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A LETTER FROM AZERBAIJAN

About 20 kilometers from the Iranian border, forlorn and forgotten, lies the large village of Privolnoe. Our small group of six consists of researches from the Hebrew University's Center for Jewish Art and the Jewish University in St. Petersburg. We are guests of Esther Danilov whom we met three years ago in Baku, on our previous expedition to Azerbaijan. A clean, modest wooden house, with no running water, gas nor electricity, a well tended garden and imposing Persian mountains beyond.On Saturday, wearing a long skirt and head covering, I won, at last, Esther's approval. For Esther Danilov belongs to the orthodox 'Gerim' community, Russians who converted to Judaism more than two hundred years ago, and strictly keep the Ashkenazi orthodox customs. The reasons for their conversion is still a subject for research, but the story goes that they were sent by Catherine the Great with other minority groups to the remote borders of her empire. Indeed, the earliest extant tombstone we found of 'Ger-Zedek' was dated 1841, but there existed an older cemetery, now totally destroyed

.Ger tombstone (1853)in the Balashov Cemetery in Privolnoe.
Ger tombstone (1853) in the Balashov Cemetery in Privolnoe.

Reaching Privolnoe at about the same period, was another minority group, the 'Sobbotniks.' They identify themselves as 'Karaim'and their 19th century tombstones are thus inscribed. Living side by side, each according to its tradition and customs, both groups strictly observe the Shabbat, and have always done so, even through Communist rule. Until 1936, each community had at least two functioning synagogues. Those of the 'Sobbotniks' were destroyed. Of the 'Gerim,' one is a cow shed, owned by a Moslem refugee from war torn Nagorno-Karabach. She was kind enough to let our architect document it. The other was used as an electric power center, then as a cinema, and now it is a crumbling empty hall. No one remembers it as a synagogue, but it once had windows with the star of David and the Torah niche is well articulated on the outside. The lack of synagogues never deterred either group to keep their rites. Esther Danilov has a special room allocated in her house, which serves as a synagogue. The only Torah in the village, which has a mantle and is wrapped by the last synagogue Torah curtain, is encased in a small cupboard especially built for it. More than a 'minian' gather on holidays and on some 'Shabbatot.' Most men habitually cover their heads and some still lay Tefillin. The prayers are in Hebrew, in Ashkenazi pronunciation. Alas, not for long. We are watching a dying community. The last wedding took place in 1994. The young people have left, some to Israel, many to Russia and the old generation has insufficient pensions to live on. Once a thriving 'Kolhoz' of hard working and successful farmers of 5000 in the seventies, consisting mainly of 'Gerim' and 'Sobbotniks' in equal number, their houses had running water, gas and electricity. Now, empty houses are gaping at us, and the total number has dwindled to 170. Two families left during our stay, and more are to follow. The 'Sobbotniks,' who unfortunately are not welcome in Israel, will continue their life as a community, in two villages they founded in Russia. The 'Gerim,' however, will cease to exist as a homogenous group of converts to Judaism. Although they never had the opportunity to live with Ashkenazi Jews, they adhered to all their customs. Now they will disperse throughout Russian, and a remarkable chapter in the history of the Jewish people will come to its end. So long, Privolnoe.....

Aliza Cohen-Mushlin, Director
June 1997

This expedition was made possible through a generous grant from Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation in cooperation with the Project Judaica Foundation of Washington, D.C., Mark Talisman, President, and the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.


 

 

 

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