Mountain Jews

Mountain Jews
Mountain Jews (Juhuro) Delegates Matityahu Bogatirov and Shlomo Mordechaiov at The Fourth Zionist Congress with Theodor Herzl, 1900
Total population
2004: 150,000 to 270,000 (estimated)
1970: 50,000-53,000
1959: 42,000-44,000(estimated)
1941: 35,000
1926: 26,000[1](estimated)
1897: 31,000
Regions with significant populations
 Israel 100,000 to 140,000
 United States 10,000 to 40,000
 Russia 3,000 to 30,000[2]
 Azerbaijan 12,000 to 30,000
(according to Mountain
Jews community in Baku)
 European Union 3,000 to 10,000
Hebrew, Judeo-Tat, Russian, Azerbaijani
Related ethnic groups
Azerbaijani Jews, Persian Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, other Jewish ethnic divisions

Mountain Jews or Caucasus Jews also known as Juhuro, Juvuro, Kavkazi Jews or Gorsky Jews (Azerbaijani: Dağ Yəhudiləri, Hebrew: יהודי קווקז Yehudey Kavkaz or יהודי ההרים Yehudey he-Harim, Turkish: Dağ Yahudileri) are Jews of the eastern and northern slopes of Caucasus, mainly Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Dagestan. They are the descendants of Persian Jews from Iran.[3]

The Mountain Jews community became established in Ancient Persia, from the 5th century AD onwards; their language, called Judeo-Tat, is an ancient Southwest Iranian language which integrates many elements of Ancient Hebrew.[4]

It is believed that they had reached Persia from Ancient Israel as early as the 8th century BCE. They continued to migrate east, settling in mountainous areas of the Caucasus. The Mountain Jews survived numerous historical vicissitudes by settling in extremely remote and mountainous areas. They were known to be accomplished warriors and horseback riders.

Mountain Jews never experienced Anti-Semitism and lived in peaceful and respectful coexistence with their neighbours and thrived, especially in Azerbaijan where their main settlement and religious center Qırmızı Qəsəbə, also called Jerusalem of the Caucasus, is located.[5][6] In Russian, Qırmızı Qəsəbə was once called Yevreskaya Sloboda, "Jewish Village;" but during Soviet times it was renamed Krasnaya Sloboda, "Red Village." [7]

Mountain Jews are distinct from Georgian Jews of the Caucasus Mountains. The two groups are culturally and ethnically different, speaking different languages and having many differences in customs and culture.[8]


Early history

Synagogue at Qırmızı Qəsəbə (purely Jewish town), Azerbaijan

The Mountain Jews, or Jews of the Caucasus, are believed to have inhabited Caucasia since the 5th century CE. They arrived from southwestern Iran. It is believed that they had arrived in Persia, from Ancient Israel, as early as the 8th century BCE.[9]

Other source, attest that mountain Jews were present in the region of Azerbaijan, at least since 457 B.C. The Bible tells about priests who had been brought from there. According to the Bible, prophet Ezra, sent delegates to Casiphia (located in Azerbaijan), asking for priests to serve in the Temple of god.[10][11]

Mountain Jews have an oral tradition, passed down generation after generation, that they are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes which were exiled by the king of Assyria (Ashur), who ruled over northern Iraq from Mosul (across the Tigris River from the ancient city of Nineveh). The reference, most likely is to Shalmaneser, the King of Assyria who is mentioned in II Kings 18:9-12. According to local Jewish tradition, some 19,000 Jews departed Jerusalem (used here as a generic term for the Land of Israel) and passed through Syria, Babylonia, and Persia and then, heading north, entered into Media

Mountain Jews maintained a strong military tradition. For this reason, some historians believe they may be descended from Jewish military colonists, settled by Parthian and Sassanid rulers in the Caucasus as frontier guards against nomadic incursions from the Pontic steppe.

A 2002 study by geneticist Dror Rosengarten found that the paternal haplotypes of Mountain Jews "were shared with other Jewish communities and were consistent with a Mediterranean origin." [12] In addition, Y-DNA testing of Mountain Jews has shown they have Y-DNA haplotypes related to those of other Jewish communities.[12] The Semitic origin of Mountain Jews is also evident in their culture and language.[12]

"The Jewish Valley"

By the early 17th century, Mountain Jews formed many small settlements throughout mountain valleys of Dagestan.[13] One valley, located 10 km south of Derbent, close to the shore of the Caspian Sea, was predominantly populated by Mountain Jews. Their Muslim neighbors called this area "Jewish Valley." The Jewish Valley grew to be a semi-independent Jewish state, with its spiritual and political center located in its largest settlement of Aba-Sava (1630-1800).[13] The valley prospered until the end of the 18th century, when its settlements were brutally destroyed in the war between Sheikh-Ali-Khan, who swore in loyalty to Russian Empire, and Surkhai-Khan, the ruler of Kumukh. Many Mountain Jews were slaughtered, with survivors escaping to Derbent where they received the protection of Fatali Khan, the ruler of Quba Khanate.

