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ETHNONYMS: Crimean Jews, Tatar Jews


Identification. The Krymchaks are a Jewish ethnic group located on the Crimean Peninsula on the northern Black Sea shores who spoke vernacular Crimean Tatar. Before the Russian conquest of the Crimea in 1783, the entire Jewish population there was identified, including by the Krymchaks themselves, by the Tatar word "Yakhudiler." During the nineteenth century and possibly earlier, the Krymchaks at times also called themselves "Sral Ballary" (the sons of Israel). Among various references to the Krymchaks in Russian documents from the first half of the nineteenth century are "Karasubazar Jews," "Crimean Jews," "Tatar Jews," and "Turkish Jews." In the second half of the nineteenth century the name "Krymchaks" became dominant. The Krymchaks themselves began to use this name as their ethnonym at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

Until the 1950s the Krymchaks always considered themselves a Jewish group, although different from other Jewish groups like the Ashkenazim, and they were perceived as such by other Jewish and non-Jewish groups and by the Russian and Soviet authorities. After World War II, the shaky status of the Jews in the Soviet Union prompted the informal leaders of the Krymchak community to insist on a different origin for themselves as compared to the rest of Jewry. An ethnic myth was created and propagandized: that the 8Krymchaks were descended from those groups of the ancient Crimean peoples, such as the Tavrians, Scythians, Sarmatians, and others, who converted to Judaism. For purely political reasons this claim was accepted by the Soviet authorities, who recognized the Krymchaks as a separate and distinct ethnic group who had nothing in common with other Jews, except religion. Nevertheless, this shift in the Krymchak ethnic self-identification is still incomplete. Although the majority of Krymchaks now reveal much ethnic conformity and prefer to point out their alleged non-Jewish origin when dealing with the authorities, they do recognize their affiliation with the rest of Jewry and in specific situations reveal an awareness of their Jewish identity.

Location. The historical center for the Krymchaks was the town of Karasubazar in the piedmont part of the Crimea. During the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries a majority migrated to Crimean cities on the Black Sea shores, or to Simferopol', an administrative center of the Crimea in the steppe zone. At present, the majority live in the major Crimean cities. They also live in Sukhumi and Novorossiisk on the Caucasian side of the Black Sea shores and in small numbers in Moscow, Leningrad, and Central Asia. Krymchaks also live in Israel and the United States.

Demography. According to the 1989 census, the number of Krymchaks in the Soviet Union was 1,559; it is expected that their number will continue to decrease because of their assimilation into other ethnic groups. The Krymchaks never constituted a numerous group, however. On the eve of World War II their number was estimated as 8,000, but about 70 percent perished during the Holocaust.

linguistic Affiliation. In the past the Krymchaks spoke an ethnolect of the Crimean Tatar language that belongs to the Kipchak (Qïpchaq) Group of the Turkic Branch of the Altaic Language Family. Minor differences with the Crimean Tatar vernacular are found mostly in pronunciation and vocabulary. The pronunciation differences occur because the Krymchak ethnolect was based not on the dialects of the southern coastal area but on the northern steppe dialects of the Crimean Tatar language. Differences in vocabulary stem mainly from the existence of a relatively large number (about 5 percent of the total vocabulary) of Hebrew words in the Krymchak ethnolect.

The mass transition of the Krymchaks to the Russian language began after the Bolshevik Revolution and intensified in the 1930s. At present, only a few elders use Crimean Tatar as their vernacular. A significant number of people of the intermediate generation demonstrate some knowledge of it, although they use it only from time to time and do not consider it their mother tongue. The youth have no knowledge of it.

Unlike the Crimean Tatars who used the Arabic script, the Krymchaks had always used the Hebrew one until 1936, when they were ordered to substitute the Russian script.

History and Cultural Relations

The history of the Krymchaks is inseparably linked with the history of the Jewish communities in the Crimea who had settled there no later than the last centuries b.c. The formation of the Krymchaks as a separate Jewish ethnic group, however, goes back only to the Middle Ages. Although the process intensified between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was completed only in the nineteenth century. Between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, the Jewish population in the Crimea was replenished with a rather significant number of immigrants from the Mediterranean countries, eastern Europe, and also from the Caucasus and Persia, who were incorporated into the already existing Jewish communities. One of the most important steps in the formation of the Krymchaks was their transition to the Crimean Tatar language, which apparently took place between the ends of the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Another important step in the formation of the new Jewish group was the religious and cultural consolidation of Crimean Jewry that took place at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. To a large extent it was connected with activities of Rabbi Moshe ben Yaakov (Moshe ha-Gola; 1448-1520). The third and final crucial step in the Krymchak ethnogenesis was the formation of the Karasubazar community, which probably took place between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (perhaps even a little earlier). Presumably, between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this community began to see itself as a separate group, especially in regard to Jewish newcomers who continued to immigrate to the Crimea. After the Russian conquest of the Crimea in 1783 the Krymchaks and all other Jews were affected by the Russian Empire's discriminatory legislation, which was abolished only after the February Revolution of 1917. In the period between the two world wars, the acculturation of the Krymchaks and their linguistic Russification had already been in progress. The Krymchaks' schools and other cultural and religious institutions were closed by the Soviet authorities in the beginning of the 1930s. During the German occupation of the Crimea, the Krymchaks were killed, one and all, except for those who served at the front in the Red Army or had been evacuated to nonoccupied territories. The trauma of the Holocaust and the growing state and public anti-Semitism in the postwar Soviet Union resulted in further intensification of the processes of acculturation and assimilation.

