TO HAVE BEEN BORN IN
Semyon Ikhiilov is the
leader of the Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan, the largest Jewish community in the
country. He gives Visions magazine his perspective on the fascinating history
of the Mountain Jews and talks about their lives in modern-day
Where does the name Mountain Jews come from?
Many Jews have a
prefix such as Mountain Jews, German Jews, Syrian Jews, or Ashkenazi Jews,
Sephardic Jews and others. After slavery in
The Jews are peaceful, not warlike people, and our ancestors became close friends with the Tats. For 300-400 years the Jews gave their daughters in marriage to the Tats and vice versa. The Jews and Tats intermingled and as a result the Jews gradually lost their language and began to speak Tat. But the Jews are religious people and they kept the Torah with them and prayed in Hebrew three times a day. These Hebrew prayers remain in our folk memory and are the only Hebrew that we know today. The language of daily life became Tat and the Tat-speaking Jews were called Mountain Jews.
Our nation has
survived difficult times. When our ancestors lived in the mountains they were
attacked by the forces of Nadir Shah as well as by Lezgins
and other ethnic groups that lived in present-day
Everything was fine until the establishment of the Soviet regime. In the Soviet era the Jews' business and religious life fell into decay. Prominent rabbis were executed, while other rabbis and their families were sent into internal exile so that they could not return to Krasnaya Sloboda. Synagogues were closed. At best God's houses were turned into party branches, at worst into warehouses.
Even during the
most prosperous period of the
Today the Mountain
Jews are the largest community of Jews in
What is the current state of the Mountain Jewish Community of
As I have already said, Mountain
Jews have lived in
condition of the Mountain Jews does leave something to be desired. Today mostly
elderly Jews live in
enough voluntary donations, we try not to leave needy families without financial support.
poorest are often the elderly whose children have gone abroad. They are people
who have lived all their lives in
The American-Jewish organization Joint supports us in providing aid to needy families. Joint was founded in 1927 and gives help to Diaspora Jews. Through the Jewish House they do their best to help the
elderly, of whom there
are around 2,000. They provide medical and food assistance and rent wards in
hospitals for treatment and medical check-ups. A ward will be put at the
disposal of our elderly for a week and all medical services are paid for.
Cultural programmes and trips within
Charitable dinners are held and hot meals are delivered to homes. Food assistance, winter clothes and medicines are donated. The needy are provided with gas-stoves, refrigerators, ventilators and other domestic appliances. Sometimes flats are repaired. Everything is done to ensure the welfare of people and their families. The special programme for the elderly includes lectures and meals. Cars fetch those who cannot walk unaided. They are also taken to the barbers and bath house.
How do the Mountain Jews fit into Azerbaijani society? Are they well integrated?
Mountain Jews are represented in almost all spheres of the economy. They take an active part in private business and are involved in political, medical, educational and cultural life. Our community is also represented in the Azerbaijani parliament.
Unemployment is a known problem. It is difficult to find professional work. The higher paid jobs go to those with a foreign language and computer skills. The question arises: what do people do with a doctor's, engineer's or teacher's diploma?
Is there a problem of mass Jewish emigration from
Most of the Jewish community now lives outside the country. They work abroad to support their families and children.
Our community is suffering from the common economic problems. In the past a member of the family might leave for a former Soviet country or elsewhere to earn money. They would be able to come back to attend, say, family weddings, their sons' and daughters' Bar and Bat Mizvah or funerals. They visited God's house – the synagogue - and made their voluntary donation.
There was a time
when Jews emigrated from
How do you get on
with other faiths in
For a long time the three traditional faiths in Azerbaijan have formed a highly tolerant trio: the Sheykh-ul-Islam of the Caucasus, Haji Allahshukur Pashazade; the Bishop of Baku and the Caspian Eparchy [of the Russian Orthodox Church], Bishop Alexander; and your obedient servant, the chairman of the Religious Community of the Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan, Semyon Ikhiilov. The three of us attend events together. If one of us was absent from any official event, [the late President] Heydar Aliyev would certainly take an interest and ask, "Where is the Sheikh?" or "Where is Semyon?"
This is evidence of the high level of relations amongst the traditional religious communities. Under the conditions of tolerance that prevail in Azerbaijani society we have respect for religions and cooperate with one another in mutual understanding.
The Community of Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan has a special place in the country. We are treated very well. We make our contribution to society and the leadership of the country as well as to other fraternal religions.
On 19 October 2007
our community held a general meeting and election in the Mountain Jews' synagogue.
Three items were on the agenda: the annual report, internal discipline in the
synagogue - worshippers should attend the synagogue on time and should observe
holiness and not speak during prayers - and the election of a new chairman. The
Sheykh-ul-Islam of the Caucasus, Sheykh
Bishop Alexander of the
Three candidates were nominated for the position of chairman of the Community of Mountain Jews. Everyone chose the candidacy of the current chairman and from 1 January 2008 I will begin the new term of my chairmanship.
religious leaders such as Aleksiy II, the Patriarch
of All Russia, and the late Pope John Paul II visited
I would like to
state clearly that anti-Semitism has never existed in
or delegations visiting
Armenia- Azerbaijan conflict has already lasted for 20 years. Internationally, Armenians try to present it as an inter-religious conflict, a clash of civilizations. Do you think this is accurate?
The Armenians have always tried to give this conflict a religious hue. We have never had this problem. During the difficult years of the Karabakh conflict we were united with the fraternal Azerbaijani nation and fought for the territorial integrity of our Republic.
My friendship with
Sheykh ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade arose
during the tragic days of
cent victims fell at the
hand of the Soviet Army when troops were brought onto the streets of
There were also
Jews who died during the January tragedy. Jew Albert Agaronov
is a national hero of
What is your
I'm proud that I
was born in
I think that all
the Mountain Jews consider
Inetrviewed by Rovshan Didavari