How the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan Endure

By a river in the hills near the Russian border, a 300-year-old community of multilingual Jews keeps 'Europe's last shtetl' alive

How the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan Endure
Members of Red Village in Azerbaijan (Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Deep in the Azerbaijani foothills of the southern Caucasus Mountains lives one of Europe’s most interesting communities, the Red Village Mountain Jews. For decades, the residents of the only all-Jewish village outside Israel and the United States — “Krasnaya Sloboda,” as the community is known in Russian (“Qirmizi Qasaba” in Azeri) — have been prosperous and pragmatic, with a foot in at least three worlds.

Set across the Kudyal River from the provincial capital of Quba, a sleepy Azeri city of 40,000 people some 15 miles south of the Russian-Dagestani border, Red Village is paradoxical in more ways than one. Fluent in various dialects of Persian, Russian and Turkish — and usually a Western European language, too — its residents may be “monoethnic” but they’re extremely multicultural.

On the one hand, the village is connected to the rest of the world through its own expatriates. While only 500 people live here in the winter, the village balloons to over 3,000 in the summer, when its many sons and daughters return from Moscow, Brooklyn, Tel Aviv and Baku. Indeed, the folks of Red Village are as likely to carry an American passport as they are a Russian or Israeli one. On the other hand, the village remains fairly isolated. It represents the last shtetl in Europe, according to some. Even seven decades of Soviet assimilation policies and 30 years of Azerbaijani nation-building have barely diluted its distinct identity.

Seated on the left bank of the Kudyal across from their Muslim counterparts, the Mountain Jews are as subtly separated by geography as they are by language and religion. Inhabitants of both sides of the river stroll along the handsome 19th-century red-brick bridge each evening, but rarely do they cross to the other side. There’s an unspoken rule that Jews stay north of the river and Muslims south. “None of us has ever lived on that side,” says Regina, a 30-year-old Mountain Jewish woman whose parents live in Moscow but whose sister resides in Brooklyn.

It’s nothing personal, of course.

“I lived in Frankfurt [Germany] for 12 years,” says Noah, a retired taxi driver. “But we returned home to Red Village when it came time to marry off my daughter.” No matter that Frankfurt had far better job opportunities or a strong Jewish community with four working synagogues; there was no question of remaining in Germany. “We marry other Mountain Jews!”

A little insularity was always going to be needed to keep a distinct community alive for nearly 300 years. Though present-day Azerbaijan is thought to have had a Jewish presence for well over 1,000 years, the Mountain Jews of Red Village, known simply as the Jewish Village under the tsars (“Yevreskaya Sloboda”), have formed a distinct community in Quba since the 1730s.

Fleeing the wrath of Nader Shah, whose soldiers terrorized neighboring Jewish communities during the chaotic collapse of the Safavid Empire (1501-1736), Jews from neighboring areas of the Persian-speaking South Caucasus received the protection of the Quba Khans, a semi-independent khanate straddling the Caspian Sea that was conquered by Russia in 1806. Despite some dramatic ups and downs, they have been on decent terms with almost every sovereign since.

The clearest reflection of this lies in their extraordinary multilingualism. Though Russian speakers would rule them for the next 185 years, the Mountain Jews’ mother tongue is still Juhuri, also known as Judeo-Tat, a special dialect of Persian, which everyone still speaks at home. They are also proficient in Russian and many learn Hebrew, too. “As kids, we studied Hebrew at the local public school with an excellent teacher, until he moved to Moscow for a better job,” says Regina, lamenting her teacher’s departure. “Now he’s one of the most respected [Jewish] mullahs in all of Russia!”

Their script alone reveals their deeply multilayered identity. For centuries, Mountain Jews wrote Juhuri with Hebrew letters. In 1929, however, the Soviet Union forced them to write their Judeo-Persian dialect in Latin script. A decade later, Cyrillic became the rule. Soviet Azeris received similarly confusing orders, switching from Arabic script to Latin in 1929, then to Cyrillic. Though Azeri reverted to its own idiosyncratic interwar Latin script in 1992, Juhuri remains in Cyrillic. As of 2022, the Mountain Jews write Persian in Cyrillic and Azeri Turkish in Latin. Who says you can’t have it both ways?

Stalin, for starters. A onetime commissar of nationalities, the Caucasian man of steel was adamant on breaking up ethnic, religious and national feeling. In the case of Soviet Azerbaijan, this meant severing ties with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s new Turkish republic. If only Stalin could see their living rooms today. “Ninety percent of the songs I listen to are Turkish,” admits Manya, a Mountain Jewish woman who works at the Red Village Visitors Center. “I’m obsessed with Turkish arabesque. And my daughter is, too!” If one thing can truly unite both sides of the Kudyal, it might be Turkish television. “Our families may live in Moscow and America,” jokes Regina, “but all the culture we consume is from Turkey.”

Despite a waning population since the 1970s, when Soviet Jews were first allowed to migrate to Israel, Red Village’s population (which peaked at 18,000 in 1991), continues to make its mark on the world. To be sure, the much larger Jewish community in Baku has produced a few more (chess) grandmasters, among them Garry Kasparov, Tatiana Zatulovskaya and Teimour Radjabov. But Red Village also punches well above its weight.

In addition to producing seven Heroes of Soviet Labor, it gave the world Gavriil Ilizarov, a Soviet physician who invented the Ilizarov apparatus to mend broken limbs. Several important Azeri and Juhuri-language men of letters also hailed from the village. In our own day, it has produced Zarakh Iliev and God Nisanov, two childhood friends who went on to become Russia’s richest commercial property tycoons.

