For many centuries, the so-called Caucasian Mountain Jews have been living isolated in their remote and lofty auls, or villages. Until recently, they were almost unknown to the outside world, their extraordinary history waiting to be unearthed.
These unique people—formerly oppressed, now awakening to a new existence—first came to my attention in 1933, when in Moscow I happened upon a series of photographs depicting their peculiarly biblical and patriarchal life.
I had come to Moscow from Vienna in the course of investigating the changed social status of the women of Soviet Asia. But what I heard about the mountain group interested me very much. These Jewish mountaineers were settled chiefly in the northern and eastern Caucasus, along the western shores of the Caspian Sea, and when I learned that several of these settlements were in the territory once occupied by the Khazars-the legendary Asiatic tribes that had been converted to Judaism in the early Middle Ages-my curiosity was really aroused. Since my early youth I had been preoccupied by the Khazars in connection with the still obscure question of the origin of the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe.
Moscow specialists in Jewish history and culture encouraged me. “You will be the first Western European visitor to our mountaineer brothers,” they said. “Gather as much material as you can on the spot. At the present pace of development, it is highly probable that in two or three years you will find almost no traces of the old life.” Soviet officials and scientific organizations helped arrange my trip. In a short time, I was roving the Caucasus.
I went armed with a background of facts about the Caucasus in general, and this section of it in particular.
The Caucasus—that bridge between the Black and Caspian Seas, divided in two by the mighty Caucasus mountain range—belongs equally to Europe and Asia. The northern section, which is part of the Occident, contains a number of autonomous republics and regions: Daghestan, Northern Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and others. The southern part, known as the Transcaucasus, consists of the three republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
The Caucasus region has a hundred and fifty mountain peaks, going as high as 13,000 feet. Noah’s Ark landed on Mt. Ararat; on Elbruz, Prometheus suffered for his presumption. And on Mt. Alaghaz, in Armenia, a new attempt is being made by Soviet scientists to steal new fire from heaven—to discover the secrets of the atom.
This oldest link between Asia and Europe is still the home of innumerable tribes of diverse origins, living in isolated groups among the mountains and offering almost inexhaustible material for ethnic and linguistic study. In the republic of Daghestan alone, a population under a million includes eighty-one different peoples and tribes speaking thirty-two languages and twice as many dialects. It is not surprising that there should be a tribe of Jews among the rest. Who are these Jews?
No one has yet been able to establish definitely the origins of the 40,000 Daghestan or Mountain Jews (“Dagh Chufut” in the native language), or of the Georgian Jews, another group about equal in size. These latter live in western Georgia, close to the Black Sea, and call themselves “Hebraeli,” or “Israeli.” Little research has been done on the Caucasian Jews, but there is no doubt that both groups are among the oldest inhabitants of the country, that they once formed a homogeneous mass, and that their numbers were once very great.
Armenian and Georgian chronicles report the first Jewish movements into the Transcaucasus at the beginning of the 6th century B.C.E. Many of the first arrivals were probably captives sent as gifts to friendly rulers by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Later, there were Jewish refugees fleeing into the Caucasus—presumably through Mesopotamia and Persia—after the destruction of the Second Temple.
The Mountain Jews and the Georgian Jews developed under very different conditions, and they are now totally distinct, speaking different languages and living different lives. The Mountain Jews, who began to come into northern Daghestan in about the 6th century, carried with them the language of the Tats, an Iranian people among whom they had been settled. Their present language, like Yiddish, is a mixture—in this case a mixture of Iranian, Turkish, and Semitic elements, plus a number of pure Hebrew and Aramaic words and terms derived from the Talmud. Since 1928, they have used a latinized alphabet, like other peoples of the Soviet East; before that time they used Hebrew characters. Orthodox religious services are held in Hebrew, like those of all other Jews.
Before the 1917 revolution the Mountain Jews belonged to the most conservative Jewish group. At that time, although some of their khakhans (rabbis) used to study at the yeshivot of Kovno, Lithuania, there were no Talmudists among them. Mountain Jewish scholars participated in the creation of the Talmud, however, according to a rabbinic tradition. There is mention of a Rabbi Nahum Hamadai (the name itself indicates that he came from Mydia, later Azerbaijan) and of Simon Saphro from Derbent.
