The sounds of Jerusalem in Gabala
The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra performed for the second time in the Gabala International Music Festival. Created by conductor Dmitri Yablonski and pianist Farhad Badalbeyli, the festival is one of the most important classical music events in Azerbaijan. As the Jerusalem Post writes in the article THE SOUNDS OF JERUSALEM IN A TOLERANT MUSLIM STATE, the JSO was warmly received by classical music lovers in the city of Gabala during their second performance in the annual Music Festival held in Azerbaijan since the summer of 2009.
The company performed four concerts during the event and was met with much interest by the local audience, especially young people who "filled the hall until it was packed," says JSO head Yair Shtern.
The music festival demonstrates the excellent relations Israel has with Azerbaijan, which is a predominantly Islamic state in the Shia tradition. The historical relations between Azerbaijan and the Jewish communities living there were normally excellent. Jews had been living in Azerbaijan for over 2,500 years and the community claims it can trace back its' origin to the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III in 720 BCE. The lack of Cohanim in that community is often pointed to as confirmation of that origin story as Cohanim, who are of the tribe of Levi, were not expelled by the Assyrians at that time as were the ten tribes of Israel.
However, modern scholars suggest that the mountain Jews of the Caucasus are descended from Persian speaking Jews who were scattered around the Persian empire. The decision made by many Jews to dwell in hard to reach places such as mountain tops served as a great benefit later when times proved hostile to Jews. For thousands of years the Jewish community of Azerbaijan spoke Judeo-Tat, a form of Farsi that uses Hebrew elements, and had little or no relations to other Jewish communities.
This changed when Azerbaijan became part of the USSR in 1920 when it was invaded by the Red Army. The USSR at the time had great need of Baku's oil and the country remained within Soviet control until 1991 when it became an independent nation. Today most of the Jewish community resides in the capital of Azerbaijan Baku and is composed of the remaining mountain Jews, who are the largest Jewish group, Ashkenazim who settled in Azerbaijan from the late 19'th century to the end of the Second World War where many found refuge there and Georgian Jews who made Baku their home in the early 20'th century. Baku also has an active Chabad community, that will gladly offer Kosher food to any Jewish visitors, and active Zionist youth movements.
Qırmızı Qəsəbə [Literally the Red Town] in the Quba district in north modern Azerbaijan is where most of the other Jews live. The town was created by Jewish Mountain Jews in the 13'th century and was originally called "Hebrew Town". The name "Red Town" was coined by the Russians. Around 4,500 Jews live there today, in the past the town was the home of 18,000 Jews and boasted 18 active synagogues. But in 1938 Stalin deported the community leaders to Siberia and ordered all the synagogues closed save one, which is still active today. Today the town has two active synagogues as well as a Jewish school that is run by Chabad and "Or Avner". "
In the town of Oghuz, that once boasted a Jewish community of Tat-speaking Mountain Jews, one can see two surviving synagogues. Once named Vartashen, the town now boasts a small Jewish community that celebrates the Jewish holidays and warmly accept Jewish visitors from Russia. "The President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev offers his personal support in the maintenance of these synagogues," says Dr. Baram.
"Azerbaijan is an amazing place for Israelis," says Aryeh Gott, who serves as the honorary counsel of Azerbaijan in Israel. "Israel and Azerbaijan have incredible relations and trade relations that amount to five and a half billion USD per year. The relations also include military and intelligence aspects," he added.
"The current leadership in Azerbaijan wish to highlight religious tolerance and pluralism," says Dr. Baram, "and good Jewish-Muslim relations contribute to that as a whole."