Mountain Jews

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Mountain Jews

ETHNONYMS: Self-designations: G'ivri, Isroil', Zhch'uch'ur; Dagchifut


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 Daghestanhence 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 DaghestanMajalis, 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 coloniststhe 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.

History and Cultural Relations

The Mountain Jews have preserved almost no written records of their arrival and settlement in the Caucasus and Daghestan. But from generation to generation they have passed on the tale of their descent from the Israelite captives of the Assyrian-Babylonian conquest of the eighth and seventh centuries b.c., known as the "Eastern Captivity." The original places of their settlement are designated as Babil (Babylonia) and Madae-Peres (ancient Media and Iran up to the eastern Caucasus and southern Daghestan). Many formerly Jewish settlements in this region date to ancient times, including those at Kuba (G'ulgatte), Myushkyur, Nyutyug, Orog, Garchok, Khameydi, and Nyugdi. The Jewish presence is indicated by remains of wells, cemeteries with Jewish gravestones, and, in many mountain villages, epigraphic inscriptions, fragments of Jewish sacred books, prayer books, talismans (mazuze ), and other evidence.

The influx of Jews from Iran and the eastern Caucasus into Daghestan took place throughout the entire period of the Achaemenid dynasty (seventh to fourth centuries b.c.) and Sasanid Persia (third century b.c. to the sixth century a.d.). The migration of the Jewish population from the southern pre-Caspian area north into the mountains of Daghestan became particularly heavy during the time of Arab and Turk conquests of the eastern Caucasus and the spread of Islam. Religious and political persecution were the basic reasons for the migration of the Mountain Jews from the Transcaucasus into Daghestan and Khazaria, where they found religious tolerance and propitious conditions. A literate, monotheistic people, well versed in Eastern agricultural skills, trade, and crafts, who existed as a distinct community and actively supported the mountain peoples and the Khazars in their wars with the Persian (and later Arab) conquerors, the Mountain Jews were active in the economic and cultural development of the region. Their aristocracy influenced internal and external trade and their rabbis influenced the spiritual life of the pagan mountaineers and the Khazars. Judaism evidently became the state religion in the first half of the eighth century, the formative period of feudalism in Daghestan and the northern Caucasus. There is a legend that has entered the scholarly literature regarding disputations about faith that allegedly took place between the Khazar khans and merchant-missionaries who had entered the country from Persia and Byzantium for the purposes of trade.

The choice of Judaism as the state religion in pagan Khazaria can be explained by the presence in the country of a large local Khazar-Jewish population, of Jewish proselytes among the mountaineers and the Khazars, and by the desire of the Khazar khans themselves to show, by their acceptance of Judaism, that they were politically independent of hostile neighboring states, of the Muslim Arab caliphate, and of Christian Byzantium. Another important factor in the acceptance of Judaism by the Khazar khans was the influence of the Jewish aristocracy: merchants, magnates, and rabbis serving at the courts of the Khazar khans as businessmen and advisers. The acceptance of Judaism by the Khazars led to an inevitable mixture, primarily of the Mountain Jewish aristocracy with the khans who were of the same faith, which in turn contributed to the emergence of a Jewish-Khazar kinship entity. It is therefore not surprising that the rulers of the new dynasty of the Khazar khans, after the reign of the Turk Bulan (who accepted Judaism and underwent the ritual of circumcision), were known under the names Avnil, Izro, Manashir, Obadiya, and Iosif. These names have been preserved unaltered among those Mountain Jews who consider themselves to be Jewish Khazars. There is a tendency in the scholarly literature to evaluate the Khazar state as an ephemeral formation. If that had been the case, the Khazar Khanate would not have been able to defend a wide territory in southern Russia against the incursions of powerful military-feudal states such as the Arab caliphate and Byzantium. Many Muslim Arab and Jewish Khazar historians and geographersand medieval chroniclers (Persians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, and Daghestanis) testify to the significance of the Khazar Khanate in the regional events of the time, to its widespread trade with the countries of the East and with Russia, and to the role of Judaism in its life.

