Mountain Jews

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Mountain Jews
Gavriil Ilizarov
Yafa Yarkoni
Sergey Izgiyayev
Mirza Khazar
Udi Adam
Israel Tsvaygenbaum
Yagutil Mishiev
Sarit Hadad
Lior Refaelov
Total population

2004: 150,000 to 270,000 (estimated)
1959: 25,000 (estimated)

1926: 26,000 (estimated)
Regions with significant populations
Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Israel,
United States, Russia
 Israel 100,000 to 140,000
 United States 10,000 to 40,000
 Russia 3,000 to 30,000[1]
 Azerbaijan 12,000 to 30,000
(according to Mountain
Jews community in Baku)
 European Union 3,000 to 10,000
Hebrew, Juhuri, Russian, Azerbaijani
Related ethnic groups
Azerbaijani Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Persian Jews, other Jewish ethnic divisions

Mountain Jews or Caucasus Jews also known as Judeo-Tats, Juhuro, Juvuro, Kavkazi Jews or Gorsky Jews are Jews of the eastern and northern slopes of Caucasus, mainly of Dagestan and Azerbaijan, as well as Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Krasnodar Krai and more. They are the descendants of Persian Jews from Iran.

The Mountain Jews community originated from Ancient Persia, from the 5th century AD onwards, and their language, Juhuri is an ancient Southwest Iranian language and a Persian dialect which integrates many elements of Ancient Hebrew.[2] It is believed that they had arrived in Persia from Ancient Israel as early as the 8th century BCE. 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 are distinct from Georgian Jews of the Caucasus Mountains. Both are culturally and ethnically different with independent languages and many differences in customs and culture.[3] They are also distinct from culturally similar Bukharan Jews.


Early History[edit]

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.[4]

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 (the ancient Nineveh). The reference, no doubt, 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, Persia and then entered, northbound, into Medai. The language of the Mountain Jews, Juhuri, is an ancient Southwest Iranian language, which integrates many elements of Ancient Hebrew.[2]

Mountain Jews maintained a strong military tradition. For this reason, some historians[who?] 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. Other writers proposed a controversial idea that Mountain Jews are descendants of Khazars.[5] Such origin of Mountain Jews, however, has been refuted by genetic data connecting Mountain Jewish Y-DNA haplotypes to other Jewish communities.[5] The Semitic origin of Mountain Jews is also evident in their culture and language. There is evidence, however, of interaction between the Mountain Jewish community and Khazars during the times of the Khazar Khaganate (618?-1048?), as seen in rare Jewish first names used by both communities.[5]

"The Jewish Valley"[edit]

By early 17th century, Mountain Jews formed many small settlements throughout mountain valleys of Dagestan.[6] One valley, located 10 km south of Derbent, close to the shore of the Caspian Sea, was predominantly populated by Mountain Jews, earning itself the nickname of "Jewish Valley" from its Muslim neighbors. 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).[6] 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.[6] Many Mountain Jews were slaughtered, with survivors escaping to Derbent where they received the protection of Fatali Khan, the ruler of Quba Khanate.[6]

In the 18th–19th 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 settled in a part of their own; in towns they did the same, although their dwellings did not differ from those of their neighbors. Mountain Jews retained the dress of the highlanders. Judaic dietary laws ensured they retained specific dishes, and they enshrined their faith in the rules for family life.

Soviet Times, the Holocaust and Modern History[edit]

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; Quba and Baku in Azerbaijan.[7]

In the Second World War parts of the area were occupied by the German Wehrmacht at the end of 1942. Several hundreds of Mountain Jews were killed until the Germans retreated early 1943. In a single day, on September 20, 1942, 420 Mountain Jews were murdered near the village of Bogdanovka. Many Mountain Jews survived, however, partly because their areas were not reached by German troops, partly, because German authorities considered them as "religious" but not "racial" Jews,[8] or, as in the case of Nalchik community, because of timely advance of the Soviet Army.[9] The Mountain Jewish community of Nalchik was the largest Mountain Jewish community occupied by Nazis,[9] and the vast majority of the population has survived. With the help of their Kabardian neighbors, Mountain Jews of Nalchik managed to convince SS squads that they were native local people, Tats, unrelated to the larger Jewish community.[9] Under watchful eyes of Nazi occupiers, the religious leader of the community, famed Rabbi Nachamil ben Hizkiyahu hid Sefer Torahs by burying them in the ground in a fake burial ceremony.[10] The city was liberated a few month later, before the Jewish origins of the community were clarified.

