By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org
Since the Boston Marathon explosions in April, the
largely Muslim Russian territory of the North Caucasus has come back to the
forefront via Chechnya, where the family of the Boston bombers originated, and
nearby Dagestan, where the elder Tsarnaev brother (Tamerlan) had visited last
Click photo to download. Caption: The Makhachkala Grand Mosque in Dagestan, in the Russian-controlled North Caucus region, where the Boston Marathon bombers have roots. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Flashbacks to the wars of the 1990s between Russia
and Chechen separatists, and alerts of Islamic insurgency spilling out of
Chechnya, appear more prominently in news outlets. Just last week, a bomb
exploded and killed two teenagers in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala. Less is
heard about the region’s Jewish community, which, although dwindling, continues
to maintain relative calm while living in a violent region–or so its members
Although many Jews from the former Soviet Union (FSU)
emigrated in the 1990s—many to Israel—between 60,000 and 68,000 Jews still live
in Russian-controlled north Caucasus region, according to estimates by the
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The Jewish community in Machachkala estimates that there are just
under 5,000 Jews remaining in Dagestan, according to journalist Judith Matloff, who has traveled to the region. There are no
concrete estimates for the current number of Jews in Chechnya, and the JDC is
not aware of any Jews who live there.
Click photo to download. Caption: Russian Federal Security Service employees during a special operation in Makhachkala, Dagestan, during with one terrorist was killed and two terrorist attacks were prevented. Dagestan is situated in the Russian-controlled north Caucus, where the Boston Marathon bombers have roots, and where the few remaining Jews say they live in relative calm despite regional violence. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Today’s Jewish community in
the northern Caucasus is a mix of Ashkenazi Jews, who migrated there from
European Russia, and Mountain Jews, who have lived there for many centuries and
have their own language called Tat, a blend of Farsi and Hebrew. Mountain Jews
were renowned over the centuries “for their prowess with weapons and horses,
not very common attributes for Jews in the former Soviet Union,” Matloff told JNS.org. They were also known for
cultivating tobacco and wine, and “men still sometimes ‘kidnap’ brides,” a
custom usually done with “tacit approval by the family and the community, but which
nonetheless is not a custom we normally associate with Jews anywhere,” Matloff said.
The Russian Federation’s Northern Caucasus region
includes five predominantly Muslim Republics, including bordering Chechnya and
Dagestan on the east of the Caucasus mountains. The Mountain Jews’ distance from the USSR’s center helped them maintain
their traditions when the regime repressed religious worship, but “many have
left for mainly economic reasons—unemployment is massive,” and “some are
disturbed by the violence as well,” Matloff said.
Those who remain find
themselves stuck in a volatile area. Two major wars took place between the
Russian government and Chechnya during the 1990s and early 2000s after the
region declared independence from Russia in 1991. Russian forces completely
destroyed the Chechen capital of Grozny in 2000.