Friday, May 3, 2013

Window on Eurasia: With Stroke of a Pen, Daghestani City’s Tats Officially Become Mountain Jews

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 3 – The mayor of has declared that since the majority of the Jews living in that city in southern Daghestan now identify themselves “not as Jewish Tats but as Mountain Jews,” officials will from now on refer to them in documents using only the latter self-designation.

            This decision, signed off by Mayor Imam Yaraliyev on March 28 but publicized by Israeli and Russian news sites only last week ( cited by, is the latest twist in the complicated history of this small but increasingly self-aware community.

            In reporting it, the Israeli website suggested that Yaraliyev’s decision was the product of his personal experience.  The Derbent mayor comes from Daghestan’s Kasumkent District, where in the villages of Krchat an Arag live Mountain Jews whom “he had known from [his] childhood.”

            “While working at various posts in Daghestan,” the site continued, Yaraliyev frequently met Mountain Jews and even made a visit to Israel in January 2013 where he “spoke with people who had earlier lived in Derbent.” This experience and his knowledge of “the history of our people,” the site concluded, “allowed him to sign this document.” 

The Israeli site expressed the hope that Makhachkala would extend Yaraliyev’s change in nomenclature to all the Mountain Jews of Daghestan. If that happens, it could spark a change in official nomenclature for the Mountain Jews across the North Caucasus, something that could help support their survival as a distinct ethnic group.

            The Mountain Jews, whose self-designator is “Juhuro,” live in scattered communities in the Caucasus and Iran and speak a Persian dialect with numerous Hebrew borrowings. Their exact number is unknown because not all of them have identified as Mountain Jews in Soviet and Russian censuses, choosing instead to list their nationality as Jewish or other.

            In Soviet times, officials often suggested that the Mountain Jews were not Jews but rather Judaicized Tats, a designation that some but far from all of the members of this community were forced to adopt. That name was offensive to some because many other Tats in the North Caucasus are followers of Islam.

            In the final decades of the Soviet period, many Jewish Tats or Mountain Jews as they prefer to call themselves emigrated to Israel, the United States and Europe. They have formed active groups in all those places. Among the websites of these groups are,, and (For a useful recent discussion of this group see

            As interesting as this development is in and of itself for a community that seldom attracts much attention or support, it is perhaps even more important as an indication of the extent to which Soviet-style official definition of nationality continues to play a role in today’s Russia despite Constitutional rules to the contrary.

            According to the 1993 basic law, the Russian government does not have the right to deprive anyone of his or her nationality. But as Yaraliyev’s declaration shows, Russian officials continue to do just that by insisting that members of certain groups call themselves not what they believe they are but what the authorities require them to declare.

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