Jews come down the mountain in Tel Aviv to preserve culture

JERUSALEM — They are among the least-known groups of world Jewry, but the community that hails from the Eastern Caucasus, better known as the Mountain Jews, is a deeply rooted and ancient community that is trying to preserve its culture and language.

Toward that end, they gathered in Tel Aviv last week for the first World Congress of Mountain Jews, which was attended by representatives from 10 communities around the world. The largest community is in Israel, where an estimated 70,000-100,000 Mountain Jews now live, mostly centered in Akko, Kiryat Motzkin, and Tirat Hacarmel.

Worldwide there are some 120,000-150,000, with communities in New York, Toronto, Austria and Moscow. But the community still thrives in its native locations, which include Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Georgia, Armenia, Kabardino-Balkarya and the Russian area of Tyatigorsk.

Can they survive in the 21st century? "I don't think they will disappear, but the question is, what will be the future of the culture?" said Chen Bram, a lecturer at Hebrew University and an expert on Mountain Jews. "The question is, for example, in Israel, whether we can acknowledge their culture, if we can recognize this group and culture, and whether their culture can contribute to us somehow. Unfortunately, we don't have any linguistic policy that somehow helps people to observe their culture and language."

Like the Sephardi language Ladino, the Mountain Jews have their own dialect as well: Juhri, which is sometimes referred to by its pejorative Russian name, Gorsky. The language means a lot to the community, said Bram, because they are often lumped together with the other Russians who have immigrated to Israel.

"The tendency in Israel is to be functional, so people think that if most of this community knows Russian, then we shouldn't care about their own language," Bram said. "This language is important for these people, for their identity. It's hard to predict the future of the language. Even if the language will not be preserved for a few generations, still in this transitional period it's important, and moreover, it's important to acknowledge this language and the culture of this people as part of Jewish and Israeli culture in general."

In Kuba, Azerbaijan, one of the main centers of Mountain Jews in the Caucasus region, there now exist four synagogues — three that have opened up since the fall of Communism in 1991, and one that stayed open since before 1917. There is also a yeshiva in Kuba and one in Baku, the capital, located 30 miles away.

"I wouldn't say it's a religious community, but it's a very traditional community that has kept the main customs," said Zaur Gilalov, a successful 28-year-old developer in Moscow, who was one of the sponsors of last week's congress. "They keep the main holidays, they make a brit and chuppah, Jewish burial, Pesach, and on Yom Kippur they all fast. The Communist government made problems because of the Soviet government, they had to work on Shabbat but even with the problems, we still kept the customs."

Gilalov said convening the congress was important because "we live in 10 countries, and there is no coordination. This congress is gong to help us coordinate all the forces within the community and work together."

Many Mountain Jews have left in the past decade, either to take advantage of the opportunity to immigrate to Israel, or to large Russian cities, looking for better employment prospects. In Moscow, the number of Mountain Jews has exceeded 20,000 according to some estimates, and the Moscow Choral Synagogue had to build an adjacent synagogue for them.

"Many of them came to Moscow, and became prominent in the restaurant and the wholesale clothing businesses, and building shopping centers," said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow and spiritual leader of the Choral Synagogue.

"Many of the outdoor malls are controlled by ex-Azerbaijani Jews, and in fact some of them are closed on Yom Kippur. There are even synagogues in some of the markets."

Many Mountain Jews who have moved away still maintain a place of residence back home, an illustration of just how tight-knit the community is. Indeed, estimates of "commuters" run as high as 10,000.

To keep alive the community in Kuba, Gilalov said he is planning to build a large canned fruit factory.

"I want to give work to Jews so they can stay in Kuba, so that a lot of them who are now commuting can now come back and stay," he said.