However chaotic for pensioners and policymakers, the fall of the Soviet Union offered new opportunities from which many Caucasians did well. Iliev, after all, had been the son of a cobbler, while Nisanov’s father managed a canned foods factory. “Russia was kind of like Chicago in the Prohibition era,” explained the Caucasus expert Alexander Murinson in an interview in 2016. “A lot of Azerbaijanis, including Jews, were involved in a lot of mafia-like activities in Russia. It was like the Wild West.”

To be sure, most Mountain Jews started humdrum businesses and kept their heads down. “People from here do everything in Moscow!” Regina says. “Clothing, shoes, food processing, restaurants — you name it.” Not that things always work out. “Russia has gotten a lot tougher in recent years,” she recounts. “My uncle [ran one] failed business after business in the past few years. Now he drives a taxi.”

Even if the ground under Moscow is no longer “full of gold,” as Anatolian migrants once said of Istanbul, fortunes from around the world can still be seen everywhere in Red Village. Not only are Ladas outpaced by brand-new Mercedes, but each street also boasts at least one or two McMansions. “It’s because we have huge families,” Regina says. “The father makes a little money, builds this enormity, and then expects all his grown kids to come and live with him. In the end, they never do.”

Since they’re away in Moscow for most of the year, many wealthy Red Villagers rent out their homes to local Azeris. “Relations have always been good between Jews and Azeris,” Regina says. “But now they’re even better.” In the winter, she says, Europe’s “last shtetl” becomes roughly 50% Azeri. As a result, people have also forged closer social ties. “When I was a child, you would never go to the other side of the river. Now half my friends are on that side, and my hairdresser, too.”

Not that everything has changed. “Unlike in Soviet days, women aren’t really allowed to work here. Today, you wouldn’t be caught dead in the bazaar!” Too much money has been made elsewhere for women to participate in the workforce — at least in Russia and Azerbaijan. “But everyone has to [work] in Israel!” Regina laughs. “And the worst jobs, too. If you haven’t got a college degree, you’re stuck cleaning houses or looking after old people. Life is much better in Russia than Israel.”

Of the people New Lines spoke to, one had gone to Israel, whereas nine had made for Moscow. Out of 15, only three had never left.

Even if socially conservative, the Mountain Jews have been criticized by some in Israel and the diaspora for their lack of piety. One Chabad missionary, for example, lamented the ostentation of their headstones, upon which the pious frown. “All of this is influenced by the Muslims who got it from the Russians,” he told The Times of Israel. Even the grave of Rabbi Natan, a long-respected religious teacher, has an image depicting him wearing a prayer shawl and clutching a prayer book, the missionary said with disappointment.

The stories on display in the new Mountain Jews Museum (completed in 2019) are no less liminal. Near the height of Stalin’s antisemitic campaign, 70 weavers from Red Village stitched the Georgian despot a 750-square-foot carpet to commemorate his 70th birthday. Though it is unclear whether the Red Village weavers, famous throughout Russia and the USSR for their artisanship, had a choice, the museum’s commemoration of this “achievement” is still telling.

The Red Village’s children are also renowned for defending the fatherland. While as many as 350,000 Muslim Caucasians may have joined the Wehrmacht during World War II (compared with 3.5 million in the Red Army), the Mountain Jews were always loyal to the Soviet Union. According to locals, of the 500 village boys who went off to fight the Nazis, only 200 returned.

This brings us to the Mountain Jews’ most recent military hero, Albert Agarunov. The Baku-raised son of an oil worker from Red Village, Agarunov was stationed with the Red Army in Georgia when war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1988. A tank driver, he volunteered for the front in 1991 and was killed a year later while defending Shusha, the “Jerusalem of Azerbaijan.”

Awarded the title “Hero of Azerbaijan,” Agarunov was honored at his Baku funeral by the presence of hundreds, including both rabbis and imams. To commemorate the patriot, an enormous bronze statue of the 23-year-old tank battalion commander was erected in the Azerbaijani capital in 2019 — a year and a half before Shusha’s much-celebrated recapture by Azerbaijan, part of a larger campaign that cost the Azerbaijanis nearly 5,000 lives.

I asked whether Mountain Jews mix with other Jewish communities in Moscow. “To be honest, there’s hardly any difference between us and Ashkenazis,” says Regina. “But you know how people are always dying to create differences. It’s funny, you know? There’s only one God, but we come up with all these different ways of worshiping him.”

If not particularly pious, many Mountain Jews have been rediscovering their religion in recent years. Some of this is thanks to energetic efforts by Chabad, the popular Hasidic movement that tries to bring back “wayward” diaspora communities into practicing its form of Judaism. But it’s also the nature of the times, says Regina. “We’re getting more and more religious,” she says. “Just like you Turks. Everywhere you look, God is coming back into fashion.”

The irony, according to Regina, is that Judaism is not even a religion. “It’s more a way of life. All it means is ‘the one who has chosen to believe in God.’ Nothing more.”

Whatever the case, Red Village’s religious school, or “beit midrash,” has also made a slight comeback. With roughly 30 boys and 30 girls, its pupils attend religious lessons in Hebrew and Juhuri in the morning before studying at the mixed public school in Azeri and Russian in the afternoon. “Wherever Jews go, they adopt the language and customs of the people who live there,” says Regina. “But they never forget their own, either. Never.”

If life is slow in Red Village, Regina and her friend Manya are cautiously optimistic. “Thanks to the museum and the visitor’s center, a few jobs have started trickling back in. If people would only continue to invest, maybe we could make a life here.” In the meantime, she has no desire to move to Moscow or Israel. “I’d much rather stay in Azerbaijan,” she smiles.

“Or, better yet, move to Turkey.”

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