With changing economic and political realities following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many Mountain Jews permanently left their hometowns in the Caucasus and relocated to Moscow or abroad.[11] The community has been particularly affected by First Chechen War that saw high incidence of kidnappings and violence at the hands of militants against the local Jewish community.[12] Today, notable number of Mountain Jews reside in Israel and United States.[13][14]

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


While elsewhere in the Jewish diaspora, Jews were prohibited from owning land (cf. the Jews of 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, an activity prohibited for Muslims by their religion. 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. The former isolated lifestyle of the Jews has practically ended, and they live side by side with 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. In fact, academic professions were much more common among the Mountain Jewish than Georgian Jews, though still less comparing to the professional stratum in the Soviet Ashkenazi community. A sizable number of Mountain Jewish worked in the entertainment industry in Dagestan.[15] The republic's world-acclaimed dancing ensemble "Lezginka" was led by Tankho Israilov, a Mountain Jew, for twenty one years (1958–79).[16][17]


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 Sephardi (from the Iberian Peninsula) nor Ashkenazim (from Germany) but rather come directly by way of Persia. Mountain Jews tenaciously held on to their religion throughout the centuries, developing their own unique traditions and religious practices.[18] Mountain Jewish traditions are infused with teachings of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.[19]

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.[20] 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.[6] Many works of religious significance were written in Aba-Sava. Here, Elisha ben Schmuel Ha-Katan wrote several of his piyyuts.[6] 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.[6] With the brutal destruction of Aba-Sava (roughly 1800), however, the religious center of Mountain Jews moved to Derbent.

It has been reported that the fifth rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (1860-1920) took a personal interest in the fate of Mountain Jews. He investigated their position and learned that because of their physical isolation many Mountain Jewish communities lacked spiritual and educational leaders,[21] though their national and religious identity continue to play a central role in daily life.[15] The rabbi organized a determined campaign to strengthen the community's faith. He appointed a distinguish scholar, Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, to organize Jewish schools and Talmudic seminaries in the Caucasus and to train the next generation of rabbis, teachers, hazzans, and shochets who could perform religious rituals according to community's tradition. The task proved quite difficult, as Mountain Jews initially resisted the authority of Ashkenazi rabbis. With hard work, however, Chabad managed to overcome the prejudice and help Mountain Jews accept much-needed help.[21] Prominent rabbis of Mountain Jews in the nineteenth century included 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.[22][23]

The next trying times for the community came in the form of Soviet authority's assimilation efforts and prevailing Soviet antisemitism. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet Union started a more aggressive persecution campaign against Judaism. During this time, 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.[19] Soviet antisemitism and anti-Zionism rhetoric was further intensified during Khrushchev rule. In 1960, blood libel accusations shook Dagestan. Increasingly hostile atmosphere towards their faith and national identity affected Mountain Jews.[7]

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[7] after some were confiscated by the Soviet authorities.[24] While Mountain Jews still carefully observed the rituals of circumcision, marriage and burial, as well as Jewish holidays,[25] other precepts of Jewish faith were observed less punctiliously.[7] The community's national identity, however, remained unshaken despite the Soviet efforts[26] and cases of intermarriage were rare.[27][28] After the fall of the Soviet Union, Mountain Jews experienced a significant religious revival, with active participation by members of the younger generation.[29]

Educational institutions, language, literature[edit]

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

Mountain Jews speak Juhuri - a form of Persian, it belongs to the southwestern group of the Iranian division of the Indo-European languages. Juhuri has Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic/Arabic) elements on all linguistic levels.[30] Among other Semitic elements, Juhuri 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, Juhuri books, newspapers, textbooks, and other materials were printed with a Latin alphabet and finally in Cyrillic, which is still most common today.[30] The first native-language newspaper, Zakhmetkesh (Working People) was published in 1928 and continued its existence until the second half of the twentieth century.[31]

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.[32] In the early 20th century, with advance of sovietization, Juhuri became the language of instruction at newly founded elementary schools that were attended by both Mountain Jewish boys and girls. This policy continued until the beginning of World War II, when schools finally switched Russian.