In the 18th19th century, the Jews resettled from the highland to the coastal lowlands but carried the name "Mountain Jews" with them. In the villages (aouls), the Mountain Jews had settled in separate sections. In the lowland towns they also lived in concentrated neighborhoods, but their dwellings did not differ from those of their neighbors. Mountain Jews retained the dress of the highlanders. They have continued to follow Jewish dietary laws and affirm their faith in family life.

Soviet times, German Holocaust and modern history

Synagogue in Gilaki quarter, Qırmızı Qəsəbə (purely jewish town), which was reopened in 1941 after initially being closed by Bolsheviks.

By 1926, more than 85% of Mountain Jews in Dagestan were already classed as urban. Mountain Jews were mainly concentrated in the cities of Makhachkala, Buynaksk, Derbent, Nalchik and Grozny in North Caucausus; and Quba and Baku in Azerbaijan.[14]

In the Second World War, some Mountain Jews settlements in Crimea and parts of their area in Kabardino-Balkaria were occupied by the German Wehrmacht at the end of 1942. During this period, they killed several hundreds of Mountain Jews until the Germans retreated early 1943. On September 20, 1942, Germans killed 420 Mountain Jews near the village of Bogdanovka. Some 1000-1500 Mountain Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Many Mountain Jews survived, however, because German troops did not reach their areas; in addition, German authorities considered this group to be "religious" but not "racial" Jews.[15]

The Soviet Army's advances in the area brought the Nalchik community under its protection.[16] The Mountain Jewish community of Nalchik was the largest Mountain Jewish community occupied by Nazis,[16] and the vast majority of the population has survived. With the help of their Kabardian neighbors, Mountain Jews of Nalchik convinced SS squads that they were Tats, the native local people, and not related to the larger Jewish community.[16] Although the Nazis watched the village carefully, Rabbi Nachamil ben Hizkiyahu hid Sefer Torahs by burying them in a fake burial ceremony.[17] The city was liberated a few months later.

Given the marked changes in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and rise of nationalism in the region, many Mountain Jews permanently left their hometowns in the Caucasus and relocated to Moscow or abroad.[18] During the First Chechen War, Jews suffered a high rate of kidnappings and violence at the hands of militants.[19] Many Mountain Jews emigrated to Israel or the United States.[20][21] Qırmızı Qəsəbə in Azerbaijan remains the biggest settlement of Mountain Jews in the world, with the current population over 3000.

Mountain Jewish woman, painted by Max Tilke in the early 20th century.


While elsewhere in the Russian Empire, Jews were prohibited from owning land (excluding the Jews of Siberia and Central Asia), at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the Mountain Jews owned land and were farmers and gardeners, growing mainly grain. Their oldest occupation was rice-growing, but they also raised silkworms and cultivated tobacco. The Jewish vineyards were especially notable. The Jews and their Christian Armenian neighbors were the main producers of wine, as Muslims were prohibited by their religion from producing or consuming alcohol. Judaism, in turn, limited some types of meat consumption. Unlike their neighbors, the Jews raised few domestic animals. At the same time, they were renowned tanners. Tanning was their third most important economic activity after farming and gardening. At the end of the 19th century, 6% of Jews were engaged in this trade. Handicrafts and commerce were mostly practiced by Jews in towns.

The Soviet authorities bound the Mountain Jews to collective farms, but allowed them to continue their traditional cultivation of grapes, tobacco, and vegetables; and making wine. In practical terms, the Jews are no longer isolated from other ethnic groups.

With increasing urbanization and sovietization in progress, by the 1930s, a layer of intelligentsia began to form. By the late 1960s, academic professionals, such as pharmacists, medical doctors, and engineers, were quite common among the community. Mountain Jews worked in more professional positions than did Georgian Jews, though less than the Soviet Ashkenazi community, who were based in larger cities of Russia. A sizable number of Mountain Jewish worked in the entertainment industry in Dagestan.[22] The republic's world-acclaimed dancing ensemble "Lezginka" was led by Tankho Israilov, a Mountain Jew, for twenty one years (1958–79).[23][24]


Mountain Jews resting after a day of work.

