KRASNAIYA SLOBODA, Azerbaijan — (JTA) — Even at 70, Yedidia Yehuda can negotiate a narrow mountain path in northern Azerbaijan with a confidence easily mistaken for carelessness.
“You take care not to fall yourself and don’t worry about me,” he tells a visitor following him toward a small town on the northern bank of the Kudyal river, where 2,000 Jews have lived for nearly three centuries in their own shtetl, one of the world’s few remaining all-Jewish towns outside Israel.
A few twists down the slope, Yehuda proudly points to the red roof of a new and spacious structure decorated with sculpted beige limestone panels that rises from the jagged rocks and dusty flowerbeds on the mountainside.
It is the tomb of Rabbi Gershon ben Reuven, leader of this little-known community until his death 122 years ago.
The building was erected last year as part of a massive renovation and construction effort, courtesy of Krasnaiya natives who left this rural town to pursue lucrative careers elsewhere. The building projects are to honor the town’s rich past.
Over the years, the community known as Mountain Jews has endured pogroms by Persian warlords, repression under communism and the rise of post-Soviet nationalism. But the need for external funding highlights pressing questions about the future of this Jewish island that continues over time to lose its young to the rapidly growing cities depopulating the Azeri countryside.
“Many have left, young and old, myself included,” says Yehuda, who divides his time between Krasnaiya and Or Akiva, Israel. “It’s good because out there we can earn enough to support the community. But it’s bad because it means the current population is a fraction of our past numbers.”
According to Yehuda, the town had 8,500 Jews only two decades ago, but has lost 75 percent of its population to Israel, Moscow and the Azeri capital, Baku. The community’s former chief rabbi, Adam Davidov, left recently for Jerusalem.