Jewish Journal

Azeri Jews: Centuries of coexistence in Azerbaijan

by Gabriel Lerner

January 10, 2008 | 7:00 pm

Gabriel Lerner, left, with leader of Jewish community in Quba.

Gabriel Lerner, left, with leader of Jewish community in Quba.

"This," says the guide, a man in his 20s with a round face, a hint of a mustache, beard and very short hair -- "this below us is the city of Quba."

We are standing at the top of a cliff, overlooking an urban development that at first sight looks like any other in this country -- bright tin roofs, low-slung buildings, a few cars covered in dust because of the wind, but no commercial signs or logos -- and, surprisingly, few mosques for a Muslim Shiite country like Azerbaijan.

Then I see the river that runs through Quba, and in the distance I notice a cluster of distinctive houses. They are more attractive, much larger, and decidedly different compared to others in surrounding areas. None of these houses looks like any other.
"This is where the Jewses [sic] of Quba live," says the guide, pointing at the group of houses I was looking at. "They are very successful."

Behind us is a cemetery. While the rest of the group stares at the river and the city, I walk alone toward the cemetery's iron gates, where I immediately recognize a Mogen David. This gate is not unlike one at the cemetery outside Buenos Aires, where my father is buried, or one in Rishon Letzion, Israel, that contains my ex-father-in-law's remains, or even the cemetery where my sister rests in L.A.'s Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills. I walk slowly, reading the Russian and Hebrew inscriptions and staring at the photographs of the deceased etched in stone.

"They [the Jews] have the best cars," continues the guide. "Ferraris, Mercedes. They have them all. Jewses in Quba live very well." His face portrays satisfaction and pride, and the other members of my group -- journalists from Europe and the United States -- listen and nod. I am with this group to cover for La Opinión an international conference on the role of the media in the development of tolerance, organized by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Not unlike the Jews of Sefarad (Spain) during the First Caliphate, Azerbaijan's Jewry is interwoven into the fabric of this state, which emerged in August 1991 from the Soviet Union. And despite their minuscule numbers -- maybe 12,000 in a population of 8 million -- their presence is known and acknowledged, especially that of the Jews of Quba. These Mountain Jews, as they are called, have been living in this area for a very long time, perhaps 2,500 years; they consider themselves the descendants of those Jews exiled to Babylon after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C.E., remaining in what is modern day Iran. In the eighth century, when the Muslims from the Arab Peninsula conquered the area, they brought the Jewish tribe, an ally, to the area of Baku to serve as a barrier against the Kazakhs to the north. In 1730, they were officially allowed to put down roots and own property in the Quba province.

In Quba

I have read this and other accounts about the Mountain Jews, and now I am ready to meet them. I am the only Jew in the group. The others seem to sense my emotion and begin taking pictures of us as we approach a small group of congregational leaders. As I reach the group of Azeri Jews, I look at them looking at us and realize, all of a sudden, that these people and I have more in common than anybody else here, and so I step up, and the guide introduces me to the head of the community, and then I say "Sholem Aleichem," and I also say in Hebrew, "Ani Yehoudi," and point to myself. We stare at each other, each noting our similarities, and we hug in the middle of a street in Quba, Azerbaijan.

Now I feel part of them. We enter the building, and my "cousin" speaks to me in Azeri, which is translated into English. He is a mathematician, he says. He points to signs on the wall with lists of names, those of Jews who died in the long fight against the Armenians: a few dozen. Like everybody else on our trip, he speaks of the allegiance to President Ilham Aliyev, with special attention to the memory of his father, the late President Heydar Aliyev.

While 93 percent of the population is Muslim, the constitution mandates no state religion, a legacy from the former Soviet Union. The residents wear Western clothes, and in the official meals we were offered throughout the trip, vodka, wine and beer were served. Ethnically, I cannot differentiate between Azeris and Mountain Jews. But Yevda Abramov, the Jewish member of the Parliament representing rural Quba, whom I met in Baku, explains these differences.

"The Jewish community," Abramov says, "differs from the rest of the population in education and lifestyle. We are very educated and operate businesses. We kept the Persian language," referring to the Jewish version of the dialect Tat, "but 25 percent of the words we use are in Hebrew."

The MP

Like almost everything else in Baku, the Parliament building is undergoing massive additions and renovations but will no doubt maintain its unmistakable Soviet-era character -- solemn, impersonal, with massive amounts of concrete, small doors and an oversized walkway. Abramov's office is a small room, devoid of decorations, on the building's fifth floor.
"I ran against 17 other candidates of my own party" (the ruling New Azeri Party), Abramov states. "I won over all of them, and an international agency was watching the election. This is a democracy."

In Quba, Abramov was a teacher, a principal and a rural organizer. "Today Quba is not unlike any other Jewish community," he tells my translator, who then speaks to me in Spanish. "Our rabbi, butcher, mohel, chazzan -- all were educated in Israel."

Since the Helsinki Accords of 1972, the Jews of Azerbaijan have been exiting the country in large numbers, mainly going to Israel, where they number more than 50,000. Since most of the emigrants were Ashkenazis from Baku, the Mountain Jews remained here, as the majority of the community in the country.

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