There's still a thriving, though dwindling, community of Jews in the Azerbaijan town of Krasnaiya Sloboda (the word shtetl is ill-chosen, as it tends to refer to Ashkenazi villages in eastern Europe). While young Jews leave for various reasons, antisemitism isn't one of them. JTA reports (with thanks: Michelle)
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)
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.
Read article in full