Feature: The Mountain Jews of Brooklyn
The Gorskis are recent transplants to the United States, but they have a long, historic memory and form a tight-knit community.
Hanging in a place of honor on the wall of Nina Nissanova’s living room, with its wood-and-glass china display cabinet, serene landscape paintings and small television, is a short, black Japanese sword. The weapon, the kind sold to tourists in Chinatown, is a replacement for a lost heirloom. “Back home [in Dagestan] we had a beautiful, silver-decorated dagger, passed down the generations,” recalls Nissanova, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, “but we had to abandon it with most of our family valuables.”
Nissanova, 60, a former school principal who is now a nanny, came with her family to Brooklyn in the 1990s from Derbent, an ancient city in Dagestan. They are Gorski, or Mountain Jews, members of a community that has lived for two millennia in the Caucasus (Kavkaz) Mountains, in Dagestan, Azerbaijan, Chechnya and the Kabardino-Balkar Republic. This was the wild frontier of the Persian, Russian and Ottoman empires, populated as late as the 20th century by small feudal kingdoms and Muslim tribes. There, the violence of tribal life inspired formal menswear that included gunpowder cartridges draped across the chest and a knightly belt with a massive dagger.
Today, the transplanted Jewish community in the United States, the majority of whom live in Brooklyn with smaller enclaves in Detroit and Pennsylvania, is thriving, adapting their traditions and beliefs to newfound freedoms and opportunities. Nowadays, the traditional costume, abandoned as the Soviets westernized the Caucasus, is worn mostly by children performing at cultural events, when boys leap across the stage as mountain warriors and girls dressed as idealized village maidens sway in traditional folk dances.
“All the Kavkazians wore this,” says Ariel Elazarov, 66, a community activist in Brooklyn originally from Krasnaya Sloboda in Azerbaijan. “But our [Jewish] metalwork was decorated with Jewish symbols—stars, Hebrew writing, things like that. But our culture—that was always directly from the Torah.”
Sure enough, the one heirloom Nissanova managed to bring to the States is a parchment scroll of the Book of Esther. These descendents of Persian Jews have a special connection to Purim, which commemorates events in Persia. They call the holiday Hamano, after the villain Haman, and instead of hamentaschen they eat hadassoh—a soft flour-and-honey halvah named after the festival’s heroine.
Each Purim, Nissanova unrolls her scroll on her kitchen table. “I can’t read this,” she says regretfully—Jewish education in the Kavkaz was curtailed under Soviet rule—“but perhaps this way the apartment is imbued with its holiness.”
It is that blend of mysticism and adherence to tradition—combined with a veneer of Soviet-imposed secularism—that distinguishes Gorski Jews. “All Jews are religious,” says Yaakov Abramov, 50, head of the Brooklyn-based Cultural Center of Caucasus Jews in the USA, “but we don’t keep everything.”
This practical approach—following certain mitzvot in the home while not keeping others because of expediency—shows up in a variety of ways. For example, Gorskis generally buy kosher meat and have separate dishes for meat and dairy, but while some are fully Orthodox, the more secular will go to nonkosher restaurants and work on Shabbat.
Through the strength of their adherence to traditional practice without explanation, the Gorski culture managed to survive Soviet times more intact than that of Soviet Ashkenazim, whose religion was largely based on intellectual understanding and rabbinic authority. Miriam Heily, an Israeli Gorski writer hailed as the community’s Isaac Bashevis Singer, relates a story about an Azerbaijani family’s Passover preparations in her short-story compilation, Dusha Naroda (The Soul of a People, published by New Frontier): A mother forces her family to scrub the house in anticipation of the holiday, but neither knows nor wants to know the reason for the cleaning. Her daughter hears about Elijah but thinks he is like a Soviet building inspector.
The Gorskis speak a version of Farsi called Tat or Judeo-Tat, as it includes an admix of Hebrew.
In Israel, the language is called Kavkazit or Dagestanit. Among Gorski Jews, it is simply Juhuri (Jewish).
A defining factor for Gorskis is their close-knit extended families. Nissanova’s small apartment is quite full by American standards; when her youngest son married, he brought his new wife to live with his mother. “The groom brings his new bride to his father’s house,” says Nissanova. “She needs to be taught by her mother-in-law how to keep house and care for the family. This is the tradition.”
