Jewish subgroups in Russia include Georgian Jews, Bukharan Jews (from Uzbekistan) and the Tats, or "Mountain Jews" from the Caucasus, mostly Dagestan and Azerbaijan.

The Krymchacks are a Jewish ethnic group that live in the Crimea. Also known as Crimean Jews or Tatar Jews, they traditionally spoke of vernacular of Crimean Tatar and have been regarded by many as not really being Jews even though they practiced an Orthodox form of Judaism. They have lived side by side with Ashkenazim Jews and used to practice polygamy.

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The Karaites are followers of non-Talmudic Judaism. They are different from the vast majority of rabbinic Jews. They speak a Turkic language and accept the Torah but not the Talmud. And they don’t regard themselves as Jews. Many Jews don’t regard them as Jews either. There are only maybe 2,000 of them in Russia, plus a few thousand more in Europe, the United States and Israel. The ones in Russia are mostly assimilated. Many speak only Russian. They have traditionally lived in Lithuania and the Crimea.

The origin of the Karaites is not clear. Some think they are descendants of the Khazars. More likely they are remnants of a sect that was founded in Baghdad in the A.D. 8th century and made their way the Crimea via the Byzantine Empire by the 14th century. Under the Tatars and the other groups that ruled Crimea they distinguished themselves as traders and were treated the same as other Jews. Under the czars they were often treated differently and given exemptions to taxes and military service that other Jews had to honor. In World War II, the Nazis decided their “racial psychology” was not Jewish and they were spared persecution.

Karaites reject the Talmud’s divine origin and say it is based on folk tradition. They do no celebrate Hanukkah and the holidays they celebrate often fall on different days than those honored by conventional Jews. Karaites have greater restriction on working on the Sabbath and butchering cattle. Their liturgy is very different from that of Talmudic Jews.

Georgian Jews

Georgian Jews, according to oral tradition, have been in Georgia for 2,500 years and claim to be descendants of the branches of Israelites who were settled in Media by Assyrian kings. Over the years they have become widely assibilated but have kept alive their ancient traditions. Jews lived in Georgia for the most part without persecution. Unlike other former Soviet republics, Georgia never experiences an anti-Jewish pogrom. Still many have emigrated to Israel in recent-years. As of the early 1990s, about 25,000 Georgian Jews lived in Georgia.

Georgian Jews

There are mentions of Jews in Georgia in association with the age of the Assyrian conquests in the 8th century B.C. and the time of the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Navukhodnosorom in 586 B.C. According to ancient historical records, a Georgian feudal lord named Mtskhetskii Mamasakhlisi gave Jews land at Zanavi, near Mtskheta in Kartli, in return for tribute. According to same source after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, a large migration of Jews arrived in Karli and settled in Mtskheta.

Over the centuries Jews arrived in several waves of migrations and settled across Georgia. It is not clear how many there were but according to one source they were so numerous that many Georgians spoke “Jewish.” Traditionally the Jews lived together in a village or a quarter centered around a school and synagogue. Mtskheta was the center of Georgian Jewish life. Mtskhetsk Jews kept close contacts with Jerusalem and were said to have brought back the shroud of Sant Eli and a the tunic of Jesus Christ from Jerusalem are buried it in Mtskheta.

According to tradition, the first Christians in Georgia were formally Jews and the first church was a former Jewish sanctuary. Most Jews lost their language and spoke Hebrew only for religious purposes. They kept theur Jewish religious rituals alive and were referred to as “Georgian Jews” since ancient times. They became so woven into the fabric of Georgian life, the kings of Georgia sought their advise and they were entrusted as envoys on diplomatic missions.

In feudal Georgia, Jews enjoyed almost ye same rights and status as non-Jews. Jewish serfs more or less lived under the same conditions as non-Jewish serfs. Rich Jews traded and owned estates and serfs themselves and Jews took up arms to protect their homeland. The situation of the Jews worsened under tsarist Russia. Many of their rights were taken away and they were allowed to only do certain kinds of work. Under the Soviets their situation improved and then mirrored that of other Soviet Jews.

Georgian Jew Customs

Georgian Jews mostly married among themselves in a ceremony that harked backed to biblical times, featuring a mystery play representing the union of heaven and earth and the formation of the earth and growth of plants. Jewish wives were expected to honor ancient traditions and be modest and discrete, particularly towards their father- and older brothers-in-laws.

The primary work of male Georgian Jews has been agriculture, crafts and trade. Work was often organized through an extended family of community presided over by a senior patriarch, who divvied out work. Women were responsible for raising children and doing domestic work, Their chores were directed by senior women. Women generally did no participate in agricultural activities because it was considered beneath them.

Jewish theater, literature and scholarship flourished in the 1920s and 30s. An acclaimed drama troupe was founded in Tbilisi and Jewish ethnographical museum was opened and volumes of Jewish history in Georgia were collected. Under Stalin the theater and museum were shut down and scholarship on Jews was discouraged until the glasnost period in the 1980s.

Bukharan Jews

Bukharan Jew

The Bukharan Jews are group of Jews that have lived in Central Asia for centuries are so named because they were originally based in Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan and were associated with the city when it was capital of the powerful Bukhara Khanate. Culturally and linguistically they are most similar to Jews of Iran and Afghanistan. They speak a Jewish dialect of Tajik and have traditionally lived mostly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Many now live in Israel. Some lived in the United States. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston), The New Yorker and New York Times]

There are believed to be around 60,000 Bukharan Jews in Central Asia. As of the late 1980s there were about 30,000 of them in Tashkent, 15,000 in Samarkand, 10,000 on Dushanbe, 9,000 in Bukhara and small numbers of them in Kokand, Andigan, Margelan and other towns. There have never been more than a few tens of thousands of Bukharan Jews. A traveler to Samarkand in the Middle Ages said there were around 50,000 Jews living there at that time. Surveys and estimates counted 16,000 in 1900, 20,000 in 1910, 30,000 in the 1920s, 40,000 at the end of the 1950s, 50,000 in the 1970s and 60,000 to 75,000 in the 1980s.

