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Exploring the Visual Remnants of the
Jewish Community in Azerbaijan

Our previous Newsletter featured a letter from Center Director Dr. Aliza Cohen-Mushlin, written from Privolnoe, a remote village in Azerbaijan. Privolnoe is home to a community of Gerim and Sobbotnik Jews. The existence of these rapidly diminishing Jewish communities came to light in 1994, during the Center's first expedition to Azerbaijan. The 1997 expedition included Dr. Cohen-Mushlin, researcher Boris Chaimovitch and architect Zoya Arshavsky, photographer Michael Hefetz and videographer Grigory Maniuk and two ethnographers from St. Petersburg, Dr. Valery Dimshitz from the Jewish University and Vladimir Dimitryev, from the State Ethnographic Museum.

The village of Privolnoe is located in the northern range of the Talysh Mountains, twenty kilometers from Iran and three hundred kilometers from Azerbaijan's capital, Baku. It was established in the early nineteenth century by Gerim (or Gerei Tzedek, righteous converts) ethnic Russians who converted to Judaism about two hundred years ago, and Sobbotniks, whose name is derived from the Russian word for Sabbath. This community of Sobbotniks identify themselves as Karaites. Very little is known about the original conversion of the Gerim, although we do know that they originated in the regions of the Volga and Don rivers, as well as Central Russia and the Northern Caucasus. Both the Gerim and the Sobbotniks were expelled from these areas in the early nineteenth century, after the authorities tried and failed to suppress them. Local inhabitants give different dates for the foundation of Privolnoe, but the claim that they arrived in Privolnoe around 1824 can be substantiated by the presence of a Ger tombstone dated 1831.

The Gerim and Sobbotniks cleared the heavily forested area of Privolnoe, and established small private farms. The authorities not only granted them land, but also exempted them, temporarily, from taxation and conscription. Thus, it was named Privolnoe ('free'), and became the central and largest settlement of Gerim in the Transcaucasus, if not in all of Russia.

Center research team in Privolnoe, Azerbaijan with two women from the subbotnik community on the far left and far right.
Center research team in Privolnoe, Azerbaijan with two women from the Sobbotnik community on the far left and far right. The village was divided into four districts, two populated predominately by the Gerim, and two by the Sobbotniks. Rural crafts such as smithery, carpentry and cobblery once flourished, as did several tile and brick making works. 

Interestingly, the oak houses of the Gerim were built in a straight line, with the narrow facade facing the street. This feature also characterized Jewish houses in shtetls throughout the Ukraine, where property taxes were charged according to the breadth of the facade facing the street. 

The Gerim, who once made up thirty-five to forty percent of the population of Privolnoe, follow the Orthodox Ashkenazi tradition. They were relatively well-educated, teaching Hebrew to their children, and sending their young men to yeshivot in Russia and Jerusalem. Each household had a siddur and mahzor (prayer books) in Hebrew and Russian.

Two Ger synagogues once stood in the village. The first, situated in the Balashov district, is a half-timber structure and was used as a school and orphanage until the late 1960s. A second synagogue, located in Balakley, had an adjacent mikveh (ritual bath) and a matzah bakery – none of these buildings remain. Another brick building in Balakley erected around 1905, and originally intended to serve as a synagogue, was used instead as an electric power station.

The synagogues were closed down during the Stalinist purges of 1936, while the Torah scrolls and books were distributed among the families in the village. About ten years ago, when the community began to dissipate, twenty-eight Torah scrolls were sent from Privolnoe to the Ashkenazi synagogue of Baku. Only one was left, in the house of Esther Danilov.

During the expedition, the Center's researchers learned of various customs which are unique to the Ger community that lived for years in isolation from other Ashkenazi communitites. Indeed, their day-to-day lives represent a unique synthesis of Russian and Jewish lifestyles. For instance,  Ger children used to go to the river on Shavuot and place flower wreaths in the water following the pagan ritual, kumeniye, which is very popular in Russian villages where it takes place on the Trinity Day (Pentecost). An unusual local belief is that a firstborn male who follows after four successive generations of firstborn males, becomes a Cohen, or according to another version, a Levite.

On Purim, the men would fire their guns into the air, shooting down the oppressor, Haman. The kiddush (prayer over the wine) is uttered facing southward in the direction of Jerusalem. The second day of Shavuot is devoted to the memory of departed parents, and while visiting their parents' graves, the locals leave not stones, but cloves of garlic.

