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.