KRASNAYA SLOBODA, Azerbaijan — “Not good,” Rabbi Yona Yaakobi says in Hebrew, expressing his distaste while pointing to a grave featuring a statue of a man who died in 1988.
Carved in white marble, the nearly life-size statue of the deceased portrays him staring ahead, cane in hand, flanked by two pots of artificial flowers. Just below, on a black tombstone, is inscribed the man’s name, date of birth and the day he died in Hebrew. But lower it is engraved again much more prominently in Russian.
“All of this is influenced by the Muslims who got it from the Russians,” Yaakobi continues.
Although this particular grave is among the more ostentatious in the three cemeteries of Krasnaya Sloboda, an all-Jewish town in the mountainous north of Azerbaijan, it is surrounded by hundreds of others showing lifelike pictures of the dead in various poses, sometimes bordering on the absurd.
“I knew all of these people personally. I know the story of each one of them,” Yaakobi laments as he strolls past a large tombstone depicting a middle aged man in a business suit reclining in a throne-like chair. “This guy for instance went fishing one day, and when he cast his line, it ended up hitting some wires, he got electrocuted and died.”
Rabbi Yaakobi arrived in Krasnaya Sloboda (meaning “red town” in Russian) from the central Israeli city of Kfar Saba as a Chabad emissary almost 10 years ago. Since then, he has been working ceaselessly to bring the community back into the fold of Orthodox Judaism after centuries of near isolation from other Jewish communities — as well as decades of Soviet anti-religious policies.
The town itself was founded as a haven for Jews in 1742 by Fatah Ali Khan, the Muslim emir of the town of Quba, located in a relatively flat area just south of the the modern day border with the Russian province of Dagestan. While the rugged and remote area to the north had served as a haven for Jews for centuries, a period of unrest beginning in the 18th century saw local Sunnis turn on their Jewish counterparts and send them fleeing.
“At the time there was a lot of persecution against the ‘Mountain Jews’ and one Jewish town was burned down,” explains Dr. Alexander Murinson, a faculty member at Bahçeşehir International University, and expert on Caucasian Jewish communities. “Fatah Ali Khan invited Jews who had lived in that town, who were relatively wealthy, to settle across the river from Quba and assured them of their protection.”
According to Yaakobi, before the Soviets came in 1920, the town was host to geniuses, scholars, and people who performed miracles, but this all changed when the area was annexed as part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.
“When the Soviets came, they sent all the rabbis to the gulags,” Yaakobi says, “but there was always at least one synagogue being used here. Even though it was shuttered for a time, people continued to pray here in secret. Over time however, the people here lost their knowledge of Torah and Jewish law.”
A slightly different view is put forward by scholar Murinson, who points out that outside observers noted a lack of Jewish knowledge by locals much earlier.
“The story of the Soviets being responsible for the decline of Jewish learning in the town is the classic ‘those were the days’ ‘golden age’ kind of story,” Murinson says. “As early as the 19th century the level of Torah knowledge was very low and this is a fact. This was attested to by rabbis from the land of Israel and Eastern Europe who visited at the time.”
Whatever the case, by the time the Soviet Union fell, Judaism in Krasnaya Sloboda was in a sad state — knowledge of Torah and Jewish law was close to nil, and many in the younger generation simply were not interested in the religion.
This all changed with the arrival of Orthodox Jewish outreach groups to the area in the late 1990s. Although Chabad was not the first organization to arrive in the area, they, and Yaakobi in particular, have been instrumental in rekindling interest in Jewish culture, learning, and practice, transforming the community of Krasnaya Sloboda in the process.
Such a transformation was especially vital at the time when, amidst the economic turmoil following the fall of the Soviet Union, many were being swept up in lives of drugs and crime.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of Jews here seized the opportunity and became really rich,” Yaakobi says. “A lot of them made millions at a relatively young age. They went from nothing to being exceptionally rich and a lot of them began using drugs. When you suddenly get a lot of money and don’t know what to do with it, you lose your head. A lot of them died from drugs, many of them between 30 and 40 years old.”
The three cemeteries perched on a hill overlooking Krasnaya Sloboda are a testament to this, and are full of the graves of those who died during this period and whose bodies were brought back to the town for burial from various locations in Russia.
“That was a time when it was like the wild west,” explains Murinson. “There was a lot of criminality and lot of money was earned by criminal means in general. A lot of Azerbaijanis, including Jews, were involved in a lot of mafia-like activities in Russia. It was kind of like Chicago in the Prohibition era and a lot were killed during gang wars, drug use, and AIDS.”
According to Murinson, the entrance of Chabad on the scene transformed the lives of the younger generation, making them return to a more conservative, religious lifestyle, and saving their lives in the process.
This change can be seen clearly in the vibrant local synagogue where youth enthusiastically pray three times a day, and in the beit midrash where some 30 are enrolled studying Torah.
Several local young men have also recently qualified as cantors, and some others are now assisting Yaakobi in teaching at the beit midrash and at the local kindergarten.
There remains however, a serious issue: People are leaving Krasnaya Sloboda.
While for a time in the mid-20th century the town was considered by some to be the largest all-Jewish settlement outside of the land of Israel, numbers have since dwindled from an estimated peak of 18,000 to what Yaakobi estimates are currently around 1,000 permanent residents.
“Like all over the world, there are people leaving here for other places. People are leaving and the community is gradually getting smaller and smaller. This happened in Bukhara in Uzbekistan, where there aren’t even Jews at all now, slowly they all left,” Yaakobi explains.
