Gavriil Illizarov, an Azerbaijani-Jew, and his World Changing Invention

A Jewish Medical Hero from Azerbaijan: The Life of Dr. Gavriil Ilizarov


From my own experience and from the life stories of so many others, I know that a Jew, a Christian or Muslim growing up in Azerbaijan all have an equal chance at making a successful life and making significant contributions to our world. One such success story that has always stayed with me is that of Gavriil Abramovich Ilizarov. The story of a great innovator, scientist and thinker that did not have the internet, or many research associates; rather he had a desire to explore saving lives and in the most difficult of circumstances – war.  

Ilizarov was born in 1921 into a poor Jewish peasant family from Azerbaijan, who had moved to Poland. His father, Abram Ilizarov, was a Mountain Jew from Qusar, Azerbaijan, while the mother, Golda Ilizarova, was of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. When he was little, his family moved back to Azerbaijan, where he grew up in the town of Qusar, near Qırmızı Qəsəbə – a Jewish town. Ilizarov graduated from Buynaksk Medical Rabfac (an educational establishment set up to prepare workers and peasants for higher education) in Dagestan 1939 and was admitted into the Crimea Medical School in Ukraine. At the height of World War II his medical school was relocated to Kazakhstan, where Ilizarov completed his training, and encountered the worst cases of bone and limb damage imaginable among Soviet soldiers who fought against the Nazi army on the Eastern front.

From these experiences, Dr. Ilizarov embarked on groundbreaking discoveries that would change the future for people with severely damaged limbs. Dr. Ilizarov discovered that by severing bones in half, and affixing them slightly apart, so to leave a small amount of space, that the bones would regrow to fill in that space. This meant that even totally shattered bones could be repaired, and even lengthened. Dr. Ilizarov took his groundbreaking discovery one step further and developed an apparatus, based on the mechanics of a bicycle, to set severed bones in place and, at the same time, continuously spacing the bones apart so to facilitate regrowth.

For years, many doctors and scholars scoffed the idea; it was before considered unthinkable to repair a bone through the process of regrowth. But Dr. Ilizarov had seen the results first hand from his many years in Siberia, and he persisted in advancing and perfecting his surgical technique and his apparatus. In 1968, his reputation changed dramatically, after his success in treating the famous Russian Olympic champion, Valeriy Brumel. Brumel had injured his leg in a motorcycle accident and underwent dozens of unsuccessful surgeries before connecting with Dr. Ilizarov. Only then and with the help of what became known as the Ilizarov Apparatus, was Brumel able to recover, where before meeting Dr. Ilizarov he had faced the prospect of amputation. After this, Dr. Ilizarov became famous for his invention and more generally, for his magic touch with healing bones. In 1987, Ilizarov’s orthopedic techniques were brought to America, and he had officially achieved international recognition and fame. That same year, American manufacturers began distributing his apparatus; what they called the Ilizarov External Fixator.

Unlike the experience of Jews living in other nations within the region or regions nearby, Ilizarov  benefitted from the open and embracing culture of tolerance that exists in Azerbaijan, where a Jewish child can grow to become a doctor and scientist, with the rights and freedom to pursue passions and goals; just the same as anyone else. We have seen this with many examples, including our current Supreme Court Judge Tatyana Goldman, our Jewish Parliamentarian Yevda Abramov, and many leaders and heroes across the spectrum of industry and action, today and throughout our past.

Dr. Ilizarov was one of the Soviet Union’s most decorated civilians, and received the Order of Lenin three times, the Order of Hero of Socialist Labor, the highest civilian honors in Italy, Jordan and Yugoslavia. His discovery had finally changed the way in which doctors approach shattered or deformed bones, then and today.

I consider Dr. Ilizarov’s true bravery, this genius to pursue unique ideas; all in the face of overwhelming and tumultuous circumstances. I also consider the fact that he was given the freedom and resources to pursue his career in the first place, a fact that people from my generation and many parts of the world do not take for granted. What if his parents had not moved from Poland back to Azerbaijan, so that he could grow up in safety as a Jew and with support for his studies, rather than endure what so many Jews in Poland endured? How many people would have suffered with otherwise untreatable injuries or deformities if this one man did not have the opportunity to study and relentlessly pursue his passion?

I see there is a very strong connection between the homeland of Dr. Gavriil Abramovich Ilizarov and the accomplishments of his life. Like so many of his Jewish brothers and sisters from Azerbaijan, he nurtured and shared his gifts in order to make the world a better place.

The many enchanting places to visit in our hometown of Baku

A Special Father’s Day “Staycation” in Baku


My friends in Los Angeles and throughout the United States will celebrate Father’s Day this Sunday. Father’s day is a special day and it has been especially on my mind since I lost my husband this year, and the father to my beloved daughter. We miss him very much, every day, and it seems that as each day and week passes, we only miss him more and more.

I wanted to make this weekend special for my daughter, a young, beautiful and kind girl who has the whole world ahead of her, but no longer has her father in her life or by her side, to guide and support her through the tricky teenage years she faces now and the days soon ahead when she will be an adult, out in the world on her own.

We decided to plan what in America is called a “staycation”, in our hometown of Baku. That is a vacation where we may not travel far from home but we get to have a lot of fun with what is available nearby. I know that in Los Angeles, this is a common way to spend the summer months, with so many attractions, like the beach or the many attractions of Hollywood.

I have planned the special vacation day for Sunday, because it is a significant day around the world, and I want to bring my daughter extra cheer. Even though we will not leave town, there is much to do in Baku.

Our day will begin with a walk through the beautiful city center park, where we hope to catch a glimpse of the stunning brides as they are photographed before their wedding days. This is a common tradition in Azerbaijan and particularly in Baku, where we have gorgeous city parks that are especially enchanting in the summer months. Bridal parties and their families come together to take pre-wedding photos, and it’s something I know my daughter will enjoy. Perhaps we will stop in a cafe before and have a warm tea to enjoy on our stroll.

As we work up our appetites on the walk, we’ll leave the park and stroll over the Old City of Baku, a truly enchanting place to visit. I know my daughter will be thrilled as we walk through the Old City entrance, onto the cobblestone streets, past the merchants selling their classic Azerbaijani goods, such as silk scarves, dolls, keychains and much more, to the visiting tourists. I plan to surprise her by allowing her to choose a special gift just for herself. We may not be tourists, but we can enjoy the Old City just as if we were.

We will walk through Old City until we find a good place to lunch, perhaps one of the stone buildings leading up to the famous Maiden’s Tower, the highlight of the Old City. There we will enjoy traditional Azerbaijani delights, such as Plov and Lamb Sadj, two of our favorite dishes. Perhaps we will have some classic Azerbaijani tea with pastries Shekerbura and Pakhlava to finish our meal, and relax and digest before we continue on our special day.

I plan to add in an extra surprise, to take my daughter by the university, called ADA University, so she can take in the buildings and the students and the majesty of learning, since I know she loves to dream of the days soon to come, of attending college herself, and studying full-time. We will sit on a bench or by the tables in the student quad, and talk about what will come next in life.

I hope this day will bring my daughter some much needed cheer and some excitement, about her summer and about her future. I hope she will remember this special Sunday and that we will have many more Sundays like this to share in the future.

And I hope that this Sunday, Father’s Day in America, is a joy and delight for all my friends in Los Angeles and across the United States. Perhaps my friends in Los Angeles will visit the Griffith Park Observatory or sunbathe at Will Rogers Beach in Santa Monica, two attractions I enjoyed very much during my last visit. Or have a festive, delicious meal at one of Los Angeles’ famous delis.

Wherever you go, make sure to do something fun, and remember that you don’t have to travel far to create a memorable experience, and that memorable experiences mean so much.

 

The Eternal Flame memorial in Baku, Azerbaijan

Yom HaShoah: A Day of Remembrance and Reflection


We recently took in the news of chemical weapons used to murder children in Syria, an act few considered possible since a time 70 years ago, when over 1 million children were murdered by the Nazis. Our shock and outrage as a global community never fades, and our understanding of history seems to grow with the decades between then and now. But the sheer brutality with which these attacks have occurred reminds us of the true nature of evil and contempt for human life, as well as the capacity of intolerance to rearrange the human condition and spirit. The attack in Syria weighs on our minds, and is an important reason why we must never let the memory of a great tragedy as the Holocaust slip into the annuls of history past.

Yom Hashoah begins on the evening of April 23, 2017, a day to remember the 6 million Jews, the 5 million others, and the heroes that risked everything to save lives from the perpetrators and accessories to the Holocaust.

In my homeland of Azerbaijan, the remembrance of the Holocaust has always felt personal and close to home. Azerbaijan has always stood against hatred and fascism, and this was the case during the time of Nazism, as it is true today. History remembers Hitler’s vain attempt at capturing Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku, which was key to his eventual defeat, when en route, his army endured Stalingrad. Azerbaijan was then, as it is today, a haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and neighboring regions.

In 2016, the Baku International Center for Multiculturalism and Baku Slavic University organized a roundtable of high level scholars to discuss the implications of the Holocaust today, and to do so through the lens of our own national tragedy, the Khojaly Massacre. This massacre was committed against innocent Azerbaijani civilians, including hundreds of children, women and elderly in February 1992 by invading Armenian troops. The Human Rights Watch called it the “largest massacre” in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and condemned the “unconscionable acts of violence against civilians” by the Armenian forces.

The said 2016 memorial in Baku for the 6 million Jews was mostly attended by Muslim students of the Baku Slavic University. And it is no coincidence. Holocaust studies are a part of the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan’s educational system, and with our strong Jewish population, deep ties to the State of Israel for 25 years, and our own experience during World War II, the Holocaust has, in many ways, left a permanent impression on Azerbaijan.

The Holocaust is one of many connections that tie Azerbaijan to the Jewish people. Jewish communities have also shown immense support to Azerbaijan for the endurance of our own tragedy. For the past several years, the Khojaly Massacre has been memorialized in Los Angeles, with Rabbis and synagogues leading the way in this compassionate, cross-cultural effort. Survivors that have participated in these remarkable memorials have noted the impact of feeling cared for by another, and how especially meaningful the memorialization of their tragedy was under the leadership of Jewish communities, to whom such tragedy is unfortunately very familiar. But it is precisely in that space of familiarity that remembering atrocities such as the Holocaust yields hope for a future free from the evils of hatred that made the Holocaust, and many other tragedies, possible.

Remembering the Holocaust is a truly universal undertaking. And yet, it should be looked at in context for a new generation of young people that have no connection to the experience of the past.  With so few survivors left to tell their stories, with few children of the children of survivors feeling the direct connection to a page in history in a world driven by 15 minutes of fame relegates this important time to ancient history.

No matter where you come from, no matter your religion or culture, every human life is precious and deserving of freedom and dignity. If we can cross the barriers of difference to memorialize such a tragedy, we can surely cross it for many other reasons and on many more days.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December, 2016

Israel and Azerbaijan: Celebrating 25 Years of Friendship


 

On April 8, 2017, Azerbaijan and Israel will celebrate 25 years of friendship. As it says in the Talmud, friendship is a “critical element to our lives as Jews and for all mankind.”

On December 25, 1991 Israel became one of the first countries in the world to formally recognize the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and on April 8, 1992, the two nations established formal diplomatic ties, which have only grown closer over the 25 years since. As an Azerbaijani Jew, I have an intimate knowledge of how important and inspiring this friendship is. As a leader of my community, who has traveled across the world to many Jewish communities, I know this anniversary has profound meaning for us all.  

Israel and Azerbaijan are both exceptional countries that share much in common. They are both leaders in finding innovations in technology, energy, emergency management and international security. They are both home to diverse communities, where Christians, Muslims and Jews live as one. Israel stands alone as a progressive democracy in a region deeply embroiled in conflict and strife, and Azerbaijan stands alone in an equally unstable region; the world’s only nation to border both Iran and Russia and the only secular majority-Muslim democracy of its kind in quite a turbulent part of the world.

Israel and Azerbaijan have worked together closely over the years to establish deep and lasting trade, and today, approximately 50 percent of Israelis’ cars drive around each day with Azerbaijani oil in their gas tanks. Azerbaijan enjoys a close cooperation with Israel in the fields of technology and expertise, especially when it comes to defense, national security, medicine, IT and agriculture. President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both visited Azerbaijan several times, and on his most recent visit in late 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu said of Azerbaijan that “Here is an example of what relations can be and should be between Muslims and Jews everywhere.”

