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Azerbaijan Museum Tells Mysteries of the Mountain Jews

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By Larry Luxner

A 19th-century silver Kiddush cup. Faded Soviet propaganda magazines from the 1920s. Clandestine letters mailed from the front by Jewish soldiers battling Nazis. Medallions from Azerbaijan’s bruising 1992 war against Armenia.

These are among hundreds of artifacts on display at Azerbaijan’s new Museum of Mountain Jews in the remote town of Krasnaiya Sloboda, an all-Jewish shtetl of about 3,500 inhabitants and two active synagogues 25 miles south of the Azerbaijani-Russian border.

The only problem is that the pandemic has prompted Azerbaijan to close its borders to foreign tourists. As a result, the museum is closed until further notice.

It was to have been inaugurated earlier this year by President Ilham Aliyev and the three Russian Jewish oligarchs who financed its construction. Invited guests from Israel and elsewhere were scheduled to attend.

Whenever Azerbaijan reopens, foreign visitors will be able to access one of the most remote collections of Judaica anywhere in the former Soviet Union. Housed in the restored Karchogsky Synagogue, which had lain dormant for years, the museum is a symbol of Azerbaijan’s efforts to preserve what’s left of its shrinking, isolated Jewish community.

Azerbaijan is home to about 24,000 Jews, according to local leaders. Some 4,000 are Ashkenazim who live in the capital, Baku. The rest are so-called “Mountain Jews” who have distinct cultural, linguistic and religious traditions that sometimes more closely resemble those of their Muslim neighbors rather than of other Jews.

Krasnaiya Sloboda is a one-of-a-kind place. “There’s no other town in the world like this outside Israel,” Chabad Rabbi Yoni Yaakobi, who moved to Krasnaiya Sloboda 15 years ago from Israel. “The Jews here date from 2,500 years ago, even before the time of the First Temple.”

Area Jews got the appellation “Mountain Jews” because they used to live near Shahdagh, a peak in the Greater Caucasus range. Most are descended from Jews who began arriving from Persia in the 13th century. As a result, many of their texts are written in Juhuri, an obscure, ancient language consisting mainly of Farsi with some Hebrew sprinkled in.

The new museum features many of the unique elements of the “Mountain Jews,” including their traditional costumes and jewelry, as well as ritual utensils, manuscripts and marriage contracts.

One of the museum’s greatest treasures is the Slashed Book, a siddur used by a local rabbi hundreds of years ago to protect himself from the sword of a Muslim general whose army had come to attack Jews living in the area.

“The general tried to stab the rabbi, but instinctively the rabbi held the prayer book in front of him and it got cut in half — nothing happened to him,” said Pisakh Issakov, the top appointed municipal official in Krasnaiya Sloboda.

Famous Jews featured in the museum’s displays range from the Israeli-born folk singer Yaffa Yarkoni, a descendant of “Mountain Jews,” to Albert Agarunov, an Azerbaijani tank commander who was posthumously awarded the title National Hero of Azerbaijan after being killed by an Armenian sniper during the 1992 Nagorno-Karabakh War.

While about 95 percent of Azerbaijan is Muslim, the country’s Jews say they get along very well with their neighbors. The government keeps a tight lid on Islamic extremism.

“We don’t have anti-Semitism because there’s a positive attitude among Azerbaijanis,” said Evgeny Brenneysen, deputy chairman of the Jewish community in Baku. “If anything, people will bend over backwards to show friendship towards the Jews.”

The great threat to Jewish tradition in Azerbaijan in the last century was the Soviet era, when much of Jewish practice was snuffed out. All but one of Kraisnaya Sloboda’s 13 synagogues closed.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic chaos of the early 1990s, most of Azerbaijan’s Jews moved to Israel or Russia. Even today, many of the Jews registered as residents of Krasnaiya Sloboda actually live in Moscow, Israel or New York.

“Lots of Jews are here, but unfortunately after 70 years of communist rule there’s no real Jewish life,” said Rabbi Shenor Segal, chief rabbi of the Ashkenazi community of Azerbaijan. “In most cities of the former USSR, synagogues were closed. Here in Baku they were open, but average people did not attend — only the elderly.”

Because Azerbaijan was relatively tolerant of its Jewish minority, the rate of intermarriage is quite high, he noted.

Today, there are seven active synagogues in the country, including the large Ashkenazi Synagogue in Baku. Baku is also home to Bet Chabad Or Avner, a Jewish educational complex with about 180 students. Last year, Azerbaijan’s first-ever kosher restaurant, 7/40, opened in the city’s Nasimi district, but it has since closed amid the pandemic.

Local Jews are eager for tourists to return, but with most flights into Baku on hold, that prospect remains far off.

“There’s no work, no jobs. We live from tzedakah,” said Yaakobi, the Chabad rabbi in Krasnaiya Sloboda. “Most of our young people have left to live in Russia and become businessmen. Most people will go to where the money is.”

Larry Luxner writes for the JTA global Jewish news source.

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