The Red Village, Juhuri, and the unique Jewish culture of Azerbaijan

"Afurja, near Quba, Azerbaijan" by teuchterlad is licensed under CC BY 2.0

By | Rachel Brooks
January 22, 2021
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Image credit: “Afurja, near Quba, Azerbaijan” by teuchterlad is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

By | Rachel Brooks

January 21, 2021

There is a little island of fully Jewish culture amid Azerbaijan, that is unique among all Jewry, for the simple fact that it is fully integrated into predominately Muslim society. The Jews of Azerbaijan are known as Mountain Jews. A representative for the Georgian Jews of Azerbaijan, Rabbi Zamir Isayev, stated in Republic Underground news’ recent roundtable event that these Jews were believed to have immigrated to Azerbaijan from Persia, or possibly Byzantine. 

They settled in Caucasian Albanian and integrated with the regional tribal cultures. During this interaction period, the Mountain Jewish region fully adopted the Jewish religion. Another theory is that the Mountain Jews immigrated to Azerbaijan around 2,000 years ago, from what was then known as Babylon. Babylon was located in southern Mesopotamia, which is about 60 miles south of what is today known as Baghdad, Iraq.  

Azerbaijan is the only nation outside of Israel that can boast an entirely Jewish community, known in English in the Red Village, and is the only fully Jewish community outside of Israel. This village stands as an island in the nation known for being the friendliest place for Jews to live outside of the Jewish state. At the Roundtable event, moderator and Republic Underground media vice president Irina Tsukerman expressed her surprise at the size of this so-called “village.” 

“Before coming to Azerbaijan, I had read many articles that described the Red Village as this small, Jewish village…” she laughed. 

“In reality, this is an entire town filled with luxury mansions and is very modern in every sense. Many of its inhabitants are entrepreneurs who travel back and forth between Russia, Israel, and Azerbaijan. The “Red Village” has beautifully renovated synagogues, where the custom for the congregants is similar to that of their Muslim counterparts in local mosques – to take off shoes upon entry, and for the women to cover their hair with headscarves/hijabs, rather than with doilies, hats, or wraps, which is common in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues in the West.

Community life is active, though there has been concern about immigration to Israel. When I visited for two years, I had discussions about activities that can revitalize the community and make it possible for Azerbaijani Jews in the United States and Israel to return to the country for business and other reasons as they are now doing with the UAE. Encouraging start-ups and new businesses in the vicinity can make the hub of Jewish life see a resurgence of permanent residents, in light of growing possibilities.

With the liberation of Azerbaijani territories after the war, a potential network of such projects can attract dedicated minds from the Azerbaijani Jewish communities abroad to contribute to the expanding economic, educational, and business efforts. When I was there, I saw Jewish delegations from Brooklyn visiting to get back in touch with their roots, including young people who were born in the US. Perhaps diaspora initiatives focused on building bridges with young Azerbaijani and other Sephardic Jewish leaders, such as the Young Sephardi Leadership business council with the American Sephardi Federation in return, can make lasting connections that will turn into tangible ties and help create practical opportunities for cooperation on the background.”

“When you come to the (Red Village), you’ll see that you are in Manhattan now,” said Isayev, noting that the Red Village is much bigger than it is made to appear in the press. Tsukerman noted that the Red Village has several mansions and grand architecture that sets the Red Village apart as distinct among the regions of the diverse nation. 

Despite the rich architecture, and the size of the Red Village, the Jewish community outside of Azerbaijan maintains a negative or incorrect image of the place. This is partly because the press focuses on the political realities of Azerbaijan. Within constant criticism of the Aliyev presidency, the western press has argued a lack of religious freedom in the country, citing laws from the 2009-era that they claim restrict religious groups. The regulations of the government do little to alter the reality of pronounced Jewish culture in the Red Village. 

The negative image of Azerbaijan’s Jewish community in the western press can be exemplified by its appearance in Tablet Magazine. Tablet Magazine is a popular western Jewish community cultural publication. The publication devoted an entire article to Mountain Jews in 2010, which focused on criticism of the government, and the government’s regulations aimed at preventing the spread of radical Islamism among the Azerbaijani Muslims. 

While the image of Mountain Jews, and other Azerbaijani Jews, in the western press, is negative, or at least underestimated, it may not be intentionally derogatory. The coverage of Mountain Jews in Tablet magazine shows a poor understanding of the group as a distinct Jewish community, incorrectly reporting the numbers of their population, for example. Another example of this is, in the 2010 article, Tablet magazine referred to the dialect of Mountain Jews as a Farsi-based language. Juhuri is a Tat-based language. While Tat is similar to Farsi in many ways, it is not mutually intelligible. Both Tat and Farsi are based on Pahlavi, also known as Middle Persian. The distinction is important to the ethnodiversity of the region, and the vague description of the dialect by a western magazine highlights how little it is known or understood outside of the Caucasus. 