Before the Revolution of 1917 the Krymchaks always considered themselves true Orthodox Jews, although different from the Ashkenazim, and they were also seen as such by other Jewish communities. Up to the period before World War I, the Sephardim of Turkey served the Krymchaks as a reference group of higher status and provided an authoritative religious tradition. The Krymchak attitude toward the Ashkenazim settling in the Crimea was more ambivalent. In daily life, the Krymchaks sometimes had negative attitudes toward them; however, they admitted that the Ashkenazi Jews were more cultured and educated. In the past many Krymchaks knew Yiddish, and even now one meets some Krymchak elders who understand it or even speak it. In the cities where the Krymchaks lacked communities of their own, they joined communities of the Ashkenazi Jews and attended their synagogues. Intermarriage with Ashkenazim, although not very frequent before the Revolution or even before World War II, nevertheless did occur. On the other hand, before the Russian conquest of the Crimea, and also during the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries, the material culture of the Krymchaks was similar to that of the Crimean Tatars. The Tatar influence appreciably affected Krymchak housing patterns, interior decoration and appointments, garments, cuisine, and many other elements of their culture. At present their culture differs little from the cultures of the peoples among whom they live, especially the Russians.


The Krymchaks were always a predominantly urban population. Traditionally, they preferred to settle in close proximity to each other, on the same streets or in the same neighborhoods, although by now this practice has fallen into total disuse, with most Krymchaks living in modern apartment buildings. Traditional Krymchak houses were predominantly of the Tatar type, with windows facing the courtyard and earthen floors covered from wall to wall with felt and carpets, with mattresses and pillows strewn along the walls. The usual dwelling consisted of a kitchen, an anteroom, and one or two rooms.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. At present a majority of Krymchaks are involved in intellectual professions or in industry and service. Traditional occupations included various handicrafts and, to a lesser extent, petty trade. The restrictive policy of the czarist governments prohibited their participation in agriculture, except for a short period during the reign of Nicholas I. In the 1920s and 1930s the Soviet authorities forced some Krymchaks to settle on the newly organized collective farms (kolkhozy); however, this program soon failed.

Industrial Arts. Until the Revolution it was considered necessary for a Krymchak youth to learn a trade. In 1913, 55.3 percent of the gainfully employed Krymchaks were craftspeople, 28.8 percent of them having been shoemakers (this profession remained widespread among them until World War II). Apart from shoemakers, there were many hatters, tinsmiths, blanket makers, and harness makers; fewer in number were watchmakers, tailors, joiners, metalsmiths, glass cutters, and house painters. During the 1930s craftspeople were forced by the Soviet government to enter factories and workshops as wage laborers.

Trade. In 1913, 34.7 percent of the gainfully employed Krymchaks were involved in trade and commerce; however, many of them lacked capital of their own and worked as shop assistants and salespeople. After the Revolution the Krymchaks' involvement in trade drastically diminished.

Division of Labor. At present, division of labor among the Krymchaks does not differ much from the general pattern existing in the European part of the former USSR, with most of the women working as wage laborers and at the same time performing most household tasks. In the past, provision of a livelihood for a family was considered a man's job, whereas domestic duties were assigned to women.

Land Tenure. The right to own land in the rural areas was denied the Krymchaks, just as it was to other Jews, by the czarist government. Under the Soviet system, no land was held privately.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship and Descent. No fixed kin groups, apart from the family, existed among the Krymchaks. Descent was bilateral. Ties with immediate relatives are still quite firm.