The relationship goes beyond trade and mutual goals of safety and fighting extremism.  There is a tremendous understanding of mutual respect between the two nations. To demonstrate how far this goes, I remember when one of Azerbaijan’s lead imams stated that “There is nothing in Islamic law to prevent Jews from ascending the Temple Mount and the ones who claim otherwise are considered heretics in Islam.” I remember only 2 years ago, when the European World Games successfully took place in Baku, and the largest delegation of Israeli athletes in history had flown into Baku to participate in the games, and how the crowds cheered so beautifully as they graced the arena. And last year, Azerbaijan hosted the joint exhibit of Simon Wiesenthal Center and UNESCO, titled “The People, the Book, the Land”, which tells the story of us, the Jewish people, as we trace 3,500 years back to the land of Israel. It is no small statement for a majority-Muslim nation to make. It was the undoubtable act of friendship and respect.

When i was growing up in the Soviet Union, I never imagined that I would one day celebrate the 25th anniversary of Azerbaijan and Israel as diplomatic partners and allies. Such a notion to a Jew of this region was practically unimaginable. But like so many things in this life that are wonderful and inspiring, this friendship was a dream that came true.

As we come next week to Passover, I believe it is important to celebrate this anniversary and recognize that we are partners in peace across every continent. May the friendship shared between the Jewish state and the majority-Muslim ally of the Caucasus stand as a heroic model for the friendship that is possible between nations of any and every faith. My prayers and heart are looking forward to another 25 years of growing and fortunate friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan.

 

Bruised but Unbroken: Remembering Khojaly


(The featured image is from my interview in the new documentary Running From the Darkness)

I can still feel their hands as they grab my arm and separate me from my brother. My body remembers the way the baton bludgeoned my skin, over and over. I still shiver thinking about the cold, how the wind and snow worked hand in hand with my captors to further torment me. It has been 25 years since I was subjected to these horrors during the Khojaly Massacre, and it is an event I can never forget.

On the night of February 25th, 1992 my hometown Khojaly, located in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, was invaded by Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. That night, our village was bombed and many buildings were destroyed by shelling and fire. When I tried to flee into the forest to escape the siege, I was captured and tortured by the Armenian soldiers. My only crime was that I was an Azerbaijani living in a land that Armenia wanted to claim at all expense. The treatment I was subjected to during those days in captivity was one I do not wish on anyone. I was fortunate enough to have survived; however, hundreds of others from Khojaly, including over 300 women, children, and the elderly were not so lucky. 613 innocent civilians lost their lives that night, in what Human Rights Watch would label as the “largest massacre to date in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

For many years I tried to remove these events from my memory; I thought sharing my story would only reopen the emotional wounds that remained when the bruises of my torture faded. However, two years ago as I was perusing Facebook, I found an article about an Armenian who was receiving an award. When I realized I recognized him, it was as if I was back in that barn in 1992. The man receiving that award was the very same soldier who had ordered the countless beatings when I was their prisoner. After seeing this post, I decided it was time to speak out and tell my story. We often hear the phrase “never again” when discussing massacres such as Khojaly, and I believe that ideal can only be accomplished if survivors like me tell their stories.

While I have made a point in the past few years to tell my story, my voice is only one of many that needs to be heard to truly understand what occurred in my town. This is why I am excited and honored to be a part of a new documentary that was created by film-makers in Los Angeles to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the tragedy in Khojaly. Having debuted on February 21st at the world-famous Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles to a great acclaim, Running From the Darkness features survivors from the massacre providing a space for first-hand accounts of what happened that night. Additionally, experts who have written books on Nagorno-Karabakh offer insights on the conflict and why we need to hold the perpetrators responsible. While the documentary’s primary purpose is to shed a light on the horrible events of February 25th, 1992, it also portrays the strengths of modern-day Azerbaijan. My homeland, known as “the Land of Fire”, has emerged from the ashes of catastrophe as a nation that celebrates multiculturalism and promotes religious tolerance.

This documentary not only commemorates tragedy, it also serves as a reminder that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is far from over. The international community has taken note of the quagmire; organizations such as the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, the Council of Europe, European Parliament, and NATO have all condemned the continued Armenian occupation of Karabakh. The Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), comprised of the United States, Russia, and France, has been tasked with negotiating a peaceful settlement to this conflict. With the mounting pressure from these organizations, I am hopeful that a resolution will emerge in the very near future so that I, and other survivors, can finally go home.

 

Netanyahu to visit Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit two Muslim countries, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, in a bid “to strengthen diplomatic, security and economic relations.”

Netanyahu left Tuesday morning for the trip to what he called “two large and significant countries in the Islamic world.” It will be the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to Kazakhstan, he said, and the second to Azerbaijan. Netanyahu was the first to visit Azerbaijan nearly two decades ago, during his first term as prime minister, when he met with the father of the current leader.

[ROB ESHMAN: The mysteries of Azerbaijan]

“In complete contrast to what is heard from time to time, not only is Israel not suffering from diplomatic isolation, Israel is a country that is coming back,” the prime minister said as he boarded the plane. “These countries want very much to strengthen ties with Israel and, following the strengthening of our relations with the major powers of Asia, with countries in Africa and with countries in Latin America, now come ties with important countries in the Islamic world.”

Netanyahu added: “This is part of a clear policy of going out to the world. Israel’s relations are flourishing in an unprecedented manner.”

Azerbaijan, a secular state with 98 percent of its population Muslim, has a long border with Iran. Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with members of the Jewish community there. The Jewish population of Azerbaijan is about 20,000.

Netanyahu also will meet with representatives of the Jewish community in Kazakhstan, his second stop on the trip. Estimates of the number of Jews in the country range as high as 30,000.

Violence against Azerbaijan: The deep implications for our community


“For if they fall, one will lift up his friend, but woe to the one who falls and has no second one to lift him up.”
Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, Chapter 4, Verse 10

Today, we approach the week before Passover and reflect on the costs and worth of our own struggle to live in freedom and in peace. This Passover comes amidst troubled times, with rising anti-Semitism, high tides of extremism and sectarian violence, and horrific acts of terrorism are occurring in more places, with increasing frequency. As we once sought for far-fetched resources to carry us through the desert and into our own homeland, today we stand as more educated, resourceful, and have at our fingertips more information than ever before. Today, we can do plenty to support the security and sanctity of peaceful nations. For the Jewish people and all people across the globe, this is perhaps our greatest responsibility, and our greatest chance for survival.

The international community has repeatedly stated that the ongoing Armenian occupation of over 20% of the sovereign Republic of Azerbaijan, is completely illegal, designating the massacres committed against Azerbaijani people in the early 1990’s, at the start of the same occupation, as crimes against humanity. Since then, a powerfully funded effort to assure the general public remain in the dark has been highly successful, supporting a continued occupation, violence and human displacement, committed against an entire region, within a nation known as one of the United States’ and the State of Israel’s greatest allies and a model for multifaith harmony and peace. The atrocities of the 1990’s have resulted in over 750,000 Azerbaijani natives of Karabakh living as refugees ever since, unable to return home.

It nearly broke my heart to read the news last week, of the Armenian attacks, of the spraying of bullets against unarmed Azerbaijani civilians in the same place where invaders committed massacres so recently, and without substantial recourse to date.

Azerbaijan’s longstanding and unabashed support for the State of Israel is a worthy enough reason to raise our community alarms for their current crisis. Jewish people across the world, and especially in Israel, face a familiar uncertainty from forces of hatred that have proven powerful enough to be rightfully feared. Many here are troubled by what they perceive as an unprecedented shakiness for the future of security in the Jewish homeland, and question the state of American support, long considered unwavering. Time will tell the future story of  American loyalty to Israel, yet we know with certainty that Azerbaijan and Israel share over 20 years of deep, strategic alliance, and we know with certainty that Israel needs her allies intact.

Even if we put loyalty to Israel and the United States aside, we have a moral imperative to stand in solidarity with the people of Azerbaijan. Only 25 years ago, in the same region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani people were subjected to what Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin likened to genocide, at the hands of the same invaders, in the name of the same occupation that is still continuing. Knowing the history, and the vulnerability of history in the hands of revisionists and how that has perpetuated this conflict, I can’t help but see the effectiveness of the Armenian propaganda and lobbying effort, rumored to cost over $10 million a year to produce, in the U.S. alone. The media, U.S. Congress and various state legislatures are clogged by Armenian special interests, and in the process, a precious and incomparable ally faces an ongoing campaign of brutality, while the world essentially sits and does nothing, if not making it worse.

As propagandists the world over have long known, advantageous hate-mongering works to an unfortunately great extent, and the invaders of Karabakh have also invaded the nexus of our global dialogue. Their weapons are denial and revision; messages designed to confuse, mislead, and elude responsibility and justice, and for their victims, the chance to return home and to heal. The effectiveness of the denial and revisionist campaign brings to mind the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1945,  on the future of Holocaust denial: “Get it all on record now – get the films – get the witnesses – because somewhere down the track of history some bastard will get up and say that this never happened.”

Jewish communities have a responsibility to educate and advocate for the protection and preservation of our rare and brave ally. A majority-Muslim nation and the peaceful home to 30,000 Jews and half a million Christians, Azerbaijan is the only truly secular democracy in the entire Muslim world, and has an iconic history, upholding multi-faith harmony for centuries. Azerbaijan proves to the world that Jews, Muslims and Christians can live in absolute and lasting peace. I am challenged to think of anything more promising and hopeful than that.

While we pray and hope for safety here in the U.S. and for Israel, and for the free world to remain free and to become a safe and peaceful home for people of every faith and every culture, our unified voices and outcry must include those that have done the same for us, and suffered in similar ways to us, for far too long. As Azerbaijan faces another siege of violence today, let us stand beside our great friend, and support their hope and fight for freedom and peace. That dream is indistinguishable from our own.

Remembering the innocent victims of a war crime in Khojaly


There is nothing more calamitous than the trauma of war. The scars left behind from wars are definite, and the consequences profound. For all the talk of war in global terms, the most fundamental essence of it is extremely personal.

The prospect of tragedy, of senseless loss of human life, touches every part of the world today. Across the globe, in places like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine or the Caucasus, wars and conflicts continue to cause more and more suffering to affected populations. There are few things more global than war, but there is nothing more personal, or more individualized than the loss of one's own life, or the mourning of slaughtered kin.

War becomes something else, and takes on even greater consequences, when the basic lines of human decency are overpassed, and the world once again must document human brutality, massacres, and ethnic cleansing; all in violation of many international laws on wartime engagement. 

The town of Khojaly in Azerbaijan's Karabakh region might sound unfamiliar to some. But Khojaly was the scene of one of the most horrific tragedies in modern European history – a tragedy that lives in the hearts of many today as though it had just occurred.

Twenty-­four years ago, I watched in horror as TV screens in Azerbaijan showed the immediate aftermath of a brutal event: dead children, women and elderly, mutilated bodies, frozen corpses scattered across the ground. 613 Azerbaijani civilians, including some 300 children, women and elderly, had just been ruthlessly murdered in a massacre, which the international human ­rights group Human Rights Watch would later call the “largest massacre in the conflict”​ between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

On February 26, 1992, Azerbaijani civilians were attempting to evacuate the town of Khojaly in the freezing cold while coming under attack, and many were gunned down by the invading Armenian troops as they fled towards the safety of Azerbaijani lines. This brutal attack was not simply an accident of battle, it was part of Armenia's deliberate policy of terror to intimidate Azerbaijani citizens into fleeing towns and villages of the region, allowing Armenia's army to occupy Nagorno­-Karabakh and other areas of Azerbaijan. The Khojaly massacre was an unabashed campaign of ethnic cleansing, in no uncertain terms. 

This policy of ethnic cleansing and terror was even braggingly acknowledged by the very men in charge of it. Serzh Sargsyan, then one of the most senior Armenian military commanders and now the country's president, told the British journalist Tom de Waal in 2000 that “Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us, they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We needed to put a stop to all that. And that's what happened.”​ One also needs to mention that Seyran Ohanian, one of the commanders of Armenian troops invading Khojaly, is currently the defense minister of Armenia and is hailed as a national hero in the country.

Since 1992, Azerbaijan has worked hard to recover from the atrocities of that brutal invasion, and to make sure the perpetrators of these crimes, the mass murder of innocent people, were condemned.

And the world has responded: countries from Mexico to Slovenia and from Bosnia ­Herzegovina to Peru, as well as nineteen U.S. states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and others ­have all condemned the Khojaly massacre.

The Khojaly massacre has also not gone unnoticed by Israel. President of Israel Reuven Rivlin speaking to the United Nations General Assembly last year, noted:  “Is our struggle, the struggle of this Assembly, against genocide, effective enough? Was it effective enough then in Bosnia? Was it effective in preventing the killing in Khojaly?”

More than two decades after Khojaly, Armenia's illegal occupation of 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory still continues despite international condemnation, and nearly one million Azerbaijani refugees remain uprooted.

This unprovoked and senseless  land grab has not brought any benefits to Armenia – on the contrary, it has only weakened the country and significantly reduced its sovereignty and independence making it over-reliant on external help. The country has lost almost half of its population since 1991 to economic emigration.

