Jewish shtetl in Azerbaijan survives amid Muslim majority

Yedidia Yehuda, right, and a childhood friend walking down the stairs that overlook Krasnaiya Sloboda, August 2013. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Yedidia Yehuda, right, and a childhood friend walking down the stairs that overlook Krasnaiya Sloboda, August 2013. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

KRASNAIYA SLOBODA, Azerbaijan (JTA) — Even at 70, Yedidia Yehuda can negotiate a narrow mountain path in northern Azerbaijan with a confidence easily mistaken for carelessness.

“You take care not to fall yourself and don’t worry about me,” he tells a visitor following him toward a small town on the northern bank of the Kudyal river, where 2,000 Jews have lived for nearly three centuries in their own shtetl, one of the world’s few remaining all-Jewish towns outside Israel.

A few twists down the slope, Yehuda proudly points to the red roof of a new and spacious structure decorated with sculpted beige limestone panels that rises from the jagged rocks and dusty flowerbeds on the mountainside. It is the tomb of Rabbi Gershon ben Reuven, leader of this little-known community until his death 122 years ago.

Yedidia Yehuda, right, sitting with Jewish lawmaker Yevda Abramov, second from left, in a Jewish tea house in Krasnaiya Sloboda, Aug. 22, 2013. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Yedidia Yehuda, right, sitting with Jewish lawmaker Yevda Abramov, second from left, in a Jewish tea house in Krasnaiya Sloboda, Aug. 22, 2013. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

The building was erected last year as part of a massive renovation and construction effort, courtesy of Krasnaiya natives who left this rural town to pursue lucrative careers elsewhere. The building projects are to honor the town’s rich past.

Over the years, the community known as Mountain Jews has endured pogroms by Persian warlords, repression under communism and the rise of post-Soviet nationalism. But the need for external funding highlights pressing questions about the future of this Jewish island that continues over time to lose its young to the rapidly growing cities depopulating the Azeri countryside.

“Many have left, young and old, myself included,” says Yehuda, who divides his time between Krasnaiya and Or Akiva, Israel. “It’s good because out there we can earn enough to support the community. But it’s bad because it means the current population is a fraction of our past numbers.”

According to Yehuda, the town had 8,500 Jews only two decades ago, but has lost 75 percent of its population to Israel, Moscow and the Azeri capital, Baku. The community’s former chief rabbi, Adam Davidov, left recently for Jerusalem.

The silver lining in the exodus has been hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from well-to-do natives who in the past two years have financed the construction of buildings, modernized burial facilities and transformed the town’s mikvah into an impressive glass-domed tower.

Krasnaiya Sloboda also is seeing the construction of the world’s first museum of Mountain Jews. The project is being paid for by STMEGI, a foundation promoting the heritage of Mountain Jews and headed by the Krasnaiya-born businessman German Zacharayev, who lives in Moscow.

In Azerbaijan, Mountain Jews, or Juhuro, are the largest of three Jewish communities, followed by Ashkenazim and Georgians. With lineage dating to the Jews of ancient Persia, Juhuro are believed to have settled in the region 1,000 years ago. They speak Juhuri, a mix of Farsi and ancient Hebrew.

“Here, communists were less successful than elsewhere in encouraging Jews to assimilate because of our ancient and cohesive tradition,” Yehuda says.

The best time to witness the special attachment between Krasnaiya Sloboda and its residents, past and present, is around Tisha b’Av, the Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of both ancient Temples. Just ahead of the fast, the town’s population doubles overnight as Krasnaiya natives from all over the world return to visit the graves of their ancestors. Some, like Yehuda, stay for several months.

Upon arriving, the returnees blend right back in to a community that despite not being very observant seems immune to the rapid modernization gripping their country. The nearby town of Quba boasts 24-hour supermarkets, Internet cafes and even a luxury spa hotel. But in Krasnaiya, toddlers accompany Jewish women wearing tichel head coverings and aprons to buy groceries from the kosher shops and convenience stores as they prepare for the High Holidays feasts.

The interior of Krasnaiya Sloboda's Kulkati Synagogue. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

The interior of Krasnaiya Sloboda’s Kulkati Synagogue. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

In the evening, after the older children finish studying in the local yeshiva, dozens of men accompany them down potholed alleyways to Kulkati Synagogue, a massive wood-paneled building with 30 windows and even more Persian carpets covering every inch of its floor. The town, spread out across 120 acres, has another 12 synagogues, most of them inactive. Among Russian Jews, the town once was known as “little Jerusalem.”

In a custom reminiscent of the mosques in this predominantly Shi’ite country, visitors to Kulkati take off their shoes before entering. Other customs borrowed from neighbors are common among older Jews, who bury toenail clippings and hair and believe in evil spirits, part of an elaborate system of superstitions.

Conscious of their community’s uniqueness, Krasnaiya’s young Juhuros say they are determined to pass on the torch.

“I will stay here and make a life here,” says Maxim Menachem, 18, an unemployed yeshiva graduate. “I have no plans to leave.”

But some elders are unconvinced. According to the United Nations, Azerbaijan has lost approximately 10 percent of its rural population since gaining independence. Across the region, the urbanization impulse, coupled with Zionist fervor and a desire to live in established Western democracies, has pushed about 1.5 million Jews from former Soviet countries to emigrate since 1991. But unlike other post-Soviet areas, anti-Semitism is not the reason here.

“These young guys, they are emotionally attached but they will not stay here,” says Elazar Nisimov, the community’s rabbi and ritual slaughterer. “Azerbaijan is only 22 years old and the job market hasn’t expanded to the countryside. They need to start their lives, get professional experience and earn a living. So they’ll move to Baku, Moscow, Tel Aviv. Then maybe they will return.”

It was persecution that drew Jews to Krasnaiya in the first place, according to Nisimov. Nearly three centuries ago, the Jews who lived in the hills around Quba asked the regional shah, Hussein Ali, for protection from cross-border raids by Persian troops. The shah agreed, and the relationship between Quba’s ruling house and the Jews deepened under his son and successor, Feteli Khan.

Yedidia Yehuda at the foot of the tomb of Rabbi Gershon ben Reuven in Krasnaiya Sloboda, August 2013. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Yedidia Yehuda at the foot of the tomb of Rabbi Gershon ben Reuven in Krasnaiya Sloboda, August 2013. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Today, Feteli Khan’s name appears on street signs in the main street of Quba, Krasnaiya Sloboda’s non-Jewish twin city across the river. Yarmulke-wearing Jews are a common sight at Quba’s gas stations and hardware stores. Some enterprising Quba taxi drivers have even learned to offer “Jewish tours” to anyone they suspect of being American or Israeli.

“Jewish-Muslim relations here could not be better,” says Yevda (Yehuda) Abramov, a Krasnaiya native and Azerbaijan’s only Jewish lawmaker. During a visit from Baku, he sits in the shade of a Jewish tea house with old-timers who chat and play board games as they suck tea through sugar cubes.

Nisimov, meanwhile, is gathering strength for Rosh Hashanah, when he goes from house to house to slaughter chickens for the traditional feast. But he expects to rest on Sukkot, when other rabbis are usually hard at work visiting the temporary huts Jews build in recognition of the instability that for millennia has been an inherent element of Jewish life.

Largely unfamiliar with flight and exile, most Krasnaiyans do not build sukkahs, preferring instead to visit a communal sukkah near the synagogue.

“They all light candles on Hanukkah, but Sukkot is less celebrated here,” Nisimov says. “I guess not everyone here connects to this holiday.”

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