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The Last Shtetl

On a visit to Azerbaijan, the shtetl lives on

Photos: Moshe Klein

It’s not simple to have an all-Jewish town smack in the middle of a Shiite Muslim country, but the Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan’s Red Village, who’ve been living here since First Temple times, have been maintaining a separate yet peaceful coexistence with their neighbors for centuries. Moshe Klein knew he had to visit before it was too late 


The Last Shtetl

When Moshe Klein first heard of the Mountain Jews, whose presence in Azerbaijan dates back to the time of the First Beis Hamikdash, he knew he would have to visit their hometown of Gyrmyzy Gasaba to learn more about them and their history. With Covid and the Russian-Ukraine war both prompting many residents to relocate to other places, visiting Gyrmyzy Gasaba while it still had a vibrant Jewish community became a priority, and so he and his wife packed up and off they flew.

Prior to his arrival in Azerbaijan, a country bordering Iran on the south, and Russia and Georgia on the north,  Klein had been in touch with the local rabbi, who prefers to be known simply by his first name, Rabbi Yona. Rabbi Yona, who came to Grymyzy Gasaba (known in English as Red Village) from Kfar Saba, Israel, in 2005,  sent a driver to Baku International Airport to pick up the Kleins and bring them back to the town, which is believed to be the oldest Jewish community outside of Israel, and the world’s sole surviving shtetl.

Klein soon discovered that he and his wife were the only guests in the Red Village’s Jewish hotel. While it wasn’t exactly a five-star Hilton, Klein was happy to support the local Jewish community and eager to get a taste of mountain life, particularly because this trip was unlike so many of the others he had taken.

“This wasn’t just about seeing a Jewish community,” explains Klein. “This was about experiencing shtetl life. I know what a Hungarian shtetl is, like you might find in Monroe or Boro Park, but what is a shtetl like in Azerbaijan?”

The Mountain Jews live on the north side of the Qudyal River and typically don’t mingle with their neighbors to the south, the Muslim residents of the city of Quba, although they share a peaceful coexistence. Walking through the Red Village, Klein was surprised to see the Russian, Turkish, Israeli, Azerbaijani, and Pakistani flags all flying next to each other, a combination that is anything but typical. That multinational feeling carried into some of the grocery stores, where Klein was happy to find snacks and other items imported from Israel.

One challenge that Klein faced was the language barrier. The Mountain Jews’ language, Juhuri — also known as Judeo-Tat — is an amalgam of Persian, Hebrew, and Turkish, and while the older members of the community are also fluent in Russian, the younger set typically speaks Azerbaijani. Although village signage directing people to the shul, the mikveh, and the cemetery includes both Hebrew and English, few residents speak either of those languages, making communication difficult though not impossible.

“It was a little better with the youngsters,” says Klein. “We used a lot of hand signs and a little Hebrew to communicate, and somehow we managed to figure things out.”

The shtetl vibe was readily apparent in the Red Village’s tea shops, where residents come in to enjoy a hot drink, the company of good friends, and a game or two of backgammon. Pictures of rabbanim adorn the walls of the shop that Klein visited, and his fellow tea drinkers were attired in either yarmulkes or kashketelach — the billed black caps typically associated with chassidim. Klein caught a ride with one of the locals when he left the tea shop and was surprised when his new friend asked him for a brachah. While brachos are a regular occurrence in Eretz Yisrael where Kohanim duchan daily, and are given on Yamim Tovim in the rest of the world, they are a rarity for residents of the Red Village.

“They have no Kohanim,” explains Klein, who was happy to comply with the request for a brachah, even though he isn’t of priestly lineage. “Some of the Mountain Jews say they are descended from the Ten Shevatim.”

The Road to Refuge

A former Soviet republic in the South Caucasus that straddles the divide between Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan is considered by some to be part of the Middle East. It gained its independence when the Soviet Union fell in 1991 and adopted a constitution identifying it as a secular state, extending tolerance to members of all religions. Azerbaijan is home to Georgian, Ashkenazi, Kurdish, and Bukharian Jews, and while its capitol city, Baku, has a Jewish community of its own, it was the Mountain Jews of the Red Village that piqued Klein’s interest.

We typically fit Jewish communities into one of two distinct categories — Ashkenazim or Sephardim — but the Mountain Jews are neither. Descended from Jews who ended up in Persia after the destruction of the First Beis Hamikdash (or even earlier), the Mountain Jews are believed to have followed the Silk Road trade route connecting Europe and the Middle East with Asia, settling in the remote highlands of the Caucasus Mountains, which lie between the Caspian and Black Seas. Historically known for their prowess as warriors and for their horsemanship, the Mountain Jews developed their own unique traditions and customs, remaining distinct from the Georgian Jews, who also inhabited the Caucasus Mountains.

