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Across the Former Soviet Union in Kazakhstan, Jewish Families Carry on a Tradition Born in Persia

November 4, 2002
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They call themselves Lakhloukh, a word with an unknown origin and meaning.

They speak Aramaic, a language that dominated the ancient world, and which today is spoken by just a tiny number of Jews, Muslims and Christians.

In Kazakhstan, they are called Georgian Jews, although they have lived in Central Asia as a tight group for more than two generations.

Unlike the Ashkenazi who make up the majority of the 7,000 to 20,000 Kazakh Jews, Lakhloukhs retain a distinctive Middle Eastern look.

There is a strong sense of the community among the Lakhloukhs, and even the younger men often greet each other with “Shalom, Lakhloukh.”

Perhaps the biggest irony about the Lakhloukh is that until recently this remnant of a community — there are estimated to be approximately four dozen Lakhloukh families living in Kazakhstan — still held identity papers from Iran, the country their ancestors fled en masse almost 80 years ago.

“Most of my life I was an Iranian subject,” says Chana Harouni, 75, as she runs her fingers over a stack of Iranian documents.

The small yellowish booklets, with no photographs inside, feature a lion and the sun on the covers — the state arms of the Shah’s Iran. The documents are all in Persian — a language no one in the community can read anymore. So, a small piece of paper with the name of the bearer handwritten in Russian is inserted in each certificate.

“When I’m gone, they will probably throw this away,” Harouni says. “Who needs these papers anyway now?”

Her father, Yahya Harouni, fled Iran during World War I when Persian authorities unleashed persecution against religious minorities — Assyrians, Armenians and Jews.

Yahya was 16 and his brother was 6 when their parents were killed by government troops. The two brothers managed to escape and sought safe haven up north in the Caucasus Mountains, as did thousands of other Persian non-Muslims. They crossed Armenia and ended up in Tiflis, as the city of Tbilisi, Georgia, was known at that time.

A new life began for the exiled Iranian Jews. They became traders, shopkeepers, photographers and drivers. Deeply devoted to Jewish tradition, they celebrated holidays with members of their own community and prayed in synagogues together with Georgian Jews.

Georgia, the birthplace of Stalin, soon became part of the Soviet Union, but was spared the widespread anti-religious campaigns that raged through most of the country.

Most Georgian synagogues, unlike those in other parts of the Soviet Union, stayed open throughout Soviet rule.

Every few years, most Lakhloukhs would send their papers to the Iranian Consulate in Baku, Azerbaijan, to have them renewed.

Most of them — perhaps wary about the Soviet state — did not want to acquire new passports. Some of those who did apply for passports were granted Soviet citizenship, but others were denied.

The former Iranian Jews were among the first Soviet Jews who made it to Palestine, decades before the mass aliyah from the Soviet Union began. In the 1930s, some Lakhloukh families obtained permission to return to Iran with the purpose of going to Palestine.

In the Soviet Union, their “foreigner” status made little difference in day-to-day life until after World War II.

As foreign nationals, they were exempted from military service, so most Lakhloukh families don’t have relatives who fought in the war.

And after the war, Soviet authorities grew suspicious about those who held foreign passports.

Any fragile tranquility was ruined overnight on February 17, 1951, when Stalin’s secret police conducted a whirlwind operation to exile all Iranian subjects from Georgia to Central Asia.

“They knocked on every door where Iranians lived; Jews, Armenians, Assyrians — didn’t matter. It was around midnight. They gave us two hours to get ready,” recalls Harouni, who was then the mother of a 2-year-old boy.

“We were allowed to take with us only what we could carry in two hands.”

In Georgia, her father ran a kosher meat store. Harouni says that even today she can see an image: her father looking at their house for the last time, a bundle of sausages in one hand, a mezuzah, prayer books and prayer shawls in the other.

After two weeks, three trains — with 70 to 90 cars in each — brought them to Kazakhstan.

Harouni’s oldest son, Mordechai, left for Israel 30 years ago, as did many Lakhloukh. Many more families left in the last 10 years, after Kazakhstan became an independent nation in 1991.

Harouni’s daughter Larisa, a piano teacher, was also set to leave — twice. Both times she changed her mind in the last minute because of another suicide bombing in Israel. She says she will probably stay now.

Harouni’s second son, Isaac Rafail-Zadeh, was born in Kazakhstan and says he doesn’t want to leave.

“Here I was born, went to school. Why would I go elsewhere?” said the 47-year-old businessman.

Eight years ago, those Lakhloukhs who didn’t have Soviet or Kazakh passports sent their papers to the new Iranian Embassy in Almaty for renewal. They never heard back from the diplomats. After a few inquiries, they were told the embassy was not interested in their Iranian papers.

Although everyone speaks Russian these days, the language of the Lakhloukhs, which is the eastern dialect of Aramaic, is still in use in the tight-knit community. Those who were exiled from Tbilisi can also speak Georgian; Georgian specialties, such as khachapouri square cheese pies are the essence of Lakhloukh cuisine.

Aramaic and Hebrew, both Semitic languages, have many common roots.

“Lachma,” the Aramaic word for bread, is similar to “lechem” in Hebrew. “Malcha” is Aramaic for salt, similar to “melech” in Hebrew.

The language is dying out.

When Harouni addressed her granddaughter Eleonora in Aramaic recently, the high school student smiled.

“Grandma, don’t you know how to say it in Russian?” she said.

Harouni and her family now have new Kazakh certificates for stateless people. This fall, they were promised full citizenship.

Harouni says there are only 45 Lakhloukh families left in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan.

“Every night before going to bed I try to remember every family that is still here. The Isaak-Zadehs, the Ilyasovs, the Eremovs. Just to see if my memory is still working. I used to cry often when people were leaving but now I’m used to it.”

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