In the United States, the tradition requires modification. “There is no room for this in an American apartment,” says Rashbil Shamayev, a respected poet and writer in the Gorski diaspora. Instead, families live in the same neighborhood. And this closeness extends beyond family. Having come from areas of what Russians term “compact living” (distinct ethnoreligious neighborhoods), Gorskis quickly moved to create a cohesive community in the United States.
In some ways, however, their experiences parallel their Ashkenazic Soviet compatriots. Both groups speak Russian and have significant offshoots in Israel (where Gorski Jews have been relocating since the 19th century), Toronto and Germany. New immigrants to the United States initially work as taxi and truck drivers, nannies and housecleaners; their children are encouraged to become doctors, lawyers and accountants. And Gorskis are often grouped with Russians in population counts, though American Gorski leaders number their own community at between 10,000 and 20,000.
“It is hard to judge,” explains Binyamin Ruvinov, 34, a Gorski activist. “Sometimes our people are counted as Russians, sometimes as Sefardim, sometimes with Georgian Jews. [We plan] to make our own census.”
The Kavkazi Jewish Congregation, or Beit Knesset Ohr haMizrah, the sole Gorski synagogue in New York, is the physical and spiritual heart of the community. The two-story building on the northern end of Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn is set inside a small concrete front courtyard surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. Steep outdoor steps reminiscent of mountain village architecture lead to the attic that is home to the Cultural Center of Caucasus Jews in the USA and the Gorski newspaper, Noviy Rubezh (New Frontier).
A large tree stands to one side of the synagogue’s yard. Beneath it is a small cabinet with a counter piled with free publications and a tzedaka box. “There -are no members here,” notes Ruvinov, “no dues. People give what they can and when they want to or need to.”
Here, Gorski elders gather in the shade to talk before and after prayers—much as their parents and grandparents did in the old country.
The synagogue opened in 2001, a remarkable testimony to the determination of a community that had been in the United States for less than a decade. “We needed the synagogue to unite the community,” says Shamayev, the 70-something chairman of the council of elders, patriarchs active in promoting social and religious programs. Even the most secular of Gorskis see the synagogue as a necessary focus, and those who do not regularly attend services nevertheless visit before holidays to leave donations, often in the name of deceased loved ones.
The inviting synagogue stands empty on weekdays. “It is not proper to have people traipsing through the synagogue all week,” says Elazarov, who was instrumental in its building. A beit midrash, with card tables, folding chairs and an Oriental rug that covers the central space around the Ark and lectern, is used for everyday prayer.
“How can you have a Gorski space without rugs?” quips Elazarov. In the main sanctuary, ornate rugs cover most of the major areas. “Where we come from is one of the main places of rug manufacture in the [Former Soviet Union].”
The synagogue’s official rabbi is Yosef Elishevitz, a Lubavitch of Ashkenazic origin. “He fits our needs very well,” explains Elazarov. “He speaks Russian, which is very important for our older people.” Gorskis have always been easygoing in their acceptance of external religious resources and leadership—and tough-minded in their insistence on following their own customs.
“Our elders tell him our customs,” Ruvinov adds, “and he accommodates our traditions.”
“One man brought me a siddur, which had belonged to his grandfather,” say Moshe Scharhon, a Ladino-speaking Sefardic rabbi the Gorskis have adopted as a spiritual guide, “and it was…a Turkish-published Sefardic siddur with directions in Ladino.” After Russia took over the Kavkaz, Gorskis, who had earlier sent their rabbinical students to Baghdad, began to send them to Lithuanian yeshivot—albeit without adopting Ashkenazic customs.
Many Gorski minhagim (customs) can be traced to talmudic and medieval practices. A custom, based on the scrupulous observance of the advice of medieval rabbis, is to allow most any whim of a pregnant woman—including her right to walk into someone’s house and taste food that she smelled as she walked by (“bui varafdi”—felt a smell). Of course, Kavkazian aesthetics color the practice; one of the terrible results of not allowing a taste, according to tradition, could be that the child would be born with blue eyes. To this day, arranged marriages are permitted. Even in the early 20th century, it was considered appropriate to marry off premenstrual girls—a practice stopped by the Soviets. Danilova credits the uncertainties of American immigration with finally ending a modified practice of marrying off girls in their early teens. And among some of the younger people, with mostly secondary memories of Soviet power, the old traditions often move toward normative American Orthodoxy.
