In a corner of Azerbaijan and in a few other communities spread across the Caucasus, a small, but resilient group of Jews lived, worshipped, and thrived. The story of the Mountain Jews does an excellent job of telling the multi-ethnic story of the Caucasus.
The Mountain Jews originated in Iran and spoke a Hebraicized version of the Tat language related to Persian that is known as Judeo-Tat or Juhuri (Pinkus, 459). This group did not include the Georgian Jews who speak a language related to Georgian. Once in the Caucasus, the Mountain Jews adopted the dress and architecture of their neighbors, but retained their Jewish faith and religious strictures necessitating different diets and customs. The Mountain Jews assimilated aspects of local culture into their religious practices (Altshuler, 17). In many instances, the Mountain Jews either settled in specific areas of towns or created their own special settlements.
The largest and most famous of these settlements was in Azerbaijan and was known as Qırmızı Qəsəbə in Azeri or Krasnaya Sloboda in Russian. This town was one of the largest completely Jewish settlements outside of Israel (Vladimirsky, 1097). Here, Mountain Jewish culture and tradition was protected and thrived in an area where they had little contact with other Jewish communities and were beset on all side by Muslims. Most importantly for the Mountain Jews, they were not prohibited from owning land in the Caucasus, unlike their coreligionists in other areas of the Jewish diaspora. As a result, the Mountain Jews cultivated land and grew mostly grain while also maintaining some famous vineyards in the region. However, this way of life was not easily sustainable in a modernizing world.
Soviet authorities forced the Mountain Jews to work on collective farms. The Soviets did allow them, however, to continue cultivating grapes and tobacco as they had before collectivization. Collectivization effectively ended their isolated lifestyle and the Mountain Jews were forced to interact with the other ethnic groups that surrounded them. In fact, Soviet policy stated that Mountain Jews were not part of the Jewish nation, but rather the Iranian nation (Altshuler, 21). This policy allowed for some assimilation and a good deal of mobility for Mountain Jews in the Soviet Union. For example, many moved to Chechnya or to Dagestan and integrated themselves into the local cultures (Pinkus, 459). Yet, Mountain Jew identity remained distinct throughout the Soviet period.
As the Soviet Union collapsed and instability began to take hold in the Caucasus, Mountain Jews looked elsewhere for opportunities and security. For most, that meant immigration. The Mountain Jews often chose to move to Israel, which offered the Mountain Jews better economic opportunities and more security than Azerbaijan (Parfitt). Today, the majority of Mountain Jews live in Israel where they have assimilated into broader Israeli culture. There is a threat that their language and traditional customs may die with the oldest generation of Mountain Jews.
Irena Vladimirsky, “Caucasus and Central Asia: Jews in the Caucasus” in Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture vol. 3 ed. Mark Avrum Ehrlich (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009).
Mordechai Altshuler, “A History of the Mountain Jews” in Mountain Jews: Customs and Daily Life in the Caucasus ed. by Le’ah Mikdash-Shamailov and Liya Mikdash Shamailov pp. 17-26 (Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 2002).
Benjamin Pinkus, The Jews of the Soviet Union: The History of a National Minority (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Tom Parfitt, “Life Drains Away from the Lost Tribe of Mountain Jew” The Telegraph April 27, 2003 Accessed on March 23, 2012 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/azerbaijan/1428516/Life-drains-away-from-lost-tribe-of-Mountain-Jews.html.