In a powerful contrast, Azerbaijan has become the region’s largest economy, pursuing and succeeding with a truly independent foreign policy and promoting interfaith tolerance and harmony in a difficult neighborhood. The country is also a vital strategic partner for the U.S., especially in the areas of global energy security and the fight against terrorism.

Yet to the people of Azerbaijan, the tragedy of Khojaly can never be forgotten, or lessened by the blessings of recovery.  Despite global condemnation, Armenia denies these crimes, as if genocide denial were an acceptable, everyday sort of national policy.

Azerbaijan will continue its fight for justice for the Khojaly victims. And we would like to see the U.S. Congress join this struggle. A Congressional condemnation of the Khojaly massacre would be the first step in the right direction. For our future generations, let us make sure that such callous human cruelty cannot occur freely in this world, because we wish our children to live in a world that will no longer tolerate the madness of genocide and ethnic cleansing. For the crimes of Khojaly, like the crimes in any other part of this world, there is no ambiguity of blame. Justice must be a swift measure, and there is nothing so unjust in the world as the murder of innocents.

Based in Los Angeles, Nasimi Aghayev is Azerbaijan’s Consul General to the Western United States

Sinai Temple mission to Azerbaijan


A delegation of 45 Sinai Temple members returned this week from a 4-day mission to Azerbaijan where they dedicated a Torah scroll which they had previously presented to the Mountainous Jewish Synagogue. The mission, which was led by Rabbi David Wolpe and Cary Lerman, President of the Sinai Temple Men’s Club, also visited and prayed in synagogues in the capital, Baku, as well as in Quba, and met with Azeri governmental and community leaders.

Situated on the western shore of the Caspian Sea and bordered by Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Russia, this country of some 9 million mostly Muslim inhabitants is noteworthy for its long tradition of acceptance of its minorities which include some 12,000 Jews as well as Christians and adherents of other religions. 

One of three Synagogues in Quba. Photo courtesy of Sinai Temple

According to Lerman, the Azeris treated the delegates like high ranking officials, complete with police escorts, non-stop media coverage, sumptuous banquets and briefings by senior officials including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Special Assistant to the President for Multiculturalism as well as the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus Region. Additionally, the Ambassadors of Israel and the United States  briefed the delegates on relations between their countries and Azerbaijan.

Cary Lerman said that “for most of the participants the highlight of their visit was the joyous dedication of the Torah at the Mountainous Jewish Synagogue in downtown Baku. The synagogue was overflowing with people, music and high spirits. We danced, sang and basked in the sheer joy of the moment. And we experienced what we had been told: Azerbaijan is a country without antisemitism where Jews are a vital part of the national fabric.”

The Sinai Temple mission to Azerbaijan was arranged with the assistance of the Hon. Nasimi Aghayev, Consul-General of the Republic of Azerbaijan at Los Angeles, the Baku International Multicultural Center and The Knowledge Foundation under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan: Israel’s secret Muslim friend


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Azerbaijan went to the polls earlier in the week in an event that was shunned by both the country’s main opposition parties and even by international election monitors. One exception was a group of several Israeli politicians who flew into the oil rich nation to observe the proceedings. Although this is unlikely to improve the poll’s credibility it does demonstrate the intimacy of the relationship between the Jewish state and its closest Muslim ally, experts said.

Location explains Azerbaijan’s standing in the world. Situated on the oil rich Caspian Sea, the state is wooed by Western governments seeking an alternative to Russia as a source of energy imports. Israel is one such customer and in return sells large quantities of sophisticated weaponry to Azerbaijan, partly in exchange for oil.

Much of the oil Israel purchases – about 40% — travels through the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, Gallia Lindenstrauss, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. The BTC runs overland from Baku, the country’s capital on the Caspian Sea, through Georgia, and ends in Turkey. “Historically speaking, Israel put a lot of importance on energy security,” Lindenstrauss said. This caused Israel to pursue a close relationship with the Caucasus state, and led to it recognizing Azerbaijan shortly after it declared independence in 1991.

Equally important to Israel is Azerbaijan’s southern border with Iran, a country with no love lost for Baku, despite both countries’ populations being predominantly Shi’ite Muslim. This makes Israel and Azerbaijan natural allies since “both countries see Iran as an existential threat,” Lindenstrauss observed.

There are ample reasons for Azerbaijan to welcome its alliance with the Jewish state: some with a view toward Iran and others due to Armenia, according to Alexander Murinson, an independent researcher with the Begin-Sadat Center and author of Turkey's Entente with Israel and Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan became embroiled in an ethnic conflict following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a dispute which continues to dominate their interactions. “Joint containment of Iran, access to high-tech Israeli military, [and the] blocking of the Armenian diaspora in the United States by the Jewish lobby,” are incentives for Azerbaijan to court Israel, Murinson suggested.

The Azerbaijan-Israel association suits both parties well. The selling of sophisticated weapons to Azerbaijan is “another attempt at psychological pressure on Iran” by the Jewish state, the author explained. Drone and air defense technologies make up the bulk of such exchanges.

But the cooperation goes further than this. Azerbaijan’s location makes it a natural back door into Iran. There are reports suggesting that all of Israel’s covert espionage activities conducted against Iran were based in Azerbaijan, including the assassinations of the nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, Murinson said.

The Iranian foreign ministry has accused Azerbaijan of collaborating with the Israeli foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, and of acting as a safe house for its operations. Azerbaijan’s proximity to Iran could also enable it to function as an airfield or refueling stop for Israeli jets conducting raids against targets in Iran.

Turkey adds another piece to this complex arrangement. Previously, a triangle alliance was created between it, Azerbaijan and Israel. But following a long term cooling of relations between Ankara and Israel due in large part to the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, Azerbaijan came under pressure to distance itself from Israel. Nine Turkish activists were killed on the ship when Israeli commandos stormed the ship as it was attempting to circumvent the Israeli blockade and sail to the Gaza Strip.

Although the cultural connection between Azerbaijan and its “big brother” Turkey is extremely close, expediency and regional ambition caused the smaller state to stick to its alliance with Israel, Murinson argued.

In recent years, the under the radar relationship appeared problematic for the United States, too, as Washington was concerned that Israel would use Azerbaijani airfields to strike at Iran, Lindenstrauss said. This would have disrupted attempts to negotiate the nuclear agreement between Iran and Western states that was recently signed, and which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been consistently opposed to.

With an ally able to both provide oil and pressure Iran, Israel doesn’t want to look too closely at the domestic politics of Azirbaijan. This, Lindenstrauss suggested, is a common trend in Israeli foreign affairs where realpolitik is central.

The elections which took place recently, and which comfortably returned incumbent Ilham Heydar Aliyev to power, were boycotted by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Monitors for the poll had not been guaranteed sufficient access to ensure transparency, the OSCE said. Most members of the opposition boycotted the election as well.

“It’s hard to talk about free and fair elections in a country where freedom of expression and assembly are restricted, and journalists who should be reporting on elections, and NGO activists who should be monitoring them are in jail,” Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch’s researcher for Azerbaijan, told The Media Line.

However there are limits to how far and to how visibly the relationship will go. Although an Israeli embassy exists in Baku, Azerbaijan has never deemed to open a diplomatic headquarters in Tel Aviv. The Azerbaijani government always feared that doing so would make fellow Muslim states less likely to support it in its dispute with Christian Armenia, Lindenstrauss explained.

As for the future of the Israel-Azerbaijan relationship, it is likely to continue unless Israel breaks its long kept silence on the Armenian Genocide, Zeev Levin, a historian with the central Asian and Caucasus research unit at the Hebrew University, told The Media Line. Such a change in stance might drive Azerbaijan away from Israel and into the arms of Ankara.

A story of survival and the healing power of familiarity


This time of year, we remember the Holocaust; the genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda  and sadly, many other places. We remember the faces of the victims and the stories so  horrible that hearing them can make one feel sick. And with all this to remember, there are still  tragedies that are lesser known, crimes against humanity so horrific that many would argue it  is impossible that they occurred in such recent history. Yet I am a survivor of such a tragedy ­the Khojaly Massacre of 1992, and one of the female survivors and witnesses of the Khojaly  torture camp.    

As a woman and a Muslim, it is extremely painful to reconcile the horrible trauma of Khojaly  with my faith and traditional culture, and my shame from suffering violations of the most  fundamental components of my identity. As a survivor of torture, I spent years in isolation at  home, watching films about the Holocaust; the only lens that captures anything relative to  what I experienced. I spent sleepless nights soothing myself out of panic with Schindler's List  and The Pianist. Living in that solitary world with films and nightmares was almost as tragic as  the reasons for which I lived there. My life hung somewhere in the balance of total isolation  mixed with the severity of ongoing and extensive surgeries to recover my body from the  brutality of torture and the impact of exposure during my captivity, procedures such as  receiving titanium spinal implants, with every second of this process and pain a reminder of its cause.     

I come from the town of Khojaly in Nagorno ­Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan once flourishing  and promising for my young generation at the time. In the early 1990’s, all of that suddenly  changed. Most of the world doesn’t even know the name of Khojaly, or that Armenia  perpetrated there one of the most brutal massacres in recent history against a terrified, fleeing  Azerbaijani populace. The night (Feb. 25­26, 1992)  the Massacre began, I ran for my life with  my brother, into the freezing woods, and got captured and taken to the torture camp. I was  only 20 years old…    

With dark irony, I understand why Armenia still denies that Khojaly happened. I understand  this because I will never shake the images of a 2 year old Azerbaijani child, shot while fleeing  with his parents, his blood spattered body suspended in my memory as if in the air for that  moment of gruesome impact. How could anyone face the taking of hundreds of innocent lives,  the bayoneting of pregnant women and elderly, the showering of fatal bullets onto fleeing  children, and mothers holding their lifeless infants. As a victim, facing my past has nearly  broken me, so I imagine that as perpetrators, denial must be of tangible comfort.     

As a Muslim woman, there is a certain and unspeakable pain I feel in explaining to the public  that I was subjected to brutal torture and humiliation, including rape, for many days in the Armenian captivity. Sharing this has been a tragedy for my soul, separate from the cruelties  my body suffered. But I realize that by sharing it, I can live beyond the shadows of shame and  step into the light of my own healing.     

The last few years, my life has dramatically changed. With immense support from my family  and community, I have begun the process of sharing. The hidden parts of my past have  become public and documented. I have begun to make a record of the nightmare I survived.     

Until February of 2015, I had never visited any country in the West. On my first day in  California, I met a Jewish community leader involved in global peace efforts, and we  conducted a radio interview, with an Iranian­Jewish psychologist and talk show host; a  specialist in the survivors of intense trauma and the Holocaust. Through connecting my story  with a caring psychologist, and my new friend, herself the 3rd generation of Holocaust survivors, I realized a powerful sense of understanding I had yet to experience before that  day.     

This feeling expanded when I learned of the Khojaly memorial held at a Los Angeles  synagogue, a week following my visit. The Jewish community’s response to learning of  Khojaly as a parallel to the Holocaust has been monumental for my ability to share and heal.  The genocide in Khojaly stands out as an example of the lowest displays of human depravity.  But now, through the welcoming arms of the Jewish community of Los Angeles, the  connection has been made and the silence broken. For me, this changes everything.     

Through the power of my own healing, I am deeply motivated to help other women face their  own stories of survival, and by doing so, eradicate the shame and loneliness that follows the  fact of torture and trauma. I once thought I could never share what happened, and now I know  that by sharing it, I am part of a larger movement to heal, and not only myself, but the entire  world.  It is my sincerest hope to inspire other survivors, those across the world who have had  the paradigms of their innocence blown away by the tragic cannon of hatred and oppression,  and join together in a unified bond, strengthening each other and the world. Not only the  survivors of torture and genocide, but also women from nations that have never experienced  modern war, for so many women live with the trauma of violence, some even in their own  homes. I strongly believe that through a growing commitment to the familiarity of all who  suffer, this world will become a different kind of place, one that would never allow the pain and  great sorrow of genocide or any kind of violence to happen ever again, to anyone, anywhere.     

Durdane Agayeva lives in Baku with her husband and daughter, and can be reached by email at ​ agayevadurdane@gmail.com ​Durdane truly believes in the power of unified voices, and  hopes to hear from you, your story of survival and your commitment to human rights for all  people.

Jews of Azerbaijan and United States: In celebration of our transcendent connection


California and Azerbaijan Jews share a special bond, and our special friendship is becoming better known this year, as a number of important events have taken place that commemorate our connection. The last flight I took across the 7,000 miles between us was to return to Los Angeles in February with a delegation of fellow leaders of the Mountainous Jewish community of Azerbaijan. Our purpose in visiting was to receive and celebrate the gift of a new Sefer Torah from the Jewish community of Los Angeles. A new Torah takes about a year to write, each letter composed in painstaking scrutiny; a single imperfection rendering the entire document invalid. The creation, and even the transport of a new Torah is a challenging and expensive process, and the Torah itself, perhaps the most meaningful bond between Jews across the world and cultures.