Mountain Jewish community gave birth to many well-known scholars and leaders in public health, education, culture, and art.[33] However, the names of some individuals known in Russia and even internationally cannot be cited as Mountain Jews because, for the most part, they are officially identified as Tats, Azerbaijanis, Daghestanis, and even Russians. The practice traces back to Soviet times, when with encouragement of the state, some Mountain Jews hid their identity to avoid antisemitism. Today, measures are being taken to foster the cultural life of minorities. In Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, Juhuri and Hebrew courses has been introduced in traditionally Mountain Jewish schools. In Dagestan steps are being taken toward the rebirth of the Juhuri theater and the publication of newspapers.[33]


Military Tradition[edit]

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[34]

Mountain Jews are known for their military tradition and have been historically viewed as fierce warriors. The importance of a man's ability to defend himself in Mountain Jewish culture could perhaps date back to the formation of Mountain Jews as a distinct ethnic group. 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.[35] Men were typically heavily armed and some even slept without having their weapons removed.[22]


Jewish Girls of the Caucasus. 1913.

The typical dress code of Mountain Jews was indistinguishable from dress codes 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 also 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).[36] Women's dress was typically of simpler design, dark tones, made from silk, brocade, velvet, satin and later wool and decorated with beads, gold pins or buttons, and silver gold-plated belts. Both single and married women covered their hair with headscarfes outside of the house.[36]


Mountain Jewish cuisine absorbed typical dishes from various peoples of the Caucasus, adjusting some recipes along the way to comply with the laws of kashrut. Typical Mountain Jewish dishes include chudu (a type of meat piе), shashlik, dolma, kurze (closely resemble meat-stuffed varenyky), khinkali, tara (herb stew with pieces of meat), nermov (chicken or other meat stew with wheat and beans), etc.[37] Jewish holidays-themed dishes include potato kugul and buhulu (a spread made of ground matzos, eggs, apples, pomegranate seeds) prepared for Passover, milk kashas made for Shavuot, and a variety of hoshalevo (honey-based treats made with sunflower seeds or walnuts) typically prepared for Purim.

