By Rabbi Yonah Bookstein
[I recently traveled to Azerbaijan to speak at the 6th International Conference on Multiculturalism at Baku Slavic University. Azerbaijan is a developing country in the Caucuses on the Caspian Sea, rich in oil and agricultural resources, and committed to building a secular Muslim society tolerant of minorities. They enjoy good diplomatic and trade relations with Israel and America. Yes, Israel and America.
While admittedly I was nervous about what I would find once I reached Baku, my experience working with the Azerbaijan Consulate in Los Angeles had been so pleasant that I could not imagine anything other than a warm welcome. In fact, I spent the next three days as a reluctant VIP, in a whirlwind of activity, with touring, interviews, meetings, celebrations, teaching, and a boat ride on the Caspian Sea. This is part one of a series on my visit to Azerbaijan.]
David looks as nervous as any other 13 year old boy wrapped in a tallit and tefillin, standing on the bima in front of the torah on a Thursday morning. The rabbi coaxes him, and he recites the blessing before, and then the blessing after the torah reading. The candies rain down from the women’s gallery above as we break out in singing “siman tov, u mazal tov.” David is smiling, his father is beaming, and the joy in the synagogue is tremendous.
However, David is not in my synagogue in Los Angeles, but in the Mountain Jews Synagogue in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, a Muslim country in the Caucasus.
It was my second morning joining the Mountain Jews for services. And like at other synagogues on a Thursday morning, identifying those those who were there for the Bar Mitzvah was easy: they came bearing gifts and food, and had yarmulkas perched awkwardly on their heads. Everyone was dressed-up for for the occasion. Unlike the previous day, the women’s gallery above was now full with women of all ages, their heads wrapped with colorful scarves. During David’s aliyah, when he was called up to bless the Torah, the women held lit candles.
This synagogue was built by the government in 2011 to replace their aging old synagogue, through the goodwill of the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. The floors are covered in colorful rugs, and there are even small rugs on many of the seats. (I would be given a gift of some of these small rugs to take home later by the head of the community.) I was honored by the rabbi to stand with him on the tall bima in middle of the room during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.
The Jewish community of Azerbaijan lived in relative peace for centuries – some say thousands of years – before the Soviet Union began to destroy synagogues and repress Jewish life. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that Jewish life in Azerbaijan had a chance to breath again. Many Jews left for Israel, Moscow or America. But thousands stayed and are building Jewish life in Azerbaijan.
Like the rest of the country emerging from the shadow of the Soviet Union, Jewish life in Baku is also in development. There are hundreds of children attending two Jewish day schools in Baku. The largest is Or Avner which is operated by the local Chabad emissary Rabbi Shneor Segal, who is nearing completion on a new kindergarten building on the campus of Or Avner (also donated by the government). There are Jewish clubs and other organizations. In addition to the Mountain Jews synagogue there is an Ashkenazi and a Georgian Synagogue in Baku.
After the Bar Mitzvah and morning services, I joined the community and guests in the synagogue basement for a celebratory meal including vodka, tea and pomegranate juice to accompany the breads, salads, olives, omelettes and pastries. I sat with synagogue’s head rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Yaakov, who I had previously met when he visited LA with a delegation of Azerbaijani Jews. We conversed in Hebrew about the weekly Shabbat meals that he supervises which the synagogue serves, and other community and charity work that he is doing. Then Milikh Yevdayev, the leader of the Mountain Jews community in Azerbaijan, offered blessings and toasts in Azeri and Juhuri, the local Jewish language.
I made a few l’chaims, ate some pastries, and then had to run – a car was waiting to take me to Kultura Plus, a Azerbaijan TV station, for an interview. However, you cannot just run out empty handed in Baku, that’s not the way it works. Two men quickly assembled a plate full of local sweets and a gift bag for me to take, and I wished everyone Mazal Tov!
Yonah Bookstein is Rabbi and Co-Founder of Pico Shul, a dynamic spiritual community in Los Angeles, and the Alevy Family Campus Rabbi in Residence at University of Southern California Hillel.