But how did this come to be, and why would a synagogue in Los Angeles sponsor a Torah for a Jewish community so far away? Many Jews in Los Angeles have never before heard of Azerbaijan, nor of Azerbaijan’s over 30,000 Jewish residents. Even lesser known, is that Azerbaijan is home to the Mountainous Jewish community, who have lived in Azerbaijan in peace and prosperity for over 2,000 years. The Azerbaijani people and government have been huge supporters of our Mountainous Jewish community, and as well as the other Jewish communities, including several in Baku, which houses three synagogues and a large Jewish day school.

What is particularly unusual about Jewish life in Azerbaijan, which is a close friend and partner of Israel, is that we live and freely practice our faith in peace and prosperity, protected and respected, in a secular Muslim country. We share cities and towns, and live and work with our Azerbaijani Muslim brothers and sisters. By its example of tolerance and inclusion, Azerbaijan destroys all the stereotypes that exist out there in the world as far as the co­existence between Muslims, Jews, and Christians is concerned. Azerbaijani example proves that it is still possible for all these major religions to enjoy peaceful and harmonious co­existence in mutual respect. As Jews, our reality in Azerbaijan is somewhat like a dream. Imagine a Muslim government that spends millions of dollars on building a beautiful synagogue for Jewish residents, or a Muslim country that celebrates a Jew as one of its greatest war heroes. This is our reality in Azerbaijan.

So how does this all connect to a new Torah at Sinai Temple? Last year when I traveled to Los Angeles for the first time, I was often asked by my fellow Jews what the Jewish community in Azerbaijan needed. I had just one answer: A Sefer Torah for our Synagogue! I am glad that the Los Angeles Consulate General of Azerbaijan, who has strong relationships and a widening network of Jewish friends in California, conveyed this request to Rabbi David Wolpe of the Sinai Temple, who later told this broader story of our history in Azerbaijan to his congregants. Sinai Temple immediately recognized how big of a deal it is that Jews live in such a peaceful and hopeful way in a Muslim country. The energy and hard work leading up to the Torah Dedication, was so magnificently holy and inspired, it could only happen at a place called Sinai. The Rabbi spoke of our story on Shabbat, and like a flash, we were brought to Los Angeles to receive the Torah. This magnificent gift and gesture was inspired and realized by the Sinai Temple Men’s Club, a group of visionary congregants led by Cary Lerman; the type of people that are here to change the world. As true leaders, they shined a light on something that represents hope, and from there, took direct action and brought to life something beautiful and lasting. That hope is built on our story, that Jews actually can live with respect, and even love, in a Muslim country. Just the fact that Azerbaijani Muslims wholeheartedly facilitated this Torah donation from one Jewish community to the other speaks volumes about what Azerbaijan stands for. This inspiration could change the world.

Yes, it was an experience of true grace, that in such dark times for Jewish people across the world something as elevated and positive could occur, bringing Jewish communities together across thousands of miles to celebrate friendship and the most lasting connection between all Jews, our Torah.

The Torah anchors all Jewish people across geography and culture, and the gift we have brought back to Azerbaijan is nothing short of priceless. The Los Angeles Sinai Temple’s most meaningful act of friendship embodies the epitome of hope and the shared Jewish­Azerbaijani dream of tolerance and peace. As I watched the world become smaller and smaller from thousands of feet above land, returning to my Jewish home in Azerbaijan, I felt a sense of possibility and inspiration as occasion for this trip. The values and momentum of this celebration are part of something much larger than one night or even one Torah; a movement to bring together all Jews and Muslims, across all global communities, so that we may one day truly exist as one world family, no matter the language or distance or differences between us.

Mr Milikh Yevdayev is the Leader of Azerbaijan’s ancient Mountainous Jewish community

Khojaly: Fighting for justice for innocent victims of a massacre


On January 28, addressing the United Nations General Assembly on the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Reuven Rivlin of Israel said: “On this day we must ask ourselves honestly, is our struggle, the struggle of this Assembly, against genocide, effective enough? Was it effective enough then in Bosnia? Was it effective in preventing the killing in Khojaly?​… Are we shedding too many tears, and taking too little action?”

A similar question could be posed to the leaders of the U.S Congress. Will this Congress get more actively engaged in supporting the growing number of civilian populations that are being impacted by painful conflicts in various corners of the world like Iraq, Nigeria and Syria among others? Will they non­selectively condemn these and similar atrocities and do more to stop them? Congressional leaders have a unique position to engage the world's attention in so many ways. But treating equally all atrocities, past and present, no matter where they take place and who the culprits are, is an important prerequisite for preventing the future tragedies.

The town of Khojaly that President Rivlin referred to might sound unfamiliar to some. But Khojaly was the scene of one of the most horrific tragedies in modern European history.

Twenty-­three years ago, I watched in horror as TV screens in Azerbaijan showed the aftermath of a brutal event: dead women, children and elderly, mutilated bodies, frozen corpses scattered across the ground. This shocking footage was taken at the site of the Khojaly massacre. 613 Azerbaijani civilians, including up to 300 children, women and elderly, were ruthlessly murdered.

The massacre took place on Feb. 26, 1992 when Azerbaijani civilians, attempting to evacuate the town of Khojaly in freezing cold after coming under attack, were gunned down by Armenian troops as they fled towards the safety of Azerbaijani lines. This brutal attack was not simply an accident of battle, it was part of Armenia's deliberate policy of terror to intimidate others into fleeing the region, allowing Armenia's army to occupy Nagorno­Karabakh and other regions of Azerbaijan. This was ethnic cleansing, pure and simple.

This policy of terror was acknowledged by the very men in charge of it. Serj Sargsyan, then one of the most senior Armenian military commanders and now the country's president, told the British journalist Tom de Waal in 2000 that “Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us, they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against thecivilian population. We needed to put a stop to all that. And that's what happened.”​The international human­rights group Human Rights Watch called Khojaly the “largest massacre in the conflict”​.

Ever since, Azerbaijan has worked for the Khojaly massacre to be recognized by the international community. And the world has responded: countries from Mexico to Peru and from Bosnia­Herzegovina to Colombia, as well as over a fifteen U.S. states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and others ­ have all passed relevant resolutions condemning the Khojaly massacre and its brutality.

More than two decades after Khojaly, Armenia's illegal occupation of 20% of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory still continues, and nearly a million Azerbaijani refugees remain uprooted.

This illegal occupation has not brought any benefits to Armenia – on the contrary, it has only weakened the country. Its economy is quickly plummeting, and its population is dwindling.

By contrast, Azerbaijan has become the world’s fastest growing economy of the last decade. The country is also a vital strategic partner for the U.S., especially in the areas of the fight against terrorism and global energy security.

Azerbaijan is looking towards the future. But it can never forget the Khojaly tragedy. The perpetrators of this terrible act, not only remain at large: many of them hold office and are feted as 'war heroes' in Armenia, while justice for the victims of the massacre remains uncertain at best.

Azerbaijan will continue its struggle to remember the victims of Khojaly. And we would like to see the U.S. Congress join this struggle for justice for those who died in Khojaly. A Congressional recognition of the Khojaly massacre would be the first step in the right direction. It is important, for the sake of the future generations, to make sure that such examples of callous human cruelty do not occur again.

Based in Los Angeles, Nasimi Aghayev is Azerbaijan’s Consul General to the Western United States

Celebrating the Azerbaijan and Israel connection


Diplomats from the world’s only Jewish state and a predominately Shiite nation met in Westwood Feb. 3  — and got along perfectly.

The consuls general from Israel and Azerbaijan met in a well-attended public forum at Sinai Temple to discuss economic, political and cultural ties between the two countries, and to witness the gifting of a Sefer Torah from the temple’s Men’s Club to leaders from the community of Mountain Jews who have long lived in the majority Shiite Azerbaijan. 

The unusual event, which speakers frequently referred to as “historic,” emphasized cultural and historical bonds tying together Israel and Azerbaijan, a secular, former Soviet Republic nestled in the Southern Caucasus. An estimated 15,000-20,000 Jews live in the country, according to the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry. 

“This relationship has a very strong human foundation, and that’s our wonderful Jewish community,” Azerbaijan Consul General Nasimi Aghayev said at the event. “When we established, or rather restored, our independence in 1991, Israel was a natural ally for Azerbaijan, because there was already a strong foundation in our society. That’s why Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence, and one of the first countries to open an embassy in [the capital city of] Baku.” 

The two countries do billions of dollars in annual bilateral trade, according to Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel. Azerbaijan’s overall economy is dependent on energy exports; according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, more than 90 percent of Azerbaijan’s total exports are oil and natural gas. So Azerbaijan sends oil to Israel, and Israel sends defense materials to Azerbaijan. 

But the relationship extends beyond oil and arms. Israel is Azerbaijan’s fourth largest trading partner, dealing in telecommunications, cybersecurity, education and agriculture, according to The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. 

“This is a model for how Jews and Muslims can get along in the Middle East,” Siegel said.

Asked by the panel’s moderator, Rabbi Erez Sherman of Sinai Temple, how Azeris have created a culture of interfaith tolerance — between Jews, Muslims and other religions — both within and outside of their borders, Aghayev said, “For centuries it has been the case that these ethnicities, these religions, have coexisted together. And this was due to the fact that Azerbaijan was a crossroads of different cultures and civilizations.

“But, of course, you can’t forget the role of the government,” Aghayev continued. “Government can foster tolerance, or government can steer away and do stuff that is not so positive. In our case, since the very beginning, the government of Azerbaijan has strengthened this tolerance, strengthened this interfaith harmony.”

Three members of the Mountainous Jewish community traveled to Los Angeles to accept the Sefer Torah – Milikh Yevdayev, chairman of the Mountainous Jewish Community; Edva Abramov, a member of the Azerbaijani Parliament; and Rabbi Avraam Yakubov of the Mountainous Jewish Synagogue in Baku. With the assistance of translators, all three participated in a group interview with the Journal prior to the ceremony, as did Gunduz Ismayilov, deputy chairman of Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Religious Institutions. 

Aghayev stressed that the Azeri government is devoted to democratic and secular values, and that it views defending all religious groups and supporting interfaith dialogue as one of its duties. 

Yevdayev seconded Aghayev’s sentiment: “We celebrate each other’s holidays. We share in each other’s joys and also pains,” he said. 

“Jews have lived in Azerbaijan for 2,500 years, Christians since the first century, and Muslims since the seventh century,” Ismayilov said. 

In recent years, the Azeri government has provided financial resources to many of the country’s religious groups, including the Mountain Jews. In 2012, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s government gave money to build the Mountain Jews a new synagogue in Baku, where the Sefer Torah given by Sinai Temple’s Men’s Club will reside.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple led the effort to raise the funds to acquire the Torah, which was written in Israel by Rabbi Avishai Smila over the past year, and completed by members of the Men’s Club in Los Angeles prior to the ceremony. 

It all began a year ago with a conversation between Wolpe and Yevdayev, who was making his first trip to the U.S. When asked what the community in Azerbaijan needed, the latter’s answer was simple: a Torah. So Wolpe approached the Men’s Club and the rest is history.

“The Torah, according to our sages, is the ketubah — it is the marriage contract between God and Israel — and Sinai was the chuppah, it was a marriage canopy. So when you give a Torah to another community, it is also like giving a ketubah, like giving a marriage contract, and it binds the two communities together,” Wolpe said as he presented the new Torah to Yakubov.

Members of the visiting delegation also emphasized the forging of a new bond between Jewish communities in Israel, Azerbaijan and the United States. “Sons of Israel live in different parts of the world, but despite this fact Jerusalem and the sacred Torah unite us all,” Abramov said while addressing the event’s attendees. 

Moreover, the governmental bond between these three governments extends beyond trade and mutual support of religious tolerance. Azerbaijan sent soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq as a part of various U.S.-led coalitions, and there has been speculation in American and Israeli press as to whether Aliyev’s government has secretly assisted Israel in combatting Iranian nuclear capability. 

Despite this collective public support of each other’s efforts, there are some signs in the United States of a growing unease with Azeri politics. Most significantly, Aliyev has faced criticism in the American press for using his authority for repressive, autocratic ends. A Human Rights Report from the State Department stated that in 2013, “the president dominated the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government,” and the government “failed to take steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed human rights abuses.” 

