Mountain Jews - Orientation

Identification. The Mountain Jews are a distinct Jewish subgroup (in the context of world Judaism) and one of the oldest ethnic groups in Caucasia and Daghestan. Following their migration, the "Eastern Diaspora," they have lived and their culture has evolved for centuries in a multinational environment also inhabited by Persians (Tats), Armenians, Turks of the eastern Caucasus, and, especially, the mountain peoples of Daghestan—hence the name "Mountain Jews" (Dagchifut).

A group of Mountain Jews, rejecting the term "Jewish" in order to conceal their real ethnic idenity in the context of Zionism and revivals of anti-Semiticism in the twentieth century, recast their history for a number of years, using the label "Tat" and presenting themselves as Tats, Iranians, or "Judaists." This led to an artificial Tatization of the Mountain Jews, although it is now well known that they are all members of one ethnic group.

Location. The great majority of Mountain Jews live in Daghestan, in the cities of Derbent, Makhachkala, Buinaksk, and Khasavyurt. Not long ago, many lived in a series of villages in southern and northern Daghestan—Majalis, Nyugdi, Mamrach, Tarki, Endreyaul, Kostek, etc.—and isolated remnants of the groups remain there. In Azerbaijan they live in Baku, Kuta, and Vartashen; in the northern Caucasus, in Grozny, Nal'chik, and Pyatigorsk. A small number of Mountain Jews have settled in Moscow, Leningrad, and other Russian cities.

Demography. Mountain Jews number about 50,000. A significant percentage of these, according to the census of 1989, listed themselves for practical purposes as Tats. The word "Tat," of Turkish origin, was originally not an ethnic but a social-class designation. The Turkish conquerors of the Middle Ages used it to designate the Persian-speaking peasants whom they had subdued and who paid them tribute. It was used primarily as the name for the Old Iranian colonists—the sun worshipers of the eastern Caucasus who became Muslims. These people are now largely assimilated and are often referred to as "Azerbaijani," even though the older generations retain their tribal Persian speech and traditional customs.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tat dialects (including that of the Mountain Jews) differ so much from each other that the speakers cannot communicate freely. The Mountain Jewish dialect is known as Jewish Tat. This dialect, which acquired the status of an independent language in Soviet times, was the basis for literacy and a literature in the past.

Before World War II, the majority of Mountain Jews lived in cities and spoke Russian. For this and other reasons (including the Soviet policy restricting the use of ethnic languages), the Mountain Jews stopped using the Tat language for school instruction and instead used only Russian. Over time, this led to a decreasing interest in the earlier Tat literature and language and the folk theater. The death of the leading writers and the absence of a new generation to replace them also led to a decline in the traditional culture. The Mountain Jewish newspaper Zakhmetkesh (The Toiler) ceased publication and the formerly popular Tat theater was transformed into a state-farm/collective-farm amateur theatrical group. The half-century of study in Russian led to the point where the younger generations of Mountain Jews no longer knew their native language. It is now known well primarily by the older generation. In 1974 a daily fifteen-minute radio broadcast was begun in the Tat language of the Mountain Jews, transmitting music, folklore, readings from Tat authors, performances from Tat theater, and the latest news. Since 1960 a yearly literary almanac, Vatan Sovetimu (Our Soviet Homeland), has been published. Even limited quantities of books, however, cannot be published because of the absence of a sufficiently large readership in the Tat language. The introduction of primary-school education and current measures to develop national languages hold the promise of a new stage in the history of the culture of the Mountain Jews.

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