Makhachkala, Russia — Getting to Friday services in Makhachkala, the capital city of the Russian Republic of Dagestan, was complicated. Three giant bombs had earlier gone off down the road, and authorities had sealed off streets near the synagogue. En route soldiers seized our taxi on suspicion that we were aiding Islamic terrorists. They detained us until Sabbath prayers had long ended.
The following evening we finally made it to the imposing brick building. Shimi Dibyayev, the aged chairman of the community, squired us with a limp through the refurbished facility, whose windows on all three floors were smashed in December 2007. Rebels calling themselves the Shari’ah Jamaat had warned of an assault months prior, yet no one knows for sure who did it.
Dibyayev is ready to take on attackers. “I always carry a pistol and have seven more weapons at home,” he said. “When someone upsets a Jewish person, he goes with two guns.” I did a double-take, because Dibyayev has trouble seeing and hearing, but he assured me: “Of course I’m used to guns. I’m 85 years old, what do you think?”
He certainly needs firepower, like most people in this restive Russian region on the Caspian Sea. A separatist jihad has been simmering for 20 years, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Dagestan has become the latest flashpoint in the North Caucasus. Barely a week goes by without another shooting or explosion.
While the rebels mainly target policemen and stores selling alcohol, Russia’s oldest Jewish community is stuck in the crossfire. After 12 centuries of comfortable co-existence with the Muslim majority, the so-called Mountain Jews are fleeing to Israel. Their numbers have gone from 50,000 to 4,780 over two decades, and their unique culture is literally dying out.
“During Soviet times, the Jews lived on four streets here. Now those streets don’t exist,” said Boris Khaiov, at 57 one of the younger members of the minyan. He said that many young people don’t speak Tat, the Mountain Jews’ tongue that blends Farsi and Hebrew much as Yiddish does something comparable with German and Hebrew for Ashkenazi Jews.
That the culture is fading is a loss not just for the Mountain Jews, but also, ironically, for many Dagestanis. The Tats, as they are also known, are so embedded in Dagestan that some Muslims consider them another of the 30-odd clans. Legend has it that the Tats came from Persia at some point, although some amateur historians posit that they were Khazars. Whatever their origin, the Tats gained renown over the centuries for customs not normally associated with Jews, such as cultivating tobacco and wine, and horseback fighting.