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Jüdische Weisheit

The Other Side of the Caucasus

Igor Chalmiev

[English] [French] [German]

Since 1992 – ever since I have been in Germany – I have noticed that to western Europeans, all Jews from the former Soviet Union are the same. (I asked myself, what is the origin of such ignorance and why are all Jewish immigrants seen as Russian, atheist, uneducated in Judaism,and often alienating?. Clearly, it is due to the fact that most people do not know the differences between Soviet regions). Just as one cannot compare the lifestyles of Jews in Germany with those of Jews in India, one cannot compare the lifestyles of Jews in various regions of the Soviet Union.

Take me, for example. I come from a region that the German Wehrmacht never reached. So traditional Jewish life was not destroyed. Throughout the Soviet period, Jews there tried to live just as Jewish a life as the Muslims sought to live according to their traditions. That included, for example, holidays and circumcisions, and the fact that parents and grandparents preferred that one marry within one’s people.

I was born in Baku, behind the Caucasus, in Azerbaidjan. As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in a small town called Kuba. The city was divided by a river. On one side lived the Muslims and, on the other, the Jews. In the Jewish section, people spoke their own version of Yiddish. As they were "Mountain Jews," they spoke an old Persian dialect that had been the language of Mountain Jews for centuries, and today has practically disappeared. Under Stalin, the language was called "Tat" – Jews, themselves, had no name for it. By the way, Mountain Jews in other areas spoke other dialects, but today barely anyone knows them.

In the capital of Baku it was, naturally, another story. In school, one spoke Russian, in the street one spoke Aseri. As a child at home, I had to speak the language of the Mountain Jews because it was the only language my grandmother knew. But mostly we spoke Russian among ourselves.

My grandfather actually was a rabbi, but after the Revolution, he worked as a teacher in a Soviet school. We always knew we were Jews, and that is a part of my life. We were the Jews, and the others were for example Azerbaidjanis, Russians, Ukrainians or Tatars.

When I came to Berlin without a single word of German, I was astonished that I could make myself understood in many shops in Aseri. It is related to Turkish, so I understand and speak a form of street Turkish.

In Baku there were two synagogues, one little sephardic one and a large, more beautiful asheknazi one. I sometimes went to one and then returned to the other. At the ashkenazi synagogue, one could buy homemade matzoth for Passover. But the sephardic grandmothers didn’t know anything about matzo-balls; their cuisine resembled that of the Muslims (with dolma and lamb dishes).

I don’t recall any particular conflicts with the Muslims. Because they also were concerned with preserving their traditions, they did not bother us – on the contrary, neighbors gave each other gifts on one another’s holidays. From the Russians, we received wonderful painted eggs on Easter; from the Muslims fabulous sweets on their sugar festival; but from us they only received dry matzoth.

Moslems and Jews always stayed true to the tradition of circumcision. Parents decided when the circumcision would take place. If there was no rabbi or mohel, a Jewish doctor would come to the home. Jewish boys were usually circumcised within the first six months of life; the Muslims (as far as I know) sometimes waited longer.

In the European region it was different after the war. There, religion was repressed and I heard very rarely about circumcisions.

Today, I work in the Jewish Cultural Association of Berlin as an Integration Commissioner. At some point it became clear that we could learn from other immigrants, for example from the Turks. So we started to visit one other. At our fast-breaking meal [after Yom Kippur], I recalled the food of the Muslims in Baku and the Turks were amazed that a Russian Jew could understand their language, until it quickly became clear that I spoke Aseri. At the meal, an old Jewish man said in a Yiddish accent that he had had many experiences in life. But he concluded that there are only two peoples. The good ones, and the bad ones.

Translated by Toby Axelrod


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