Office Hours: Valeriya Nakshun

“If we focus on ourselves without making connections to a larger culture, our culture won’t survive.”

George Prigov
July 11, 2022

The term “Mountain Jews” describes Jews from the Eastern Caucasus—one of the most linguistically and ethnically diverse regions in Eurasia, home to more than 50 ethnic groups—who speak the Juhuri language. I never liked this English name. It seemed somewhat scientific, like the name of an animal subspecies, while remaining vague about what specific mountain range it might refer to. Other languages don’t do a much better job. The Russian term, Gorskie Evrei, has a near-identical meaning, although the adjective and its derived noun “gorets,” meaning highlander, lend a touch of romanticism. In Hebrew, the term Kavkazim is used, literally referencing the Caucasus region. Our own native language, Juhuri—a dialect of Caucasian Tat with close similarities to Judeo-Persian languages——describes us with the term Juhurho, which means, simply, “Jews.” While I may find it unsatisfying, this confusing nomenclature is, in a way, apt, given that Juhuri identity is complex and multifaceted, and not always easy to describe.

Historically, most Mountain Jews lived in highland villages in present-day Azerbaijan and in Dagestan, in Southern Russia; some also resided in the North Caucasus, in Chechnya and Kabardino-Balkaria. Some scholars theorize that Mountain Jews originally arrived in the East Caucasus in the fifth century, perhaps sent there as soldiers to protect the northern border of Sassanid Persia. After the establishment of the USSR, many Mountain Jews were pushed to integrate into a dominant Soviet identity and leave behind both Jewish practices and the Juhuri language. Following the USSR’s collapse in 1991, the majority of Mountain Jews, facing economic and social hardship, chose to emigrate, largely to Israel, but also to the US, Central Russia, and Europe. My mother was one of them: She emigrated to the US in 1995, at the age of 19, leaving her family behind in Dagestan to study film and photography at Yale. Five years later, I was born, and we soon moved to London with my father.

Growing up in multicultural London, with the rest of my family far away and without a community of Mountain Jews anywhere nearby, I grew disconnected from my heritage. (These days, the largest Juhuri communities are found across Israel and in New York and California, and a settlement exclusively inhabited by nearly 4,000 Juhurho remains in Quba, Azerbaijan.) I didn’t even learn the term Juhurho until my early teens, when I began rediscovering the part of my identity that was lost. In 2017, after several years of mostly fruitless Google searches researching Mountain Jews, I finally met Valeriya Nakshun through the Facebook group Kavkazi Jewish History and Culture, which she had created earlier that year.

Nakshun, a contractor for NASA, was born in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, in 1993, but emigrated to the US at age four. She grew up in Baltimore, disconnected, like I was, from other Mountain Jews. Through her Facebook group she has managed to connect English-speaking Juhurho from around the globe, helping us share information about our history and culture with one another, and collectively learn more about our identity. When I met her online, I became motivated to get involved in activism for the preservation and education of Juhuri culture and history. I’m now an active Facebook group member, and I’ve also started studying Juhuri.

Office Hours usually features a young activist interviewing an elder activist. However, when it comes to Juhuri language activism, it’s not easy to find English-speaking community members from older generations willing to participate: Among the small group of activists that are able to connect digitally across the dispersed Juhuri diaspora, most older folks prefer to do their work privately, out of the limelight. So I sat down with Nakshun herself for an intragenerational conversation about her advice to other young Juhurho, the role of the internet in language activism, and the Soviet Union’s influence on Juhuri cultural life. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

George Prigov: What led you to create an online space for the preservation of Juhuri culture and history?

Valeriya Nakshun: In 2017, my cousin got married to an American guy. At their wedding, we served traditional food—kebabs, eggplant appetizers, rice—and played traditional music—shalaho or lezginka music with rhythms that sound like music from Turkey or Northern Iran. My family doesn’t like to explain things too much, so they always just tell people that they’re Russian. Which means a lot of people came to the wedding expecting Eastern European or Russian culture, and then realized our culture feels more Middle Eastern or Mediterranean. People had questions, so I created a Facebook group for the wedding guests to say, “Hey, this is kind of a complicated subject, but here are some resources about who we are and why we do things this way.” The wedding people eventually filed out of the group once they got their answers. But now I had this space. Other people slowly started to join in through word of mouth, and now we’re at around 450 members, which is significant considering the size of our community.

