A few years ago, I travelled to Azerbaijan and Georgia with the Joint Distribution Committee to learn about and from the Jewish communities there. Recently, I spoke about my time there at the JDC’s Global Variety Hour storytelling festival. Here’s my story.
I’m standing in line at a customs and immigration checkpoint in Frankfurt, Germany. I love traveling. I love airports and flying. I have a thing for Germany, too. But border officials make me extremely nervous. I feel a gut-wrenching anxiety when I cross the border back and forth between the US and my home in Canada. Like the guards are searching my eyes to see what I’m hiding. Like I’m assumed to be bringing something nefarious with me:
“Where are you coming from?”
“New York City”
“Why are you coming to Germany?”
“I’m connecting flights to Baku, Azerbaijan”
“Why are you going there?”
“On an educational trip.”
“What are you brining with you into Germany?”
“Nothing, just my baggage.”
Once I clear customs, I let out a sigh of relief. And go back to my previous state of excitement. I know that in 72 hours or so, I’m going to fulfill a dream I’ve had for a long time.
Ten years ago, I was stuck in the middle of one of those late-night deep-dives into the depths of Wikipedia – where you initially go to find some quick bit of information – maybe the cast of a show you’re binge-watching – but then you emerge three hours later, learning all about aquatic life at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, the strange history of men’s water polo, and the list of famous celebrities from your hometown.
That’s how I learned of the one place in the world outside of Israel whose entire population is Jewish. And that this place is in the remote mountains of Azerbaijan. In a village called Gyrmyzy Gasaba. And that this means “Red Town.” And that the people who live there are known as Mountain Jews. And that they’ve been living there for close to 3,000 uninterrupted years.
I can’t remember what I was originally searching for, but boy was I tickled to learn about this. As a student of history and religion I was fascinated by the idea of an entirely Jewish town – the world’s last surviving shtetl: Did they speak Hebrew? Were their customs the same as mine? Are their ancient practices more authentic? They predate most of our Jewish communities by thousands of years! And why don’t more people know about this?!
It was hard for me to find other people who were as excited as I was about this little piece of trivia, so I mostly just filed it away in the back of my head.
And now, having cleared German customs en route to Azerbaijan, it’s all I’m thinking about. I’m going to get to travel to the city of Gyrmyzy Gassaba, in the mountains of Azerbaijan, and meet the Mountain Jews. I am beyond excited.
We arrive in Baku late at night, past midnight. I’m entirely jetlagged, and totally disoriented. This is the furthest east I’ve ever traveled in my life, and I’m feeling unmoored. Not everyone in our group flew together, so it’s only at breakfast the next day when I meet most of my companions – the people I’m going to spend the next week and a half with traveling through Azerbaijan and then Georgia.
We get to know each other over fairly decent hotel coffee and a breakfast buffet with cuisine clearly designed to appeal to travelers from the West. And the East, the North, the South – traditional tomato stews alongside sugary breakfast cereals, right next to the pickled fish – I’m disoriented. But excited. While everyone has traveled and lived abroad before, there’s still a shared feeling of pride and a rush at what’s to come: “most people don’t get to do this.”
I’ve finally found the kind of history nerds who are equally excited at my Wikipedia discovery. I’m meeting my people!
A few days later, after spending time in Baku, our bus pulls up a dusty mountain road; we are getting closer to the village of Gyrmyzy Gassaba. Disembarking the bus is a practice in contrasts. This is the same kind of comfortable highway coach you might take to a hockey tournament, or between New York and Boston. But we enter into a remote village – houses with tin rooves and brightly painted wooden doors; low brick walls; winding gravel roads running up and down the hills. And nobody around. The village appears to be devoid of people. We can hear the nearby river rushing.
“Where are all the Mountain Jews?” I wonder.
Most of them, it turns out, have left. To Moscow. Or Israel. Or all points west, east, north and south.
Most have left. But not all.
We’re invited to meet with a group of high-school students.
As we approach the one-room schoolhouse, I’m aware that it doesn’t look like what I think of as a school at all. An old stone building with a dilapidated roof. Just a few electric lights hanging from the ceiling. And no air conditioning – just two metal fans circulating the air.
Azerbaijan is one of the most oil-wealthy countries in the world. I guess I thought air conditioning would be more prevalent. But it’s stifling in the Caucuses Mountains in the middle of July, and I’m aware of the jetlag nagging at me, so I choose a seat at the corner of the room closest to the door and furthest back, so if I nod off, I’ll be less noticeable.
For a few hours, we sit around the edge of the classroom – inside, but watching from the outside, as this group of fifteen or twenty – all teenage girls – is taught by two teachers. One, a rabbi in a black hat, and one, another woman who we won’t get to know – both standing in front of a chalkboard.
The students are all dressed modestly, and I wonder if they’re also feeling the gaze of the mountain sun.
They are studying the traditional education that is expected of a Jewish teenage girl: laws of preparing for holidays; laws of marriage and relationships; some Torah study and prayer.
And they all have cell phones. These appear to be less distracting than what you might expect in a room full of high school students. But they’re there. One room schoolhouse. Tin roof. Modest clothes. Traditional patriarchal curriculum. Android cell phones.