After the fall of the Khazar Khanate to the Arabs from the south and the Russians from the north toward the end of the tenth century, some Khazars migrated to the Volga and the Crimea, and many Khazar Jews withdrew into the depths of mountainous Daghestan; those who remained in their old haunts found themselves in an oppressive feudal dependency on the Arab rulers of the Caucasus and their local agents. They were forced to bring tribute and other payments, and, to preserve their Jewish faith, to pay a special tax (j'dzh ); many of them, particularly the converts from among the mountaineers and the Khazars, turned to Islam. The long struggle of the peoples of the Caucasus, the mountaineers and the Khazars, led to the disintegration of the Arab caliphate and the defeat of their agents. They were replaced by new conquerors (the Seljuk Turks, the Persian shahs, and Turkish sultans) and a series of Azerbaijani and Daghestani khanates and overlords. In conditions of feudal disintegration, the Mountain Jews found themselves under the control of local rulers with the legal status of dependent peasants. With the unification of Azerbaijan and Daghestan with Russia in 1813, the Mountain Jews accepted Russian citizenship, the status of "Jew" was imposed on them, and they began to be called into military service. The development of capitalism in Russia and the drawing of the Caucasus and Daghestan into the mainstream of trade and financial relations contributed to the intensive stratification of Mountain Jewish society. The majority, not having their own land, became laborers in the food-processing industries, the vineyards, the wine and liquor factories, and the fishing industries that developed in the region. From among the businessmen and entrepreneurs of the Mountain Jews there emerged merchants and a bourgeoisie.

The social oppression of czarism, to which were added the pogroms (especially in 1905-1907), weighed heavily on the Mountain Jews, and they found themselves particularly impoverished during the years of the civil war and the military intervention in the Caucasus. The White Guard bands of Bicherakov and Denikin, invaded the area in 1918-1920 and were responsible for pogroms and the destruction and looting of a series of Mountain Jewish villages in southern Daghestan: Mamrach, Orog, Garchok, Nyugdi, and others. Consequently, many Mountain Jewish families emigrated to Palestine, then under British mandate. In the period of the October Revolution and the years of the military intervention in the Caucasus, working-class Mountain Jews took an active part in the victory of the Soviets. With the establishment of Soviet power, and in accordance with Leninist nationalities policy, especially regarding the nationalities of the Caucasus and Daghestan, measures were undertaken to revitalize Mountain Jewish culture. Mountain Jewish refugees who had come down from the mountains received economic assistance; new villages were constructed; and new workmen's cooperatives, collective farms, and national (i.e., Mountain Jewish) village councils were created. To achieve these objectives, a special set of measures for economic and cultural transformation was developed. Within this context, subgroups were designated as working class, collective farmers, and intelligentsia. These transformations were attained in the 1920s and 1930s. The plan also considered the interests of the small number of European Jews (Ashkenazim) living among them. At the same time, efforts were made to control anti-Semitism.

Political and economic change was accompanied by cultural developments. A writing system, a literature, a newspaper, theater, and schools were created in the Jewish Tat language. This Tat-language literacy of the Mountain Jews replaced the Old Hebrew literacy of the past, which had existed until the shift to a Latin alphabet, and then to the Cyrillic alphabet in 1938. By World War II, the Mountain Jews had made important socioeconomic and cultural advances. The works of poets and writers including Yuno Semenov, Manuvakh Dadashev, Mishi Bakhshiev, Daniil Atnilov, and Sergei Izgiyaev described the difficult times of the past, the recent changes for the better, and changes in the Mountain Jewish identity after they became a Soviet people. Another representative of the older generation of writers was Khizgi Avshalumov, who refers to the language of his writings not as Mountain Jewish but as Tat, and presents himself and the Mountain Jews as the descendants of Tats (Iranian) and Judaics (Yudaists). This ethnic camouflage was designed to conceal the fact that they were Jews.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Most Mountain Jews were occupied, until the Revolution, with agriculture, particularly viticulture. Many were hereditary vintners. They also raised madder (organic dyestuff), tobacco, and rice. They sowed high-quality wheat in small quantities and raised sheep. The Mountain Jews did not engage in gardening in particular, but every vineyard was also planted with mulberry, fig, pomegranate, almond, apricot, and other fruit trees. Villagers kept livestock and raised large numbers of chickens. The Mountain Jews were renowned throughout the Caucasus for arts such as dyeing and tanning. Many were specialists in the processing of rawhide and the production of morocco leather. The more experienced Mountain Jewish women of Derbent and Kuba worked in wool and wove rugs. Small trade was well developed, carried out primarily by mendicant peddlers; there was also a widespread trade in manufactured goods, and Mountain Jewish merchants bought and retailed Persian and Caucasian carpets.

The economy and material culture of the Mountain Jews (dwelling, clothing, food) now differs little from that of the people among whom they live.

Clothing. Because of their urban life-style, the ethnic clothing of Mountain Jews has been particularly standardized: most wear contemporary clothing, footwear, and headgear. Only some elderly women still wear the head fillets covering the hair, various muslin and silk kerchiefs, and, instead of a coat, warm Caucasian shawls. Young women and adolescent girls wear various ornaments: gold earrings, rings, pendants, and, frequently, medallions with an engraved star of David. Men are accustomed to wearing fur caps and Caucasian boots along with their contemporary clothing.