Notable Mountain Jews[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Динамика численности горских евреев , Новости горских евреев". Динамика численности горских евреев , Новости горских евреев. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Mountain Jews: customs and daily life in the Caucasus, Leʼah Miḳdash-Shemaʻʼilov, Liya Mikdash-Shamailov, Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem), UPNE, 2002, page 17
  3. ^ Mountain Jews: customs and daily life in the Caucasus, Leʼah Miḳdash-Shemaʻʼilov, Liya Mikdash-Shamailov, Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem), UPNE, 2002, page 9
  4. ^ Mountain Jews: customs and daily life in the Caucasus, Leʼah Miḳdash-Shemaʻʼilov, Liya Mikdash-Shamailov, Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem), UPNE, 2002, page 19
  5. ^ a b c Brook, Kevin Alan. The Jews of Khazaria. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006, page 233
  6. ^ a b c d e f g "Еврейское поселение Аба-Сава, Блоги на сайте СТМЭГИ". Retrieved 2015-05-22. 
  7. ^ a b c d Pinkus, B., & Frankel, J. (1984). The Soviet Government and the Jews, 1948-1967: A Documented Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. ^ 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, pages 96-114.
  9. ^ a b c "Горские евреи — жертвы Холокоста - Горские евреи. История, этнография, культура". Retrieved 2015-05-22. 
  10. ^ Дима Мордэхай Раханаев (2012-09-19). "Рабби Нахамиль , Автор статьи Дима Мордэхай Раханаев, Новости горских евреев". Retrieved 2015-05-22. 
  11. ^ Gorodetsky, L. (2001). Jews from the Caucasus: A dying breed? Accessed November 12, 2013.
  12. ^ JTA. (2000). Around the Jewish World: Russia’s Mountain Jews Support War in Chechnya, but Are Eager to Get out.; Accessed November 12, 2013.
  13. ^ Mountain Jews – by Sarah Marcus – Tablet Magazine – A New Read on Jewish Life. Accessed November 12, 2013.
  14. ^ Brown, F. (2002). Mountain Jews struggle to keep culture intact. Accessed November 12, 2013
  15. ^ a b Pinkus, B., & Frankel, J. (1984). The Soviet Government and the Jews, 1948-1967: A Documented Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chicago
  16. ^ "Еврейский архитектор ЛЕЗГИНКИ". Горские Евреи JUHURO.COM. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  17. ^ "ИЗРАИЛОВ Танхо Селимович". Словари и энциклопедии на Академике. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  18. ^ Cnaan Liphshiz. (2013). Jewish shtetl in Azerbaijan survives amid Muslim majority.; Accessed at November 12, 2013.
  19. ^ a b Miḳdash-Shemaʻʼilov, L. (2002). Mountain Jews: Customs and daily life in the Caucasus (Vol. 474). UPNE. Chicago
  20. ^ "горские евреи. Электронная еврейская энциклопедия". 2006-07-04. Retrieved 2015-05-22. 
  21. ^ a b The Mountain Jews.; Accessed November 12, 2013
  22. ^ a b "DAGHESTAN -". Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  23. ^ "Рабби Нахамиль , Автор статьи Дима Мордэхай Раханаев, Новости горских евреев". Рабби Нахамиль , Автор статьи Дима Мордэхай Раханаев, Новости горских евреев. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  24. ^ Jewish Virtual History Library, Azerbaijan, Accessed November 11, 2013.
  25. ^ Cnaan Liphshiz. (2013). Jewish shtetl in Azerbaijan survives amid Muslim majority.; Accessed at November 12, 2013
  26. ^ Miḳdash-Shemaʻʼilov, L. (2002). As a result of these experiences, they developed a keen skill in mechanics and particular: classic car restoration. Mountain Jews: Customs and daily life in the Caucasus (Vol. 474). UPNE. Chicago
  27. ^ Alexander Murinson. Jews in Azerbaijan: a History Spanning Three Millennia.; Accessed November 12, 2012.
  28. ^ Behar, D. M., Metspalu, E., Kivisild, T., Rosset, S., Tzur, S., Hadid, Y., ... & Skorecki, K. (2008). Counting the founders: the matrilineal genetic ancestry of the Jewish Diaspora. Plos one, 3(4), e2062.
  29. ^ BRYAN SCHWARTZ. Teens lead Azerbaijan Jews up the spiritual mountain.; Accessed November 12, 2013.
  30. ^ a b "Juhuri - Endangered Language Alliance". Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  31. ^ "Горско-еврейские газеты советского периода, Автор статьи Хана Рафаэль, Новости горских евреев". Горско-еврейские газеты советского периода, Автор статьи Хана Рафаэль, Новости горских евреев. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  32. ^ "Горские евреи в русской школе - Горские евреи. История, этнография, культура". Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  33. ^ a b "Mountain Jews". Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  34. ^ The Mountain Jews of Daghestan, Jewish Communities in Exotic Places by Ken Blady (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 2000), pages 158
  35. ^ The Mountain Jews of Daghestan, Jewish Communities in Exotic Places by Ken Blady (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 2000), pages 158-159
  36. ^ a b "Национальная одежда и украшения горских евреев". DataLife Engine. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
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  38. ^ a b c d e "Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan and Dagestan, Новости горских евреев". Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan and Dagestan, Новости горских евреев. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  39. ^ "Good name is very valuable thing." From interview of his daughter Lyudmila Hizgilovna Avshalumov. Retrieved 08.06.2011.
  40. ^ "Сарит Хадад". Горские Евреи JUHURO.COM. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  41. ^ "It's an all-Jewish town, but no, it's not in Israel - The Jewish Chronicle". Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  42. ^ "Воспоминания об отце". Горские Евреи JUHURO.COM. Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  43. ^ "Официальное опубликование правовых актов в электронном виде". 2014-01-14. Retrieved 2015-05-22. 
  44. ^ "Yaffa Yarkoni - Jewish Women's Archive". Retrieved 15 September 2014. 
  45. ^ "German Zakharyaev". 1971-07-07. Retrieved 2015-05-22. 
  46. ^

External links[edit]

  •, New York Times
  •, website created by Vadim Alhasov in 2001. Daily updates reflect the life of Mountain Jewish (juhuro) community around the globe.
  •, New Frontier is a monthly Mountain Jewish newspaper, founded in 2003. International circulation via its web site. «Новый Рубеж» является ежемесячной газетой Горско-Еврейской общины США. Она издается с мая месяца 2003 года. Отражая жизнь общины не только в пределах своей страны, она информирует о новостях и событиях происходящих в Горско-Еврейских общинах во всем мире.
  •, Israeli website of Mountain Jews.
  •, Mountain Jews, website in Russian language.
  • "Judæo-Tat", Ethnologue