Nearly all the Jews in Central Asia, including the Bukharan Jews, have left. Most went to Israel. Some of those in Uzbekistan went to Almaty, Kzyl-Orda, Bishkek and Tokmak in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

Mountain Jews

The Mountain Jews are a distinct Jewish subgroup and one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Caucasus. They live mostly in Dagestan and Azerbaijan. Only about 17,000 Mountain Jews remain. Around 50,000 were left at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The difference is mostly explained by emigration to Israel.

The Mountain Jews used to live in the mountains but most of them now live in the cities. Among other Jewish groups they are considered illiterate hillbillies. Few speak Hebrew or even know how to pray. The group has traditionally lived among Muslim groups and has tried to hide their religion by calling themselves Tats, another ethnic group in the Caucasus area, to avoid persecution.

Mountain Jews traditionally lived in different groups and spoke a language called Jewish or Tat plus the language and the people that they lived among. Over time the different dialects of Jewish became so different that different Mountain Jew grous often could not communicate with one another. In the Soviet era they learned Russian These days many don’t even speak their own language any more and communicate among themselves and with other groups in Russian. In many cases only a handful of old people if that speak the old language anymore.

Early History of the Mountain Jews

The Mountain Jews and trace their origins to the “Eastern Diaspora” from Babylon in th the 7th century B.C. There are no accurate records that describe how they arrived in the Caucasus but according to their folklore, passed down orally through the generations, they came from Babylon.

Archeological evidence—mostly ancient Jewish gravestones and epigraphic inscriptions—unearthed near Mountain Jew villages—indicates that the Mountain Jews have been in the Caucasus for a long time. The first people that later evolved into Mountain Jews are believed to have arrived from Iran during the ancient Persian period (7th to 3rd centuries B.C.) and the Sassanid period (3rd century B.C. to A.D. 7th century). Most are believed to have arrived in the Caucasus to escape persecution during the Arab and Turk conquests beginning in the 7th century. They fled into the mountains of Dagestan and Khazaria because that is where they found the greatest religious tolerance and favorable living conditions.

Later History of the Mountain Jews

Mountain Jews

Although they were never great in numbers the Mountain Jews did have an economic impact, by facilitating trade, in the areas where they lived. They also influenced the pagan people they lived among and the Khazars. Some attribute the mass conversion of the pagan Khazars to Judaism in the 8th century to Mountain Jew influence. To this day the Mountain Jews regard their language as that of the original Jewish Khazar khans. During the Khazar period the Mountain Jews enjoyed great influence an prestige.

After the Khazar empire collapse the Mountain Jews retreated to their former Caucasus mountain homeland only to find that many of the ethnic groups there were now Muslims and wanted tribute for permission to live there. They were also required to pay a special tax for permission to practice their religion.

The Mountain Jews suffered in pogroms in the late 19th century and early 20th century, particularly the one on 1905-07. In 1918-1920 they were raided by White Guards and suffered more destruction and death. At that stage many emigrated to Palestine. Some Mountain Jews participated in the Bolshevik Revolution and thus initially did well under the Soviets. There was a blossoming of Mountain Jewish culture for a while. The group had their own theater group and published their own newspaper called “Zakhmetkesh” (“The Toilet). As time went on the became increasingly Russified. As the Soviets party line became increasingly anti-Israel many Mountain Jews began calling themselves Tats and tried to conceal their religion.

Mountain Jew Culture

Before the Soviet period many Mountain Jews were engaged in agriculture, particularly in the production of wine and tobacco. They were also specialists in preparing rawhide and producing morocco leather. Before the Soviet period there was a rich aristocracy. Mountain Jews traditionally had lots of children and lived in large extend family households. Like their Muslim neighbors a high premium was placed on providing hospitality.

Mountain Jews have kept their culture in their food (they still prepare many unique dishes). Their marriage customs merged Caucasus and Jewish traditions, and included the payment of a bride price and a bridal procession with participants carrying candles as well as lots of feasting, dancing and toast making. All the guests record their gifts, including their cost, in a book so receiving families know what kind of debt they have to pay in the future.

Mountain Jews have traditionally observed most of the major Jewish holidays and rituals. They also incorporated a number of ancient customs into their belief system such as the belief in the purifying power of amulets, fire and water and the protection they offered against sea nymphs and devils. Under the Soviets many became atheists.

Mountain Jew boys are circumcised seven days after they are born. In the old days many were illiterate and only the elite attended school and were bar mitzvahed. Today there are few practicing Mountain Jews anymore, and they are mostly very old. Few if any communities even have a rabbi. Rituals, when they are performed, are done at home rather than in a synagogue.

A traditional Jewish wedding in the southwest mountains begins with a veiled bride traveling by horseback to the grooms house, where guests have gathered. Before entering the house the groom’s mother throws rice and wheat over the bride. According to tradition, the bride avoids the groom's parents and the groom avoids the bride's parents for couple of years. Folk songs and dances are performed to music from drums and clarinet.

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Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Library of Congress, CNN, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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