Food. In contrast to the standardized clothing, the traditional ethnic foods have been retained. Of the common Caucasian dishes, the Mountain Jews prepare different kinds of khinkal (stuffed cabbage leaves), pilaf, shashlik, and the like. On the Sabbath, and particularly on holidays, the women of the house prepare ethnic dishes: roast beef, gefilte fish, pilaf with chicken, sauce from edible greens with grilled or fried pieces of fish, dishes with tomato stuffing, eggplant with peppers, etc. Before and after eating, Mountain Jews drink tea. In many houses there are special stoves for baking bread. At ceremonies and on holidays they serve wine, usually of their own making. In the homes of believers, Jewish food prohibitions and restrictions are observed. During Passover every family eats matzo (gogol ).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Until relatively recently the wedding was celebrated separately at the homes of the groom and the bride. For the betrothal before the wedding ceremony, the bride is brought clothing, ornaments, and a ritual pastry (likakh ). Two days before the arrival of the groomsmen to fetch the bride, her friends would sing her songs of farewell from her family hearth. When the groomsmen arrived, the bride's friends would demand a bride-price before leading her out. The groomsmen would bear lighted candles, burning lamps, and even torches while accompanying her to the groom's house with music, songs, and dance. En route, from behind the finely dressed bride covered with a silk kerchief, they would throw candies and rice over her headwishes for her good fortune and fruitfulness. Marriages between consanguines were possible, especially between cousins. As in the past, there are still some leviratic and sororatic marriages and the ritual of divorce known as khalitse. Today, the wedding is held jointly but is preceded by traditional customs such as courtship with a matchmaker, betrothal, collection of the bride-price (in the guise of gifts), and the negotiation of a marriage agreement (ketubo ). The wedding itself is heavily attended, since not only all relatives but neighbors, friends from work, and ritual friends are invited. Every guest brings a gifttoday usually an envelope with money, which is handed over to a special collector. The amount and the name of the donor are entered on a list so that in good times the debt can be repaid at the ceremonies of the donor family. The close relatives of the groom and bride provide material and practical assistance in the organization and consummation of the wedding.

Weddings are sumptuous, with tables of ethnic dishes and various drinks and appetizers. The wedding is celebrated with music, dance and songs, and innumerable toasts. The festivities are led by a designated toastmaster, the tamada. At the height of the wedding a dance is played especially for the bride. Surrounded by relatives and close friends, she dances with many of the guests, and the dancers give her money (placing it in her hand). Toward the end of the wedding sweets and tea are served.

Domestic Unit. The traditional family structure and way of life have remained relatively unchanged. Mountain Jewish families, as is usual in the Caucasus, have many children. It is not uncommon, even today, to find families consisting of two or three generations. It is the rule for older married sons to move out, whereas the youngest, as in the past, continues to live with the parents and becomes the head of the family, although formally the eldest male (the grandfather) continues to be regarded as the head. The grandmother (babushka ) or mother runs the household economy. The fraternal householders who have detached themselves preserve close ties among themselves in all aspects of life.

The Mountain Jews maintain the custom of hospitality from generation to generation. In many houses there is a special room in which one can receive ritual friends (kunaks ). (This custom also occurs among Tabasarans, Lezgins, Dargins, Kumyks, Avars, and others.) Guests are treated with exceptional attention and concern, and ritual friends respond in kind in their homes. Kunaks provide each other mutual assistance and support, participating in weddings, funerals, and so forth.

Socialization. The birth of the first boy is marked by hospitality and the distribution of gifts. On the seventh day after birth he is circumcized. Earlier, a rabbi performed the ritual; today, as a rule, it is done by a physician. Children, for the most part, are named after deceased relatives, which explains the preservation of traditional Jewish names such as Avroom, Mishi (Moses), Isak, Yagu, Manashir, Avadya, Lie, Saro, Livgo, Istir, and so forth, which are passed down within one kinship line from generation to generation.

In the past, most Mountain Jews were illiterate and religious. Before the opening of Russian-Jewish schools at the beginning of the twentieth century, children (mainly boys) received their primary religious education in Hebrew schools, paying the rabbi. Only the most talented among them were sent to the Jewish schools (yeshebot ) in Russian cities and towns and to European Jewish theologians to complete their religious education and attain the title of rabbi. Only some children from wealthy Mountain Jewish families could enter the secular educational institutions of Russia.

Sociopolitical Organization

To keep the working mass of Mountain Jews obedient, the bourgeoisie and merchants were active in philanthropythey built synagogues and opened Jewish religious schools. Their rabbis emerged not only as guardians of the faith but as judges who strictly controlled everyday life in the quarters (or ghettos, magaly ) in which the Mountain Jews lived, isolated from the surrounding population.