Their isolation provided the Mountain Jews with a modicum of protection from travails afflicting other communities, although their long history in the area also includes periods of violence and persecution, which ultimately had them settling in the northern village of Gyrmyzy Gasaba in the mid-1700s. Located approximately 15 miles south of the border with Russia, the village has been known over the years as Yevreskaya Sloboda (“Jewish Village”) and Krasnaya Sloboda (“Red Village” — a name that according to lore is a nod to the many red-tile roofs that top local homes) —monikers given under Russian rule.

The village flourished for nearly two centuries, but the 1920s Soviet takeover ushered in a difficult period. With all practice of religion forbidden, the Red Village’s shuls were closed and its many rabbis were deported and even killed, setting in motion decades of spiritual decline whose effects can be felt even today. World War II dealt yet another blow to the Mountain Jews, bringing Nazi occupation of the Caucasus in 1942. Hundreds were killed and many others subjected to forced labor. The death toll among the Mountain Jews would have been significantly higher if not for a successful effort to convince the Germans that they were a distinct ethnic group and weren’t actually Jewish.

The elimination of the Soviet ban on Jewish emigration in the early 1970s heralded a new era in Azerbaijan. Many of the country’s Jews jumped at the opportunity to make aliyah, and that number increased further with the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. Within a few more years, two realities became clear: The Mountain Jews had become Azerbaijan’s largest Jewish group, and, thanks to the arrival of kiruv-minded individuals, sparks of Yiddishkeit were once again emerging in the Red Village.


From Carpets to Cupolas

Klein made sure to connect with Rabbi Yona when he first arrived in the Red Village, and naturally one of their first conversations revolved around minyanim and davening. While 13 shuls still remain, only two are actually in use; the others are either closed completely or have been repurposed for other uses.

Gyrmyzy Gasaba’s main shul, the Alti Gumbaz Synagogue, is widely known as the Six Dome Synagogue due to the half-dozen spire-topped domes dotting its roof. Located on Isaak Khanukov Street, the large hexagonal shul was built in an Oriental style in 1888 by architect Hillel ben Haim, its red-brick facade adorned with Magen Davids and 14 ornately decorated main windows. The building is also known as the “Summer Shul” as it is used only in the warmer months, when people who winter elsewhere return to their second homes in the Red Village, sparking a significant rise in the local population.

During the colder months, the Mountain Jews daven in the Gilaki shul, a smaller building whose size is better suited to the needs of the out-of-season population and is more economical to heat. The Gilaki shul, also well over 100 years old, is known for its six-sided cupola positioned directly above the shul’s bimah, as well as its 12 glass windows representing the Shevatim.

While the Six Dome Synagogue was shuttered under the Soviet regime and used at various times during the occupation as a warehouse and a carpet factory, the Gilaki synagogue remained open. Both were restored in the mid-1990s after the USSR was dissolved, and the impressive woodwork adorning each structure is replete with curlicues and intricate carving. The floors of both shuls are covered in majestic Persian carpets, and congregants exchange their shoes for slippers as they enter the building.

One feature noticeably absent from the Mountain Jews’ shuls is an ezras nashim. Women in the Red Village typically don’t attend shul, and those who come on the Yamim Tovim are seated in an outdoor courtyard. During the Shabbos that Klein spent with the Mountain Jews, a small mechitzah was hastily cobbled together so his wife could attend.

There were approximately 50 to 60 men in shul the Shabbos Klein spent with the Mountain Jews, and  the teenagers were the ones who davened for the amud. Most of the older generation doesn’t read Hebrew, so the siddurim are translated into Russian, but it was clear that even those who are not completely observant are still very connected to their Yiddishkeit. Traditions run strong among the Mountain Jews; closing your siddur without giving it a kiss is considered a serious offense because it is seen as detracting from the shul’s kavod.

“Maybe it is Communism-related but the teens are more educated,” suggests Klein. “The older people weren’t allowed to practice Yiddishkeit for many years, so they come, and they don’t talk during davening, but they say ‘Amen’ and then they leave, because that’s all they know.”

Klein ate his Shabbos meals in yet another of the village’s shuls, which is currently home to the Talmud Torah. There are no official yeshivos in Gyrmyzy Gasaba, but Rabbi Yona gives classes to boys and girls on alternate afternoons in the Talmud Torah. Klein ate together with the village’s bochurim, with all of the food prepared by one of the local women in her house. While typically the Mountain Jews use regular loaves of bread from Baku for Shabbos, they baked regular challah for Shabbos that week in Klein’s honor.