“All of our customs are straight from the Torah” is a statement repeated almost verbatim by many Gorskis, but this is not corroborated by Yehuda Cherni, Vsevolod Miller and other Russian anthropologists. They point to superstitions about demons and holidays that seem to stem from the Zoroastrian roots of the Kavkazi peoples. One holiday offered in proof is Sha’ame Vassal (Candle of Spring), which Nissanova remembers as a day when “everyone went out to the country. They made bonfires and jumped through them…grilled shashlik….” But, according to Elazarov, Sha’ame Vassal is a name for Lag B’Omer. Similarly, it is likely that the demons reported by early anthropologists to have been feared in Gorski villages are to be found in the pages of the Talmud.
But the unself-conscious traditionalism that got them through Soviet times is not enough in the individualistic United States. Here, there is a fear of assimilation. “[Children] are in public school, and there’s guys saying, ‘You’re one of us. Come, hang out,’” says Vitali Ruvinov, 28, leader of the community center’s youth section. “We need to provide an environment here to remind them of who they are.”
Filled with boundless energy, Ruvinov and others organize youth-oriented events, including a soccer league. Lubov Usupova, head of the women’s organization, founded the Kavkaz Youth Dance Ensemble five years ago. Gorski parents now insist their children learn Kavkazian national dances, and the children seem to appreciate the social rewards.
At the Gorski synagogue’s Sukkot celebration, a mass of tweens and teens engaged in a spirited dance competition. The boys moved explosively in warrior pantomime; the girls’ challenge is to appear graceful and genteel while picking imaginary grapes or rice. The New York troupe—which performs in Gorski neighborhoods in North America as well as in dance contests and intercultural events worldwide—is fortunate. Their two teachers, Telman Djalilov and Rustam Izrailov, are both renowned dancers and choreographers from the FSU. Izrailov is also the son of Tankho Izrailov, who traveled throughout the villages and towns of the Caucasus, collecting the folk dances he introduced to the world as the Lezginka. Though named after one Kavkazian tribe, the Lezgins, the dances are universal to the indigenous tribes of the Caucasus, including the Gorski Jews.
It is not known when Jews arrived in the Caucasus. Their traditions say that they are descended from the Jews sent to Medea “when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.,” says Shamayev, the ancient king’s name flowing naturally from his tongue.
What is known is that in the 6th century C.E., the Persian king Khosrov I Anushirvan sent large numbers of Jews to build up the mountain defenses on his northern border. The settlers included remnants of a Jewish uprising led by the head of the diaspora Mar Zutra II. The rebellion established an independent Jewish state in Iraq for seven years before it was defeated and the leaders executed.
The community was supplemented at subsequent periods with mass migrations from Iran and Iraq through the 18th century. “In Krasnaya Sloboda, we had separate neighborhoods based on where people had come from, with a separate synagogue for each one until the Soviets left us with only one synagogue,” explains Elazarov.
The Caucasus gradually became fully part of the Russian empire in 1869 at the end of a 50-year war between the Russians and an Islamic army, whose goal was a united Caucasus under strict sharia (Islamic law). The fundamentalist ideology of the rebels led the native Jews to back Russian forces. In return, Russian officers lobbied that Gorskis not be subject to the anti-Jewish laws in effect in Ashkenazic areas.
In 1926, the Caucasus became Soviet. There was little emigration from the Gorski areas during Soviet rule. But starting in the early 1990s, they fled in large numbers from the warfare that followed the Soviet collapse. According to Danilova, Grozniy had at least 12,500 Jews before the 1990s; today, there are none. Outside of Chechnya, many fled from the threat of Chechnyan expansionism and plans for a pan-Kavkazian sharia state. Others left because of the unstable new governments, with consequent poverty and rife criminality, including systematic kidnapping of Jews.
