Meir Manashirov slowly strolls to the cemetery each day. The 84 year old is frail, he takes his time to get to the graveyard - he walks through the entrance, weeds out the pathways, cleans the graves - and prays.
Those silent tombs and Meir are the only remaining vestiges of the once small, yet vibrant Jewish community of Muju Haftaran, a village in the northern Azerbaijani region of Ismayili. The village’s name itself talks of a Jewish past as it originates from the village of Muju near Shamakha, the old capital of an homonym governorate which was shaken by an earthquake in 1859. After the shock, people migrated north and many Jews settled in Ismayilli. By the end of the 18th century there were about 3,000 Jews and Muju Haftaran had one synagogue and two Jewish schools.
Come the USSR’s atheist pressure, all places of worship were banned and Muju Haftaran’s synagogue was no exception - temples across Azerbaijan closed, many were used as warehouses or schools, while rabbis were exiled to Siberia. Believers prayed at home and kept their traditions alive in secret.
Meeting Meir in his yard where his small four-cow cattle grazes, he is quick to guide through the graveyard. He tells of how he has been a driver all of his life, and received four medals including the one of the Order of Lenin. Staying in the village and looking after the cemetery is almost a mission for Meir.
"My children asked me to move with them, but I refused. I know almost everyone who is buried here. My wife and both parents are buried here too. I was born here I will be buried here," he says.
People started to leave the village at the beginning of the 1970s, some for Baku and Goychay, a few others as far as Israel. Meir’s siblings left a long time ago as did his five children, two of them for Israel. In 2011 as his wife passed away he found himself alone - his children visit him once a year, and in between visits are just rare phone calls.
“Everyone in the village knows I am sick, and sometimes they take advantage of it,” he complains. “A few months ago a large herd of 40 cows entered and grazed in the cemetery! In the name of God, if not for me, this place would have been razed and covered with asphalt.”
All of Meir’s memories lay with the villagers now gone, and those tombs are his only connection with his Jewish heritage.
As Muju Haftaran’s Jewish community has died out, up north another town had a different fate - today Qırmızı Qəsəbə, better known as Krasnaya Sloboda (“red town” in Russian) is regarded as the hidden gem of Azerbaijan’s Jewish community. At its peak , around the 1950s, Krasnaya Sloboda was one of the largest all-Jewish villages outside Israel, but people have left and today there are about 3,500 permanent residents, according to the chairman of the community. Most of the estimated 8,900 Jews left in the country are today concentrated in the capital Baku.
In Krasnaya Sloboda they are known as the Mountain Jews, or Juhuro, as the community members call themselves. They began settling in the Caucasus around the 5th century, having migrated from ancient Persia, and traditionally spoke a form of Persian called judeo-tat - centuries of cohabitation means that the Hebrew was widely used for the writing communication as well as Azeri and Russian.
Krasnaya Sloboda itself was founded in 1731 by Fatah Ali Khan, the emir of the khanate of Quba which laid in area south of modern-day Russia’s republic of Dagestan. Until the arrival of the Red Army in the 1920s, the town was called Jewish Sloboda. The rugged, mountainous area marking the border with Russia protected the community for centuries.
As he enters the oldest of the town’s two synagogues, Yuriy Naftaliev takes off his shoes - a sign, alongside the colorful carpets on the temple’s floor, of how the different Jewish and Muslim traditions have mingled. Azerbaijan is a secular country where 95 percent of the population is Muslim, yet the Jewish community, whose presence in the region dates back to 2,000 years, enjoys freedom of faith and respect.
“All carpets that you see on the floor were donated by locals, some brought it from home, some just bought new,” says the 54 year old chairman of the community.
The Giləki (or Hilaki) temple was built in 1896 and went into disuse during the USSR. At the fall of the Soviet Union renovation started thanks to donations, mainly from from Zarakh Iliev, a notable Moscow-based Jew who was born in Krasnaya Sloboda and made his fortune in Russia. The other synagogue, Altı Günbəz (or Grand), constructed in 1888, was renovated in 2000. Unlike his brothers, Yuriy Naftaliyev never left Krasnaya Sloboda and his children also remained in town. His oldest son is a rabbi, while his two daughters attend weekly classes in the Hilaki synagogue which provides classes for girls on the Torah and Jewish traditions.
“We love our life here,” he maintains.
Milix Yevdayev, head of the community of the Mountain Jews has stressed how Jews in other countries have to fight anti-Semitism, while he says, “I can confidently say that [this] country could be the example of tolerance for other countries.”
Starting from the 1970s, a slow yet steady migration started - Jews would leave for Israel or Russia, seeking either a closer connection with their roots or simply for more opportunities. Krasnaya Sloboda was no exception.
However, the community has experienced a revival over the last decade. In 2005 Rabbi Yona Yaakobi arrived in Krasnaya Sloboda. Born in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, the doctor-trained rabbi came from the Israeli city of Kfar Saba as an emissary of the Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish, Hasidic movement. Together with his wife, he decided to remain and revive the religious lifestyle as well as the knowledge of the Jewish traditions. He co-founded a nursery and started a programme for young people between 16 and 28 years of age.
Hebrew is taught through the fourth grade in one of the town’s schools and most of the young people move to the capital or abroad to pursue higher education, but they regularly return for vacations and contribute to the community. Apart from the temples, donations contribute to build the mikveh, the bath for ritual immersion, as well as a place to make kosher food.
The three cemeteries in town have traits that differ from traditional Jewish graveyards - religious tradition does not allow photos of the deceased, but here the black tombstones have names, portraits, and the Star of David. These features signal a mix of Jewish and Azerbaijani traditions.
Another difference is in the synagogues themselves - unlike the traditional Ashkenazi place of worship, in Krasnaya Sloboda they lack a matroneum, the second floor area is allocated to women as a praying room.
“Our women do not come to pray in the synagogue on weekdays. It is not allowed for them to be in the same praying room with the men,” says Naftaliyev.
Seventy kilometres away from Krasnaya Sloboda village, Meir prays alone. Elderly and in poor health, he feels not much time remains for him - once gone, only his beloved graveyard will remain as a testimony of Muju Haftaran’s Jewish legacy.
Editor: Monica Ellena