Even though the synagogues were closed down in the 1930s and there are no longer any Rabbis, shochetim (ritual slaughterers), and soferim (scribes), the Gerim and Sobbotniks have retained a very high level of religious identification. The older generation of Gerim still strictly observes the laws of kashrut, using three sets of kitchen utensils: for meat, milk and Passover, or, in their own words, myasnaya, skoromnaya and pasheshnaya. Not trusting that the meat has been made properly kosher, the women, who tend to be more observant, have not eaten meat for over twenty years.

Nonetheless, the decline of the community has accelerated in the last few years. This process began in the 1960s, when the Gerim began to send their children to study in Russian universities. Most have not returned, and the average age today is around fifty-five years. The last Ger who was literate in Hebrew left Privolnoe three years ago. It has become increasingly difficult to gather a minyan (quorum) for community prayer services, which are now held only on festivals. The Center's researchers attended two Ger prayer services, on the first and second nights of Shavuot, which were conducted in the living room of the sisters Raya and Esther Danilov. Most of the prayers were said in Russian.

The remaining Torah scroll in the community appears to be from Eastern Europe, judging by the design of the Torah staves. A gold brocade Torah curtain and a shofar, the only remnants of the last active synagogue, are kept together with the Torah scroll. The researchers were also shown two spice boxes, one of silver in the shape of an egg, and the other of wood, made by the Jerusalem Bezalel school in the early part of this century. It is believed that the Torah scrolls of Privolnoe were imported and that the local scribes were active writing only tefilin and mezuzot.

Today, the entire Ger population of Privolnoe numbers about twenty families. We fear that the community will disappear by the end of the century. The Center's researchers were fortunate to be accompanied on this expedition by a videographer who was able to capture the customs and traditions of the last remnants of this unique community.

The Sobbotniks from Privolnoe are Karaite Jews who adhere to the Bible, but not to the oral halakhic tradition. The Sobbotniks, who pray in Russian and have mixed seating during prayer sessions, keep the Sabbath and laws of kashrut, although not in the traditional Orthodox sense. For example, the do not eat milk and meat together, but they do not use separate sets of dishes. They do not add an extra day to the holidays, as do other Jews of the Diaspora, and they do not drink wine on Passover.

Their customs concerning death and the purity of women differ markedly from those of the Gerim, contributing to the separation of the two communities. They are particularly scrupulous with regard to ritual purity; they believe that a corpse and a menstruating woman can pass on their uncleanliness via an object. A dying person is taken into the courtyard, together with the bed, without regard to the weather, so that the house will remain pure. A ritually unclean woman has a special corner in the house, a separate set of crockery, and a separate door handle. However, they do not go to the mikveh to purify themselves, but pour water over their bodies instead. Their strict traditions prevent pious Sobbotniks from entering a Ger house, or shaking hands with a Ger.

The Sobbotniks of Privolnoe have borrowed several religious practices from the Gerim, which are unlike traditions of other more devout Sobbotniks from surrounding areas. They celebrate Shavuot according to the Jewish calendar; light Hanukkah candles; use a Jewish siddur, and place a mezuzah at the entrance of their homes. As is the case with the Gerim, Sobbotnik women are the preservers of the faith, and mostly they attend prayer services.

Today, the Sobbotniks, whose families have for the most part remained intact, and the Gerim are suffering at the hands of the newly arrived Azerbaijani residents. There was a large aliya of Sobbotnik farmers to Israel in the 1920s, and although this population has not decreased at the same rate as that of the Gerim, the community plans to leave Privolnoe for the northern Caucasus to found two new Sobbotnik villages.

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

The Center's researchers documented 120 tombstones from the two Privolnoe cemeteries, which are divided into two sections for the Gerim and Sobbotniks. The tombstones are made of limestone and closely resemble traditional Ashkenazi ones: a vertical stele with a square, triangular or semi-circular crown. Epitaphs on the Ger tombstones are inscribed in Hebrew, in square Ashkenazi script. The deceased's age is also usually included which is not typical of traditional Ashkenazi Jewish tombstones of this period. The date of death is given according to the Jewish calendar. Quite often the epitaph is also engraved in Russian, and in certain cases the Russian name and surname of the deceased are added to the Hebrew inscription. Images of the Star of David and menorah decorate some of the tombstones.

Sobbotnik tombstones are plainer than those of the Gerim, and only the oldest ones have Hebrew epitaphs including the words ish karai (Karaite man).

The second leg of the 1997 expedition was dedicated to the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan and continued the work carried out during the 1994 expedition. In 1997 researchers revisited the Jewish quarter of Kuba called Krasnaja Sloboda (red suburb), the Jewish community of Baku, and other Mountain Jewish communities around Baku and Kuba.

