Krasnaya Sloboda, AzerbaijaN

The Last Jewish Shtetl

Before there was a Soviet Union, the learned men of Yevreskaya Sloboda -- literally, "Jewish Village" -- were widely known and prayed at 11 synagogues. The Communists closed the synagogues, exiled the rabbis to Siberia and changed the town's name to Krasnaya Sloboda, which means "Red Village."

Those who grew up in the Soviet Union before Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the mid-1980s were deprived of formal Jewish education. At the end of the 20th Century, however, Jewish practice revived in this mountain town of 4,000 Jews -- the last predominantly Jewish village in the Former Soviet Union.

Dozens of young men began studying at Krasnaya Sloboda's new yeshiva, staffed with Israeli teachers. The same teachers began instructing girls, aged 9 to 13, in Hebrew and Jewish songs. By the beginning of the 21st Century, year-round, the streets were ringing with "Shalom! Ma nishmah?" -- Hebrew for "Hello! How are you?”

While the traditional culture of the Mountain Jews, as Krasnaya Sloboda´s inhabitants are known, rigidly respects patriarchal authority, the young people's superior knowledge has turned this notion upside down.

Levy Zarbaiyulev, at age 20, already considered himself too old for Jewish study. "I have to earn, not learn," he says. On Jewish holidays, Levy follows the lead of his younger brother, Mark, who at age 16 was already a rising star in Krasnaya Sloboda's religiously-blossoming Jewish community.

On an average day, at 6 a.m. Mark is already walking to the yeshiva before school. The yeshiva gave him a key because he often is the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. Two hours later, as sunlight breaks over the mountains, Mark steps into the street just stirring with the plodding footsteps of sleepy men heading to synagogue for morning services.

A young man leading the service stands on a small platform bedecked with Stars of David and races through the service at an auctioneer´s pace. The other young men crowd into the corner of the room, poring over prayer books, murmuring in Hebrew, standing and repeatedly bowing.

Men older than 20 mutely stare into space from their preferred seats on long benches. The young men wear kipot, the older men tall furry hats or flat, soft wool caps. When the young leader pauses, the older men shout "Amen!" reflexively. When the young leader yells "Kaddish!" nearly all of the older men bolt to their feet, pull folded papers from their pockets and struggle through the mourners' prayer, transliterated from Hebrew into Cyrillic characters.

Though for now the older generations lack the Jewish wisdom for which the village was once famous, Mark Zarbaiyulev is confident that Krasnaya Sloboda is on a path to regaining its former Jewish glory.

"Every day, there are more students coming to the yeshiva," he says. "Because of that, I think there will be more synagogues, more schools, so that when we're old men here, it will be Yevreskaya Sloboda -- a Jewish village -- once again."

Bryan Schwartz visited the Krasnaya Sloboda community in 2001 and presents its members in vivid text and photographs in his book with Jay Sand and Sandy Carter, Scattered Among the Nations.


"We did not have our own shokhet (Jewish ritual slaughterer) for eight years in Krasnaya Sloboda," Elazar Nisimov reflects as he wets and sharpens, wets and sharpens, wets and sharpens his long blade. "My friends could not have meat for the holidays, so I decided to learn to be a shokhet, so everyone could have kosher meat." Elazar studied eleven months in Israel to be certified before returning to his village. This is his first day on the job. He tests the blade on his calloused thumb, then continues methodically sharpening. "If it is cut wrong, it's tref (unkosher)." Dozens of villagers gather in a cluttered square with their chickens for the upcoming Passover feast, birds and men all clucking with excitement. Elazar, well-trained and unfazed, slits one chicken throat after the next. The young, religious men are especially eager. One observes that he has gone over a year without meat while waiting for a certified shokhet to visit.

