The Largest Settlement of Mountain Jews
The city of Krasnaya Sloboda is found in the mountainous northeastern region of Azerbaijan. Krasnaya Sloboda is home to the largest group of Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan. While many of the members of this community have left in search of economic opportunities in Moscow and beyond, Krasnaya Sloboda remains the heart of life and culture for the Mountain Jews.
The remaining residents find themselves in a city that is experiencing something of a revival after decades under Soviet rule. At the heart of this rejuvenation is the establishment of the first Museum of Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan. The museum was established at initiative with my friend and partner God Nisanov, we share childhood roots in Krasnaya Sloboda. While we have established in Moscow, we never forget our childhood in Krasnaya Sloboda, and as patrons of art for the Museum of Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan, we try to revive the remaining community.
A History Stretching Back to Ancient Israel
The Mountain Jews have a fascinating history in the region that dates back many years. Their oral history tells that they are descended from one of the ten lost tribes of Israel, who were expelled from the ancient land of Israel at the time of the first temple, over two thousand years ago.
The Mountain Jews have survived in this area in part because they have a strong warrior tradition and are known as fearless fighters. Their survival may also be attributed to their geography. They settled in the most remote locations of the Caucasus Mountains. Their isolation allowed the community to live in relative peace, and preserve their traditions and religion.
The language of the Mountain Jews is Juhuri or Judeo-Tat. Juhuri is closely related to Persian, and Tat is a language spoken by the Muslim Tats of Azerbaijan. This ancient language shares many words with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.
A Culture That Has Not Only Survived, but Has Also Thrived
The Mountain Jews have survived difficult times during the German Nazi occupation in the course of the Second World War, and during the Soviet years when there was a specific and targeted initiative to erase all religious practice. The relationship between the Mountain Jews and their Muslim neighbors stands out in sharp contrast. Through the years, these two groups have maintained co-operative and friendly relations. Until today, Azerbaijan is one of the few majority Muslim countries that enjoy a productive and mutually beneficial relationship with the modern state of Israel.
The Local Synagogue Revived
The new Museum of Mountain Jews will bear witness to the struggles and triumphs of this community. The museum is unique in that it speaks to the past, while also establishing a place for future generations of Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan. The museum is housed in the renovated town synagogue that for years, during Soviet rule, was used as an agricultural storage shed.
The beautiful building has been renovated in such a way that it is able to house the treasures from the past, and also provide space for a functioning house of worship for the new generation of Mountain Jews. Peshakh Isalov, head of the executive power of Krasnaya Sloboda, reflected, “With the collapse of the USSR, the building was completely abandoned. On the one hand, we found a place for the museum, and on the other — we can restore the house of prayer. In this, from the very beginning, we are greatly supported by our patrons of art — God Nisanov, Zarakh Iliev, and German Zakharyaev. A decision was made to restore the building of the synagogue in its original form and from the same materials which it was built in the late 19th — early 20th century.”
By housing the museum in the synagogue, the building itself becomes part of the narrative. Visitors will be able to experience the original look and feel of a Jewish house of worship, typical to this region.
In addition to maintaining a basement space that will house a conference hall and library, the museum will be home to rare artifacts, such as the so-called Slashed Book, a damaged Bible. The legend tells that a Krasnaya Sloboda rabbi used the book to shield himself from the sword of a Muslim general several centuries ago. When the general saw what he had done, he was horrified, fearing divine retribution. In atonement for his action, he assured safety for the Mountain Jews under his jurisdiction.
The museum aims to curate the most complete collection of Juhuri dictionaries in the world, in order to facilitate linguistic studies to aid the preservation of this unique language.
The museum will open a new chapter for the Mountain Jews and herald a revival in the colorful culture that they have so carefully preserved while welcoming visitors to learn more about this long-lived branch of the Jewish family tree.