“You’re from Azerbaij—what?” Throughout my seminary experience in Jerusalem, I met many new acquaintances and friends and I quickly realized that a ubiquitous conversation starter was my ethnicity. These fresh faces would take note of my own olive-toned one and ask, “Are you Sephardic?” When I answered in the affirmative, they dug deeper. “Syrian? Moroccan?” “No, I’m Gorsky,” I said hesitatingly to a row of blank expressions. “Gorsky Jews are from Azerbaijan and Dagestan,” I continued. “These are tiny countries that used to be part of the Former Soviet Union.” “A Sephardi from the Former Soviet Union? You’re Bukharian then!” they confidently exclaimed.
I had no choice but to prick a pin in their victory bubble. My new acquaintances thought they solved my ethnic mystery, until I started to explain that although Bukharians and Gorskys live in proximity, they are, in fact, two different cultures. To conserve my energy and words, I have considered, more than once, recording a mini-lecture about Gorsky Jews on my phone. Then the next time I would be greeted with an “Azerbaij—what?” I would take it out and press play. Because even though Azerbaijan is famous for its petroleum affluence and urban capital Baku, there are still many who do not know that Jews have lived there for more than 1,500 years.
Historians posit different theories as to why Gorsky Jews – also known as Kavkazi Jews, Caucasian Jews, and Mountain Jews – originally chose to settle in countries like Azerbaijan and Dagestan. Several claim that Jews fled there to escape persecution in neighboring Persia. Others that they entered Azerbaijan from the Byzantine Empire. Some Mountain Jews believe they are descendents of the Ten Lost Tribes and were exiled to Azerbaijan and Dagestan by Sancheriv. Regardless of their source, however, Gorsky Jews were able to build houses, involve themselves in trades, and study Torah without disruption. In fact, it is possible that Gorsky Jews even scored a line on the hallowed pages of Talmud Yerushalmi: Rabi Shimon Safra of Terbent reveals a connection with the city of Derbent in Dagestan.
Because many Gorsky Jews originally lived in Persia, and were surrounded by other Islamic countries like Turkey, their traditions have been influenced by a mélange of cultures. In fact, the language that Gorsky Jews speak, known as “Juhuri,” is a mix of Farsi and Hebrew. Unbeknownst to many, “Juhuri,” joins the ranks of Yiddish and Ladino as another dialect exclusive to Jews.
Yet, in spite of Azerbaijan being a refuge for fleeing Persian Jews, it wasn’t always an unscathed country. In the 18th century, Persia fought the Ottoman Empire and Russia to conquer Azerbaijan. Persian ruler Nadir Shah rampaged Azerbaijan’s villages, slaughtered many Jews, and forced them to convert to Islam. In the last quarter of the 18th century, Divine relief finally arrived: Fath Ali Khan, a Persian military commander, granted privileges and rights to the Jews. Because the tolerant Fath Ali Khan had ruled in Kuba, Jews from across Azerbaijan moved to this village. Due to the dense Jewish population, Kuba was called “Little Jerusalem.”
In the 19th century, the Persians gave way to Russian governance. Gorsky Jews did not object. They finally enjoyed freedom of religion. In fact, during this era, Jews in Azerbaijan thrived. Young men went to Lithuanian yeshivot and returned to the Caucasus Mountains as spiritual leaders and rabbis. They cleansed Gorsky customs of all non-Jewish influence and strengthened the community by building synagogues in Kuba and Derbent.
Although the Caucasus Mountains created a geographical isolation between Gorskys and other Jewish sects, the community still sustained religious observation with vigor and authenticity. For Shabbat, families gathered to slaughter cattle while the gabbai of the synagogue went door-to-door collecting provisions for the poor. Shabbat meals featured traditional Gorsky dishes such as yepereghi, a stuffed cabbage soaked in a very rich and savory sauce made from elu, a local sour fruit. Brewed teas and desserts are also a beloved mainstay in Gorsky culture. Special pastries include hasido (a confection of crushed nuts and honey) and lavosh (buttery round bread with multiple thin layers). Aside from partaking in the delectable cuisine, it was also common for men to visit the homes of rabbis on Shabbat.