Dagestan's 'Mountain Jews' Flee Chaos

After 12 Centuries, Violence Rips Caucasus Community Apart

By Judith Matloff

Published September 03, 2012, issue of September 07, 2012.
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Other traditions have endured, such as the kidnapping of brides. Edik Abramov, 45, an amiably bearded technologist from Derbent, Dagestan’s second most important city, was surprised to hear that the practice was uncommon among Jews elsewhere. “Well, the rabbi gave his approval,” he said after giving the matter thought.

Geographic remoteness from Moscow, nearly 1,000 miles away, helped the Tats preserve their culture during Soviet times, when all forms of worship were repressed. Dagestan’s Jews continued to bake matzo for Passover and to light Sabbath candles, far from the crushing anti-Semitism suffered by Ashkenazim closer to the Soviet centers of power.

Most people we spoke to said Jews and Muslims got along today on a social level and the radical fringe was just that.

“Different cultures have lived side by side in Dagestan for years,” said Mufti Ahmed Abdulaev, Dagestan’s Muslim spiritual leader. “This violence stems from ideology and not religion.”

Didydaev downplayed the vandalism of several dozen Jewish graves a few years back, and said the destruction stopped. “Our relations with Muslims are fine. Government ministers are friendly to us. We’ve been here so long, we’re part of the local culture,” he said, adding, “I’ve been to Israel and am much more worried about Jews there.”

The rabbi of Derbent, Ovadiya Isakov, feels more on edge. Someone threw a brick at his bedroom window five years back, just missing his 9-month-old baby. The rabbi stays awake at night worrying about security as well as a dwindling congregation. He energetically promotes a Jewish school for children as well as talmudic studies and [bar mitzvahs] for older youths.

Some are resisting the exodus to Israel, among them economics student Amil Rabiyev, 22. He took a moment from his thrice-daily prayers to reflect on the violence.

“Scared? Not at all. I have nice guns.”

The rabbi glanced up sharply.

“I don’t bring them to synagogue,” Rabiyev assured him. “It’s mainly a fashion statement.”

Judith Matloff teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of “Home Girl” and “Fragments of a Forgotten War.”


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