Mountain Jews are considered, by some, to be of Sephardic lineage; this however is a misnomer as they are neither Sephardim (from the Iberian Peninsula) nor Ashkenazim (from Germany and Eastern-Europe) but rather come directly by way of Persia. Mountain Jews tenaciously held to their religion throughout the centuries, developing their own unique traditions and religious practices.[25] Mountain Jewish traditions are infused with teachings of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.[26]

Mountain Jews have traditionally maintained a two-tiered rabbinate, distinguishing between a rabbi and a "dayan." A "rabbi" was a title given to religious leaders performing the functions of liturgical preachers (maggids) and cantors (hazzans) in synagogues ("nimaz"), teachers in Jewish schools (cheders), and shochets. A Dayan was a chief rabbi of a town, presiding over beit dins and representing the highest religious authority for the town and nearby smaller settlements.[27] Dayans were elected democratically by community leaders.

The religious survival of the community was not without difficulties. In the prosperous days of Jewish Valley (roughly 1600-1800), the spiritual center of Mountain Jews centered on the settlement of Aba-Sava.[13] Many works of religious significance were written in Aba-Sava. Here, Elisha ben Schmuel Ha-Katan wrote several of his piyyuts.[13] Theologist Gerhson Lala ben Moshke Nakdi, who lived in Aba-Sava in 18th century, wrote a commentary to Mishneh Torah of Maimonides. Rabbi Mattathia ben Shmuel ha-Kohen Mizrahi wrote his kabbalistic essay Kol Hamevaser in Aba-Sava.[13] With the brutal destruction of Aba-Sava (roughly 1800), however, the religious center of Mountain Jews moved to Derbent.

Prominent rabbis of Mountain Jews in the nineteenth century included: Rabbi Gershom son of rabbi Reuven of Qırmızı Qəsəbə Azerbaijan, Shalom ben Melek Mizrahi of Temir-Khan-Shura (modern Buynaksk), Chief Rabbi of Dagestan Jacob ben Isaac Mizraḥi, and Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Avraam of Nalchik, whose son Rabbi Nahamiil ben Hizkiyahu later played a crucial role in saving Nalchik's Jewish community from the Nazis.[6][28][29] In the early decades of the Soviet Union, the government took steps to suppress religion. Thus, In the 1930s, the Soviet Union closed synagogues belonging to mountain jews. Same procedures were implemented on other ethnicities and religions. Soviet authorities propagated the myth that Mountain Jews were not part of the world Jewish people at all, but rather members of Tat community that settled in the region.[26] Soviet anti-Zionism rhetoric was intensified during Khrushchev's rule. Some of the synagogues were later reopened in the 40's. The closing of the synagogues in the 30's was part of communist ideology, which resisted religion of any kind.[5]

Jewish Cemetery in Nalchik

At the beginning of the 1950s, there were synagogues in all major Mountain Jewish communities. By 1966, reportedly six synagogues remained;[14] some were confiscated by the Soviet authorities.[30] While Mountain Jews observed the rituals of circumcision, marriage and burial, as well as Jewish holidays,[31] other precepts of Jewish faith were observed less carefully.[14] The community's ethnic identity remained unshaken despite the Soviet efforts.[32] Cases of intermarriage with Muslims in Azerbaijan or Dagestan were rare as both groups practice endogamy.[33][34] After the fall of the Soviet Union, Mountain Jews experienced a significant religious revival, with increasing religious observance by members of the younger generation.[35]

Educational institutions, language, literature

Class held at a primary Mountain Jewish school in Quba. Early 1920s.

Mountain Jews speak Judeo-Tat, also called Juhuri, a form of Persian, it belongs to the southwestern group of the Iranian division of the Indo-European languages. Judeo-Tat has Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic/Arabic) elements on all linguistic levels.[36] Among other Semitic elements, Judeo-Tat has the Hebrew sound "ayin" (ע), whereas no neighboring languages have it. Until the early Soviet period, the language was written with semi-cursive Hebrew alphabet. Later, Judeo-Tat books, newspapers, textbooks, and other materials were printed with a Latin alphabet and finally in Cyrillic, which is still most common today.[36] The first Judeo-Tat-language newspaper, Zakhmetkesh (Working People), was published in 1928 and operated until the second half of the twentieth century.[37]

Originally, only boys were educated through synagogue schools. Starting from the 1860s, many well-off families switched to home-schooling, hiring private tutors, who taught their sons not only Hebrew, but also Russian and Yiddish.[38] In the early 20th century, with advance of sovietization, Judeo-Tat became the language of instruction at newly founded elementary schools attended by both Mountain Jewish boys and girls. This policy continued until the beginning of World War II, when schools switched to Russian as the central government emphasized acquisition of Russian as the official language of the Soviet Union.

The Mountain Jewish community has had notable figures in public health, education, culture, and art.[39]

In the 21st century, the government is encouraging the cultural life of minorities. In Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, Judeo-Tat and Hebrew courses have been introduced in traditionally Mountain Jewish schools. In Dagestan, there is support for the revival of the Judeo-Tat-language theater and the publication of newspapers in that language.[39]


Military tradition

Mountain Jew wearing a chokha. Circa 1898.

