In Israel they're sometimes called the "black Russians" to distinguish them from the "white Russians," a phrase that doesn't mean exactly what it used to.
The "white Russians" are the Ashkenazi Jews from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the other Slavic republics of the former Soviet Union. The "black Russians" come from farther east, in the predominantly Muslim former Soviet republics: Tadjikistan, Dagestan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan--and they come from ancient Jewish communities that were largely invisible to the Jewish world for eighty years, through a combination of government repression and obscure location.
They are becoming known again, partly because of the olim (immigrants) they're sending to Israel, and partly because of Jewish revival in their home republics and in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where many of them have relocated seeking economic opportunity and shelter from Russia's war on Chechnya.
The centers of Mizrahi population in the FSU date back to the Roman Empire, even before in many cases. The Jews of the city of Bokhara, "the cupola of Islam," were known for hundreds of years through the Jewish world for their wealth and learning. The "mountain Jews" or Tat of the Dagestan area have preserved a distinct and complex set of customs, and their own language, separate from the Bokharan Judeo-Persian.
Jews from these groups immigrated to Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and settled there. Photographs from the end of the 1800s show newly arrived families in traditional Bokharan clothing.
Once the regions from which these groups came were absorbed into the USSR, contact with Jewish communities outside the Soviet Union was largely lost. Recently, a small amount of material has been published, exploring the experiences of the Mizrachi FSU communities during the Soviet era and the Second World War.
For the most part, the Mizrachi communities in the Muslim regions of the USSR were better able to maintain religious tradition than the Ashkenazim of the Slavic republics. They were farther from centralized Soviet authority, and in republics where their neighbors continued to adhere to some degree to Islam. Their preservation of tradition is a point of pride with Mizrachim from the FSU.
During the struggle for Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 80s, they were barely mentioned, and little was known about them. With the great immigration wave of the 90s, however, formerly Soviet Mizrachi families began to make aliyah in increasing numbers, and to emigrate to the United States. Those who remain in the FSU are, like the Ashkenazi communities, going through a period of rapid growth in Jewish learning and community organizing. In 1999, a group of Mountain Jews from Dagestan formed a synagogue in Moscow.
In Israel, their experience has been similar in some ways to that of the formerly Soviet Ashkenazim, and different in others. They have formed contact with other Mizrachi communities, some with well-known and influential rabbis, and been able to connect culturally with Jews from similar backgrounds in Muslim countries. This has not been as easy for the olim from the Slavic republics, who are separated from other Ashkenazi communities by profound cultural shifts, and their utter isolation from Jewish religious life during the Soviet era.
On the other hand, the Jews from these more isolated regions often have less formal education than their Russian or Ukrainian counterparts, and have not been able to take as much advantage of the technical opportunities that have opened in Israel over the past decade as have the olim from the Slavic republics. They are suffering from the same problems that all the Russian-speaking olim are facing: increasing rates of poverty, a degree of cultural isolation from other Israelis, and a lack of social services aimed at them (such as Russian-speaking social workers or support from schools for immigrant families).
They are also facing the blanket prejudice against immigrants from the FSU which has become common in Israeli society over the past decade. In an article in the Israeli press about clashes between "white" and "black" Russians in public housing projects, one Russian-speaking Mizrachi commented ruefully that he has little in common with the Ashkenazim from the FSU, until someone shouts "you lousy Russian"--at which point they both become simply "Russians".
In the FSU, in the United States and in Israel, the Russian-speaking Mizrachim are reemerging as a powerful cultural voice in the Jewish world of the new century. It has only been in the past decade that we've been able to reestablish contact with these ancient and modern communities. We should wait with excitement to see what emerges from these communities to contribute towards a more vital and complex future for Judaism.
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