In contrast to other Jewish groups, there are no Cohanites or Levites among the Mountain Jews, and most of the names of Both men and women date back to the epoch of the wanderings of Israel in the Arabian desert or to the period of the Judges and Kings. In this fact, some Russian orientalists are inclined to see a confirmation of the Mountain Jews’ own oral tradition of descent from the lost ten tribes of Israel.
Very proud of their alleged ancestry, which is verified by an old Jewish Haggadah, and alluded to in the accounts of various travelers of the 9th, 18th, and 19th centuries, they emphasized it as the first point in one of their many memorandums to Czar Nicholas I. They further declared that their forefathers did not participate in the rebuilding of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, and finally they strongly stressed the fact that they were not responsible for the crucifixion of Christ.
In baku at their cultural club, my first personal contact with the Mountain Jews took place. There I was introduced by Bronia Elizarova, the organizer of the women’s section. “As a matter of fact, I have a terrific penchant for electrical engineering,” she told me in her half orientalized Russian, “but I was assigned to work in the club; so now I both study and engage in social work.”
Bronia, whose real name was Purim, was a well-built young woman possessing a smooth, peach-like complexion, thick brows that met above brilliant dark eyes, a sweet smile which revealed gleaming white teeth, and glistening ebony braids arranged like a crown on her head. She had been married “for a long time,” although she was only nineteen years old.
“You must have been very young when you married,” I remarked.
“Not at all,” she answered. “I was past sixteen. The director of our club, who is twenty-three and has five children, was a father when he was sixteen.”
Not long before, a Mountain Jewess who dared to go to school would have been ruthlessly killed, just as would a Moslem woman who had committed the same “crime.” Today, all of them are filled with desire to study and develop their talents, and have many opportunities to do so.
It was Friday night and the large club rooms were packed with those who had come to satisfy their “cultural” needs after the day’s work. Everybody was busy with something.
In one corner a group of venerable fathers and mothers were busy “liquidating” their illiteracy under the guidance of an eighteen-year-old girl teacher who had recently been graduated from a normal school. In another comer a wall newspaper was being prepared on a forthcoming “district conference.” In the adjoining reading room the first Tat-language newspaper, Zakhmet Kesh (The Workers), was being distributed along with books and magazines. On the stage of the theatre, adorned with red ribbons and slogans, a performance of a play written in Tat, “Reborn through the Revolution,” was being given by the dramatic group. Its author, Isaac Khanukhov, a rising young Mountain Jewish poet, looked like an old Spanish grandee painted by El Greco.
The audience behaved very much like the young spectators in the numerous children’s theatres everywhere in the Soviet Union: they not only followed the play with burning eyes, but supplemented it with loud exclamations. The concluding scene consisted of a solemn oath to “build socialism,” taken before a gigantic red flag. But the accompanying music reminded one of a Jewish wedding in Poland, Lithuania, or the Ukraine, though the shrill minor melodies with which it was interspersed were of Persian-Turkish, that is to say, local, origin.
There was much music that night, and even more dancing. At the end a boy of about eight appeared on the stage. He wore the scarlet national costume with an oversized fur cap, cartridge belts, and the inevitable dagger at his side, and to the accompaniment of rhythmic hand-clapping by all, he performed the famous Lezghinka and other Caucasian folk dances with a fire and technical perfection that many European and American professional dancers would have envied.
In the meantime Bronia Elizarova had introduced me to her older brother, Azaria, who had recently become an engineer—the first Mountain Jew to achieve this status—and was employed in the Azneft (Azerbaijan Oil Works) in Baku, the capital of the Azerbaijan Republic. Baku had in the course of the preceding decade become a gathering point for an increasing number of Mountain Jewish youth. Among them were a number of physicians, teachers, agronomists, orientalists, mining engineers, mechanics, and other skilled or so-called “responsible” workers, with a relatively high percentage of Stakhanovites and “heroes of labor.” I was told that the Mountain Jews were particularly gifted mathematicians.
My next stop among the Mountain Jews was the town of Kuba, which the inhabitants call “the Magnet.” Kuba had recently yielded to Baku as a center of attraction for them. I arrived at night. Fresh from industrialized Baku, which has been called a European, Asiatic, and American city all in one, Kuba, situated practically at the border of the Daghestan Republic in an out-of-the-way valley of the Shakh Dagh Mountains, twelve miles from the railroad station of Khatshmas, seemed at first glance to take me back at least two thousand years. But the following morning I realized that actually this was a place where the sharpest historical and cultural contrasts met in an even more striking synthesis than elsewhere in this region. Caucasian, pagan, Islamic, Soviet, and Biblical elements, all were there.
