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IN DAGESTAN (AUGUST 21-29, 2018.)

On August 21-29, 2018, SEFER Cenerheld a school expedition to study the cultural and historical heritage of mountain Jews in Dagestan.

The expedition was supported by Genesis Philanthropy Group, a grant of the President of the Russian Federation for the development of civil society, provided by the presidential grants Fund, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. A significant assistance to the expedition was provided by the Fund "STMEGI".


There were 30 participants from Russia (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Kaspiysk, Nizhnekamsk, Togliatti, Derbent), Poland (Warsaw), Czech Republic (Prague), Israel (Ramat-Gan) and Ukraine (Kiev).


The aim of the epigraphic section of the expedition was to study Jewish cemeteries located in the vicinity of Derbent and other areas of southern Dagestan. The team of epigraphists, who worked under the leadership of N. Kashovskaya managed to explore the cemeteries of four former settlements of mountain Jews: Mamracha, Handgal-Kala, Araga and Abasava.

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Participants of the expedition documented more than 480 monuments preserved on the territory of the necropolis. Documentation of each cemetery included the recording of epitaph texts, photography of monuments, measurement and description of the forms of tombstones, as well as mapping with the definition of the coordinates of each stele.
The earliest of the found monuments was discovered in Araga and dates back to the second half of the XVII century, the Most recent burial (in Mamrach and Handgal-Cala) belong to the 40-th years of XX century.

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Jewish cemeteries in this region are characterized by a special form and decorative design of stelae, also found in local Muslim necropolises. Another important feature is the use of specific female and male onomastics, traditional for mountain Jews.
The main language of epitaphs, as in European communities, is Hebrew, but also recorded bilingual tombstones inscriptions in Jewish and Russian languages (in one case – in Lezgian). Deciphering the texts of gravestone inscriptions allowed us to obtain important new information about the history of the mountain-Jewish communities in southern Dagestan, as well as learn previously unknown facts about the life and fate of their representatives.

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The most active part in the work of the epigraphic unit was taken by the Executive Director of the Fund STMEGI D. I. Danilov.

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The participants of the ethnographic section recorded interview with representatives of mountain Jews community and non Jewish communities of Derbent, and. Nugdi (supervisors of the section:.B. Kapustin and S. Amosova). In total, more than 50 audio and video interviews (more than 80 hours of recording) with people born in the 1920s up to 1950s in Russian and Juhuri were recorded, various household items, religious objects were photographed, documents and photos from family archives were collected.
Interviews were conducted on the basis of a detailed questionnaire compiled by S. Amosova it included a set of questions on the history of the Derbent Jewish community and its placement in a wider context of the history of the Jewish communities of the post-Soviet space, questions about the main holidays, rites of the life cycle, religious rules, the course of the interviewers often went beyond the above-mentioned topics, which allowed to obtain a lot of additional information.

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In the course of materials collection were recorded ethnographic peculiarities of Jewish holidays in Derbent (Nisono (Pesach), Soroni (9th of AV), Shavuot (Asalta) and High holidays). The peculiarities of observance of kashrut in the community were of great interest, as well as the organization of production and distribution of ritual food. Thus, the expedition members photographed the oven and the machine for the production of matzo, recorded information about modern practices of slaughtering, the reflection of informants about kosher wine, etc. The wedding ceremony was recorded (in particular the division for the wedding of the bride and groom, preparation of dowry etc., a detailed description of the Huppah. Ktubot of different periods (1970s, 1990s) were photographed, descriptions of funeral and memorial rites, the tradition of naming and its transformation in the Soviet era were also recorded. Especially interesting were the stories about the evil eyes and the protective amulets.

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A large amount of information was received about the religious life of the Derbent Jewish community in Soviet times and at the moment. A specific ethno-religious system that has developed in Derbent is a unique feature, an important component of which was and still is the mountain Jewish community. Interesting information was recorded on inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in Derbent in different historical periods (including the current situation). Special attention was paid to the specifics of relations between mountain Jews and Ashkenazi Jews, as well as representatives of other ethnic communities of the city (Azerbaijanis, Russians, Armenians, Lezgins, Tabasarans) and interethnic marriages.

