerbaijan was and remains Qrmz Qsb, also called Jerusalem of the Caucasus.[22][23] In Russian, Qrmz Qsb was once called (translit. Yevreyskaya Sloboda), "Jewish Village"; but during Soviet times it was renamed (translit. Krasnaya Sloboda), "Red Village."[24]

In the 18th19th centuries, the Jews resettled from the highland to the coastal lowlands but carried the name "Mountain Jews" with them. In the villages (aouls), the Mountain Jews had settled in separate sections. In the lowland towns they also lived in concentrated neighborhoods, but their dwellings did not differ from those of their neighbors. Mountain Jews retained the dress of the highlanders. They have continued to follow Jewish dietary laws and affirm their faith in family life.[citation needed] In 1902, The New York Times reported that clans of Jewish origin, who maintain many of the customs and the principal forms of religious worship of their ancestors, were discovered in the remote regions of Eastern Caucasus.[25]

By 1926, more than 85% of Mountain Jews in Dagestan were already classed as urban. Mountain Jews were mainly concentrated in the cities of Makhachkala, Buynaksk, Derbent, Nalchik and Grozny in North Caucasus; and Quba and Baku in Azerbaijan.[26]

In the Second World War, some Mountain Jews settlements in North Caucasus, including parts of their area in Kabardino-Balkaria were occupied by the German Wehrmacht at the end of 1942. During this period, they killed several hundreds of Mountain Jews until the Germans retreated early 1943. On September 20, 1942, Germans killed 420 Mountain Jews near the village of Bogdanovka. Some 10001500 Mountain Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Many Mountain Jews survived, however, because German troops did not reach all their areas; in addition, attempts succeeded to convince local German authorities that this group were "religious" but not "racial" Jews.[27][28]

The Soviet Army's advances in the area brought the Nalchik community under its protection.[29] The Mountain Jewish community of Nalchik was the largest Mountain Jewish community occupied by Nazis,[29] and the vast majority of the population has survived. With the help of their Kabardian neighbors, Mountain Jews of Nalchik convinced the local German authorities that they were Tats, the native people similar to other Caucasus Mountain peoples, not related to the ethnic Jews, who merely adopted Judaism.[29] The annihilation of the Mountain Jews was suspended, contingent on racial investigation.[27] Although the Nazis watched the village carefully, Rabbi Nachamil ben Hizkiyahu hid Sefer Torahs by burying them in a fake burial ceremony.[30] The city was liberated a few months later.[citation needed]

In 1944, the NKVD deported the entire Chechen populace that surrounded the Mountain Jews in Chechnya, and moved other ethnic groups into their homes; Mountain Jews mostly refused to take the homes of deported Chechens[31] while there are some reports of deported Chechens entrusting their homes to Jews in order to keep them safe.[32]

Given the marked changes in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and rise of nationalism in the region, many Mountain Jews permanently left their hometowns in the Caucasus and relocated to Moscow or abroad.[33] During the First Chechen War, many Jews left due to the Russian invasion and indiscriminate bombardment of civilian population by the Russian military.[34] Despite historically close relations between Jews and Chechens, many also suffered high rate of kidnappings and violence at the hands of armed ethnic Chechen gangs who ransomed their freedom to "Israel and the international Jewish community".[32] Many Mountain Jews emigrated to Israel or the United States.[35][36] Qrmz Qsb in Azerbaijan remains the biggest settlement of Mountain Jews in the world, with the current population over 3,000.[citation needed]

While elsewhere in the Russian Empire, Jews were prohibited from owning land (excluding the Jews of Siberia and Central Asia), at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Mountain Jews owned land and were farmers and gardeners, growing mainly grain. Their oldest occupation was rice-growing, but they also raised silkworms and cultivated tobacco and vineyards. Mountain Jews and their Christian Armenian neighbors were the main producers of wine, as Muslims were prohibited by their religion from producing or consuming alcohol. Judaism limited some types of meat consumption. Unlike their neighbors, the Jews raised few domestic animals, although tanning was their third most important economic activity after farming and gardening. At the end of the 19th century, 6% of Jews were engaged in this trade. Handicrafts and commerce were mostly practiced by Jews in towns.