Indeed, the very first scene that greeted me when I crossed the bridge spanning the Kubinka River, which separates the Moslem from the Jewish quarter in Kuba, was like a vision out of Genesis. Against the background of a majestic chain of mountains on the distant horizon, a procession of women moved slowly and impressively in their national costumes, which, although shabby, were yet becoming, and in some instances elaborate. In their billowing cloaks and veils, with tall pitchers of water on their shoulders, they seemed in the morning sun to be returning from a meeting with the matriarch Rebecca at the well. I could not help thinking that formerly the Mountain Jews had called Kuba “a second Jerusalem,” and that, like the other Jewish group in Georgia, the Jews of Daghestan had brought monotheism to Caucasian soil.
However, while some of the Georgian Jews turned out to be missionaries of Christianity, the Daghestan Jews were bringers of Judaism. Beginning in the 7th century, Judaism spread so far over the region that the whole northeastern Caucasus still shows signs of it in ruined settlements and ancient tombstones. During the 8th or 9th century the king of the powerful Khazars, an Asiatic-Turkish people, embraced Judaism, bringing with him the members of his court and large numbers of his subjects.
The progress was finally stopped by a series of violent persecutions at the hands of the Moslems, who killed many Jews and drove many others into hiding among the mountains. The rest—though it took centuries—were at last forced into the Islamic religion and lost their identity in the general population. But there are still villages where the Mohammedan residents will display old Hebrew Bibles and claim with pride that their ancestors were Jews.
The Mountain Jews intermarried very widely with members of neighboring tribes, coming into closest union with the Khazars, and they maintained a close relationship with that great state even after the beginning of its decline in the 10th century, The Mongol invasion destroyed Khazar independence, but Jewish fortresses and tiny Jewish-Khazar principalities remained along the Caspian. As late as 1346 Russian chronicles speak of these places as Zhidy (Jew’s Land).
After the destruction of the Khazar state, the Jews suffered repeatedly from new invaders and from religious persecution. Toward the latter part of the 16th century, the northern and eastern Caucasian Jews retreated from the mountains to the valleys and the coast, forming new Jewish settlements, such as Nalchik and Grozny, and settling in large numbers in several old cities, particularly Derbent and Kuba. During the war of conquest by the Russians, which lasted for a century and a half, ending in 1864, the Mountain Jews were the victims of incessant attacks by their neighbors, attacks provoked by fanatical Moslems. From 1864 until 1883, a period during which they were not yet identified as a Jewish people, they enjoyed the same treatment the Czarist regime accorded other mountain groups. But as soon as their national identity was established, restrictions began, and in many cases they were subjected to the same oppression as other Jews in the Russian Empire.
When I visited the Jewish quarter of Kuba (now called Krasnaya Sloboda—“Red Suburb”), guided by Mikhail Mushailov, the young Jewish secretary of the town soviet, I found myself sharply transported from days of old to Soviet reality.
Outwardly much in Kuba seemed ancient. The twelve synagogues, square and primitive with blue or green domes, built in earlier days by the community of almost ten thousand Jews, corresponding to the number of city districts they occupied (a dozen synagogues, but not one bathhouse!), still stood in their old places, but most of them had been transformed into schools, clubs, or nurseries. In addition there was also a new “international” children’s home—Kuba teemed with children—where Lezghin, Turkish, and other fledglings were systematically taught new habits and ideas, as one single family.
The grown-ups, too, had learned the use not only of soap and baths, but of many other objects previously unfamiliar to them, such as spoons, chairs, beds, etc., and had more or less adjusted themselves to modem times. At the period of my visit, Kuba had nearly seven thousand inhabitants, and of these about one thousand young people were striving to gratify their yearning for knowledge and culture in the new public schools and other educational institutions, such as the engineering school or the school of rug weaving.