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One of the important topics in the interview was the identity of mountain Jews in the past and the present (the definition of themselves as mountain Jews, tats, etc.), the fate of the Juhuri language. An important aspect of the work was fixing the memories of the rural Jews in Nugdi, at the moment it is the only one rural settlement which is still home to several Jewish families. In addition, the reflections of the community members about the rural origin of their parents, stereotypes about different Jewish villages (in most of which Jews no longer live), reflection on the extent to which the Jews of these villages are included in the overall context of the Caucasian mountain culture were of great significance.

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In addition, the participants of the expedition were able to observe the cultural and religious life of the modern mountain-Jewish community: to visit the excursion and Shabbat service in the synagogue, the Jewish Museum and the Jewish cemetery of Derbent, to meet with the editor of the weekly newspaper "Vatan" in Juhuri, to visit the rehearsal of the mountain-Jewish theater.

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After processing the materials of the expedition and completion of geodetic survey of cemeteries, maps and catalogues of cemeteries, interviews and their transcripts will be available on the website of the "Sefer" field research database SFIRA. Members of the expedition also prepare reports and articles and their ideas on the further development of the project.

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The field school in Dagestan is organized by SEFER Center with the support of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, a grant from the President of the Russian Federation for the development of civil society provided by the Foundation for Presidential Grants, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and other sponsors.


The purpose of our expedition is to study the cultural and historical heritage of the Mountain Jews, to describe and catalogue Jewish cemeteries, to record interviews with the oldest representatives of the community.
Two teams are going to work during the school: an epigraphic team and an ethnographic one.


Members of the epigraphic team will be engaged in the cataloging Jewish cemeteries in Southern Dagestan (scientific advisors: PhD in History N. Kashovskaya, PhD in History B. Rashkovsky, heads of field work: A. Fishel and M. Vasiliev). The surviving ancient Jewish cemeteries of Dagestan make it possible to comprehend the geography of the settlement of the Jewish diaspora almost all over the whole Dagestan.


Epigraphic study of the cemeteries of the villages of Southern Dagestan can promise real results. The main objects of our research will be the tombstones of necropolises in Mamrach, Araga, Abasava, Khandjal-Kale, and others.


Members of the ethnographic team will be engaged in collecting interviews with representatives of the community of Mountain Jews of Derbent (heads of the field: PhD in History E. Kapustina and S. Amosova). Mountain Jews are a Jewish ethnolinguistic group (community) in the Caucasus, mainly living in Azerbaijan and Dagestan (large Jewish communities existed in Baku, Cuba, Derbent, Makhachkala, Buinaksk, in some foothill villages of Southern Dagestan). The term "Mountain Jews" appeared in the first half of the 19th century, it is the self-name of this group is Djuhur. Based on the linguistic and indirect historical data, we can suppose that this community was formed due to the immigration of Jews from Northern Iran, and also, possibly, the immigration of Jews from the surrounding areas of the Byzantine Empire to Transcaucasian Azerbaijan. Several communities of Mountain Jews were preserved in traditional places of residence, including the one in Derbent, where a synagogue and several other Jewish community institutions are functioning now.


The main result of the expedition will be the enrichment ofSFIRA- our new electronic archive of field research with fresh data.SFIRAis a database for collecting, storing and systematizing the materials of field schools and expeditions that SEFER has been conducting for more than 10 years.

We invite students and young scientists with experience in field research, as well as those who study history, culture and material heritage of Jews in the region.

For the members of the ethnographic team, it is necessary to use their own equipment (recorders, laptops), to have a photo and video camera is an advantage.
When selecting members of the epigraphic team, the advantage is given to participants who know Hebrew and have fieldwork experience in epigraphy. To process collected materials, epigraphists need to take a laptop with them, a camera is also preferable.

The knowledge of the Russian language is necessary (native speakers or the level close to native speakers).

To participate in the school please fill in thequestionnairebefore May, 10. We will let you know the results of selection of participants on May, 20.