The Soviet authorities bound the Mountain Jews to collective farms, but allowed them to continue their traditional cultivation of grapes, tobacco, and vegetables; and making wine. In practical terms, the Jews are no longer isolated from other ethnic groups.

With increasing urbanization and sovietization in progress, by the 1930s, a layer of intelligentsia began to form. By the late 1960s, academic professionals, such as pharmacists, medical doctors, and engineers, were common in the community. Mountain Jews worked in more professional positions than did Georgian Jews, though less than the Soviet Ashkenazi community, who were based in larger cities of Russia. A sizable number of Mountain Jews worked in the entertainment industry in Dagestan.[37] The republic's dancing ensemble "Lezginka" was led by Tankho Israilov, a Mountain Jew, from 19581979.[38][39]

Mountain Jews are not Sephardim (from the Iberian Peninsula) nor Ashkenazim (from Central Europe) but rather of Persian Jewish origin, and they follow some Mizrachi customs. Mountain Jews tenaciously held to their religion throughout the centuries, developing their own unique traditions and religious practices.[40] Mountain Jewish traditions are infused with teachings of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.[41]

Mountain Jews have traditionally maintained a two-tiered rabbinate, distinguishing between a rabbi and a "dayan." A "rabbi" was a title given to religious leaders performing the functions of liturgical preachers (maggids) and cantors (hazzans) in synagogues ("nimaz"), teachers in Jewish schools (cheders), and shochets. A Dayan was a chief rabbi of a town, presiding over beit dins and representing the highest religious authority for the town and nearby smaller settlements.[42] Dayans were elected democratically by community leaders.

The religious survival of the community was not without difficulties. In the prosperous days of the Jewish Valley (roughly 1600-1800), the spiritual center of Mountain Jews centered on the settlement of Aba-Sava.[18] Many works of religious significance were written in Aba-Sava. Here, Elisha ben Schmuel Ha-Katan wrote several of his piyyuts.[18] Theologist Gershon Lala ben Moshke Nakdi, who lived in Aba-Sava in 18th century, wrote a commentary to Mishneh Torah of Maimonides. Rabbi Mattathia ben Shmuel ha-Kohen wrote his kabbalistic essay Kol Hamevaser in Aba-Sava.[18] With the brutal destruction of Aba-Sava (roughly 1800), however, the religious center of Mountain Jews moved to Derbent.

Prominent rabbis of Mountain Jews in the nineteenth century included: Rabbi Gershom son of Rabbi Reuven of Qrmz Qsb Azerbaijan, Shalom ben Melek of Temir-Khan-Shura (modern Buynaksk), Chief Rabbi of Dagestan Jacob ben Isaac, and Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Avraam of Nalchik, whose son Rabbi Nahamiil ben Hizkiyahu later played a crucial role in saving Nalchik's Jewish community from the Nazis.[23][43][44] In the early decades of the Soviet Union, the government took steps to suppress religion. Thus, in the 1930s, the Soviet Union closed synagogues belonging to Mountain Jews. The same procedures were implemented on other ethnicities and religions. Soviet authorities propagated the myth that Mountain Jews were not part of the world Jewish people at all, but rather members of the Tat community that settled in the region.[41] Soviet anti-Zionism rhetoric was intensified during Khrushchev's rule. Some of the synagogues were later reopened in the 1940s. The closing of the synagogues in the 1930s was part of communist ideology, which resisted religion of any kind.[22]