A recent New York Times editorial chastised the Azeri government for “continuing a crackdown on independent media and nongovernmental organizations,” including arresting and jailing numerous journalists and activists. The editorial quoted a cable published from the American ambassador to Azerbaijan, published by Wikileaks, which stated that Aliyev’s actions force American policymakers to make “a choice between U.S. interests and U.S. values.”

Aghayev and Abramov both told the Journal that the Azeri government has not participated in human-rights abuses or unjustified prosecution of members of the press. 

“Nobody is being persecuted for journalistic activity, but if someone commits a crime there should be justice according to the law,” Abramov, who belongs to Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party, said during the group interview. 

Accusations of misuse of power have been overblown in the Western press, Aghayev asserted. 

More important, insisted Abramov, are Azerbaijan’s supportive relationships with Israel and the United States — bonds that undoubtedly reached new depths at Sinai Temple. 

“Today, a dream is coming true,” Yevdayev said at the event. 

Moving and shaking: American Technion Society, Jewish Educator Awards, LAMOTH and more


Audience members at the American Technion Society’s (ATS) “An Evening of Innovation and Inspiration” were presented with a moving sight on Oct. 29 as U.S. Marines Capt. Derek Herrera walked across the Museum of Tolerance stage wearing an Israeli-designed-and-built ReWalk robotic exoskeleton.

Paralyzed by sniper fire during a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2012, Herrera spoke about the positive impact that the ReWalk, which was created by Israeli computer scientist and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology alumnus Amit Goffer, has had on his life.

The gathering at the Museum of Tolerance drew nearly 200 community members, including ATS Western Region Director Diana Stein Judovits; Technion-Israel Institute of Technology Vice President for External Relations and Resource Development Professor Boaz Golany; ATS Southern California Chapter Board President Rena Conner and Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles Consul for Political Affairs Yaki Lopez.

The evening showcased groundbreaking innovations that were developed at the Technion, which is one of Israel’s leading universities. ReWalk, which assists victims of spinal cord injuries and whose company’s initial public offering on Sept. 12 was a huge success, is among them. It allows individuals with lower-limb disabilities to stand upright and walk.

Herrera is currently working with ATS to raise money for research at the Technion focused on advancing mobility and independence. The funds also will also be used to provide ReWalk devices to qualified individuals.

ATS solicits donors in the Diaspora that are interested in the mission of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.


The final two recipients of the 2014 Jewish Educator Awards were announced on Nov. 3 by the Milken Family Foundation. The winners were Rabbi Menachem Mendel Greenbaum, principal of Cheder Menachem, an Orthodox boys school affiliated with Chabad, and Katya Malikov, chair of the math department at the Modern Orthodox Shalhevet High School.

The distinctions from the Milken Family Foundation and Builders of Jewish Education-BJE come with an unrestricted prize of $15,000.

From left: MIlken Family Foundation Executive Vice President Richard Sandler and Builders of Jewish Education-BJE Executive Director Gil Graff join Jewish Educator Awards honoree Rabbi Menachem Mendel Greenbaum. Photo courtesy of Milken Family Foundation

The other winners this year were Ariela Nehemne of Valley Beth Shalom and Barry Schapira of Brawerman Elementary School West of Wilshire Boulevard Temple; they were honored Oct. 14.

Award presenters included Richard Sandler, Milken Family Foundation executive vice president, and Gil Graff, BJE executive director.

“They are all making a difference in a lot of kids’ lives, which is the reason we did this award in the first place, to drive home … the importance of teachers and educators and try to make students understand that education is a place where they can make a difference,” Sandler told the Journal in a phone interview.

The Jewish Educator Awards, first given out in 1990, honor Jewish educators’ contributions to day schools affiliated with BJE and those who “exemplify the Jewish day school mission to prepare our youth for successful lives in the context of our values as a people,” according to jewisheducatorawards.org. Winners are selected from a pool of more than 1,000 educators from 37 BJE-affiliated K-12 schools, Sandler said. 

A luncheon celebrating this year’s honorees will take place Dec. 16. 


The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) annual gala dinner, which took place Nov. 2 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, raised nearly $1 million.

LAMOTH, a nonprofit organization, operates a Holocaust museum in Pan Pacific Park.

The evening in Beverly Hills honored community leaders and philanthropists Dr. Frank and Shelley Litvack, internationally recognized author and journalist Kati Marton, and celebrated concert pianist and author Mona Golabek, in recognition of their “commitment to Holocaust remembrance and education,” according to an LAMOTH press release.

From left: LAMOTH honorees Dr. Frank and Shelley Litvack and Kati Marton. Photo by Alex Berliner

“Today, LAMOTH is a vessel for history where the collective and individual stories of our parents, grandparents and neighbors can be preserved for all the future generations,” said Frank Litvack, who received the Legacy Leadership Award in honor of his late Holocaust survivor mother, Erika Frankl Litvack, as quoted by a press release.

Frank Litvack is a retired cardiologist and professor of medicine. His wife, Shelley, is a television producer and director and has been involved in many charitable organizations.

Marton received the Humanitarian Award in honor of her late parents, journalists Endre and Ilona Marton. She is a human-rights advocate who has chaired the International Women’s Health Coalition and served as a chief advocate for the United Nations Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.

Golabek, who received the Righteous Conversations L’Dorot Award in honor of her late parents, Lisa and Michel Golabek, co-wrote the book “The Children of Willesden Lane” about her mother’s experience with the Kindertransport. A play based on the book ran at the Geffen Playhouse in 2012.

Jessica Yellin, a former White House correspondent for CNN, served as the master of ceremonies. Additional attendees included Holocaust survivor Curt Lowens and LAMOTH executive director Samara Hutman, who deemed the event — which drew 700 guests — a big success. 

“The evening was a poignant reminder of the importance of a community gathering together to carry on the legacy of memory,” Hutman said in a press release.


“Seven Beauties,” the ballet from Azerbaijan, kicked off the 25th anniversary season of the San Diego Ballet on Oct. 11. It was performed as a one-night-only event at the San Diego Civic Theatre, one of the largest opera venues in the United States. 

From left: Consul General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles Nasimi Aghayev; members of Azerbaijan Parliament Samad Seyidov and Asim Mollazade; and Vice President of Human Resources and Regulations for the State Oil Co. of the Azerbaijan Republic Khalik Mammadov. 

Sponsored by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism and presented by the Consulate General of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles, this was the first time that this ballet had been performed on such a large scale in this country. San Diego Ballet Artistic Director Javier Velasco choreographed the ballet, and the Grossmont Symphony Orchestra played the music.

A delegation of Azeri leadership attended the ballet while visiting California for meetings with Jewish leaders in Los Angeles to discuss the importance of Azeri-Jewish relations: Consul General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles Nasimi Aghayev; Vice President of Human Resources and Regulations for the State Oil Co. of the Azerbaijan Republic Khalik Mammadov; and Azerbaijan Parliament members Samad Seyidov and Asim Mollazade

The ballet was composed in 1952 by Azeri composer Gara Garayev, who based the lines of the ballet on the 1197 poem “Seven Beauties” by Azeri poet Nizami Ganjavi. 

— Amanda Epstein, Contributing Writer

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

The Khazars and the Mountain Jews: Tales from Jewish Azerbaijan


Buried deep beneath Azerbaijan’s bucolic landscape lie secrets behind the ancient Muslim-Jewish friendship that prevails in this South Caucasus largely Shiite country. The 8th-century leaders of the Khazar Empire, famously, converted from their shamanistic religion and worship of a deity named Tengri to Judaism. A semi-nomadic Turkic tribe, the Khazars originated to the north of and between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The Khazars ruled lands from the Volga-Don steppes to the eastern Crimea and the Northern Caucasus for some three centuries, often listed as between 650 to 969 AD.

The circumstances surrounding both the Khazars’ conversion to Judaism and their relationship to other Jews abound in mystery. Nonetheless the story of the Khazars and their neighbors is more than a missing piece of the Jewish story. Khazar history holds clues to the Azerbaijani tolerance model.

In the 1970s, readers of writer/journalist Arthur Koestler’s book The Thirteenth Tribe pondered the intriguing hypothesis that European Ashkenazic Jews descended from Khazars who migrated into Eastern Europe as their empire was collapsing. Scholars since have discredited the book for a variety of reasons. Anti-Semites have used theories of the Turkic Khazars as ancestors of modern Jews to attack Zionist claims of Israel as an ancestral homeland.

The Khazars’ decision to become Jewish may in fact reflect a simple desire to remain independent of both the Muslim Arab caliphate and of Christian Byzantium. Their conversion nevertheless resonates with the existence of another major Jewish community in the region—the so-called Mountain Jews of Quba, a town about 160 kilometers from Baku, today’s capital of Azerbaijan. While large gaps exist in public knowledge of both the Khazar people and the Mountain Jews, oral tradition holds that the Khazars and Mountain Jews interacted and that the Mountain Jews played a significant role in the Khazar conversion.

The Mountain Jews are said to have settled in northern Azerbaijan after leaving the Persian Empire beginning in the 5th century. They developed their own language, Juhuri, or Judeo-Tat, which endures to this day. Over centuries they formed productive relationships with their Muslim neighbors across town.

In recent years the Mountain Jews of the Red Town (the all-Jewish section of Quba; considered to be the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel) have captured outsiders’ interest. They practice a blend of Ashkenazic and Sephardic religious traditions and maintain customs unique to their community.

Much of what is known about the Mountain Jews’ history is preserved in oral history, although archaeologists also have evidence in the form of artifacts such as sacred texts, architecture, and talismans.

The record supports the strong, positive impression the Mountain Jews left on their neighbors. Literate and religious, the Mountain Jews were also accomplished horse riders and warriors and skilled agriculturists. They displayed an enviable determination to adapt to their environment. And to the region’s rich musical portfolio they added their own complementary repertoire.

Visitors to the Red Town today are struck by the clearly marked Jewish institutions and the ample use of the Star of David as home decoration. But those who spend time in Quba at large also marvel at the fluid relationship between the town’s Jewish and Muslim communities.

The history of ethnic relations in Azerbaijan is obscured not only by a lack of historic evidence but also by a long history of intermarriage and conversion. As for the Mountain Jews, many have moved to Israel, even while in many cases maintaining a home in Quba.

Given Azerbaijan’s role as a Silk Road crossroads, and its experience of military invasions, it is not surprising that the country has hosted many ethnic groups in close proximity. Still, the entente between Azerbaijan’s Jewish and Muslim populations contrasts sharply with the relationship in neighboring regions.

Many Azerbaijanis point out that different ethnicities working together, side by side, kept Azerbaijan alive through the course of empires and the Soviet Union. Family friendships across ethnic lines are relatively common. Azerbaijani leaders frequently cite negligible evidence of anti-Semitism, support for synagogues and Jewish schools, and public recognition of the contributions of Jewish Azerbaijanis.

As archaeologists and historians continue to uncover and parse the evidence, Azerbaijanis and their visitors continue to enjoy the fruits of ethnic harmony. No doubt, the Khazars and the Mountain Jews have a place at the table. But, in the words of H.E. Rafael Harpaz, Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, “At first, I found the Azerbaijani tolerance model to be something new and unexpected. I have traveled extensively in other countries. But really it is very simple. The Muslims here have never thought of Jews as apart from society.”

Indeed, since achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan has worked to reclaim and document its history. Enhanced understanding of Azerbaijan’s human story will bring bright new insights to the telling of the human story.


Diana Cohen Altman is Executive Director of the Karabakh Foundation, a U.S. 501 (c) 3 that celebrates the culture, arts, and heritage of the Azerbaijani people. She previously served as Director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum/Center for Jewish Culture/Philip Lax Archive.

Letters to the editor: Khuzaa, Steven Sotloff, Azerbaijan and firing ranges


The Fog of Narrative

With the article “Inside the Fog of War” (Sept. 12), the Jewish Journal joins many other media outlets in publicizing Palestinian suffering. It’s an easy story to write. The photos and witness accounts are plentiful and sympathetic. It’s truthful, too: Palestinian civilians suffered, and their suffering tells a worthwhile story — but not the obvious one suggested by most stories of this type.

Nearly every story about Palestinian suffering blames Israel either directly or by implication because they go no deeper than the photos and stories that lead the reader to the obvious conclusion that the ones shooting (Israel) are guilty. These articles need to go deeper. A truthful story is inadequate when it leads to the wrong conclusion. There are three culpable parties and each should be exposed for what it does:

Civilian residents: If war is coming, should civilians move those in wheelchairs, the deaf, elderly, young, and other residents out of the way? Failing to avoid known danger, like leaving a child in hot car, is abuse. Surely the residents bear some responsibility.

Hamas leadership: When your stated purpose is murdering your neighbor and taking their land; and when you act on this with missiles, you must anticipate violence upon your people. Hamas craves this violence in order to mobilize world media to publicize Palestinian suffering. It’s the only victory Hamas is able to achieve against a stronger enemy. Surely Hamas leaders bear some responsibility.