The Jews who settled in Sloboda came from the adjacent highland and valley villages of Kulgat, Kusari, Chipkent, Karchag, Shuduh and Kryz. In the 1780s Jews from the Persian province of Gilan also moved to Sloboda. Newcomers from each area established their own quarter, mahalla, each with its own synagogue named after their village. Even today the people of Sloboda remember the precise origins of their ancestors. In the only active synagogue of Sloboda, there is a  collection of Torah pointers, finials, and a shield from all the Sloboda synagogues.

Interior of Gilah synagogue in Kuba, Azerbaijan

Interior of Gilah synagogue in  Kuba, documented during  the 1997 expedition.

According to local records, 972 families of Mountain Jews lived in Sloboda at the end of the nineteenth century, running eleven synagogues and twenty Jewish schools.

The population has remained more or less constant since the beginning of the twentieth century, but only one synagogue is still active. A new mikveh has been built next to this synagogue. Unlike Privolnoe, the Jewish community of Kuba is today enjoying a renewal due to their improved economic situation.

The Sloboda Jews who traditionally have been involved in the merchant professions,  now carry out large-scale trade of Chinese goods, leading to a very high standard of living. Under these circumstances immigration to Israel is minimal, and with a high birth rate, there has hardly been any decline in the population in the last three years. Indeed, the Jewish population is even starting to grow, for Mountain Jewish families are moving to Sloboda from the neighboring villages of Kusari, Hachmas and even from Baku.

Construction is also going on everywhere. As old houses are pulled down, new deluxe ones replace them, the owners displaying both their wealth and their Jewish identity with walls and roofs decorated with Stars of David, menorahs, etc. The cemetery and the only active synagogue have also been restored. When restoration of the large Kusari Synagogue, which the Center's researchers visited on the previous expedition, is completed, it will be used as a community center.

Exterior of the Karui Synagogue in Kuba, Azerbaijan.

Exterior and interior of the Karui Synagogue in Kuba, Azerbaijan.

Interior of the Karui Synagogue in Kuba, Azerbaijan.

Unfortunately, the new prosperity has led to the destruction of the old, picturesque Jewish Sloboda homes, built between 1890-1910.

Synagogues dominate the Jewish quarter. Of the eleven which once stood in Sloboda, seven have been preserved. All seven are built of brick, the larger ones decorated with onion domes. Researchers documented the two synagogues which they had been unable todocument on the previous expedition: the Gilah Synagogue built in 1896 by Hillel Ben-Hayim, and the Karui Synagogue, the most sumptuous synagogue to be documented in this area, albeit now in dire condition and with no ritual objects. The large Kusari Synagogue has six decorative domes, while all the synagogues generally resemble the Kuban mosques from the same period.

Commemorating dead relatives is one of the main activities of traditional community life of the Mountain Jews, and many of them know only one prayer: kaddish, the prayer for commemoration. Tish'a b'av (the ninth day of Av locally known as Soroni) is the day of mourning and commemoration, primarily of deceased parents. This day is a major event, attended by the entire village and by family from around the world, from Russia, Israel and the USA. Researchers present at this event during the 1994 expedition, noted how professional mourners raised their cries of woe next to the tombstones, exciting the waiting families to join in, as they passed from one tomb to another. Most of those present were not familiar with the tradition of mourning for the destruction of the Temple on Tish'a b'av.

The Center's research team learned that some of the inhabitants of Sloboda came from the highland Tati village of Shuduh, which Jews had abandoned long ago. When visiting the village of Shuduh the researchers found that one of the clans of the Tati Moslems is called Israili. Members of the clan still remember the Jewish background of their ancestors, and until 1946 there was a Jewish cemetery in Shuduh. It is fascinating that the Moslem Tatis of Shuduh believe the Jews from Sloboda to be their kin and treat them with special appreciation. Apparently, at a certain unknown point in time, some Jews from Shuduh accepted Islam, while others left the village and settled in the newly founded Jewish suburb of Kuba. The Tatis of Shuduh and the Jews of Sloboda still maintain a warm relationship.

In the villages of Hachmas, Devich and Kusari the team visited some of the few remaining Jewish families. The Center's researchers found the remains of a tombstone, which was once part of a large cemetery. While there were few ritual objects to document, it was an opportunity to learn first hand about the traditions of these remote Jewish communities.

During the 1997 expedition, the researchers completed the work commenced on the Center's previous expedition to northern Azerbaijan, and succeeded in recording the last remnants of Jewish culture there. However, it was heart-rending to see how much was lost in recent years, and the feeling that they arrived almost too late, never left them.

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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Last Updated: 21 October, 2014
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