Religious Beliefs. The traditional religion of the Mountain Jews is Judaism. In the cycle of wedding, birth, and funeral rituals are a number of pre-Judaic and premonotheistic concepts, including belief in the purifying strength of fire, water, amulets, and talismans against evil spirits (water nymphs, devils, etc.). Some believing families have preserved the Judaic talisman called mazuze. Oaths are rendered by the Torah and the Talmud, but also by the hearth.

The great majority of Mountain Jews today are nonbelievers, in part because of efforts in this direction by members of the community. The visible growth in the departure from the faith is also explained by the increasingly negative attitude in the former Soviet Union as a whole to the Jewish religion, partially in reaction to the creation of the state of Israel. Jewishness came to be regarded as damaging, and the more conservative elements in the community began to link the leading elements of the Mountain Jewish population with Zionists. All this damaged the Jewish ethnic identity (constitutionally the equal of other ethnic groups). This also explains why many Mountain Jews began not only to conceal their Jewish faith but to call themselves "Tat." Many of them, even believers, stopped attending the three synagogues in Daghestan (in Derbent, Makhachkala, and Buynaksk). They are now used by a small number of believers, primarily of the older generation, mainly on the evening of Sabbath and on major holidays. There are now practically no qualified rabbis. That role is taken by those who are more devout, who at some time studied in Hebrew schools (and can therefore more or less read the sacred books and prayers), and who are able to perform the rituals.

Ceremonies. Presently the faith is maintained through the performance of traditional rituals in the home. By the same token, religious holidays are observed more because of tradition than belief. Most important are Purim (Omunu among the Mountain Jews), Pesach (Passover, better known by the people under the name Nisonu, from the name of the month of spring, "Nisan"), Rosh Hashanah (New Year), and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Even today on the eve of the latter holiday, believing families sacrifice a bird and a chicken for each person. Hanukkah (Khanukoi) is the major winter holiday. More religious Mountain Jews observe the fasts and prohibitions of different holidays and give alms (sadagho ).

Arts. The long coexistence of the Mountain Jews with the peoples of the Caucasus and Daghestan has led to many of them mastering the languages of their neighborsAzerbaijani, Lezgin, Dargin, Kumyk, Chechen, Kabardian, etc.and the music, songs, and dances of these peoples. This explains why the majority of Mountain Jews, depending on their historical place of settlement, prefer either Azerbaijani-Persian music or that of Daghestan-northern Caucasia. They have not only adopted Azerbaijani, Lezgin, Kumyk, and Chechen songs and music, but they have reworked them in accord with their own traditions. That is why so many Mountain Jewish singers and musicians have become professional masters of the arts, not only in Caucasia and Daghestan, but in the whole country; for example, the organizer and artistic director of the world-famous Daghestan national song and dance ensemble (called "Lezginko"), Tanko Izrailov, Folk Artist of the USSR, and his successor, Iosif Mataev, Folk Artist of the Daghestan ASSR, are Mountain Jews, or, as they are now called, Tats.

From the Mountain Jewish community come many well-known scholars and leaders in public health, education, culture, and art. Unfortunately, the names of some individuals known in Russia and even internationally cannot be cited here because, for the most part, they are officialy identified as Tats, Azerbaijanis, Daghestanis, and even Russians. Today, measures are being taken to foster the cultural life of minorities. In Daghestan and Kabardia the teaching of Tat has been introduced in some schools. Courses are being organized for those desiring to study Hebrew. In Daghestan steps are being taken toward the rebirth of the Tat theater and the publication of newspapers.

Death and Afterlife. Many traditional funeral and memorial customs are still practiced, most of which follow Orthodox Jewish tradition. The deceased is buried on the day of death, in a Jewish cemetery. Not only all relatives, near and far, but also the entire local community of Mountain Jews, led by its clergy, take part in the funerals. Mourning (yos ) takes place for seven days in the house of the deceased, with women, including professional female mourners, playing the main role. After seven days the first memorial service is organized, which marks the end of the mourning period for all except close relatives. After forty days the second memorial service is held, and the third and last on the first anniversary of the death. Depending on the circumstances of the family, a monument is set up, not infrequently a costly one with a portrait and a Hebrew inscription. Today these are inscribed in Russian. Engraved on the majority of monuments is a six-pointed star of David. These days religious communities have shortened the mourning and memorial periods. In religious families the son and the brothers read a kaddish (memorial prayer) for the deceased. In the absence of these relatives, the function is carried out by the rabbis, for which they are paid, and donations are made to the synagogue.


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M. M. IKHILOV (Translated by Paul Friedrich and David Testen)

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