IDF: The Israeli army fires the bullets and drops the bombs, so it’s fair to examine the steps Israel takes to minimize civilian loss compared to what other armies do. Evaluating IDF behavior any other way is false because war is ethically unique. Do other armies pause to evacuate a handicapped person? Israel bears some responsibility, but we need to use the correct standard to assign how much.

Responsible journalism not only means reporting truthful stories but also ones that bake in all the facts that help readers correctly assess responsibility. This story, I’m afraid, fails to deliver on that dimension.

Jeffrey Feuer, Beverly Hills

The editors respond:

Simone Wilson’s story made or addressed every point you raise. Her story is about what it was like to fight in Khuzaa as an Israeli, and to experience the battle as a Palestinian.  She interviewed several Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who fought in the battle in order to capture the intensity and chaos of Khuzaa, as well as Palestinians. After the story came out, the IDF launched an investigation into the civilian deaths at Khuzaa.


Preserving a Storied History

David Suissa, perhaps you can offer a free or low-cost online class titled “1,869 Years of Our History” (“Are Jews Losing Their Story?” Sept. 19). Each section of the course can be structured and guided by the questions you posed in your article. I think thousands of people would be interested — observant, not so observant, Jewish and non-Jewish. Maybe new stories of those years gone by will be the result. I would definitely take the class. It would be a part of my personal narrative.

Phillip Cohen via jewishjournal.com 


Murder Does Not a Martyr Make

Please be careful about this martyrdom stuff (“The Martyrdom of Steven Sotloff,” Sept. 19). Martyrs choose their deaths as an expression of conviction or faith. This young man was a murder victim. This alone is the sad point. Martyrdom enlightens and teaches; murder is sufficient reason for anger and demands revenge or punishment.

Saul Goldman via jewishjournal.com


Recipe for Peace

This was nice to read (“Israel’s Most Valuable Muslim Ally,” Sept. 19). I think it would be a very important part of the article to hear why and how Azerbaijan “invests in and supports its Jewish community and Jewish heritage.” Please tell us what those secret ingredients are that work there and not in Europe.

Beth Singer via jewishjournal.com

(For a lengthy cover article on Azerbaijan from December 2013, visit here)


Home on the Range

My husband and I were gratified to see the Jewish Journal cover the story of Dr. Fred Kogen establishing the Bullets and Bagels club (“From Slingshots to Rifles: A Jewish Club Fires Away,” Sept. 12). After my husband became interested in target shooting as a hobby, about 10 years ago, I too was surprised to see how many of our fellow Jews had firearms even if they had not fired them in a while. 

My husband and I also take friends out to the range and introduce them to the safe use of firearms. We make them memorize the safety rules prior to showing up at the range, and make sure to start them out on a low-recoil accurate rifle to make sure they hit their target from the start. This frees them of the fear of recoil, and builds confidence in their ability to handle a firearm in a way that is both responsible and fun.

It is a lot of fun, and I hope to see more and more responsible Jewish citizens out at the range.

Pamela and Alex Abramovici, Chatsworth

Israel’s most valuable Muslim ally


Jews worldwide will soon mark the onset of a Jewish New Year with the specter of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East. Amid the preponderance of daily bad news, it is uplifting to celebrate narratives of tolerance and respect. Earlier this month, I was one of 12 rabbis meeting with two distinguished Los Angeles-based diplomats, Consul General of Israel David Siegel and Consul General of Azerbaijan Nasimi Aghayev. We broke bread together and discussed our shared goal of shining a positive light on the unique story of Azerbaijan, a Muslim nation that enjoys positive relations with the United States, Israel and its own Jewish community.

[Related: 

Letters to the editor: Jordan Belfort, Azerbaijan and defending Israel


Treating the Moral, Ethical Sickness Spread by MoneyÏ

As a state and federal criminal prosecutor, I can tell you that for every Bernard Madoff or Jordan Belfort, there are dozens of Jewish white-collar criminals you will never read about (“ ‘The Wolf’ and the Jewish Problem,” Jan. 3). Rob Eshman is right on the money when he declares that our rabbis and leaders are not doing enough to address this issue. I leave the criminal courthouse on Friday afternoon, but often I do not — I cannot — leave the hustling, the quest for material glory and the egos that landed the defendants in jail in the first place. No, those conversations about business and material desires continue in the synagogues. Non-Jews do not point to Jews as the models of business ethics. Until that happens, our leaders should spare no effort tackling this cancer.  

David Peyman via e-mail

I always read your columns with great interest, but the “Wolf” one really got me thinking. You are so right!

Strangely enough, it is interesting that doctors love lecturing about diseases that almost never occur (so they can be the world’s authority on something obscure) but avoid talking about common problems (where they have to know their facts cold). Moreover, just like your examples about the American Studies Association and Swarthmore College’s Hillel, the earlier conversation is easy to have because it involves no conflict or change in practice patterns. The latter, if it actually suggests changes to care, is an exceedingly difficult topic and will inevitably antagonize many.

Distinguishing greed from ambition and security is very subjective. But one thing that is clear is that I see a bright line of moral behavior that I could never cross. It is not Belfort’s, Boesky’s or Madoff’s desire for wealth that disgusts me; it is that they either were too damaged to see the line or willingly crossed it. Can seeing that line be taught? 

There is an entire field of literature devoted to “the genetics of morality.” It is plausible that those who acted immorally were more likely to be beaten by their co-humans and didn’t live to reproduce. 

Steven Teitelbaum, Santa Monica

The question of what motivates people is a thorny and at times comedic one. We are balls of contradiction, tightly wound. There is nothing for the Jordan Belforts of the world to measure up against: “Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope/with what I most enjoy contented least.” I’ve been there! And it’s not a pretty place to be.  

I would only add that the costs of this institutionalized greed are more than the nest eggs, to which you alluded, that will be lost. The cost must also somehow tally the pain of not measuring up, of not knowing ourselves, of chasing a buck at any cost — what David Foster Wallace put as life “under the ceaseless neon bottle.” In other words, the cost is our humanity at large.   

Crawford Coates via e-mail


Azerbaijanis Set Valuable Example for Mideast

I would like to express my gratitude to Rob Eshman for his article “The Mysteries of Azerbaijan” (Dec. 20, 2013), about the Jewish community in Azerbaijan. Amid the violent ethnic conflicts that have been rattling the Caucasus over the past two decades, the co-existence of Jewish and Muslim Azerbaijanis in peace, harmony and mutual respect may serve as an exemplary model for the Middle East. 

I also especially thank Mr. Eshman for his courage in highlighting the common grief over the 1918 massacre of Muslims and Jews carried out by the Bolshevik and the Armenian Dashnak forces under Gen. Hamazasp Srvandztyan. Without delving into the unfortunate debate surrounding the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, the acknowledgment of this horrific 1918 atrocity constitutes a proper recognition of its victims and survivors. And regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation, such recognition is an important step toward peace and reconciliation.

Javid Huseynov, General Director of the Azerbaijani-American Council


Time to Put Differences Aside

Kudos to David Suissa, who once again hit the nail on the head (“Why Won’t Liberals Defend Israel?” Dec. 20, 2013).

Unfortunately, Israel is surrounded by anti-Semites who do a good job of pummeling us at every opportunity. If only we could scale back our own divisiveness to support and defend each other (even when we disagree, as all families do), how much stronger we would be as a nation.

Miriam Fisher, Los Angeles


correction

The correct contact information for Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Jan. 10 Shabbat Shira,  the Shabbat of Song event (Calendar, Jan. 3),  is (310) 409-4634, tebh.org. 

The mysteries of Azerbaijan: A Shiite nation embraces its Jews


Red Village rises up along the Qudiyal River like a Jewish Brigadoon.

To get there, you fly 13 hours from Los Angeles to Istanbul, then catch a three-hour flight to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan — a former Soviet country of some 9 million people on the Caspian Sea. From Baku, you take a bus past churning oil derricks and miles of empty desert, up into the Caucasus, through tiny villages surrounded by apple orchards. After two hours, you arrive in Quba, the capital of Azerbaijan’s northeast region. About a mile past an attractive central mosque, a simple steel bridge spans a wide, mostly dry riverbed and leads directly into Red Village. 

One of the first things you see is a large brick building atop which sits — improbably, impossibly — a Jewish star.

About 4,000 people live in Red Village, every one of them Jewish. That makes Red Village the largest all-Jewish settlement outside the State of Israel.

[Related: The food of Azerbaijan]

This entirely Jewish town exists in an almost entirely Muslim country — ancient, placid, prosperous. It is also completely unknown to the majority of the world’s Jews. I had to see Red Village to believe it. I had to figure out: What’s the deal with Azerbaijan?


Earlier this month, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev convened 750 journalists, scholars, activists and scientists from around the world to participate in the annual Baku International Humanitarian Forum. 

The invitation offered a chance to see for myself a country that, from what I’d heard over the years, has never quite fit the standard American perception of Muslim = Fanatic and Shiite = Really Fanatic.

After all, Iran, also a Shiite nation, lies just across Azerbaijan’s southern border. But while Iran is the Jewish state’s mortal enemy, Azerbaijan is Israel’s largest supplier of oil  and a major purchaser of Israeli defense technology. The Shiites of Iran would treat me, an American Jew with a passport full of Israeli stamps, as an enemy. In Azerbaijan, I was an honored guest.   

My visit was personally arranged through Azerbaijan’s Western Region Consul General, Nasimi Aghayev. I’m not the first journalist lured to explore Azerbaijan’s incongruities, but I do seem to be the first in my crowd. Few people I talked to about my travel plans beforehand had heard of Azerbaijan, and even fewer of its Jewish connection.  

You could fault Azeris for not getting the word out, but in the 22 years since it gained its independence, Azerbaijan has had to focus on rebuilding, not rebranding.  

What struck me first when I arrived in Baku is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a fast transition. Now that its tremendous oil and gas wealth isn’t being siphoned off to feed the Soviet empire, the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) has soared. 

This group of kippot-wearing Azeri boys greeted an American visitor with laughter and shouts of “hello” and “Shabbat shalom!” Photo by Rob Eshman

For most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Azerbaijan was under the rule of the Russian empire, which exploited its resources. When the tsar fell in 1918, Azerbaijan quickly formed a secular republic, the first Muslim majority country in the world to do so. Its parliament immediately granted women the right to vote — a year before the United States did. But the flowering of democracy, commerce and art was brief. The Bolsheviks arrived just 22 months after Azerbaijan declared independence, attacked what they called liberal and decadent Baku Muslims, crushing a rebellion and absorbing Azerbaijan into the USSR. 

When Hitler invaded Russia, his brass ring was Baku’s oil, which provided more than 80 percent of the fuel for the Soviet war effort. In 1942, Hitler’s general staff gave him a cake in the shape of the Caucasus. Hitler ate the slice with “Baku” written on it. “Unless we get Baku oil,” Hitler said, “the war is lost.” 

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Baku finally won its independence in 1991. Its first president, Heydar Aliyev, who died in 2003, and his son and successor, Ilham Aliyev, have managed to negotiate lucrative long-term oil and gas contracts that, for the first time, keep Azerbaijan’s money at home and have tilted the former Soviet satellite westward.

Oil money has enabled a modern, busy city with cutting-edge architecture and luxury stores to grow up around the well-preserved walls and narrow cobblestone streets of the Old City. Baku is a cleaner Tel Aviv surrounding a smaller-walled Jerusalem. 

What’s even more surprising about Baku is its people. The majority are traditional but secular. Few women wear headscarves — the look is skirts and heels, more Westwood Boulevard than Riyadh.  

But Azerbaijan’s tolerance is not a Western import. It’s homegrown, even ancient.

“The multinational, multiconfessional society is one of our assets,” President Aliyev said in the conference’s keynote address. “All nationalities see their religion respected. … This contributes to the building of a civil society.”

For the Jews, that is remarkably true. 

“There has never been anti-Semitism in Azerbaijan,” Arye Gut, the Azeri-born founder of the international association Israel-Azerbaijan (AZIZ), told me. Like many Azeris who have immigrated to Israel, he maintains strong personal and business ties to his home country. 

In a meeting at his office, Ambassador Elshad Iskandarov, chairman of the State Committee for Work With Religious Organizations, pointed out with some understatement that Azerbaijan has resisted the increasing anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.    

Iskandarov, an urbane graduate of Columbia University, theorized that Azerbaijan’s location on the Silk Road international trade route long ago encouraged its people to accept all kinds of cultures.  

