The Red Village
a Jewish village in Azerbaijan
by Jason Eskenazi
From across a nearly dry river bed, in northeast Azerbaijan (a former Soviet republic), the old men who gather everyday on the main street can hear the echos of the Muslim Koran being read as they drink their tea and play endless games of backgammon. On these long hot summer days young boys with kipot hurry, past the tea house and past women in black garb returning from the market, to be in time for the evening service.
In Krasnayasloboda, or Red Village, there is a resurgence of practicing Judaism that had been quelled during the Soviet era. Before the Great Patriotic War (WW II) there were eleven working synagogues and 18,000 Jews but now there is only one working synagogue and a population of about 5,000 because many have emigrated to Israel. One synagogue was converted into a rug factory and another into a warehouse while others have been abandoned for over fifty years.
These Mountain Jews, so named by Soviet census takers long ago, have their roots in Iran and speak a dialect of Farsi called Tarti which is their Hebrew. For over one thousand years they have inhabited mountain villages in the Caucasus and only in the last 250 years or so have they resettled in the cities leaving behind only their aged cemetaries. The Caucasus Jews number about 100,000 out of which 85% are referred to as Mountain Jews which is said to be neither Ashkenazi, the European tribe, nor Sephardic, the Spanish tribe, but a seperate and distinct third type.
In 1938 it is said that seventeen Rabbis were massacred in a Stalin pogrom which is still a subject most won't speak about. Some still fear reprisal from others. At that time Judaism went underground and had seemed to disappear for over forty years. Today, however, it is hip among the young to wear kipot and to go to synagogue. They are encouraged to learn hebrew by various American and Israeli organizations and many of the boys have been selected to go to America to attend a Hebrew school in New Jersey in order to become "good Jews" and return to their "Red Village" and keep the tradition alive.
copyright © 2001--2002 Jason Eskenazi
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