The Mountain Jews of the Caucasus

Did you know that tucked away in the north-eastern Caucasus Mountains, there are Jews who have lived there since time immemorial?

Kavkazi Jewish men circa 1900

In the north-eastern Caucasus Mountains, straddling modern-day Azerbaijan and various republics in the Russian Federation (including Dagestan and Chechnya), are Jews who have lived there since time immemorial. Home to a plethora of tribes and ethnic groups, it may not be surprising that it also contains a Jewish population known as the Kavkazi "Mountain Jews".

These Jews are ethnically and culturally distinct from other Jewish groups in the region, such as Georgian Jews or the Ashkenazi Jews who migrated from Eastern Europe over the past few centuries.

Neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi, Mountain Jews are said to be descendants of Persian Jews who never returned to the Land of Israel after the destruction of the First Temple and their exile. Whilst many Jews remained in Persia, others followed the Silk Road and eventually ended up in the Caucasus. This is reflected in their language, Juhuri (or Judeo-Tat), a Persian-based language infused with ancient Hebrew and Turkic elements. In fact, it is 60% intelligible with modern Farsi.

A family mealtime, end of 19th century

Mountain Jews settled in isolated highland areas, where they were for the most part protected from various threats throughout the ages. They got on well with their neighbours whilst maintaining strongly Jewish traditions. Living in a remote region also meant the development of a rich culture with its own unique traditions and religious practices, infused with Central Asian and Middle Eastern elements.

Dancing and music styles reflect those of the region, distinguishable only by their Juhuri tongue. Central Asian or Russian genres such as the Lezginka and Persian instruments like the Kamancheh were brought northward by Jewish migration and are prominent in Jewish culture and celebrations.

Mark Eliyahu, a Dagestani Israeli musician, playing the Kamancheh.

For an old and deeply religious Jewish community, the spread of the Soviet Union to the Caucasus meant drastic change. Schoolchildren attended Russian-language schools, most synagogues were shut down and for the most part religion went underground. At the end of the 20th century, nearby regional conflicts and the fall of the USSR escalated the emigration of Mountain Jews, and the population gradually dwindled, although there was a significant religious revival.

However, there remain a few pockets of Mountain Jews as well as a larger concentration of around 8000 in Azerbaijan, mainly in Qırmızı Qəsəbə (in Russian 'Krasnaya Sloboda' - the 'Red Village'). The town, historically the largest Jewish settlement in the region, is also known as the 'Jerusalem of the Caucasus'. Today, it is believed to be the only remaining all-Jewish town outside of Israel and has two recently renovated and active synagogues.

Krasnaya Sloboda, Azerbaijan

One of Krasnaya Sloboda's synagogues

The traditions of Mountain Jews are preserved across new continents, where many have migrated in large waves to North America, Europe and Israel. Museum projects, dance schools, synagogues and online forums are keeping the community's heritage alive.

By Sylvie Hodes