Wandering through the Caucasus region searching for Jewish heritage in several settlements and alleys, the author of this article reached the lands of erstwhile Guba Khanate, bordering Dagestan region of Russia, where Krasnaya Sloboda also known as Qirmizi Qasaba and Red village is situated, believed to be the world’s only all-Jewish town outside Israel. It is a settlement of Mountain Jews also known as Dag Yehudileri in Azerbaijani language, a group of Jews from Persia that historically lived in the Eastern and Northern Caucasus, mainly Azerbaijan, as well as in various republics of the Russian Federation: Chechnya, Dagestan, Karachay-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria.
After reaching Quba from Baku, the author went straight to the Krasnaya Sloboda, asking pedestrians on the way the exact location of this Jewish settlement. There is a perceptible lack of hate in the majority Shia population in this region, towards their Jewish neighbours, who decided to stay back in this region. This is little surprising, when the geopolitical tensions between the self proclaimed leader of the Shias, Iran and Israel are on an all time high, with the slogans of death to Israel! easily spotted in the streets of Tehran, but the fact that there is no hate towards Jews in Quba is something that all should appreciate. One of the pertinent reason for this lack of hate, is the Türkic Persian animosity which is rooted in history, Turanis and Iranis have been old enemies and this chasm of animosity even shared religion hasn’t been able to bridge. Azeris are of Türkic origin, it appears that the animosity between Iran and Israel doesn’t make any difference to them. This is good for the existence of Krasnaya Sloboda.
After reaching the Jewish settlement, the author decided to walk a lot to admire the architecture of this area, and absorb the design aesthetics of this Jewish settlement. It is always better to visit a local ethnographical museum or a knowledge centre of any other kind to get in-depth information of a community in a region, and that is what the author did.
He reached the old restored Karchogy synagogue, which was closed in the Soviet period and has now been converted to Museum of Mountain Jews because of the efforts of the natives of the Red Village – God Nisanov, Zarakh Iliev and German Zakharyaev. The creation of a common concept and collection of exhibits was handled by the International Charitable Fund “STMEGI”- the largest organization uniting Mountain Jews from all over the world.
Righteous Rabbi Reuben Ben Samuel
Jews of this region like those of other regions around the world, had to struggle to maintain their existence, against invaders determined to wipe them off. The author came across the saga of the miracle of “The Cleaved Book” in the museum of Mountain Jews. Long time ago in the eighteenth century, Jews lived peacefully with their neighbours in the Guba Khanate, but dark clouds were spotted on the horizon. An army of Iranian conquerer Nadir Shah invaded Guba Khanate and reached Qusari where lived a lot of Jews, and their leader was the righteous Rabbi Reuben Ben Samuel.
The commander of Nadir Shah’s forces reached the local Synagogue and attacked the Jews, but the brave Rabbi Reuben Ben Samuel confronted him, the Iranian commander attacked the Rabbi with a sword, but it struck the Torah in the hand of Rabbi and not the Rabbi himself. The commander was shocked and taken aback, he realised the sin he had committed by striking the holy book, he decided to repent on the advice of the Rabbi and sparred the lives of all the Jews of the area, this came to be called the saga of the miracle of “The Cleaved Book”, and Mountain Jews still remember the brave deed of Rabbi Reuben Ben Samuel. Soon the ruler of Guba Khanate Hussein Ali Khan defeated the army of Nadir Shah, and the Jews told him about their intention to move from Qusar, to the erstwhile capital of the Guba Khanate on the left bank of the Gudiyalchay river in what is now the, Qirmizi Qasaba.
Life of the Mountain Jews
Mountain Jews speak the Juhuri language. About 2% of the Juhuri words are of Hebrew or Aramaic origin. These words refer to the religious side of the life of the Mountain Jews: “blessing”, “circumcision”, “holy”, “Sabbath”, etc. Following the establishment of Soviet regime, new Russian loanwords entered Juhuri in large numbers, while Mountain Jews living in the territory of Azerbaijan brought numerous Azerbaijani words into their language. As far as the Mountain Jewish economy is concerned many Mountain Jews were agriculturalists, in the Caucasus, madder was traditionally cultivated by the Mountain Jews, Jews grew it in the vicinity of Guba and Tarki since ancient times, also historically, tobacco cultivation is one of the primary occupations of the Mountain Jews and in the second half of the 19th century, the Mountain Jews excelled in viticulture.
Valour of the Mountain Jews against Nazis
Many Mountain Jewish women fought at the front since the early days of the Second World War, among them were participants in the partisan movement, reconnaissance scouts, nurses, nannies, radio operators, signallers and locator operators. In the rear they worked selflessly in industry. in 1942 when the Nazis sought to seize Baku, as they approached Dagestan, the Mountain Jewish women dug trenches.
Among those Mountain Jews who fought bravely at the fronts are military officer Alexander Semenduyev, who went through the war, from Moscow to Prague, within the Guards Mortar Division (the world-known Katyusha division), poets Shaul Simandu, Dubiya Bakhshiyev, Danil Atnilov, Manuvah Dadashov, playwright Yuno Semenov, writers Mishi Bakhshiyev, Hizgil Avshalumov. Mark Shamayev and Yonatan Solomonov took part in the Battle of Stalingrad. Signal-women Vera Hanukayeva and Asya Abramova were awarded with orders and medals. Journalist Boris Mikhailov was killed in East Prussia. Mugdashi Hizgilov was an active participant of the partisan and anti-fascist movement.
Zionism of the Mountain Jews
Zionist activity among the Mountain Jews began immediately after the First Zionist Congress, held in 1897 in Basel, Two delegates from the Mountain Jews – Matatyahu Bogatiryov and Shlomo Mardekhayev – participated in the Fourth and Sixth Zionist Congresses held in London in 1900 and 1903 respectively. On the 20th of August 1901, the First Zionist Congress of the Caucasus opened in Tiflis (Tbilisi), which was attended by 25 delegates, including Ashkenazi, Georgian and Mountain Jews. On the 21st of August 1917, the Second Zionist Congress of the Caucasus was held in Baku. Among the delegates were five representatives of the Mountain Jews. In July 1919, the Third Zionist Congress of the Caucasus was convened with the participation of the Mountain Jews, where the question was raised about the desire of 12,000, mostly Mountain Jews, to immediately leave for Palestine. But the conditions that time did not allow this to happen. In 1970 the first wave of repatriation to Israel began in which 12,000 mountain Jews moved to Israel.
A Great Visit
The author felt really happy observing the peace and prosperity of Jews in a Shia majority country in the increasingly geopolitically fragmented world today. It has been mentioned that this small town Krasnoyarsk Sloboda is home to several billionaires. The author would like to mention the helpful attitude of the entire staff of the Mountain Jews museum, especially Mr. Kamran, who walked an extra mile to make the author and his father comfortable and enjoy their visit to the land of Mountain Jews, Dag Yehudileri. The Jews and sympathisers of the Jewish people worldwide, should make a decision to visit as many places of Jewish heritage in the world as possible, and feasible for them, so that these places can be preserved for posterity, let us decide to preserve and promote Jewish heritage, world wide no matter where it is located.