MOSCOW, June 5 (JTA) — The fall of communism has prompted so many renaissances in Jewish life across Eastern Europe that the phrase almost has become a cliche.
But post-Soviet turmoil has jeopardized the existence of “Mountain Jews,” as Jews from the Caucasus region are known.
Until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, most Mountain Jews outside of Israel lived in the Caucasus, the area of present-day Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
But increased ethnic tension — including numerous kidnappings by Chechen separatists — and an economic crisis have caused an exodus of Mountain Jews to Russia and Israel, and a fear that the community’s distinctive identity will be lost.
To combat this possibility, more than 100 community activists gathered recently in Baku, Azerbaijan, to consider ways to keep alive the culture of Mountain Jews, whose numbers are estimated at around 100,000 worldwide.
“To preserve our identity as Mountain Jews in today’s FSU, we have to create secular community centers of our own, besides the synagogues, and an umbrella structure uniting them,” said Munashir Adilyaguev, a community leader.
The distinct identity of Mountain Jews is believed to have crystallized by the eighth century, when waves of Jewish immigrants began migrating to the Caucasus from Persia.
Members of the community spoke Dzhuhuri — a kind of “Persian Yiddish” — a Farsi dialect with a heavy mixture of Hebrew.
Another piece of evidence supporting a Persian origin is the fact that Mountain Jewish synagogues face west — the direction from Persia to Jerusalem — not south, as is customary in many synagogues in the former Soviet Union.
Later, some scholars say, Mountain Jews may have mixed with the remnants of the Judaic population of the mysterious Khazar empire.
Situated between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, the Khazars converted to Judaism en masse and made it their state religion in the seventh century. Three hundred years later, they fell under attacks from the Byzantine Empire and the precursors of today’s Slavs.
Living in enclaves surrounded by Muslims and Christians, Mountain Jews managed to maintain their identity and keep stable relations with their neighbors. The predominantly Muslim region rarely saw anti-Semitism, at least of the virulent European form.
Under the Russian czars, the Mountain Jews were left alone and free of pogroms — except during wars, when they were attacked by all sides.
After the Communist revolution of 1917, the Soviet state tried to “absorb” the Mountain Jews into a local ethnic group known as the Tats. Still, they preserved both their distinct role operating open-air markets and their traditional religious practices, which mix Sephardic and Askenazic customs.
All that has changed in recent years as 90 percent of the community emigrated.
The community is now evenly split, with some 50,000 members across the former Soviet Union and similar numbers in Israel.
Some who left for Israel have returned because of economic difficulties there.
In addition, many emigrants moved to large Russian cities, especially Moscow, where the number of Mountain Jews has reached 20,000, according to some estimates. The Moscow Choral Synagogue recently opened a special prayer hall for the Mountain community.
“There was no anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan. But when everything closed down, I lost my job and we had to move to Moscow,” says Rafail Shefundiyaev, 42. “Like lots of other Mountain Jews, we have been thrown out of the normal social and communal structure and brought to Moscow without money and social connections.”
Their role in the economic life of the Moscow Jewish community is also growing, especially in trade.
One of the largest Moscow open markets is run by the Mountain Jews, many of whom had to change their professions to adapt to new reality. Shefundiyaev, for example, who now works in the Moscow market, has a doctorate in geophysics.
Mountain Jews also face discrimination, both within the Jewish community and the larger society. Indeed, it is not unusual for them to be stopped by police — not for being Jewish, but because authorities who see their dark skin suspect they are thieves or terrorists.
Relations between the Mountain Jews and other Jews are problematic, as Ashkenazi Jews often treat them with contempt and prejudice.
A larger threat, however, is assimilation.
Some observers are skeptical that this community can survive outside of its traditional boundaries. But others see events such as the recent Baku conference — and the group’s long history — as signs of optimism.
“Thirteen centuries of our survival is a proof that our community and its culture will live on,” Adilyaguev said.