Mountain Jews - History and Cultural Relations

The Mountain Jews have preserved almost no written records of their arrival and settlement in the Caucasus and Daghestan. But from generation to generation they have passed on the tale of their descent from the Israelite captives of the Assyrian-Babylonian conquest of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. , known as the "Eastern Captivity." The original places of their settlement are designated as Babil (Babylonia) and Madae-Peres (ancient Media and Iran up to the eastern Caucasus and southern Daghestan). Many formerly Jewish settlements in this region date to ancient times, including those at Kuba (G'ulgatte), Myushkyur, Nyutyug, Orog, Garchok, Khameydi, and Nyugdi. The Jewish presence is indicated by remains of wells, cemeteries with Jewish gravestones, and, in many mountain villages, epigraphic inscriptions, fragments of Jewish sacred books, prayer books, talismans ( mazuze ), and other evidence.

The influx of Jews from Iran and the eastern Caucasus into Daghestan took place throughout the entire period of the Achaemenid dynasty (seventh to fourth centuries B.C. ) and Sasanid Persia (third century B.C. to the sixth century A.D. ). The migration of the Jewish population from the southern pre-Caspian area north into the mountains of Daghestan became particularly heavy during the time of Arab and Turk conquests of the eastern Caucasus and the spread of Islam. Religious and political persecution were the basic reasons for the migration of the Mountain Jews from the Transcaucasus into Daghestan and Khazaria, where they found religious tolerance and propitious conditions. A literate, monotheistic people, well versed in Eastern agricultural skills, trade, and crafts, who existed as a distinct community and actively supported the mountain peoples and the Khazars in their wars with the Persian (and later Arab) conquerors, the Mountain Jews were active in the economic and cultural development of the region. Their aristocracy influenced internal and external trade and their rabbis influenced the spiritual life of the pagan mountaineers and the Khazars. Judaism evidently became the state religion in the first half of the eighth century, the formative period of feudalism in Daghestan and the northern Caucasus. There is a legend that has entered the scholarly literature regarding disputations about faith that allegedly took place between the Khazar khans and merchant-missionaries who had entered the country from Persia and Byzantium for the purposes of trade.

The choice of Judaism as the state religion in pagan Khazaria can be explained by the presence in the country of a large local Khazar-Jewish population, of Jewish proselytes among the mountaineers and the Khazars, and by the desire of the Khazar khans themselves to show, by their acceptance of Judaism, that they were politically independent of hostile neighboring states, of the Muslim Arab caliphate, and of Christian Byzantium. Another important factor in the acceptance of Judaism by the Khazar khans was the influence of the Jewish aristocracy: merchants, magnates, and rabbis serving at the courts of the Khazar khans as businessmen and advisers. The acceptance of Judaism by the Khazars led to an inevitable mixture, primarily of the Mountain Jewish aristocracy with the khans who were of the same faith, which in turn contributed to the emergence of a Jewish-Khazar kinship entity. It is therefore not surprising that the rulers of the new dynasty of the Khazar khans, after the reign of the Turk Bulan (who accepted Judaism and underwent the ritual of circumcision), were known under the names Avnil, Izro, Manashir, Obadiya, and Iosif. These names have been preserved unaltered among those Mountain Jews who consider themselves to be Jewish Khazars. There is a tendency in the scholarly literature to evaluate the Khazar state as an ephemeral formation. If that had been the case, the Khazar Khanate would not have been able to defend a wide territory in southern Russia against the incursions of powerful military-feudal states such as the Arab caliphate and Byzantium. Many Muslim Arab and Jewish Khazar historians and geographers—and medieval chroniclers (Persians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, and Daghestanis) — testify to the significance of the Khazar Khanate in the regional events of the time, to its widespread trade with the countries of the East and with Russia, and to the role of Judaism in its life.

After the fall of the Khazar Khanate to the Arabs from the south and the Russians from the north toward the end of the tenth century, some Khazars migrated to the Volga and the Crimea, and many Khazar Jews withdrew into the depths of mountainous Daghestan; those who remained in their old haunts found themselves in an oppressive feudal dependency on the Arab rulers of the Caucasus and their local agents. They were forced to bring tribute and other payments, and, to preserve their Jewish faith, to pay a special tax ( j'dzh ); many of them, particularly the converts from among the mountaineers and the Khazars, turned to Islam. The long struggle of the peoples of the Caucasus, the mountaineers and the Khazars, led to the disintegration of the Arab caliphate and the defeat of their agents. They were replaced by new conquerors (the Seljuk Turks, the Persian shahs, and Turkish sultans) and a series of Azerbaijani and Daghestani khanates and overlords. In conditions of feudal disintegration, the Mountain Jews found themselves under the control of local rulers with the legal status of dependent peasants. With the unification of Azerbaijan and Daghestan with Russia in 1813, the Mountain Jews accepted Russian citizenship, the status of "Jew" was imposed on them, and they began to be called into military service. The development of capitalism in Russia and the drawing of the Caucasus and Daghestan into the mainstream of trade and financial relations contributed to the intensive stratification of Mountain Jewish society. The majority, not having their own land, became laborers in the food-processing industries, the vineyards, the wine and liquor factories, and the fishing industries that developed in the region. From among the businessmen and entrepreneurs of the Mountain Jews there emerged merchants and a bourgeoisie.

The social oppression of czarism, to which were added the pogroms (especially in 1905-1907), weighed heavily on the Mountain Jews, and they found themselves particularly impoverished during the years of the civil war and the military intervention in the Caucasus. The White Guard bands of Bicherakov and Denikin, invaded the area in 1918-1920 and were responsible for pogroms and the destruction and looting of a series of Mountain Jewish villages in southern Daghestan: Mamrach, Orog, Garchok, Nyugdi, and others. Consequently, many Mountain Jewish families emigrated to Palestine, then under British mandate. In the period of the October Revolution and the years of the military intervention in the Caucasus, working-class Mountain Jews took an active part in the victory of the Soviets. With the establishment of Soviet power, and in accordance with Leninist nationalities policy, especially regarding the nationalities of the Caucasus and Daghestan, measures were undertaken to revitalize Mountain Jewish culture. Mountain Jewish refugees who had come down from the mountains received economic assistance; new villages were constructed; and new workmen's cooperatives, collective farms, and national (i.e., Mountain Jewish) village councils were created. To achieve these objectives, a special set of measures for economic and cultural transformation was developed. Within this context, subgroups were designated as working class, collective farmers, and intelligentsia. These transformations were attained in the 1920s and 1930s. The plan also considered the interests of the small number of European Jews (Ashkenazim) living among them. At the same time, efforts were made to control anti-Semitism.

Political and economic change was accompanied by cultural developments. A writing system, a literature, a newspaper, theater, and schools were created in the Jewish Tat language. This Tat-language literacy of the Mountain Jews replaced the Old Hebrew literacy of the past, which had existed until the shift to a Latin alphabet, and then to the Cyrillic alphabet in 1938. By World War II, the Mountain Jews had made important socioeconomic and cultural advances. The works of poets and writers including Yuno Semenov, Manuvakh Dadashev, Mishi Bakhshiev, Daniil Atnilov, and Sergei Izgiyaev described the difficult times of the past, the recent changes for the better, and changes in the Mountain Jewish identity after they became a Soviet people. Another representative of the older generation of writers was Khizgi Avshalumov, who refers to the language of his writings not as Mountain Jewish but as Tat, and presents himself and the Mountain Jews as the descendants of Tats (Iranian) and Judaics (Yudaists). This ethnic camouflage was designed to conceal the fact that they were Jews.


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