President’s Column: Back in the (Former) U.S.S.R.
When I travel abroad, I usually have a mental picture of where I’m going. But I confess that I had no preconceived ideas before landing in Azerbaijan.
Hadassah Executive Director Morlie Levin and I were participants on a mission in February of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which included a trip to the Jewish community in the former Soviet republic. To get there, we flew via Israel, where we took an El Al charter flight to Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital.
Azerbaijan, independent since 1991, sits between Russia and Iran on the Caspian Sea. Much of it is dominated by the rugged, barren Caucasus Mountains. But there’s nothing barren about Baku, a city of fast-paced development and enterprise. The country is on the cusp of an economic boom, with the completion of a pipeline linking its Caspian oil fields to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. As a result, the government anticipates a 28-percent increase in the gross national product next year. Since independence, Azerbaijan has opened 132 new schools and has a plan to develop regional hospitals. I offered Hadassah’s help, an offer that was appreciated.
Music to our ears in this secular Muslim society—with Christian and Jewish minorities—was the constant emphasis on a commitment to brotherhood and equality. Wherever we went, we saw new construction, but it was clear that citizens are most proud of how Jews and Muslims can live together in peace.
The government maintains excellent relations with the United States, including flyover permission for our military aircraft. It also has very good relations with Israel. They know their oil won’t last forever and look to Israel as a model of achievement despite meager natural resources. To bring Azerbaijan into a high-tech world, the government is seeking Israel’s help. All this despite their president’s impending tenure as the chair of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
While Muslims elsewhere were staging violent protests in response to the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, there were no such demonstrations in Azerbaijan. Religious leaders there told us that although the cartoons were insulting, there was no excuse for violence.
Mountain Jews first appeared in Azerbaijan more than 15 centuries ago and still speak a dialect of New Persian, called Judeo-Tat. They were joined in the 19th century by Ashkenazi and Georgian Jews, who came to participate in the development of oil resources. During the 70 years of Communism, most religious institutions were closed and the forced acculturation took its toll. But because of the distance from Moscow, the decimation of Jewish life wasn’t complete. The seeds have sprouted again, and on a Friday morning at Baku’s Jewish center we felt as if we might have been in a JCC in America, with Hebrew classes, sports and people studying the week’s Torah portion.
A two-hour drive north of Baku brought us to Quba, a town split by the Gudialchai River; on one side live Shi’ite Muslim Azeris and on the other 4,000 Mountain Jews. On the Jewish side of town, we saw mezuzot on every doorpost and gate. Oddly, we saw only men on the streets, some with kippot and others with black berets. Jewish women in colorful headscarves peeked at us from windows and from behind gates, not taking part in community or synagogue leadership. But despite the different mores, I was moved by a sense of commonality in meeting Jews who share with us a love of Judaism and Israel.
We left Azerbaijan and returned to Israel for the continuation of the Conference and Jewish Agency meetings. I had that rush of emotion that we all experience on landing in Israel. Whether we’re from Baku or Brooklyn, Quba or Quebec, Israel means coming home.
I’ll be celebrating Passover in New Jersey with my boisterous family. Wherever you are in our far-flung, multifaceted Jewish world, I wish you a joyous holiday and hope that the Seder’s promise of “Next Year in Jerusalem” will come true for each and every one of you.