Formerly the Mountain Jews in the cities were mainly employed in skilled handicrafts. They were especially adept in the weaving of rugs and cloth and in the working of morocco and other fine types of leather. They even taught these skills to their neighbors. A few engaged in trade and peddling, but as a whole they could hardly be called a trading people. There were practically no “capitalists” among these Jews, and neither economically nor politically did they play an important part in the life of the Caucasus. For they turned to handicrafts chiefly after 1800 when they had lost their land to neighbors and foreign conquerors, when the number of their villages had substantially decreased, and when they were settled mainly in small groups on the land that once had been theirs. They were deeply attached to this land, and were unwilling to leave it.
This feature of their character is not surprising when one considers that since time immemorial the overwhelming majority of these Jews had cultivated the earth. This is also confirmed by their ancient spring, fall, and harvest festivals that date back to pagan times and were celebrated until relatively recent days. And even as late as 1690 the Dutch traveler Witsen related that in Buinaksk alone (on the Caspian Sea, once the center of the Daghestan region) he encountered nearly 15,000 Jewish peasants.
This Jewish peasant tribe—perhaps the only Jews in the Diaspora who have an almost uninterrupted agricultural tradition—introduced not only new religious ideas, but also new farming practices. They were pioneers in growing corn, rice, wheat, vegetables, fruits, and medicinal and other herbs in mountainous Daghestan regions that were formerly considered arid. Even today the Mountain Jews are among the best gardeners, fruit, wine, and tobacco growers, and silkworm breeders of these regions.
Thus another new development might be described as a return to the past. One could see long-bearded, tanned, vigorous Jewish peasants working in their own kolkhozes (collective farms). These were contented-looking men and women who proudly showed me their banner and sang me their songs. In bearing and manner they seemed not very different from the new Jewish peasants of Palestine. Formerly there had been many Zionists among the Mountain Jews, but now they were mostly partisans of the Soviets to whom they owed their resurrection, and many of them boasted of having fought in their own guerrilla units against the White Guardists, at whose hands they had suffered persecution during the civil war in Daghestan (1918-1922).
There were other Jewish kolkhozes outside of Kuba. In Makhach Kala, the present capital of Daghestan, 60 per cent of the members of the fishing kolkhoz were Mountain Jews. Near Derbent (the former spiritual center of the Mountain Jews) there were eighteen large Jewish kolkhozes, one of which was devoted exclusively to viticulture. I visited these, as well as some neighboring Jewish settlements in Daghestan, in company with Yekhiel Matatov, an extremely intelligent Jew, who in 1914, when he was drafted into the army, had been an illiterate painter. He spent several years in Austria as a prisoner of war, fought in the civil war upon his return, and after educating himself, had been elected vice-president of the Daghestan republic. Matatov, a tall, good-looking man, was all this time inseparable from his dog and rifle, since he intended going off into the mountains on a hunting expedition after leaving me. He was the first true Jewish hunter I had ever encountered. (Wasn’t it Heinrich Heine who once said that the Jews were unable to be hunters, since they always belonged to the hunted?)
The Mountain Jews are a handsome people, graceful in their movements, and, like most Caucasian tribes, good horsemen and marksmen. In respect to facial features, they are almost indistinguishable from other Daghestan mountaineers. Their own neighbors sometimes find it hard to differentiate among them, and must ask, “Are you Jew or Moslem?”
Some of the women are beautiful, but, like most Oriental women, they age prematurely. Many of the older ones, who almost all smoke long pipes, belong to a special guild of mourners, whose skill in lamentation and in extemporizing poems about the dead is so appreciated that some of them are even sought after by non-Jewish tribes. (There are even “weepers” who receive prizes for their skill.) The longevity of the Mountain Jews is remarkable. I myself saw several hundred-year-old individuals who still had their teeth, hair, and youthful slenderness. These “hoary worthies,” some of whom still kept two or three wives (in accordance with the Biblical and Islamic custom), are highly respected by the younger generation. The Mountain Jews have in the course of time adopted other Islamic customs from their neighbors, such as the sale of women, child-marriage, marriage by capture, customs relating to style of dress and dwelling, superstitions and black magic, talismans and amulets, as well as beliefs in demons and other spirits. They even took over the vendetta.
Comrade Matatov was worshipped almost as a god in the whole Daghestan “commonwealth of nations,” for his well-planned and constructive activity. Among other things, he had cleared the former ghetto in Derbent, the “clay quarter,” replacing its dark, smoke-begrimed, usually windowless and chimneyless huts with a number of modern apartment buildings that housed more than a thousand Mountain Jews, and a magnificent “park of culture and rest.”