Many of the Red Village’s other shuls are rundown, but several have new identities. One is a pharmacy, while the former Kahzhog Synagogue, which was shuttered by the Soviets and used as a warehouse for agricultural projects, has been restored and is now home to the Museum of the Mountain Jews, which opened in 2020. The museum’s mission is to shed light on the one-of-a-kind community, and Klein was intrigued by the many artifacts of Jewish life on display, as well as the shul’s original aron kodesh. He caught other glimpses of the Red Village’s rich history outside the museum as well, noticing many buildings adorned with Magen Davids and other obvious signs of Jewish life, as well as a hidden mikveh in a building located near one of the shuls, a relic of the town’s Soviet era.


Unintended Guide

Gyrmyzy Gasaba is a relatively quiet town, as well as a breathtaking one, and residents include billionaires and oligarchs. While not everyone here is wealthy, many people are, particularly those who summer in palatial estates. Klein saw an impressive amount of luxury vehicles, including Rolls-Royces and Bugattis, during his time with the Mountain Jews.

Rabbi Yona warned Klein that villagers typically don’t speak with outsiders, and he found that to be somewhat true. Given his preference for talking to people in their own homes to see how they really live, Klein has been known to knock on strangers’ doors and ask for a cup of tea as a way of breaking the ice and finagling an invitation to come inside and schmooze. Seeing a mezuzah on a particularly beautiful house in the Red Village, Klein decided to try his tea trick, but things didn’t work out quite the way he expected.

“They had their kids bring out a table and two folding chairs, along with tea and sweets, and told us to enjoy,” laughs Klein. “It was so hot out, and the last thing we wanted was hot tea, but they just left us.”

Eventually Klein was invited in, and while communication was difficult because of the language barrier, the woman of the home showed him her Shabbos leichter.

“She told me that her bubby had told her to light it every Erev Shabbos, and that it was something she never missed doing,” he recalls.

In another encounter, Klein was trying to find the Red Village’s shul on Shabbos, but without his phone to guide him through the unfamiliar streets, he was having little success. Spotting a man he hoped was Jewish, Klein tried to find a way to explain that he needed directions.

“I tried ‘synagoga’ and ‘beit knesset,’ and he started answering me in Russian,” shares Klein. “When he realized I didn’t understand, he decided to show me, walking with us. Everything is hilly, so this wasn’t as simple as ‘go right, go left, and there you are.’ It reminded me a little of Tzfas, with stairs going down between houses.”

Eventually Klein and his wife arrived at their destination, and their guide decided to stay in shul as well.

“When I went to say ‘Shabbat Shalom’ to Rabbi Yona, he thanked me for bringing the guide,” says Klein. “He told me it was the first time he came to shul when it wasn’t a High Holiday and stayed for the whole davening.”

Rabbi Yona told Klein that his peyos and tzitzis likely put villagers at ease and made them feel comfortable speaking with him.

“They have a very strong Yiddishe pride, which is different from European Jews, who hide their Yiddishkeit,” says Klein. “Here they embrace it.”


Mountain of Graves

As he does in every Jewish town he visits, Klein made sure to stop at the local cemetery, eager to glean more information about Gyrmyzy Gasaba by delving into its past. The Red Village’s cemeteries are located on a steep hill overlooking the area, their grassy expanse dotted with hundreds of matzeivos, some dating back well over 200 years.

“It had to be 15 stories high, and it is like mountain climbing there,” says Klein of the hillside graveyard. “You can’t even get to all of the kevarim. I never saw such a thing.”

The cemetery becomes a popular destination leading up to Tishah B’Av. Hundreds of Mountain Jews flock to the imposing hill and take the opportunity to pray at the graves of their family members. So many people come to the beis olam that the town’s population seemingly doubles overnight, with many staying for weeks, if not months, after their visit.

Without a doubt, the Red Village’s most visited kever is that of Rabbi Gershon ben Reuven, who served as the local rav until his passing more than 130 years ago.   Housed in a utilitarian ohel because of the imposing terrain, it offers visitors protection from the elements but little else in the way of creature comforts or aesthetic frills. Klein described the ohel as looking like a “kleine shtibel” from the outside, and the climb to get there as absolutely brutal.

“My parents live on the sixth floor of their building, and I can do that with no problem, but when I got to the ohel, I was literally out of breath,” says Klein. “It was definitely the equivalent of the ninth or tenth story of a building.”

Klein always finds an “aha moment” in each of his trips, a standout experience that embodies the entire visit. During his weekend in Gyrmyzy Gasaba, a place where most residents are far from secular but have only a sparse knowledge of Torah and mitzvos, that memorable snapshot in time came as he read the inscription on Rabbi Gershon’s matzeivah which referred to the niftar as “Admor.”