"We did not have our own shokhet (Jewish ritual slaughterer) for eight years in Krasnaya Sloboda," Elazar Nisimov reflects as he wets and sharpens, wets and sharpens, wets and sharpens his long blade. "My friends could not have meat for the holidays, so I decided to learn to be a shokhet, so everyone could have kosher meat." Elazar studied eleven months in Israel to be certified before returning to his village. This is his first day on the job. He tests the blade on his calloused thumb, then continues methodically sharpening. "If it is cut wrong, it's tref (unkosher)." Dozens of villagers gather in a cluttered square with their chickens for the upcoming Passover feast, birds and men all clucking with excitement. Elazar, well-trained and unfazed, slits one chicken throat after the next. The young, religious men are especially eager. One observes that he has gone over a year without meat while waiting for a certified shokhet to visit.

Rabbi Natan Noachovitch Iliaguyev leads the last active synagogue of the thirteen that functioned in Krasnaya Sloboda before Stalin exiled most of the rabbis to Siberia. Rabbi Natan's father, Rabbi Noach, quietly led the synagogue for forty years before his son inherited the job -- though neither of them was ever certified as a rabbi. Most could not openly attend the synagogue during Communist rule, but the community was permitted to hold its "Askara" memorial services each year to remember the anniversary of a loved one's death. The ceremonies were among the few opportunities to celebrate with the community in a Jewish context and communicate Jewish traditions. Even with religious freedom now restored, Askara remains a cherished custom in Krasnaya Sloboda. Ten men, a host of fruits and plenty of vodka complete the occasion. The men respond "Amen" to each of Rabbi Natan's memorial prayers and "L'Chaim!" ("To life!") as the son of the departed makes the first of many toasts remembering his father. Every blessing said at the memorial pays tribute to the deceased. Since each type of fruit has its own Hebrew blessing, each of the ten men says a blessing for each piece of fruit he eats, with "Amen" responses around the table. The meal is frequently interrupted, but everyone leaves feeling very good -- for 10 A.M. on a Wednesday.

Rabbi Natan Noachovitch Iliaguyev leads the last active synagogue of the thirteen that functioned in Krasnaya Sloboda before Stalin exiled most of the rabbis to Siberia. Rabbi Natan's father, Rabbi Noach, quietly led the synagogue for forty years before his son inherited the job -- though neither of them was ever certified as a rabbi. Most could not openly attend the synagogue during Communist rule, but the community was permitted to hold its "Askara" memorial services each year to remember the anniversary of a loved one's death. The ceremonies were among the few opportunities to celebrate with the community in a Jewish context and communicate Jewish traditions. Even with religious freedom now restored, Askara remains a cherished custom in Krasnaya Sloboda. Ten men, a host of fruits and plenty of vodka complete the occasion. The men respond "Amen" to each of Rabbi Natan's memorial prayers and "L'Chaim!" ("To life!") as the son of the departed makes the first of many toasts remembering his father. Every blessing said at the memorial pays tribute to the deceased. Since each type of fruit has its own Hebrew blessing, each of the ten men says a blessing for each piece of fruit he eats, with "Amen" responses around the table. The meal is frequently interrupted, but everyone leaves feeling very good -- for 10 A.M. on a Wednesday.

Krasnaya Sloboda's young men lead the community. At age 20, Elazar Nisimov had already taken his place among the village's oldest learned men.  Having just returned from Shurut Ami yeshiva in Israel, where he became a certified shokhet (Jewish ritual slaughterer -- see photo/caption below), Elazar reads through the morning prayers in Hebrew like a native-born Israeli. Though he may eventually return to Israel, for now, his talents are needed in his village, where he is admired both by the younger boys and the older men. The latter grew up during the Communist era, when Jewish learning like that which Elazar received was strictly prohibited.

Krasnaya Sloboda's young men lead the community. At age 20, Elazar Nisimov had already taken his place among the village's oldest learned men.  Having just returned from Shurut Ami yeshiva in Israel, where he became a certified shokhet (Jewish ritual slaughterer -- see photo/caption below), Elazar reads through the morning prayers in Hebrew like a native-born Israeli. Though he may eventually return to Israel, for now, his talents are needed in his village, where he is admired both by the younger boys and the older men. The latter grew up during the Communist era, when Jewish learning like that which Elazar received was strictly prohibited.