‘If not for the money from outside, the town would be dead by now’
Even though Azerbaijan represents an anomaly in the Islamic world, being both Jewish and Israeli-friendly, a relatively low standard of living in the country and an almost non-existent local economy are taking a toll as residents seek greener pastures elsewhere.
With no local economy in the town and no jobs, those who chose to remain are forced to live off money sent from relatives working abroad in the United States, Israel and Russia.
“If not for the money from outside, the town would be dead by now. They know this, but they they don’t want to face it because it’s too painful,” says Murinson.
When it comes to emigration however, despite the upswing in religiosity among the younger generation, they harbor little interest in moving to the Jewish state, seeing Russia as the preferred choice. The general view of Israel in Krasnaya Sloboda is that it is a place where they will likely be ruined, both culturally and financially, and their traditional culture undermined.
“When you ask the people why they don’t want to move to Israel, they tell you ‘You can’t make a living there. The education is no good. There is no culture.’ That’s what everyone is saying here. They feel like Israel will ruin their children,” Yaakobi says.
A local youth explains his rationale, “In Israel you can have fun, but we aren’t looking just to have fun. We want to make a living, we want to go to Russia.”
Russia is seen as the great land of opportunity, and not without justification: Moving to Russia has paid off big for many emigres from the town, several of whom have become billionaires, such German Zakharyaev and God Nisanov.
Both men, who were childhood friends, moved from Krasnaya Sloboda to Moscow relatively recently, earning their vast fortunes in various business ventures. Signs of their success and that of others can be seen throughout the town in the form of dozens of recently built mansions and the many others currently under construction.
These tycoons in Russia and elsewhere are also behind the funding for much of the religious revival taking place in the town. Aside from the synagogue and beit midrash, foreign funds allowed for the construction of a brand new ritual bath complex and a soon to be completed museum about the Mountain Jews.
Also behind much of the funding of the religious side of Krasnaya Sloboda is the Israeli tycoon Lev Leviev, who, although a Bukharian from Uzbekistan and not a Mountain Jew, is a major benefactor of mizrahi Jewish communities, and particularly of Chabad.
This orientation towards Russia on the part of the locals means that aside from the local Persian based dialect of Juhuri which is spoken by all residents of Krasnaya Sloboda, parents prefer their children’s second language to be Russian, rather than the official Azerbaijani language.
Murinson describes Soviet times where “Russian was the language of high culture, it was a prestigious language. The goal for people in the town was to be as educated as possible, at least for the sake of prospering. You need to know the language of the imperial culture. Now everyone is seeking business opportunities in Russia so why bother with the local Azerbaijani language. Why do they need it? Many know Azerbaijani only on a minimal level.”
Even in the town’s graveyards, the tombstones are inscribed in Hebrew and Russian, with Azerbaijani nowhere to be found.
With all the locals leaving to Russia, Krasnaya Sloboda tends to feel like a ghost town for much of the year, but this changes during summer months when thousands return, wishing to be present in the summer on Tisha B’Av, when it is customary for them to pray at the graves of their ancestors.
According to Murinson, devotion to ancestors is one of the defining features of Caucasian culture, and this is certainly true for the Mountain Jews. It is also likely one of the reasons they retain such a strong attachment to their hometown.
An additional reason they continue to return, at least to visit, is simply because they can.
“One of the reasons why they keep coming back and have such a strong connection to this place is because of the good relations between them and the Muslims,” Yaakobi explains. “They feel at home here. It’s always easy to come back here to live.”
“This country is a tolerant country. 70% of them are Shia, and they are not radicals. They are modern. It is also a really diverse country, with many different backgrounds, so everyone has to find a way to live together peacefully. There are around 75 different nations living here together,” Yaakobi says.
Despite all of his successes, old habits die hard in Krasnaya Sloboda and Yaakobi can’t seem make the locals stop putting images of the deceased on graves — even though the practice has been ruled forbidden by several prominent rabbis, notably the Hatam Sofer in the 19th century.
Although it was not originally local custom, the Russian practice of depicting the deceased on graves was adopted eagerly by the Mountain Jews as it tied into the traditional importance of remembering their ancestors.
The very Russian depictions of the dead are not limited only to laymen, but surprisingly also include local rabbis.
A striking grave in one of the cemeteries features the image of Rabbi Natan, who was the local rabbi before the arrival of Chabad. In a large picture engraved on the black tombstone, Rabbi Natan is depicted realistically wearing his prayer shawl and holding a prayer book.
“It was his children who were responsible for making a picture on the grave — they don’t follow the mitzvot [commandments],” Yaakobi says.
“I think the pictures are going to stay,” contends Murinson. “At the end of the day, Chabad is not going to change the Mountain Jews so much. Yes, they can appeal to their religious sensibilities, but they won’t succeed in changing the culture overall.”
‘At the end of the day, Chabad is not going to change the Mountain Jews so much’
Nevertheless, Rabbi Yaakobi has imbued this obscure corner of the Caucasus with a renewed Jewish spirit that has influenced the community for the better. He has almost become one of the locals, and is seemingly beloved by all, even displaying a high command of the local language of Juhuri.
Even though the future of the community is uncertain due to emigration, Yaakobi remains positive and is ready to do what is necessary for the perpetuation of Judaism in an area that, just such a short time ago, was almost lost.
Regarding the future of Krasnaya Sloboda, Rabbi Yaakobi vows, “As long as there are Jews here, I plan to stay here.”