GP: I was raised with little understanding of what being Juhurho means. What is your advice to young Juhurho hoping to connect with the culture?

VN: I’m very lucky that I was able to grow up with a grandma who spoke Juhuri as a first language, but I never really thought much about it. At the Jewish school I went to when we moved to the US, people talked about Russian Jews and Yiddish and so for a long time, I just thought my grandmother was speaking Yiddish. But as I grew up, I felt that despite the fact that we are Russian speaking, there’s this big cultural divide. Other families didn’t light a candle for every member of the family on Yom Kippur or throw water on the car every time they left for a trip. We even look different, like other Mizrahi Jews.

I couldn’t always find a community that specifically focused on our culture. But I did find, within an hour’s drive from me in Baltimore, a Sephardic Jewish nonprofit, and so I got involved in that. I also found a group that practices Middle Eastern and central Asian dance. I thought, “Okay, what can I learn about these other, similar communities that can give me some insight about our own?” When I started doing Middle Eastern dance, people around me started coming to me with questions about our culture, and so I became a kind of spokesperson within the local dance community. And that forced me to learn, “What songs do we have? What dances have we done?” The internet has filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge. Or I’ve asked my grandmother or my father and they’ve had a little piece of information to offer. This is how I ended up performing the Juhuri folk song “Astarho” at one of the Azerbaijan Independence Days, as a duet with an Egyptian Muslim dancer.

GP: That’s so similar to my story. My mum actually found a Georgian dance group in London, and I was dancing with them for a few years, and it was an excellent foundation.

VN: I think that’s really key to be able to find a community that can help serve some of the functions of a larger Juhurho community, even if it isn’t specifically Juhurho. Maybe go to a Persian community center, go to a Bukharian community center, and find those areas where you can connect. Ask your grandparents questions, and then see what similarities you have with other groups. We’re just 200,000 in the world; if we just focus on ourselves without making connections to a larger culture, the culture won’t survive.

GP: There are many hegemonic cultural influences that have become significant components of Juhuri identity today—Jewish, Iranian, Caucasian, post-Soviet. But a lot of the time, it feels challenging to identify with so many cultures at once, since the creation of nation states has compartmentalized cultures into fixed, specific categories. Do you think it’s necessary to somehow reconcile all these aspects that are part of our identity?

VN: It’s difficult to explain or to understand what we are sometimes. My uncle was 100% Jewish, but, unlike other Jews in the Soviet Union, it didn’t say that on his passport. What they used to call us was Tat, which is an Iranian group, also from the Caucasus. But it didn’t even say Tat on his passport; it actually said Tatar [a Turkic-speaking, generally Muslim ethnic group from what is now Central Russia, far from the Caucasus]. It’s not like there was even one single migration of Jews to the Caucasus: You have some people, especially in Azerbaijan, who trace their lineage back to a particular city in present-day Iran. You’ll have other families who say, “Actually, we’ve been here since the Assyrian expulsion from ancient Israel.” I’ve always been interested in our connection to Persia and Iran because of our language. But many religious Jews downplay that connection, and focus more on the connection to ancient Israel. So even within the Mountain Jewish community, you will have different ways of presenting identity. Some people will use this identity as a way of connecting with other immigrant groups, because they have this common immigrant experience. It’s interesting to see what people take away from the culture and how they adapt it to their modern life.

For my part, I’m okay with it being fluid and open-ended. It opens you up to so much richness. We have a connection to other Russian speakers, which opens us up to cultures of Central Asia, in places like Kyrgyzstan, though we actually have very few cultural practices in common. It also opens us up to European cultures. I almost feel like I can translate between different peoples. I can understand the Iranians. But I can also understand the Russians.

GP: What kind of effect do you think that the Soviet Union and its policies have had on our culture today, and our perception of our identity?