And we, the Tats We, Samson warriors, Bar Kochba's heirs... we went into battles and bitterly, heroically struggled for our freedom "The Song of the Mountain Jews"[40]

Mountain Jews are known for their military tradition and have been historically viewed as fierce warriors. Some historians suggest that the group traces it beginnings to Persian-Jewish soldiers who were stationed in the Caucasus by the Sasanian kings in the fifth or sixth century to protect the area from the onslaughts of the Huns and other nomadic invaders from the east.[41] Men were typically heavily armed and some slept without removing their weapons.[28]


Jewish Girls of the Caucasus. 1913.

Over time the Mountain Jews adopted the dress of their Muslim neighbors. Men typically wore chokhas and covered their head with papakhas, many variations of which could symbolize the men's social status. Wealthier men's dress was adorned with many pieces of jewelry, including silver and gold-decorated weaponry, pins, chains, belts, or kisets (small purse used to hold tobacco or coins).[42] Women's dress was typically of simpler design in dark tones, made from silk, brocade, velvet, satin and later wool. They decorated the fabric with beads, gold pins or buttons, and silver gold-plated belts. Outside the house, both single and married women covered their hair with headscarves.[42]


Mountain Jewish cuisine absorbed typical dishes from various peoples of the Caucasus, Azerbaijani and Persian cuisine, adjusting some recipes to conform to the laws of kashrut. Typical Mountain Jewish dishes include chudu (a type of meat pie), shashlik, dolma, kurze or dushpare, yarpagi, khinkali, tara (herb stew with pieces of meat), nermov (chicken or other meat stew with wheat and beans), plov (pilaf), buglame (curry like stew of fish or chicken eaten with rice (osh)), etc.[43] Jewish holidays-themed dishes include Eshkene, a Persian soup, prepared for Passover, and a variety of hoshalevo (honey-based treats made with sunflower seeds or walnuts) typically prepared for Purim.


The music of Mountain Jews is mostly based in standard liturgical, used for prayer and the celebration of holidays. The music is typically upbeat with various instruments to add layers to the sound.[44]

This music has been the inspiration to the ska/comedy band Mountain Jew.[45]

Notable Mountain Jews

See also


  2. "Динамика численности горских евреев , Новости горских евреев". Динамика численности горских евреев , Новости горских евреев (in Russian). Retrieved 15 September 2014.
  3. "Mountain Jews - Tablet Magazine – Jewish News and Politics, Jewish Arts and Culture, Jewish Life and Religion". Tablet Magazine. Retrieved 2015-12-27.
  4. "Mountain Jews: customs and daily life in the Caucasus, Leʼah Miḳdash-Shema", Liya Mikdash-Shamailov, Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem), UPNE, 2002, page 17
  5. 1 2
  6. 1 2
  7. Schwartz, Bryan, Scattered Among the Nations, Visual Anthropology Press, 2015
  8. Mountain Jews: customs and daily life in the Caucasus, Leʼah Miḳdash-Shemaʻʼilov, Liya Mikdash-Shamailov, Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem), UPNE, 2002, page 9
  9. Mountain Jews: customs and daily life in the Caucasus, Leʼah Miḳdash-Shemaʻʼilov, Liya Mikdash-Shamailov, Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem), UPNE, 2002, page 19
  10. Ezra 8:17
  11. Grelot, “Notes d'onomastique sur les textes araméens d'Egypte,” Semitica 21, 1971, esp. pp. 101-17, noted by Rüdiger.
  12. 1 2 3 Rosengarten, D (2002). "Y Chromosome Haplotypes among Members of the Caucasus Jewish Communities". Ancient Biomolecules.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 "Еврейское поселение Аба-Сава, Блоги на сайте СТМЭГИ". Retrieved 2015-05-22.
  14. 1 2 3 Pinkus, B., & Frankel, J. (1984). The Soviet Government and the Jews, 1948-1967: A Documented Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  15. Kiril Feferman: "Nazi Germany and the Mountain Jews: Was There a Policy?", in: Richard D. Breitman (ed.): Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 21 Spring 2007, Oxford University Press, pp. 96-114.
  16. 1 2 3 "Горские евреи — жертвы Холокоста - Горские евреи. История, этнография, культура". Retrieved 2015-05-22.
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  19. JTA. (2000). Around the Jewish World: "Russia’s Mountain Jews Support War in Chechnya, but Are Eager to Get Out."; Accessed November 12, 2013.
  20. Sarah Marcus, "Mountain Jews: A New Read on Jewish Life", Tablet Magazine, Accessed November 12, 2013.
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  30. Jewish Virtual History Library, Azerbaijan, Accessed November 11, 2013.
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  33. Alexander Murinson. "Jews in Azerbaijan: a History Spanning Three Millennia."; Accessed November 12, 2012.
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