Marriage and Family. One of the early sources mentions that the Krymchaks practiced polygynous marriage, but in the nineteenth century marriage was strictly monogamous. In the past, marriages were arranged by parents, relatives, or tutors, although cases of forced marriages were quite rare. The families tried to marry off their daughters early, with their dowry prepared starting from the moment they were born. Issues related to dowries served as a topic for lengthy negotiations. From one or two to four months lay between betrothal and marriage. The marriage ceremony itself lasted for a few days at least. The marriage took place according to the Jewish religious ritual, which included a ketuba (marriage contract). This contract specified, among other things, the bride's dowry, which the husband was obligated to return to the wife in case of divorce, adding 10 percent of its total value as a reward for her virginity. In fact, families were very tightly knit and divorces uncommon. Postmarital residence was patrilocal, and the independent nuclear family household established after the marriage was the ideal pattern. Under the pressure of Soviet authorities, religious marriage fell into disuse as early as the 1920s and early 1930s. At present marriages are arranged without intermediaries, by both parties, by free choice. Nuclear families constitute the overwhelming majority, but family ties are still quite strong, even in cases of relatives residing in different cities.

Inheritance. Usually, property was divided equally among sons.

Socialization. Infants and children were raised by parents and siblings. Emphasis was placed on respect for parents, relatives, adults, and the aged in general and on conformity to family and community goals. Much attention was devoted to a boy's religious education and his participation in synagogue services. Corporal punishment was rarely used as a disciplinary measure.

Sociopolitical Organization

By virtue of being a small minority, first in the Crimean Khanate, later in the Russian Empire, and finally in the former USSR, the Krymchaks never had a distinct political structure.

Social Organization. In the past, the main element of the Krymchak social organization was the community centered on the synagogue. Class differences within the community were not hereditary or rigidly fixed, but the greatest influence was enjoyed by rabbis, the well-to-do, and the educated. Practices of mutual assistance and social charity have undergone considerable development. Following the Revolution and the shutting down of Krymchak synagogues, social life was temporarily focused on Krymchak clubs, but even those ceased to exist by the outbreak of World War II. At present any social autonomy for the Krymchaks is out of the question, although in a number of cities they are still striving to maintain informal ties with each other.

Social Control and Conflict.

In the common value system, the forces of public opinion and tradition were sufficient to ensure a high degree of conformity. As a weak minority often facing discrimination, the Krymchaks have been conditioned to a life of conformity, and they strive at all costs to avoid any conflicts with authorities and other ethnic groups.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. In the past all Krymchaks practiced Orthodox Judaism, which was a central and unifying force in the community. Their prayer book (Makhor Minhag Kafa ) was based on a combination of several Jewish traditions. Their synagogue service, religious practices, and Hebrew pronunciation were also somewhat different from those of the Ashkenazi Jews. Thus, in the synagogue the Krymchaks prayed sitting on carpets spread on the floor. To discuss everyday business in the synagogue was forbidden; so as not to occasion secular discourse, Krymchaks entered and exited the synagogue as a single group. After the shutting down of Krymchak synagogues, and especially in the wake of World War II, the extent of religious worship sharply declined. The observance of the rules of kashruth ceased altogether. In the early 1980s only a handful of elders attended the Ashkenazi synagogue in Simferopol', and even then only during the High Holidays.

In the past, various folk beliefs and superstitions, especially the fear of the evil eye, were widespread among the Krymchaks.

Arts. Krymchak secular literature consisted mainly of recorded folklore in the Krymchak vernacular language. Handwritten collections of songs, tales, riddles, and proverbs were carefully recorded, supplemented, and kept from generation to generation. Musical folklore was widespread as well. No family feast or celebration would be complete without a round of folk songs. New songs continued to be composed even after World War II; most of these were inspired by the Holocaust.

Medicine. Whereas at the present time the Krymchaks avail themselves exclusively of the services provided by modern medicine, in the past they practiced folk medicine, including various magical remedies.

Death and Afterlife. Concepts of death and afterlife, along with corresponding rituals, were mainly those of Orthodox Judaism. After World War II a new cultural institution, the tkun, was established to commemorate Krymchaks who perished in the Holocaust. From the cultural point of view, tkun is a mixture of general Jewish tradition, analogous to Ashkenazi yahrzeit (mourning rituals), interwoven with local Krymchak traditions and even with non-Jewish traditions.


Chemin, V. Iu. (1983). "O poiavlenii etnonima 'Krymchak' i poniatiia 'Krymchakskii iazyk'" (On the appearance of the ethnonym "Krymchak" and the concept of the "Krymchak language"). Geografiia i kultura etnograficheskikh grupp Tatar v SSSR (Geography and cultural ethnography of the Tatars of the USSR). Moscow: GO SSSR.

Kaia, I. (1916). "Krymchaki: Etnograficheskii ocherk" (Krymchaks: An ethnographic study). Evreiskaia Starina 4.

Khazanov, Anatoly (1989). The Krymchaks: A Vanishing Group in the Soviet Union. Research Paper no. 71. Jerusalem: Hebrew University, Marjorie Mayrock Center for Soviet and East European Research.

Moskovich, V., and B. Tukan (1983). "Edat Hakrim-chakim: Toldoteihem, Tarbutam Veleshonam." Pe'amim, no. 14.


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