VN: I used to view it as all negative. What frustrates me is that my grandmother started her education in a Juhuri-speaking school, but then, during her lifetime, the schools became Russian-speaking. In my parents’ generation, the Soviet idea was to become this sort of cultural melting pot, with Russian being the lingua franca. We lost the language at this point in history.

But why did my grandmother even have a Juhuri speaking school to begin with? Because in the early Soviet period, the Soviet Union did make a lot of investment in Indigenous communities, so that things like Juhuri newspapers, Juhuri theaters, Juhuri schools were being funded by the government. During Lenin’s time, they thought that if you encourage the Indigenous groups, they’ll be happy, and they’ll be obedient. But then during Stalin’s time—Stalin was a Georgian, he was not ethnically Russian, so he was sort of a self-hater—that policy changed. They started to think that if you had too much nationalism rooted in your Indigenous identity, that would get in the way of your Soviet identity and the future of the Soviet Union. And so they reversed their original policy of funding all of these different cultures. A lot of cultures of the Caucasus were expelled from their territories at this point, like the Chechens, who were deported to Central Asia in the ’40s.

Now, when we study the culture, a lot of what people are using to learn the language and the folklore are plays written during the period when the Soviet government was funding the various cultures of the Union. And so, today almost all we have, in a sense, is what the Soviet government was able to fund.

GP: Ironically enough, the force that brought our culture almost to extinction is also simultaneously the one that has preserved it.

VN: Exactly. Our parents’ generation has a very negative view of the Soviet Union because they saw it collapse and experienced struggles with poverty, inequality, antisemitism, and corruption. But in our grandparents’ generation, in our great-grandparents’ generation, in that early Soviet period, it was very hopeful.

GP: It’s interesting to think about the history with the Soviet Union because while I’m not sure if Juhuri people are strictly considered Indigenous, we lived in an area for a long time that came under the rule of an imperial colonial power.

VN: Of course, the Soviets were not actually the colonizers of the area. It was the Russian Empire that did the conquest; the Soviets just reinforced the borders of that expanded territory. All of the modern progressive movements have definitely inspired me in terms of thinking through decolonization. The history that’s often being discussed is primarily focused on colonization by Western European countries, but it does have parallels with the way that the Russians came and conquered the lands of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and the way a lot of those Indigenous cultures of the Caucasus and Central Asia were viewed as Oriental backwards cultures. I don’t identify as “Indigenous,” but I find I can access some level of common experience in the cultural loss that we suffered in the context of Russian conquest.

“I don’t identify as “Indigenous,” but I find I can access some level of common experience in the cultural loss that we suffered in the context of Russian conquest.”

GP: Juhurho born in the Soviet Union and those born since the collapse of the Soviet Union grew up in very different environments, and we have very different perceptions of our culture: Soviet-era Juhurho were often more secular and immersed in Russian culture, while those born afterwards have had more opportunity to connect with Judaism and are often interested in recovering Juhuri practices lost during the Soviet era. How do you think we can bridge this gap in understanding and establish solidarity between generations?

VN: If you have a Juhuri speaking grandparent, use that resource. First of all, they would love it if you reached out to them. But also, they are a primary source. You can’t get much richer and deeper than that. Encourage those family events. Every now and then a holiday comes around, and my parents are like, “Do we really have to get together and cook again?” And I’m always saying, “Yes, we need to.” We need to continue that sense of community.

There’s this big technological gap, especially in the English language. One of the reasons we’re even doing this interview now, instead of with an older Jurhuri activist, is because there aren’t many Juhurho in the older generation primarily working in English. It’s really hard to find those older generations online, but they are out there. And there are ways to at least have some access to the wealth and wisdom that they have, even if you don’t have that in your own family. I was able to record a video of my grandmother speaking Juhuri and upload it to Wikitongues, which collects audio and video of speakers of endangered languages. There are videos online from people who come to Azerbaijan and record the older men speaking the language. The biggest problem is just knowing where to go for resources, and so I hope our group can make those connections.

George Prigov is a mechanical engineering student of Juhuro (Mountain Jewish) origin who was raised and lives in the UK. He is passionate about preserving the culture and language of the Mountain Jews and raising awareness about the issues facing their community.