Or, as a Cambridge-educated Azeri told me later in my week there, “Our philosophy is, ‘Why fight when you can trade?’ ”

A masterpiece of architecture by the Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid recently opened as the Heydar Aliyev Center, a cultural and conference center in Baku. Photo by Rob Eshman

Like many Azeri officials I met, Iskandarov could rattle off the names of famous Azerbaijani Jews — who are pretty much the most famous Azerbaijanis, period — among them pianist Bella Davidovich, Nobel Prize physicist Lev Landau, Israeli singers Sarit Hadad and Yaffa Yarkoni, pioneering physician Gavril Ilizarov and chess master Garry Kasparov, who is half Armenian.

There is also writer Lev Nussimbaum, aka Essad Bey and Kurban Said, author of the most famous Azeri novel, “Ali and Nino.”

“The magic of this town lies in the mystical bond between its races and its people,” the book’s narrator said. “The race of a peaceful Caucasus is forged on the anvil of Baku.”

Iskandarov wondered aloud whether the nation didn’t share a lineage with the eighth-century Khazars who converted en masse to Judaism. Perhaps, the ambassador posited, Azerbaijani Shiites have Jewish blood.

“When we are talking about Jews,” he said, “this is tolerance of our own past.”

I asked how the government keeps extremist Islamic ideologies from taking root in Azerbaijan. Iskandarov pointed to his bookshelf, where there were thick tomes of sermons prepared by government-appointed imams and distributed to mosques — local imams were encouraged not to veer from these more liberal teachings. There is freedom of religion — but not too much.

Many countries, including Iran, say they love the Jews — it’s just Israel they can’t stand. Azerbaijan is different. It has strategic defense partnerships with Israel, and the two countries conduct $5.5 billion in trade annually. 

Last year, Iran protested and even threatened “consequences” after the Azerbaijan foreign minister announced an official visit to Israel. President Aliyev refused to back down. 

“I know who my friends are,” Aliyev said, “and who my enemies are.”

During the tsarist regime, Jews were not permitted to buy land in Baku. But a local Muslim stepped up and bought the property for what became one of the city’s two synagogues. On Friday night, as Sabbath services concluded, I went there to meet Milikh Yevdayev, chairman of the Religious Community of Mountain Jews. 

About 10,000 of Azerbaijan’s 15,000 Jews live in Baku. The synagogues serve different groups — one is Ashkenazi style, staffed by a Chabad rabbi, and the other, the one I visited, is well-appointed and known as the New Synagogue, for the Mountain Jews.  

The Mountain Jews trace their lineage to ancient Persia. They speak Juhuri, a blend of Farsi and Hebrew; if you close your eyes, you’re back again on Westwood Boulevard. Historians believe the Mountain Jews first settled in the Caucasus in the fifth century. It is their descendants who settled Red Village. 

“We live like brothers,” Yevdayev assured me. 

On the wall of the synagogue are photos of the stout, middle-aged Yevdayev and other synagogue leaders alongside President Aliyev, as well as the country’s leading imam and the head of the Armenian church.

The $2 million it took to build the synagogue last year came directly from President Aliyev. Some 60 people attend Shabbat services weekly, and 300 on the holidays. Two schools, entirely paid for by the government, serve 300 students. The sanctuary has some local touches — a central pulpit, Oriental carpets, stacks of the local Jewish newspaper, which is printed in Russian. 

Yevdayev is originally from Red Village. His daughter now lives in Brooklyn. I ask him if Jews are leaving Red Village and Baku for Israel and elsewhere.

“They go; they come back, they go — it’s not a trend,” he said. “You’ll see.”


The main synagogue in Azerbaijan’s Jewish community, known as Red Village, bears Persian rugs on its floors and decoratively carved wood throughout. It is one of three active synagogues in the town of 4,000 people. Photo by Rob Eshman

The next day, I saw. Our bus of some 30 conference participants followed a new highway north from Baku into the foothills of the Caucasus.  

Quba is a medium-sized city, surrounded by pear and apple orchards. In 1730, the Khan Huseyn Ali decreed that Jews could own property in his district. Their settlement, Red Village, resembles a more prosperous version of the many small towns we had passed en route.

“There are many Jewish billionaires,” our tour guide informed us on the way up.

He wasn’t kidding. Since independence, Azeri Jews have flourished in business, especially in Russia, and they have spent millions restoring the old village, even buying up properties there as a link to their past. The soccer field and park look new, the stone, brick and wood homes refurbished. It was quiet — we arrived on Shabbat, when the cafes, restaurants and small businesses were closed. Azerbaijan’s Jews are as traditional, and as secular, as its Muslims.

Inside Red Village’s main synagogue, services were just letting out. There was a cacophony of kids and young men. The only sign that we were in the exotic East: Visitors are asked to remove their shoes, as in a mosque. The floor of the shul’s rich wooden interior is covered in Persian carpets. 

Boris Simanduyen, chairman of the community, told us that until the Bolshevik Revolution, the town had 13 synagogues. Back then, the village was called Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Settlement) in Russian and had 18,000 residents. Now, Red Village has a Hebrew school with 60 students and three synagogues. President Aliyev’s administration pays for the heating oil for them all.  

Simanduyen is a serious elderly man who speaks not a word of English or Hebrew.  Through an interpreter he told me the town receives many visiting Jewish groups, people like me who can’t quite believe such a place exists. As if to offer more evidence, he called over a teenage boy who opened a prayer book and recited a Hebrew prayer at a breakneck pace.  

Outside the synagogue, we ran into a group of high-spirited boys, most wearing kippot. They posed for pictures, and shouted back “hello,” and “Shabbat shalom!” to our own greetings.  

“Our neighbors say, ‘Why do you send oil to Israel,’ ” our guide, a Shiite, said, summarizing the Azeri attitude toward the Jewish minority. “We say, ‘The Jews are our brothers. They make a big contribution to the economy and culture of Azerbaijan.’ ”

That contribution is beginning to extend beyond the historic. A subtext of every speech we heard and visit we made was that Azerbaijan is seeking international support for its ongoing conflict with Armenia, which, in 1992, fought a brutal war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and has occupied that region since, in contravention of United Nations resolutions. 

The continued occupation by force of some 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory consumes Azeri political discourse.  

Near Quba, we pulled into a brand-new memorial complex of angular concrete and polished granite. Just beside it lay mounds of human skulls, recently excavated at the site of a massacre in 1918 of Muslim and Jewish residents by Bolshevik, Armenian and Christian forces. About 600 people were slaughtered by what our guide referred to as “Armenian gangsters.” The exhibit looked as if it had been airlifted directly from Yad Vashem. 

In a meeting with Yevda Abramov, Azerbaijan’s sole Jewish parliamentarian, a big, deep-voiced Mountain Jew, we asked what message he wanted us to convey to American Jews. 

“Please present the Armenian holocaust against us,” he said, then launched into a tirade on the “double standard” in how the world only cares about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and ignores Armenia’s occupation of Azeri land.  

Abramov raised his considerable voice. “The Armenian lobby prevents a just solution!” he said. 

Of course, as in any tribal-religious-political conflict, the Armenians level their own accusations of land grabs and massacres.  Azerbaijan, a country suffering from occupation, has allied itself with Israel, a country trying to extricate itself from being an occupier. The situation is not as ironic as it seems when you look at a map. Squeezed between Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist Russia to the north and Iran’s mullahs to the south, Azerbaijan sees in Israel a natural ally also ringed by enmity.  

Israeli military technology and know-how is helping the once-poor Azerbaijan develop an army that can credibly threaten to take Nagorno-Karabakh back by force. In exchange, one expert told me, Israel gets to park drones and perhaps even launch operations right at the edge of the Iranian border. 

“The Almighty presented us with oil, but not with neighbors,” Abramov said with a sigh.

And, just like Israel, Azerbaijan’s historic feud with its neighbor constantly threatens to keep dragging it into the bloody past, even as it carves out a uniquely promising future.

Political strife has challenged Azerbaijan’s journey to full-fledged democracy. Earlier this year, the government announced the results of its presidential election before it was held, making the country a punch line on “The Daily Show.” But in their 21 years at the helm, the Aliyevs have transformed a communist police state into a catpitalist, struggling semi-democracy — all the while negotiating a treacherous neighborhood.  

 “Don’t write off Azerbaijan just yet,” Matthew Bryza, former United States ambassador to Azerbaijan, told CNN last month.

Indeed, the country’s long history of tolerance may yet ensure its success.

In Baku, I told Ambassador Iskandarov how much I’d enjoyed the local food, a blend of Persian and Turkish cuisines. He told me I should really visit the best Azerbaijani restaurant in the United States — Baku Palace, in Brooklyn. Its owner, he said, is a Jew.

Iranian denies plan to attack Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan


An Iranian man arrested on suspicion of planning an attack on the Israeli embassy in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan denies the allegation, an Iranian diplomat said on Thursday.

Hassan Faraji, 31, is the latest in a number of Iranians to be accused of criminal plots in recent years in Azerbaijan, which has tense ties with its larger southern neighbor.

Faraji was detained near the Israeli embassy in the capital Baku on October 31 but his arrest was made public on Wednesday, when state TV showed footage of police raiding an apartment.

“Faraji had a detailed plan of an attack on personnel of the Israeli embassy…He put up a resistance to the police during a detention,” police said in a statement.

A court in Azerbaijan sentenced him to one month pre-trial detention, while Azeri and Israeli media reported that he had connections with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, an allegation an Iranian official denied.

“This information does not correspond to the reality,” the Iranian embassy spokesman, who did not want to be named, told Reuters.

Iranian embassy officials met Faraji in custody.

“He denies all charges and believes that his innocence will be proved during an investigation,” he said.

The case is a part of wider diplomatic tensions between the neighbors, which share a religion but have sharply different political systems.

Some 15 percent of Iranians are ethnic Azeris and there are strong linguistic and family ties straddling the border, adding another strain to ties.

Iran has accused Azerbaijan of assisting Israel in the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Azerbaijan, for its part, has arrested dozens of people last year on suspicion of connections with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, and of plotting attacks, including on the Israeli ambassador to Baku.

Iranian citizen Phaiz Bakhram Hassan was sentenced last month to 15 years in prison for an attempt to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku. He was arrested last year.

Iran closed two check-points on the border with Azerbaijan this month in response to the closure of another border check-point by the Azeri side after a gunman opened fire from the Iranian side of the border on a tractor, officials said.

Additional reporting and writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Calendar Picks and Clicks:


SAT SEPT 7

GOOD FOOD PIE CONTEST

“>kcrw.com.

“THE CLOTH PEDDLER”

Azerbaijan is at it again! It’s the one-night-only performance of the globally renowned comedy operetta. Considered the first operetta of the Muslim world, this 100-year-old tale tells a beautiful love story with classical music. Produced by American award-winning producer Michael Schnack and with the accompaniment of an L.A.-based orchestra, the program — in both English and Azerbaijani — will be a little present from the past. Sat. 7:30 p.m. Free. (310) 741-7405. SUN SEPT 8

“EVE2”

Catch it before it closes! It’s the last showing of the Bootleg Theatre’s sensual and surreal take on the story of Adam and Eve. Set in a hospital morgue that loses power in a massive electrical outage, the play explores time, space (their collision) and asks the “what if’s” about the Genesis story we all know. Sun. 2 p.m. $20 (general), $15 (students, seniors). Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 389-3856. MON SEPT 9

“SOUL MUSIC—A SELICHOT CONCERT”

The Sephardic Educational Center presents its third annual musical extravaganza. Some of the world’s leading Sephardic chazzanim unite for an uplifting evening of Selichot. You can’t have too much soul during days as holy as these — so whether it’s the music or the prayer, it’s the place for you. There will be refreshments and valet parking provided. Mon. 7:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. $15. Kahal Joseph Congregation, 10505 W. Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 272-4574. “>witzendlive.com.

TUE SEPT 10

“RACHMANINOFF AND GERSHWIN: ROMANTIC FAVORITES”

It’s a big night with even bigger (and longer) names. Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducts the L.A. Phil and 21-year-old Danlil Trifonov (piano) as the Bowl celebrates classics and West Coast premieres alike. Audience members can expect Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture” and music from “Porgy and Bess”; they’ll hear Trifonov — winner of the 13th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv — play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2; and be the first West Coasters to hear Adam Schoenberg’s “Bounce.” Tue. 8 p.m. $15.50-$114.50. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000. THU SEPT 12

“WOMAN TO WOMAN”

It’s better than a spa day. The JVS WoMentoring Leadership Network is having its inaugural event. Discuss, reflect and be inspired by speakers that include photojournalist Dana Gluckstein, New York Times best-selling author Lisa See and Oscar-nominated producer Amy Ziering. And if that’s not impressive enough, there will be leading female physicians speaking on topics like heart disease, oncology and women’s health. Thu. 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. $150 (single ticket), $100 (single ticket WLN member). Location available upon RSVP. (323) 761-8888, ext. 8891. FRI SEPT 13

“AFTERNOON DELIGHT”

When stay-at-home-mom Rachel decides to take stripper McKenna under her wing, hilarity and humanity ensue. Written and directed by Jill Soloway (“Six Feet Under,” “The United States of Tara”), the film is considered one of the highlights of this year’s Sundance Festival. Kathryn Hahn, Josh Radnor and Jane Lynch star. Fri. Various times. $11 (general), $8 (seniors, ages 11 and under, bargain matinee). Various locations and times. (310) 478-3836.