Add that to the jetlag, and my mind is racing to understand where and with whom I am.
We learn that their rabbi teacher is from Chabad. Strange. I know from my Wikipedia deep dive that the Jewish community is neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi – it’s descended from the original Persian Jews 3,000 years ago. So what’s an Ashkenazi Chabad rabbi doing teaching this group of Azerbaijani Jewish girls?
With the departure of much of the Jewish community, and the lack of institutional support, the worldwide Chabad movement has taken upon itself to pick up the slack and invest in this community.
But we’re not in Eastern Europe, and these aren’t Chassidic Jews. The rabbi wasn’t from the village of Gyrmyzy Gassaba, he was born in Russia.
We would see lots of beautiful empty synagogues that day, renovated with Russian money and filled with Russian translations of siddurim, left over from the Soviet era. But we’re not in the USSR anymore. Where’s the money coming from, and what’s the agenda behind it?
Somehow it all feels colonial and disingenuous to me. Like the sugar cereal at breakfast.
Back in the one room schoolhouse, the students are singing to us in Hebrew. There’s so much pride emanating from them as they get to represent their community and share what they’re learning. But once we get to conversing with them and asking questions (in translation), you can see the discomfort start to set in amongst my fellow travellers from the West.
One of us asked: “Do you want to go to university”
Another: “Do you get to choose who you will marry?”
“Will you ever have a career?”
“Why don’t you want a life where you get to make your own decisions?”
A pause as we wait for the interpreter. And then… blank gazes from the Azerbaijani students.
They didn’t quite know how to answer these kinds of questions. Some of this was simply the challenges of working through a translator – conveying meaning and syntax and emotion all in one. But clearly, our line of questioning was incredulous to these young girls: They didn’t have answers other than: “That’s not what we do.” “That’s not who we are.”
I glance at the rest of my group and see most people shifting uncomfortably in their seats; squirming; exchanging knowing glances. As if to say to each other: “oh you poor girls.”
This is not the brand of Judaism that most of us grew up with.
Most of the group are liberal rabbinical students. Mostly from the United States. And the questions betray this identity.
I’m still groggy from the jetlag, but awake enough to feel moments of curious surprise at my peers.
While I heard their sentiment of “look at these poor Jewish girls,” … they didn’t seem poor or closed or shut-in to me.
Like a more sinister version of the sugar cereal at breakfast, the kinds of questions my peers asked – my fellow students of history culture – struck me as imperialistic. I was disturbed by how we brought our own cultural assumptions into their home. Was I just some American cultural imperialist marching into this ancient village, wondering where the closest McDonalds and egalitarian shul were? I’m not even American!
I was challenged by how hard it was to peel back the layers of this 3,000-year-old community, through the dust and crumbles of Soviet oppression and Chabad hegemony. But in all this digging, I couldn’t help but ask myself: were we just doing the same thing?
Our group was not a totalitarian regime; we were not directing the flow of large sums of money for ideological purposes… But we still brought in the imposition of our ideas of normative Judaism and normative culture.
Some of it feels innocuous: I thought there would be more air conditioning. Rookie mistake.
Some of this feels significant and so much bigger: when we say we’re part of a worldwide community called the Jewish People, what does that actually mean? Do we see ourselves as kin, or as interlopers? Do we find ourselves stitched together, or separated on some scale of how civilized we are?
Even I felt keenly aware of my outsider status – the lone Canadian on a trip full of Americans. Was I the same as my traveling peers? I grew up in a culture with a national policy of multiculturalism. My American friends grew up in a melting pot. I didn’t imbibe a message of rugged individualism; I make native land acknowledgments and know that the name “Canada” is Huron-Iroquois for “village.”
Walking back through the Jewish village in Azerbaijan, down the mountain road to our airconditioned highway coach, I felt like an imposter.
I know that you can learn a lot from Wikipedia, but you learn a lot more from gazing into a human face.
It’s one of the very challenges of this moment – how do we learn when we encounter people who are different from ourselves?
On the bus, back to the hotel, I thought: maybe the Azerbaijani people who stay at the hotel really do like sugar cereal at breakfast. Maybe it’s not cultural imperialism but just the benefits of globalization.
Maybe the girls in Gyrmyzy Gasaba thought nothing of our questions. Or maybe they secretly harboured wishes to leave and get a degree from an Israeli university.
Maybe it turned out that my traveling history nerd peers weren’t actually “my people” after all. Or maybe they were just asking honest questions.
What I know is that the questions we ask are as much about ourselves as they are about others.
I thought about this as the US Customs official interrogated me when I landed at JFK:
Where are you coming from?
What’s your purpose here?
What are you bringing with you?
The anxiety bubbles up within me again.
But maybe it’s an anxiety we should always carry with us when we leave home and go somewhere else.
We never fully detach ourselves from our own homes. We wind up packing all of our assumptions and values and norms into our baggage. But nobody checks for that – nobody charges us an overweight fee for our biases before we get on a 15-hour flight and go to someone else’s home.
It should be the not-so fine print that we carry with us always:
Where am I coming from?
What’s my purpose here?
What am I bringing with me?