The Azerbaijani Jewish community is distinctive from all other Jewish communities. Azerbaijani Jews speak a unique dialect. It is called Juhuri, and it symbolizes the meeting place between the cultures of the long-ago Caucasus and Jews. Juhuri is considered a dialect of Tatic Persian, with many of its words borrowed from Hebrew. 

Primarily, Mountain Jews live near Quba, stated Rabbi Isayev.

The Jewish ties and roots ot the Quba region are expressed in a great Mountain Jewish museum at the place. Likewise, there is a memorial to the Quba mass grave. The Mountain Jews museum of the region is located in the old Garui Synagouge. 

The museum has received less favorable press coverage, by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency for example, as the western press alludes to the establishment of the museum as life support for a “dying community.” However, the Jewish community of Azerbaijan is the third largest religious demographic of the region. The allusion that the community is dying, may not be the correct term. Rather, the concern is that the community is leaving, intending to go to Israel, which is called “making Aliyah” in Hebrew. “Aliyah” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to rise up, to depart from” and means in essence to immigrate to Israel, the ancient homeland of all Jews. Israel is named for the ancestor of Jews, Yisrael, which was a spiritual title for the Biblical figure of Jacob, one of Abraham’s immediate descendants.

Despite the capacity for Mountain Jews to make their migration to Israel, however, Mountain Jews are a distinct group of the Caucasus which leaves a significant impression on the religious diversity of the Caucasus.

The western press has focused instead on how Jews of the 2,500-year-old community are either immigrating from the immediate region, or how they have a lack of jobs. The area is portrayed in a vague and colorless light, but it does not match the testimony of the communities represenatives, who have provided proof of life and active participation in the Azerbaijani society for the Jewish community of the region.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that the museum has built up the largest library of Juhuri texts in an effort to preserved the endangered dialect. The devoting to preserving the Juhuri language identity preserves the uniqueness of the Caucasus Jewish community. All denominations of Jews agree that traveling to the Quba Mountain Jewish settlement is like traveling back in time. The traditions and culture of the immediate region hail back to the purist  traditions of Jewish antiquity, with a special emphasis on such traditions as the separation of men and women in the synagogue. Quba likewise puts a special emphasis on the celebration of the Tisha B’Av, which is a rememberance of tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people as a collective whole, and dates back to the ancient

From the rich culture of Jews living in Azerbaijan, Juhuri has developed into a distinct language among the Hebrew language family, which includes the more widely spoken Hebrew and various dialects of Yiddish. The Jewish language project known simply as Jewish Languages.org, estimates between 30,000 to 50,000 speakers of Juhuri, which is also known as Judeo-Tat. Of that population, 200-250,000 identify as Mountain Jews. 

In the past, Juhuri speakers were not aware that their dialect was distinctive from other dialects of Persian, and so they referred to it as Tat or zuhun Tati. Some even suggested it was simply Ancient Persian. Speakers of Judeo-Tat now refer to it as “zuhun imu” or “our language” due to its distinction from other dialects of the Persian family. 

Within Juhuri’s distinct language, are a set of local dialects. These can be broken down into four unique dialects. They are called Qaitoqi, Derbendi, Qubei, and Shirvoni Juhuri. The first two dialects, Qaitoqi and Derbendi, are named for the regions of Northern Daghestan and of Derbent where they formed. Qaitoqi is named after the Kaitag region of Daghestan. The other two dialects, Qubei and Shirvoni, are named for Quba and Shirvan in Azerbaijan. 

According to the Jewish Languages project, Tat is a dialect of Persian that shares many similarities with Turkish. Yet, Judeo-Tat is distinctly Jewish in the way that it is woven into wedding songs, lullabies, folk tales, and proverbs of the Mountain Jews. This rich history was noted by the author Musakhanova in 1993, and earlier by the author Zand first in 1985 and later in 1991. 

The project also notes that, originally, the Juhuri language was written in Hebrew script. In 1929, a motion to use the Latinized script for the language was accepted. In 1938, the language was written in Cyrillic script. 

As of 2010, UNESCO classified Judeo-Tat as an endangered language, because, post the Soviet Union, many of the local Jews adopted Russian. The older members of the community would speak in Judeo-Tat, often to keep secrets from children. Many younger Jews of Azerbaijan learned Juhuri through communication with the elder generation, which is credited for Juhuri’s survival as a living dialect.