“There was no real anti-Semitism there,” explains Danilova, “but when a criminal thinks, ‘How can I make a quick buck?’ they saw Jews as a perfect target.”
Though she lives in the States, Danilova—whose grandparents’ portraits hang in the country’s main museum—still represents the Jews for the Kabardino-Balkarian people.
“They call us ‘our Jhurts’ [our Jews],” says Danilova, showing a photo book about Kabardino-Balkar with a section of images of Kabardi-no-Balkarian Jews. “We have always had a close and affectionate relationship with the Kabardin and Balkarian people, just look at how they saved us from the Nazis.”
When Nazis entered the capital city of Nalchik, the Gorskis, together with their Kabardin and Balkar neighbors, concocted a scheme to preserve their lives. They came to the Germans in full Kavkazian costume, with national food, a performance of national dances and songs, claiming to be a local Aryan tribe simply keeping Jewish ritual. The German forces were uncertain about what to do, and the delay caused by inquiries to central command allowed the Jews to hide among the population long enough for the Red Army to recapture the city.
Coincidentally, in Brooklyn today, the Gorski Jewish community has once again found itself in a chiefly Muslim neighborhood.
We lived among them for centuries,” says Abramov. “We [can] provide the Jewish community with a model of Jewish-Islamic dialogue.” Abramov and other Gorski leaders are indefatigable in building relationships with the new Muslim states of the FSU.
“Look, these are new states and they are looking for a model,” he says. “They can either go the way of Turkey, a NATO ally, a friend of Israel.… Or they can accept support from Iran and its ilk and move in that direction.”
Efforts by Abramov, Danilova and others have had an effect on newly established Muslim nations. In Azerbaijan, synagogues taken away by the Soviets are being rebuilt. A new yeshiva has opened in Krasnaya Sloboda.
In Nalchik, the Jewish center is thriving with the help of the Israeli Education Ministry. Jews who have built new lives in Israel and the United States are investing in their homelands. In fact, though it is not yet a plausible option, even the mufti of Chechnya has invited the Jews back into his country.
But while they visit when they can and maintain a connection to their beloved mountains through dance, story and song, the Gorski Jews of New York have for now embarked on another phase of their long history. More and more, they and certainly their children are becoming Gorski Americans, adapting their ancient traditions to a welcoming new land.
What’s in a Name?
A few years ago, a Brooklyn eatery hung a sign promoting its “Caucasian Food.” The sign had the neighborhood musing about such delicacies as Wonder Bread sandwiches with mayonnaise and soggy, boiled beef and potatoes.
What the hapless restaurateur had meant to note, as many of the jokesters well knew, was that this restaurant would be serving delicacies such as shashlik (grilled cubes of marinated lamb, beef or chicken), plov (a stew of rice and meat), kharcho (a spicy, rich soup of lamb and rice), dushpara (meat dumplings) and dolma (grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice). In short, the food of the people of the Caucasus, the mountainous region of the southeast European section of the Russian empire.
The confusion is not coincidental. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European Romantics traveled heavily in the Caucasus region, where they encountered armor-clad warriors fighting for honor at a time when Europe’s age of chivalry was centuries gone. These poet-adventurers saw in the Caucasus people the progenitors of the noble white race—“pure whites” more akin to the ancient Germans than their day’s “dirty whites” of Europe.
To avoid the issue, some discussing the Caucasus Mountains have taken to using the Russian Kavkaz and Kavkazian. The dark-haired, dark-eyed Jews of the Caucasus call themselves Juhuro, meaning Jew in Judeo-Tat. In Russian, they are called Gorskiye Yevreyi (Mountain Jews) and Kavkazkiye Yevreyi. Inasmuch as Americans recognize the group at all, the term Mountain Jews has been used.
Today, the young people of the increasingly organized community in New York (above, in the community center) are urging the usage of Gorski, on par with Ashkenazic, Sefardic or Mizrahi. “Some have thought about ‘Kavkazi,’ and have used this,” says youth activist Binyamin Ruvinov. “But it is misleading—the Georgian Jews are, of course, as much Kavkazian, but are very different from us, and in Moscow, the confusion is already common.”