“A Juhuri community would be more likely to have a chacham than an admor,” muses Klein. “I asked around, and no one knew who he was or even what his family name was. But people told me that there were a lot of mofsim associated with Rabbi Gershon’s ohel, and that people who went there saw yeshuos.”

Equally puzzling to Klein were the presence of the name Gershon, an uncommon one among Azeri Jews, as well as the bank notes and candies left atop the matzeivah by visitors.

“I asked the shomer there what it was all about, and he told me that it was a Yiddishe minhag and this is how they show respect to the rav,” recalls Klein. “Who he was, and where he came from, definitely stays a question. Was he someone who came from Poland, established himself in the Red Village, and had chassidim there? I don’t know — it’s part of the adventure.”

Since his return from Azerbaijan, Klein has managed to clarify at least some of the facts regarding Rabbi Gershon, who according to the Jewish History Tours website, was chief rabbi of the Caucasus, a position he inherited after his father’s passing in 1853. Rabbi Gershon founded and headed the area’s first beis din, the only rabbinical court in the entire Caucasus, and also opened more than 15 yeshivos, shuls, and chadarim in the region, which earned the Red Village the nickname “Jerusalem of the Caucasus.”

Despite the important role he played in regional history, the location of Rabbi Gershon’s kever remained unknown for many years, given the beis olam’s vast size and daunting topography. Once it was discovered, a group of Russian brothers honored Rabbi Gershon’s memory by building a long flight of stairs to his kever, as well as a magnificent mikveh, a shechitah house, and a beautiful park at the base of the hill in 2012.


Unlikely Allies

Although Azerbaijan is known for its lack of anti-Semitism, the fact that there is an all-Jewish town in the middle of a Shiite Muslim country is still remarkable. While many other countries take pride in being melting pots where different cultural nuances fade away, Azerbaijanis celebrate different heritages, and embracing people of all faiths is part of the national fabric. Despite living in a country where anywhere from 97 to 99 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, Jews feel safe in Azerbaijan, and security measures for shuls aren’t necessary.

A September 14 pre-Rosh Hashanah letter from Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev to his country’s Jewish residents reiterated the national policy of coexistence, emphasizing his commitment to promoting multicultural values and traditions of tolerance.

“Azerbaijan’s Jewish community, distinguished by its ethno-cultural diversity, has been living in the country for hundreds of years and considers Azerbaijan its homeland,” wrote Aliyev. “It has lived in peace and tranquility, has never been subjected to anti-Semitism and discrimination, and has become an integral part and an equal member of our society.”

That same warm relationship has also existed between Azerbaijan and Israel since the fall of the Soviet Union. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992 and have been allies ever since. Israel receives nearly half of its oil from Azerbaijan and in return supplies Azerbaijan with weapons and intelligence.

Aliyev has compared his country’s relationship with Israel to an iceberg, with nine-tenths of the two nations’ dealings are “below the surface.” Last March, Azerbaijan opened a permanent embassy in Tel Aviv, further cementing a strong relationship that Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen described as being “of great importance and great potential.”


Changing Times

While the Red Village was once the Torah center of the region, those days are long gone, victim to a variety of factors.

“From the entire Caucasus area, they would come here to get semichah and to learn shechitah, but once the Soviets came and the rabbanim were killed, Communism took over and all the Torah ended,” notes Klein.

The fall of the Soviet empire brought about positive change to Gyrmyzy Gasaba, but by that time, Azerbaijan had already lost thousands of Jews to Israel and other places. Klein met a man in a tea shop who spoke fluent English and recalled a time when the village had 11,000 residents. That figure shrank to approximately 4,000 in the days before Covid hit. The pandemic was yet another blow to the Red Village; many residents who commuted to Russia for business ended up relocating there, because travel between the two countries had become too problematic.

Today the Red Village has approximately 300 to 400 residents who fall into three groups: those who don’t have enough money to leave, those who are doing well and have stayed, and summer residents who boost the seasonal population to several thousand. A shochet comes to Gyrmyzy Gasaba from Georgia twice a month, and there is an older woman who makes homemade baked goods. There are more options and activity during the high tourism season, when several kosher restaurants open for business in the Red Village, but the number of Mountain Jews in town is still on the decline.

“Before Covid, there was an active Talmud Torah that had 120 kids ages three to six, and today there is less than a quarter of that,” says Klein. “They had to close down because there weren’t enough kids.”

Still, hope blooms eternal for the Mountain Jews, a community whose roots run more than 2,000 years deep. There are still diehard Mountain Jews who refuse to live elsewhere, and some of the teens Klein spoke with explained that they returned home after attending a foreign yeshivah or midrashah ready to share their newfound knowledge and breathe new life into the Red Village.

“They have a strong sense of where they are from,” Klein says, “and they want to deal with the challenges instead of running away from them. They are not giving up on this village.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 993)

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