This week, I had the privilege of attending a wonderful event hosted by Israel Academia Monitor and the Yemenite Jewish Heritage Center in Rehovot, complete with wonderful food, dancers, singers and delightful lectures highlighting the importance of multi-culturalism. It was an ingenious idea for the Yemenite Jewish community to host the Azerbaijani Jewish community and to highlight the beautiful multi-culturalism that exists within the country.
Personally, I grew up half Yemenite. My father is from Yemen and my mother is from Morocco. I found it extremely interesting to learn about the similarities between Yemenite Jewish and Azerbaijani Jewish culture. For example, Rabbi Shmuel Simantov noted the similarities between Azerbaijani and Yemenite language, as well as the cultural influence that Yemenite Jews have had over the Azerbaijani Jewish community.
Jason Guberman, the head of the American Sephardi Federation, noted that there used to be a Yemenite Jewish community in Azerbaijan as well, although today the country mainly has Georgian, Mountain Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. I learned in the conference that these Jews live in an atmosphere free of bigotry, hatred and anti-Semitism. In fact, prominent human rights lawyer Irina Tsukerman stated at the conference that synagogues there don’t have much security like they do in Europe, as there is no need.
However, the Jewish community represents only a small fraction of what Azerbaijani multi-culturalism has to offer. Azerbaijan is one of the few countries in the world where Shias and Sunnis pray together in the same mosques. It is one of the few states where Muslim Imams take Jewish studies courses. And it is one of the few Muslim countries that is investing in rebuilding synagogues. In fact, in Dr. Dana Barnett’s talk, she highlighted how much Azerbaijani multi-culturalism is in fact the anecdote for anti-Semitism, as it teaches respect and tolerance for the other by celebrating differences rather than trying to repress them.
Azerbaijan’s Tourism Attache Jamilya Talibzadeh declared at the event that multi-culturalism and religious tolerance is a part of everyday life in Azerbaijan to the point that neighbors living within the same building “celebrate holidays one by one, from different nations. We celebrate every year New Years, Passover, Easter and Novruz together.” For this reason, when she first moved to Israel as Azerbaijan’s Tourism Attache, celebrating Jewish holidays did not feel foreign to her.
For me, this is something beautiful that should be replicated in Israel. Every Christmas, I usually travel to Europe in order to see the beautiful bright Christmas lights with the snow in the background. Even though I am a Mizrahi Jew, I believe it is a great delight to celebrate with other faiths their holidays and to experience new ways of doing things. For this reason, I love to travel and have been to places as distant as China, the United States and Thailand.
However, now I think that Baku should be my next travel destination after this event, as the beautiful photos taken by the wonderful photographer Victor Vislin together with the speeches, performances and especially Talibzadeh’s talk make me want to know what it is like to celebrate Passover, Easter and Novruz in unison. It sounds spectacular and a cultural experience that one should not miss. While at Passover we say “next year in Jerusalem,” as we head into Rosh Hashanah, I want to add: “And next year in Baku.”