At the beginning of the 1950s, there were synagogues in all major Mountain Jewish communities. By 1966, reportedly six synagogues remained;[26] some were confiscated by the Soviet authorities.[45] While Mountain Jews observed the rituals of circumcision, marriage and burial, as well as Jewish holidays,[46] other precepts of Jewish faith were observed less carefully.[26] Yet, the community's ethnic identity remained unshaken despite the Soviet efforts.[47] Cases of intermarriage with Muslims in Azerbaijan or Dagestan were rare as both groups practice endogamy.[48][49] After the fall of the Soviet Union, Mountain Jews experienced a significant religious revival, with increasing religious observance by members of the younger generation.[50] Mountain Jews also developed and retained customs different from other Jews, such as govgil, an end-of-Passover picnic celebration involving the whole community.

Mountain Jews speak Judeo-Tat, also called Juhuri, a form of Persian; it belongs to the southwestern group of the Iranian division of the Indo-European languages. Judeo-Tat has Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic/Arabic) elements on all linguistic levels.[51] Among other Semitic elements, Judeo-Tat has the Hebrew sound "ayin" (), whereas no neighboring languages have it. Until the early Soviet period, the language was written with semi-cursive Hebrew alphabet. Later, Judeo-Tat books, newspapers, textbooks, and other materials were printed with a Latin alphabet and finally in Cyrillic, which is still most common today.[51] The first Judeo-Tat-language newspaper, Zakhmetkesh (Working People), was published in 1928 and operated until the second half of the twentieth century.[52]

Originally, only boys were educated through synagogue schools. Starting from the 1860s, many well-off families switched to home-schooling, hiring private tutors, who taught their sons not only Hebrew, but also Russian and Yiddish.[53] In the early 20th century, with advance of sovietization, Judeo-Tat became the language of instruction at newly founded elementary schools attended by both Mountain Jewish boys and girls. This policy continued until the beginning of World War II, when schools switched to Russian as the central government emphasized acquisition of Russian as the official language of the Soviet Union.

Mountain Jewish community has had notable figures in public health, education, culture, and art.[54]

In the 21st century, the Russian government started encouraging the revival of cultural life of minorities. In Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, Judeo-Tat and Hebrew courses have been introduced in traditionally Mountain Jewish schools. In Dagestan, there is support for the revival of the Judeo-Tat-language theater and the publication of newspapers in that language.[54]

"And we, the TatsWe, Samson warriors,Bar Kochba's heirs...we went into battlesand bitterly, heroicallystruggled for our freedom

-"The Song of the Mountain Jews"[55]

Mountain Jews have a military tradition and have been historically viewed as fierce warriors. Some historians suggest that the group traces its beginnings to Persian-Jewish soldiers who were stationed in the Caucasus by the Sasanian kings in the fifth or sixth century to protect the area from the onslaughts of the Huns and other nomadic invaders from the east.[56] Men were typically heavily armed and some slept without removing their weapons.[43]

Over time the Mountain Jews adopted the dress of their Muslim neighbors. Men typically wore chokhas and covered their head with papakhas, many variations of which could symbolize the men's social status. Wealthier men's dress was adorned with many pieces of jewelry, including silver and gold-decorated weaponry, pins, chains, belts, or kisets (small purse used to hold tobacco or coins).[57] Women's dress was typically of simpler design in dark tones, made from silk, brocade, velvet, satin and later wool. They decorated the fabric with beads, gold pins or buttons, and silver gold-plated belts. Outside the house, both single and married women covered their hair with headscarves.[57]

Mountain Jewish cuisine absorbed typical dishes from various peoples of the Caucasus, Azerbaijani and Persian cuisine, adjusting some recipes to conform to the laws of kashrut, with a great emphasis on using rice (osh) to accompany many of their dishes. Typical Mountain Jewish dishes include:

The music of Mountain Jews is mostly based in the standard liturgy, for prayer and the celebration of holidays. Celebratory music played during weddings and similar events is typically upbeat with various instruments to add layers to the sound.[59]

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Mountain Jews - Wikipedia

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