posted 26 Jul 2016, 05:32 by Lodzer Shabbat-Bulletin

Shalom from Baku Synagogue

The far mountains of Caucasus are an enticing, mysterious, vast and very welcoming place.
Jews dwelled here for thousands of years (the earliest known Jewish settlement in Azerbaijan belongs to the 7th c. CE, and there are far older ones yet in Georgia).

Besides India, Caucasus is the only place in the world (that I can think of) where Jews were historically present yet never oppressed or persecuted.

Azerbaijan (with its mostly Muslim, traditionally and culturally, population) is no exception. Rare individual anti-Semitic outbursts are neither condoned nor tolerated by the government. In fact, no other country enjoys the special status in Azerbaijan reserved for relationship with Israel. Not only can Israelis enter Azerbaijan with minimal formalities at the border, a special visa allows them (I mean, us) to remain here almost indefinitely.
Azerbaijan is Israel's largest oil supplier, and Israel is Azerbaijan's fifth largest trading partner altogether.

There are some downsides to such close ties; for once, the need to maintain them is pretty much the only thing still preventing Israel from recognizing the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915-18.
As the relationship between Azerbaijanis and Armenians have been shifting from tense to hostile to murderous in the last 30 years, one of the worst accusations the two parties are eager to throw at each other is that of antisemitism. Latent antisemitism, of course; either side would be hard pressed to find any actual evidence of such trend in each other's history or politics.

Azerbaijan is home to Sephardic Jews who moved here from the less friendly Muslim countries down south; Mountain Jews (so-called "Tats") who received refuge and protection of the Khan of Quba during Persian conquests both in the 13th and late 17th centuries; and Ashkenazi Jews who started settling here, mostly from Russia, with the first oil boom of Baku in 1860's.

There are two synagogues in Baku; one Ashkenazi (it also has a smaller Sanctuary, continuously used since the Schule's consecration by the Georgian Sephardic community), the other Mountain-Jewish. This latter one moved recently to a modern new building, gifted to the congregation by the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev.


Now, if anything gave you the idea Azerbaijan was a democracy, perish the thought. It is a blatant dictatorship. Ilham Aliyev inherited his father's post after Heydar Aliyev passed away in 2003. Heydar Aliyev's cult of personality developed after his death. More than 100 streets, buildings, squares and other sites are named after him in Baku alone.
Any critical reference to the president or his family here would be unthinkable, not to mention outright illegal.

The wall of honour in Baku Synagogue proudly exhibits a dozen colour photographs; the President at the consecration of the Sanctuary, the President laughing at something with Netanyahu, the President feasting with... Barack Obama, the President shaking hands with Vladimir Putin.

The new Synagogue allows a remarkable innovation: there is a balcony for the women now. Traditionally, the women in this congregation never went to the Synagogue, and there was no area allocated for them.


Baku is an amazingly futuristic city, growing with surprising velocity. Think Dubai or even Hongkong, not Baghdad or Xanadu.

Right next to the ancient Old City and Persian style medieval fortress, you will find skyscrapers, flaming towers, and other marvels of architectural thought of steel and glass. All in all, built in surprising good taste, one must admit, albeit not without ever-present notions of grandeur.


This is the heart of the Old City, İçəri Şəhər fortress.
Even now, when the wealth of the state dropped tenfold with the world energy crisis, the construction rush does not quiet down.


The people in Baku are friendly and warm. (Of course, if you happen to be of Armenian background, you may have formed a different opinion since the beginning of the territorial conflict in the 1980's. Nowadays, you will have some 30-60 minutes of hard time entering the country if there is an Armenian entry stamp in your passport, and people with "Armenian last names" are banned from entry, as is anyone who's been to the contested Nagorno-Karabakh province.)

Next week, we will talk food. :))

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Eli