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Out Of Hiding

Aharon Granevich-Granot, Azerbaijan

Deep in Azerbaijan’s northern wilderness, the world’s oldest Jewish shtetl has come back to life. Traveling through the lonely, mountainous landscape, the last thing we expected to find was an authentic Jewish town. Not only were there Jews in Krasnaya Sloboda, but they were learning Torah in a modern, heated beis medrash.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

man in shulWandering through the Caucasus mountain region of northern Azerbaijan, we suddenly noticed a group of young men plodding through the piles of white snow. The streets were cloaked in fog, making it impossible to see even a meter away. But despite the poor visibility and the thick, heavy clothing that the group was wearing, we couldn’t miss the yarmulkes and the books they were clutching, books that looked uncannily like volumes of Gemara. We followed them up a flight of stairs; in the entranceway, the boys removed their shoes, and we followed suit, removing our shoes as well. The boys exchanged their shoes for special slippers, and so did we, in accordance with the local custom.

Then they opened the door, and we found ourselves transported into a different world. Here was a recently built, modern shul. Rows of seats made of sturdy wood were lined up on the beautiful carpets; they were occupied by dozens of young men, whose voices rose to fill the immense room with the sounds of Torah. Pleasant warmth emerged from the well-heated beis midrash. Were we in Bnei Brak? In Jerusalem? Actually, we were we in one of the continent’s more remote locations, the mountain village of Krasnaya Sloboda.

Krasnaya Sloboda is across the river from the city of Kuba in the northern wilderness of Azerbaijan — a land world-famous for its intricate carpets. We traveled three hours on cracked, unlit roads from the capital city of Baku to get here. At first glance, it seemed like the end of the civilized world — but not, we soon learned, of the Jewish world. Krasnaya Sloboda is the fascinating “Jewish shtetl” of the Caucusus, one of the most surprising Jewish settlements in the world.

Traveling through the mountains, we didn’t really expect to find inhabited villages, yet here we were in the heart of a Jewish town. Not only were there Jews here, but these were Jews who observe Torah and mitzvos and learn Torah in a modern, heated beis midrash.

Azerbaijan, a Muslim country bordering Iran on the south and Russia and Georgia on the north, has two Jewish enclaves, in the capital of Baku and in Krasnaya Sloboda, a town established in the mid-18th century as a place where Jews could live in safety. The town, inhabited almost exclusively by several thousand Highland Jews, was created as a Jewish refuge by the leader of neighboring Kuba, who instructed the Jews to light fires and alert him if their town came under attack.

Whether the Highland Jews are descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes who began their wanderings after the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash, centuries-old migrants from Persia, or descendants of the Khazars, several things are certain: they have never intermarried; they speak a Judaeo-Persian language called Tat; and although the Soviets tried to wipe out all vestiges of religion, the old folks still know their Jewish prayers by heart, and the entire community keeps some form of Shabbos and holidays. And these days, their ranks have swelled — thanks to Orthodox emissaries who want to strengthen the ancient traditions and teach Torah to these Jews who have remained insulated for so many centuries. 


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