CAUCASUS, mountainous region between the Black and Caspian Seas, in the south of the former Soviet Union. For over 2,000 years this inaccessible region served as a refuge for a variety of nations, tribes, and adherents of different religions, including Jews, who thus preserved their cultures and languages. Russia began conquest of the area at the end of the 18th century. The northern part was incorporated in the Russian Soviet Republic, while the southern was divided between the Soviet republics of Azerbaijan (whose inhabitants are mostly Turks-Azerbaijanis), Georgia, and Armenia. It is uncertain when Jews first arrived in the area. Jewish as well as non-Jewish traditions of the Caucasus, as also the ancient historical literature of *Armenia and *Georgia , relate that the Jews there originated from the exiled Ten Tribes or the exiles from Judah. Aristocratic Christian families in Armenia and Georgia regarded themselves as descendants of these exiles. Other traditions, for which there is some vague support in the Talmud, trace the beginning of Jewish settlement in the Caucasus to the Second Temple era and following its destruction. Yet other traditions found in the works of the Armenian historians Moses of Chorene (fifth to sixth centuries) and Faustus Byzantinus (fourth century) mention a large Jewish settlement in Armenia, from which Jews emigrated to Babylonia and Persia.
With the Muslim conquest in the eighth century, many Jews in the Caucasus were compelled to convert to Islam. The Karaite *Al-Kirkisānī and the Muslim historian al-Masʿudi tell of many Jews living in the Caucasus. The *Khazar state, which incorporated the northern part of the Caucasus, served as a haven for Jews who fled from the persecutions of the Christians and Muslims even before the conversion of its rulers to Judaism, and some maintain that the Jews of the Caucasus played a role in this conversion.
With the decline of the Khazar kingdom in the tenth century, the situation of the Jews deteriorated. *Benjamin of Tudela mentions, among the communities which were subordinated in the late 12th century to the *exilarch in Baghdad, the Jews living in the Ararat mountains, in the land of Alanyia "which is surrounded by mountains" and the land of Gurga (Georgia). Their existence is also reported by the non-Jewish traveler Guillaume Rubruquis (13th century).
After the Mongolian conquest of the Caucasus contacts between this area and Europe were severed. Information on the Jews there is interrupted over a lengthy period. The Caucasian Jews themselves preserved no record of their history during their many centuries of settlement before the coming of the Russians. European travelers passing through the Caucasus during the 18th century reported on the difficult position of the Jews living in the areas of Muslim and Christian rule. They had to pay special taxes; in Muslim regions in particular, onerous and humiliating public tasks were imposed on them. In many places they were considered serfs of the country's rulers. With the beginning of the Russian conquest, Muslim fanaticism intensified. Jews suffered much in particular at the hands of the Murids, a fast-spreading Muslim sect, who regarded the war with Russia as a Jihād (holy war) for uniting all the Caucasians within Islam. Consequently large numbers of Jews fled to the regions conquered by the Russians or to the towns, while many Jewish villages were abandoned or their inhabitants converted to Islam.
With the gradual conquest of the region by Russia during the first half of the 19th century, the question of the rights according to Russian law of the Jews living there arose under the rabidly anti-Jewish Czar *Nicholas I. The central government intended to expel the Jews from the Caucasus, and an expulsion decree was sent to the local authorities. These, however, pointed out that the Jews – numbering over 12,000 – had been living in the area for many generations and were integrated in the life of the region. Most of them were farmers or craftsmen while some were serfs over whom the local landlords would not consent to waive their rights. In 1837 the right of residence within the borders of the Caucasus of locally born Jews was ratified by law, but their residence in other parts of Russia was not authorized. On the other hand residence in the Caucasus was prohibited to the Jews of Russia, whom the local Jews knew as "Ashkenazim." It was only during the 1860s that some Jews then permitted to live beyond the *Pale of Settlement began to settle in the Caucasus. Jewish entrepreneurs played an important role in the development of the petroleum fields of *Baku region. During the second half of the 19th century, contacts were made between the *Mountain Jews and Georgian Jews and those of other parts of Russia. The Jewish press published reports on the Caucasian Jews, including letters and articles by the traveler Joseph Judah *Chorny and the Mountain Jew Ilya *Anisimov . A few Caucasian Jews also studied in the Lithuanian yeshivot and later returned to serve as rabbis in their communities. *Zionism soon occupied an important place in the life of the local Jews as well as the "Russian" Jews there.
The number of Jews in the Caucasus was recorded as 56,773 in 1897 (0.5% of the total population of the region), of whom 7,038 belonged to the Mountain Jews, 6,034 to the Georgian community (a figure apparently below the actual number), and 43,390 were "Ashkenazi" Jews, almost all of
them originally from the Pale of Settlement (about 10% of these served in the army stationed along the Turkish and Persian borders); 93% of the "Ashkenazi" Jews declared Yiddish as their spoken language. During the 1917 Revolution and civil war (1918–21), the Jews in the Caucasus suffered with the other inhabitants of the region. Many of the Mountain Jews were compelled to abandon their villages and concentrate in the towns. During this period the Caucasus served as a transit route for the pioneers who left Russia for Ereẓ Israel. After the establishment of Soviet rule over the Caucasus in 1920–21, conditions for the Jews there were similar to those of the Jews in Russia; however, the government was compelled to take into consideration the special character of this frontier region, and attempted to avoid offending the national-religious feelings of its inhabitants, and the Jews also benefited from this policy. Thus the local Jews maintained their patriarchal society, their strong family ties, and their deep attachment to the national and religious tradition. Soviet ethnographers continued to study the lives and customs of the Caucasian Jews. During World War II the Germans only reached the northern extremity of the Caucasus and the number of Jewish communities annihilated in the Holocaust was thus relatively small. In those years the towns of the Caucasus served as a refuge for many Jews of Western Russia.
In 1959, 125,000 Jews (approximately 1% of the total population) were recorded in the Caucasus (including those in the republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, and the autonomous republics of Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkar, North Ossetia, and Chechen-Ingush). Of these approximately 35,000 were registered as belonging to the Georgian community, and over 25,000 to the community of Mountain Jews, while the remainder were mostly of Russian origin. The two largest Jewish centers were Baku (26,623 Jewish inhabitants) and Tbilisi (17,311). Later information from the Caucasus indicated that a warm national Jewish feeling existed among Georgian and Mountain Jews, observance of religion within a patriarchal family framework, the existence of synagogues and rabbis (ḥakhamim), and a yearning for the land of Israel. When in the 1960s a yeshivah was established in the Moscow synagogue, the majority of its few students came from Georgia. Massive emigration to Israel and the West from the late 1980s on reduced the Jewish population considerably by the early years of the 21st century, to around 7,500 in Azerbaijan, 4,700 in Georgia, 500–1,000 in the Republic of Armenia, and barely 3,000 in the North Caucasus republics of the Russian Federation.
J.J. Chorny, Sefer ha-Massa'ot (1884); S. Anisimov, Kadmoniyyot Yehudei he-Harim (1894: Rus. orig. I.S. Anisimov, Kavkazskiye yevrei-gortsy, 1888); A. Katz, Die Juden im Kaukasus (1894); Bage, Les Juifs des montagnes et les Juifs géorgiens (1902); R. Lowenthal, in: HJ, 14 (1952), 61–82; D. Maggid, in: A.I. Braudo et al. (eds.), Istoriya yevreyskogo naroda, 12 (1921); U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, Institute of Ethnography, Narody Kavkaza, 1 (1960), 554–61; A. Eliav, Between Hammer and Sickle (1967), 189–230; M. Neishtat, Yehudei Gruzyah (1970).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.