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Caucasus/Central Asia: Exhibit Highlights Region's Unknown Jewish Communities

  • Charles Fenyvesi



New York, 18 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- An exhibition at New York City's Jewish Museum provides a glimpse into the life of the largely unknown Jewish communities of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Most of the objects displayed are borrowed from the Russian Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg.

The glass cases offer a bazaar of treasures: brilliantly colored striped silk robes, synagogue curtains embroidered with gold thread, breast ornaments with multicolored precious stones hanging from gold filigree, long velvet caps embroidered with roses to hide women's hair, and many-layered wedding outfits of shimmering silk.

Fabrics dominate the exhibit for a good reason: In these Jewish communities, the traditional occupations have always been spinning, dyeing, weaving, and trading textiles.

The craftsmanship and even the esthetic sensibility of the items on display reflect but do not replicate the majority cultures around them, some Muslim and others Christian. A few choice phrases translated into English from inscriptions on the items suggest a strong tradition of poetry and storytelling. Each of the insular, deeply traditional minority cultures is a tiny minority, both in their geographical locations and in the Jewish world. "Autonomous" is the best word to describe them.

The photographs and the objects, many of them collected by Russian ethnographers around the turn of the century, suggest that Central Asian and Caucasian Jewish communities were significantly different from those of the Russian heartland because they were far more integrated in the Christian or Muslim worlds around them even though their members did not assimilate.

To the outsider, the dignified poses and the gorgeous costumes appear virtually indistinguishable from those of their non-Jewish neighbors. But commentary prepared for this exhibit notes that until the nineteenth century, local regulations required that Jews wear distinctive headgear, robes, and belts. Moreover, the commentators point out that some Jews in these areas were subjected to forcible conversions to the faith of the local majority.

Isolated for centuries from the mainstream of Jewish life, Central Asian and Caucasian Jews have lived throughout towns and villages of regions now called Georgia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and Uzbekistan.

While each community has been fairly self-contained, collectively they are identified as "the eastern Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union." The most numerous are the Bukharans who developed their own Jewish version of the Tajik language; the so-called Mountain Jews using a language called Tat which is also part of the Iranian language family; and Georgian Jews who speak only the Georgian dialect of their particular geographic location.

Most of these groups claim descent from the Israelites who were deported to Babylonia by the Assyrians close to 2,600 years ago, after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Their numbers were augmented by later waves of refugees, especially after the destruction of the second temple in the year 70. But they also include communities such as the Gerim, whose ancestors were Russian serfs who converted to Judaism 200 years ago and later intermarried with the Mountain Jews.

The exhibit's title, "Facing West," refers to the custom of these communities to build their synagogues to face west, and to pray in that direction. Whether belonging to the Ashkenazi or northern European, or the Sephardi or Spanish branch of the family tree, the rest of the Jewish world builds and prays turning east, which is understandable as the direction is always Jerusalem.

Another unique characteristic of Central Asian and Caucasian Jews is that they are the only Jewish communities in the post-Soviet states that have lived in the same towns and villages for many centuries. They were not driven out; nor did they keep looking for better places to live.

Particularly in the last century, the rest of the Jewish community in the czar's empire and then in the USSR fled from rural areas to the cities or emigrated. According to the scholars who assisted in putting together the exhibit, only in Central Asia and the Caucasus are there Jewish communities little affected by the social and political upheavals of the period between 1880 and 1970.

Since the 1970s, many members of the communities have emigrated to Israel and some to the United States. Focussing on artifacts, the exhibit does not provide statistics. But this exhibit clearly suggests that these traditional cultures, among the oldest continuous Jewish communities in the world, may diminish in numbers but will survive.

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