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Around the Jewish World: Isolated Mountain Jews Carry Small Brooms on Way to Israel

February 27, 1997
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Customs officials at the airport here are used to seeing short-handled brooms in the luggage of Jews leaving for Israel.

The brooms reflect a custom practiced in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, whose capital is Makhachkala.

When moving to a new home, people bring along a broom and some dust from the old home.

Merom Nazarova, a 63-year-old Jewish woman from the nearby town of Derbent, explained that before entering her new house in Israel, she will scatter the dust in a doorway and then sweep it away — to ensure, as she says, that “life in the new home will be not worse than in the old one.”

Jewish emigration from Dagestan, which is located on the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus region of southern Russia, began a few years later than in most of the former Soviet Union.

But emigration from this region, in contrast to the rest of Russia, is now accelerating.

Dagestan, with a population of 2 million, has dozens of ethnic groups and is known as one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world.

Dagestan’s Jewish roots run deep. A Jewish community that traces its origin to what is now northern Iran appeared in the region as early as the 7th century.

According to the last Soviet census, which took place in 1989, Dagestan had a 30,000-strong Jewish community, including about 10,000 Russian-speaking Ashkenazi Jews who settled in Dagestan after World War II.

Most of the Russian-speaking Jews already have left by now, and the autonomous republic’s Jewish community now numbers about 3,000, two-thirds of whom live in Makhachkala.

Jews here say that by the end of this century, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union — the Mountain Jews of Dagestan — will disappear.

“Everyone will leave,” says Larissa, a woman in her 40s from the small town of Khasav Yurt. “Our children will grow up in Israel.”

Says Rabbi Daniil Kazakov of Buinaksk: “The last Jew will leave our town probably next year.”

Kazakov, the third generation of Buinaksk rabbis, says he will emigrate to Israel this spring, after which there will be only one remaining Dagestani rabbi, in Derbent.

Last year, about 2,000 Jews from Dagestan left for Israel.

“There is not a single Jewish family in Dagestan that has no relatives in Israel,” says Micha Spiegel, the Jewish Agency in Russia’s representative in Dagestan.

Four years ago, Khasav Yurt, one of the largest Jewish communities in Dagestan, had 3,000 Jews. Now there are only 180 Jews, says Iosif Kardashov, who is leader of the Khasav Yurt community.

Khasav Yurt is located just seven miles away from the republic of Chechnya, site of the 20-month war between local separatists and Russian troops that ended in August.

“The main reason why people are leaving is the rise of crime” that has taken place after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Kardashov.

Very often, criminals target Jews because of the popular belief that they are better off than the general population.

“There is virtually no Jewish family in town that has not been robbed during the last four years,” says Ovadis Yakubov, a high-ranking Dagestani government official from Makhachkala.

Yakubov’s family was the victim of a nighttime holdup by armed robbers last winter.

Dagestan shares the same problems that are felt across the former Soviet Union — among them unemployment, corruption at all levels of society, a spectacular rise in organized crime and easy access to guns.

Dagestan, which has no significant natural resources, also struggles with the legacy of being one of the poorest regions of Russia.

Almost 60 percent of Dagestan’s people live in scattered villages, many of which are located in the mountainous areas that suffer extreme isolation, especially during the winter.

Jews lived in rural areas until the 20th century, when most of them became urban dwellers.

After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Dagestan was proclaimed an autonomous republic within Soviet Russia, a status that conferred special privileges upon the indigenous peoples of the Caucasus, but which often led to discrimination against thousands of Jews on the grounds of their non-local origins.

During the Soviet era, many Jews preferred to register as Tats, a small ethnic group that shared the same Persian dialect that Jews spoke.

With recognition as an indigenous nationality of the Caucasus, Jews could have a share in the system of ethnic quotas that developed in Soviet Dagestan.

Nearly 95 percent of the Dagestani population is Muslim. Although only a handful of mosques survived the mass destruction of the Bolshevik atheistic campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s, Islam has retained a central role in social life.

In every village in Dagestan, there is a new mosque being built or one that was just completed.

There has been almost no anti-Semitism in Dagestan, but Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise, a development that makes many Jews feel insecure.

Last year, the Dagestan chapter of the Muslim Union of Russia proclaimed a jihad, which they described as a call to all Dagestani Muslims to spiritual self-improvement.

“Today Muslims are talking about the first step of jihad, which they say would not harm us,” says one Jewish official in Makhachkala. “Tomorrow they can turn it into a holy war against non-Muslims.”

The Jews of Dagestan boast strong ties to Jewish traditions.

Unlike what is taking place in many places in the former Soviet Union, “there is no such thing as a Jewish renaissance” in Dagestan, says the Jewish Agency’s Spiegel.

“Tradition does not have to be revived here since most of it has been kept throughout Communist rule.”

Virtually every Jew in Dagestan seems to be preoccupied with only one problem these days — how to sell their property before moving.

Many are remaining here because it is virtually impossible to sell a home in Dagestan, where as a result of mass Jewish emigration home prices have fallen dramatically.

Those Jews who are “still here would have left almost immediately if they were able to sell their houses,” says Bagrat Abiyayev of Makhachkala.

The family of Asher Shuvayev, 45, from Buinaksk, left for Israel two years ago.

He remained in order to sell his spacious 100-year-old brick house in the center of Buinaksk’s former Jewish quarter.

But he may soon give up the attempt and leave without making the sale.

“It looks like I will just leave it as it is,” he says of his unsuccessful attempts to sell the property.

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