Matatov’s sister, Surfitta, and her husband, who belonged to an old and respected family of winegrowers, were well known in Derbent, the home of intoxicatingly fragrant roses and an equally aromatic sweet wine. Surfitta’s husband was a specialist in the field of viticulture and held an important post in this industry. I was interested to learn that twenty years before, when Surfitta and her husband were married, she was brought to him by her brother in the ancient matriarchal manner, on horse-back-a decided contrast to the mode of their life today. Surfitta, who looked like a Byzantine Madonna, even with the same veiled and tragic look in her almond-shaped eyes (this expression is frequent also among the Jewish men of that land), kissed me at our first encounter, as though I were a close relative, and addressed me as “sister.”
This tender mater dolorosa told me a great deal in her picturesque and humorous language, as though she had been waiting for this meeting for many years. She told me about herself, about the other Mountain Jewish women, “those poor quiet little sheep,” who formerly had never had a life of their own, had never felt love for a man and were forced to repress all their dreams, and deepest yearnings. When she could not find the Russian words she needed, she expressed herself in melodic recitations in her mother tongue, or by dance steps that she performed while playing gay or plaintive tunes on the national stringed instrument.
Here I may add that there are marvelous story-tellers among the Mountain Jews, and that they never tire of hearing their numerous legends, fairy tales, parables, etc.; that they are in general enthusiastic nature lovers, gifted musicians, and excellent dancers until they are very old, and that the most frequent word in their speech is “beauty.”
In family and social life these Jews know no class differences, only differences in age. They seldom complain of their own misfortunes, but often speak of their neighbors’ troubles. And they observe so strictly the oriental law of hospitality to strangers (which until recently included even the Biblical custom of washing the guests’ feet, mostly by the women) that often they would almost ruin themselves financially for its sake.
Surfitta’s seventeen-year-old daughter Lovona, with her short red hair, who in an earlier day would probably have been married and the mother of two or three children, now belonged to a quite different world. She was studying at an agricultural college to prepare herself for a job on a kolkhoz, and when her uncle Matatov half facetiously and half proudly addressed her as “comrade agronomist,” she took the jest seriously. Galia, her thirteen-year-old sister, had decided that she would be a mining engineer. However, this modem orientation of the younger members did not keep the whole family from sleeping together on a magnificent rug on the floor, covered by one enormous blanket—despite their new beds.
When I returned to Baku in the fall of 1936, my old Mountain Jewish friends there told me of many new developments. In the syrt, a piece of arable land in Kuba, the canalization, irrigation, and electrification projects had been completed; there were a large number of new kolkhozes, schools, and children’s homes, and many young Jews had been graduated from colleges and technical schools.
The Mountain Jewish—Tat—population of Baku now numbered 15,000; the former amateurs of the dramatic circle had become real actors and had their own theatre. The Tat Dance Group had won second prize at a festival of national dances of the Azerbaijan republic. The former Jewish club had been promoted to the status of a “Cultural Palace of the Tats.” The number of Tat newspapers and their readers had grown. And not only was a Tat literature in process of birth, with its own publishing house in Baku, but foreign authors like Pushkin, Gorky, de Maupassant and others had been translated into Tat.
Europe was at that time in the fourth year of the Hitler era. Two years later, Austria was invaded by the Nazis, and the terrible events to come were casting a threatening shadow. Perhaps that was why, during my second visit to the Mountain Jews, I was reminded even more frequently than before of the profound words of a great 19th-century philosopher: “The fatherland of the Jews is the other Jews.”
And what of today? The Nazis in the course of their campaign toward Baku actually reached the foothills of the Caucasus, and in the city of Nalchik they also killed many hundreds of native Jews. Thus, this time the martyrs were slain not by invaders from the East, and not in the name of Islam, but by a totally new kind of barbarian from the West, who justified their murders with a racial theory.
One may wonder what the surviving Mountain Jews—who had just been lifted from their centuries-old obscurity and their Messianic circle of ideas into the dynamism of Soviet life—are thinking about and hoping for now. Who knows whether many of them have not again, in the atomic age, begun to dream about the advent of a Messiah on his white horse?