Shammai Menachemovitch Israelov stands with his grandchildren, young Shammai (pictured at age 10) and Ruga (pictured at age 8), on the street where he has lived for more than seven decades. The elder Shammai worked 52 years as a telephone operator in Quba, the Azeri town that abuts Krasnaya Sloboda. He says the biggest difference between the Communist period and the present regime is "what we built, what we earned." "We lived peacefully under the flag of the Soviets," Shammai recalls. "It was a good time. There was enough money for everything." Now, Shammai's hard-earned pension has been gutted and the costs of necessities are skyrocketing. Nonetheless, Shammai will not let a Krasnaya Sloboda visitor escape town without enjoying a meal with his family in his life-long home.

Shammai Menachemovitch Israelov stands with his grandchildren, young Shammai (pictured at age 10) and Ruga (pictured at age 8), on the street where he has lived for more than seven decades. The elder Shammai worked 52 years as a telephone operator in Quba, the Azeri town that abuts Krasnaya Sloboda. He says the biggest difference between the Communist period and the present regime is "what we built, what we earned." "We lived peacefully under the flag of the Soviets," Shammai recalls. "It was a good time. There was enough money for everything." Now, Shammai's hard-earned pension has been gutted and the costs of necessities are skyrocketing. Nonetheless, Shammai will not let a Krasnaya Sloboda visitor escape town without enjoying a meal with his family in his life-long home.

Nisim Nisimov is a world-renowned purveyor of Azeri and Mountain Jewish music, which share the same musical tones. Here, he plays an Azeri "muham" melody on his tar with words in Ju'uri, the unique Mountain Jewish language derived from Persian. He sings and plays centuries-old, contemporary and original compositions, about generations of families, mischievous children, unrequited passion between Jewish boys and Krasnaya Sloboda girls, and "Seeya Choomha," a black-eyed Jewish woman who falls in love. Nisim also directs a chorus of local boys, some of whom sing in festivals around the country.

Nisim Nisimov is a world-renowned purveyor of Azeri and Mountain Jewish music, which share the same musical tones. Here, he plays an Azeri "muham" melody on his tar with words in Ju'uri, the unique Mountain Jewish language derived from Persian. He sings and plays centuries-old, contemporary and original compositions, about generations of families, mischievous children, unrequited passion between Jewish boys and Krasnaya Sloboda girls, and "Seeya Choomha," a black-eyed Jewish woman who falls in love. Nisim also directs a chorus of local boys, some of whom sing in festivals around the country.

Mazanto Agarunov is the matriach of a family that includes five children and -- so far -- ten grandchildren, though she expects many more. Passover calls for a family feast every day -- not just during the Seders. The table is laid with the traditional holiday "ashkana" beef stew, the "khoyagusht" spinach and egg dish, fried beef cutlets, nuts, a blood-red pomegranate and copious sweet mint tea. The Mountain Jews will not eat anything made with powdered sugar on Passover, perhaps because it might contain grain, so every table includes a bowl of sugar cubes. The women prepare "hasorut," which probably evolved as a mispronunciation of "haroset" during centuries of isolation and decades of Communist religious repression. The only imported item on the table is the matzah, supplied since the early 1990's by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Mazanto Agarunov is the matriach of a family that includes five children and -- so far -- ten grandchildren, though she expects many more. Passover calls for a family feast every day -- not just during the Seders. The table is laid with the traditional holiday "ashkana" beef stew, the "khoyagusht" spinach and egg dish, fried beef cutlets, nuts, a blood-red pomegranate and copious sweet mint tea. The Mountain Jews will not eat anything made with powdered sugar on Passover, perhaps because it might contain grain, so every table includes a bowl of sugar cubes. The women prepare "hasorut," which probably evolved as a mispronunciation of "haroset" during centuries of isolation and decades of Communist religious repression. The only imported item on the table is the matzah, supplied since the early 1990's by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.