Lieberman denies Israel has access to Azerbaijan air bases


Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman denied a report that Israel was granted access to air bases in Azerbaijan.

Lieberman made the remarks to reporters Monday in Baku, where he is meeting with high-ranking government officials.

“Such reports are from the sphere of science fiction and do not correspond with the truth,” Lieberman said, according to Reuters.

Lieberman’s visit comes a month after the American magazine Foreign Policy reported that Israel was granted access to four former Soviet air bases in the Caucasus nation, raising the fears of U.S. officials that it is readying an attack on Iran. Azerbaijani officials also denied the report.

Lieberman met Monday with President Ilham Aliyev in which they discussed bilateral relations and Iran, Lieberman said, according to Reuters. The Israeli official said relations between Israel and Azerbaijan “could not be better.”

In February, the state-run Israel Aerospace Industries inked a $1.6 billion deal to sell drones, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems to Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan denies report it gave Israel access to airfields


Azerbaijan officials denied a claim in an American magazine that Israel was granted access to airbases in Azerbaijan.

Foreign Policy Magazine reported Wednesday that Israel was granted access to the airbases in the Caucasus nation, raising the fears of U.S. officials that it is readying an attack on Iran. Azerbaijan is located on Iran’s northern border.

“This information is absurd and groundless,” Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry spokesman Teymur Abdullayev told the French news agency AFP.

An Azerbaijan presidential official told AFP that the article was “aimed at damaging relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.”

Writing in Foreign Policy’s new issue, Mark Perry reported that the unnamed senior U.S. diplomats and military intelligence officers with whom he spoke believe that the heightened security cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan heightens the risks of an Israeli strike on Iran. It also will make it more difficult for the United States to reduce Israel-Iran tensions, the officials said.

“The Israelis have bought an airfield,” the article quotes a senior U.S. administration official as saying, “and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.”

The Israeli Embassy in Washington, the Israel Defense Forces and Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency declined to comment for the extensive article.

The unnamed officials believe that Israel has gained permission to use four abandoned, Soviet-era airfields and airbases through a “series of quiet political and military understandings.”

Azerbaijan makes arrests in planned attack on U.S., Israeli embassies


Twenty-two people were arrested in Azerbaijan on suspicion of planning to attack the American and Israeli embassies.

The arrests Wednesday were announced by the national security ministry, which said the attacks were to be undertaken on behalf of Iran, the French news agency AFP reported.

Last month, suspected terrorists with links to Iran and Hezbollah were arrested in Azerbaijan and accused of planning terrorist attacks against foreigners in Baku, the capital. In January, at least two men were arrested after planning an attack on two Israeli teachers—Chabad emissaries at the Or Avner school in Baku.

Israel Aerospace Industries, a state-run company, signed a $1.6 billion deal in February to sell sophisticated military technology to Azerbaijan.

Israel, Azerbaijan ink $1.6 billion military deal


A state-run Israeli company will has inked a $1.6 billion deal to sell sophisticated military technology to Azerbaijan.

Under the deal, Israel Aerospace Industries will sell drones, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems to Azerbaijan, Iran’s neighbor to the north.

Israeli defense officials told international news services that the deal has been in process for a long time and is not a response to recent allegedly Iranian attempts to kill Israeli diplomats or any potential Israeli plans to strike Iranian nuclear sites.

Azerbaijan arrests terror suspects


Suspected terrorists with links to Iran and Hezbollah were arrested in Azerbaijan, while bombs intended for use against Israeli targets in Thailand’s capital were discovered hidden in inexpensive portable radios.

The suspects in Azerbaijan are accused of planning terrorist attacks against foreigners in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital, the National Security Ministry said in an announcement Tuesday on Azerbaijan state television. According to reports, the suspects had gathered intelligence on identified targets and bought weapons and explosives.

Last month, at least two men were arrested after planning an attack on two Israeli teachers, Chabad emissaries at the Or Avner school in Baku.

The arrests come a week after bomb attacks targeted cars belonging to Israeli Embassy staff in India and Georgia, which borders Azerbaijan, and after bombs exploded in a central Bangkok house that were said to target Israelis.

The devices found in the radios were seen in surveillance photos being carried last week by a member of an alleged Iranian terrorist cell in Bangkok. The alleged terrorist had his leg blown off when a bomb he was carrying exploded after leaving the house following an explosion that blew off the roof.

A photo of one of the devices was shown on ABC News. The bomb looks “strikingly similar” to the bombs used in the attacks on the cars of Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia, Ynet reported, citing Israeli authorities and U.S. bomb experts.

The bombs in the radios also contained magnets, meaning they were designed to be stuck to the side of the car, as was the case in the attack in New Delhi, where the wife of an Israeli diplomat was seriously injured.

Azeri Jews: Centuries of coexistence in Azerbaijan


“This,” says the guide, a man in his 20s with a round face, a hint of a mustache, beard and very short hair — “this below us is the city of Quba.”

We are standing at the top of a cliff, overlooking an urban development that at first sight looks like any other in this country — bright tin roofs, low-slung buildings, a few cars covered in dust because of the wind, but no commercial signs or logos — and, surprisingly, few mosques for a Muslim Shiite country like Azerbaijan.

Then I see the river that runs through Quba, and in the distance I notice a cluster of distinctive houses. They are more attractive, much larger, and decidedly different compared to others in surrounding areas. None of these houses looks like any other.

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“I ran against 17 other candidates of my own party” (the ruling New Azeri Party), Abramov states. “I won over all of them, and an international agency was watching the election. This is a democracy.”

In Quba, Abramov was a teacher, a principal and a rural organizer. “Today Quba is not unlike any other Jewish community,” he tells my translator, who then speaks to me in Spanish. “Our rabbi, butcher, mohel, chazzan — all were educated in Israel.”

Since the Helsinki Accords of 1972, the Jews of Azerbaijan have been exiting the country in large numbers, mainly going to Israel, where they number more than 50,000. Since most of the emigrants were Ashkenazis from Baku, the Mountain Jews remained here, as the majority of the community in the country.

But what about Azerbaijan?


A few weeks ago, in that Hollywood purgatory just before the announcement of the Oscar nominations, I found myself at a party in honor of Borat.

I fully expected Borat to appear, dingy brown suit and post-modern Groucho mustache and all. Instead, as I walked through the door of the restaurant Jar, I came face to face with Sascha Baron Cohen. The actor who created Borat came out of his self-imposed in-xile to meet his potential Academy voters (and me) and impress upon them the fact that he was, indeed, acting.

I shook Cohen’s hand maybe a beat too long — the man is preternaturally handsome and poised, and I was a bit tongue-tied at first. Then I told him I thought his movie was brilliant satire. And the fact that as Borat, the anti-Semitic Kazakhstani journalist, Cohen spoke Hebrew, was an even higher level of brilliance.

“Ata m’dber Ivrit?” the actor asked me. Did I speak Hebrew?

“Ken,” I said. Yes.

And so, amid the high-powered producers and directors, I found myself chatting in Hebrew with Cohen. He told me he learned it on a kibbutz, that he preferred to daven in traditional synagogues and that he was well-aware of the irony that Borat, who once urged the audience of a country and western bar to “throw the Jews down the well,” speaks not Kazakh, but Ivrit.

A friend interrupted us: “What are you saying?”

“We were just talking about you,” Cohen deadpanned.

As it turned out, the Academy didn’t nominate Cohen for Best Actor, or “Borat” for Best Picture. It should have. I can’t think of another movie of the past year that was as subversively clever or had as deep a cultural impact. Then again, by the time the Academy honored Charlie Chaplin, the man was near death.

Oscar doesn’t do comedy.

Meanwhile, not long after I met Cohen, I met one of Borat’s landsmen, so to speak. Consul General Elin Suleymanov of the Republic of Azerbaijan had sent me a column he had written taking issue with some of the stereotypes in “Borat,” and he followed up the submission with a meeting. Yes, I know Azerbaijan is across the Caspian Sea and two countries away from Kazakhstan (well, I know that now, thanks to Wikipedia). But at the time, the coincidence seemed too perfect.

Suleymanov is a thoughtful and cultured man, and he would be the first to express his disgust that I’m even mentioning his name in the same paragraph as Borat’s. But the deeper message of “Borat” was one that the consul general shared — American ignorance might be blissful and funny, but it stops us from seeing the complexity of real life, and real human beings.

All of which — Jar, Borat, Cohen, Suleymanov — leads me to Iran.Iran has seven neighbors. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I could only name three of them: Turkey, Afghanistan and, of course, Iraq.

Iraq is a mess, a cauldron of intra-Islamic conflict. Afghanistan is heading down the same tragic path, as the Taliban assert greater fundamentalist control. All those Muslims are nuts, right?

Then there’s Azerbaijan.

It is a majority Shi’ite country — 70 percent Sh’ite, the rest mostly Sunni. It is a democratic secular state whose religious and ethnic minorities are embraced. Azerbaijan gave women the right to vote in 1919 — one year before the United States did.

“My teachers were Jews. My doctors were Jews,” Suleymanov said. “They have lived with us through good and bad times.” (Azerbaijan’s most famous Jew? Chess grand master Garry Kasparov.)

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held his Holocaust denial conference earlier this winter, the Azerbaijani television station aired a debate on it featuring Arthur Lenk, Israel’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan (yes, the same man who was Israel’s deputy consul general in Los Angeles in the mid-’90s).

“He got one full hour,” Suleymanov said. “There was a feeling he won the debate.”

It’s not just about tolerance. One-sixth of Israel’s oil supply comes from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is an economically thriving, moderate and tolerant majority-Islamic nation with great oil wealth — like the real Kazakhstan, in a way.

Of course, Azerbaijan is small — 8 million people to Iran’s 75 million. But Azeris, the ethnic group that makes up the majority of Azerbaijanis, account for some 20 million Iranians. Mullahs who have tried to gain traction for fundamentalist teachings in Baku have met with little success, and Azeris in Iran have had a liberalizing influence.

“Every revolution in Iran began in an Azeri region, except the Khomeini revolution,” Suleymanov said.

So is it possible for Shi’ite Iran to choose to be more like its neighbor Azerbaijan and less like its neighbor the Taliban? The consul general believes one key is to give Iran carrots and sticks to pull it toward the Western orbit, where many of its citizens prefer to be.

Of course, the threat of a nuclear Iran raises the stakes and shortens the amount of time the West can allow Iran to evolve. In the meantime, it’s incumbent upon us, as Natan Sharansky has pointed out, to hold Iranian leaders morally and politically responsible for their pronouncements.

But when the Borats of our American pundocracy assert that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with modernity, Israel and human rights, you might ask them — what about Azerbaijan?

The video of Rob Eshman’s interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is now available at http://www.jewishjournal.com/video/ehudbarak.rm. Length 1:18. Format: Real Video (streaming).

A Young Violinist With a Lot of Pluck


Her name is Camilla Tsiperovich. But, growing up in Azerbaijan, there were times she wasn’t allowed to use it. As a 9-year-old violinist performing for world-renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, she was told to call herself Camilla Gadjieva. Her headmaster at the Azerbaijan Conservatory considered this a more suitable name, one that reflected the Muslim heritage of her country. While representing Azerbaijan in international music competitions and spending her first year of high school at the famed Moscow Conservatory, she always understood that “there was something wrong because you were Jewish.”

Tsiperovich no longer needs to hide who she is. A year ago, her talent was noticed by Anita Hirsh, whose work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has given her a deep commitment to the Jews of the former Soviet Union. Hirsh, the widow of The Jewish Journal’s late publisher, Stanley Hirsh, sponsored Tsiperovich’s entrance into the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Now, at age 17, Tsiperovich is flourishing as a full-time student who divides her days between academic subjects and an intense focus on her chosen instrument.

Idyllwild Arts Academy, a boarding school nestled in the mountains above Palm Springs, is home to 270 high school students who are preparing for careers as artists, dancers, actors, filmmakers and musicians. The atmosphere is international, with about one-third of the student body hailing from Europe, Asia and Latin America. As an entering student with shaky English skills, Tsiperovich is enrolled in a basic course in English as a Second Language. She introduced herself to her classmates by saying, “I’m from Azerbaijan. None of you know where that is.”

The course has required her to write and speak often about the homeland she’s left behind. Todd Bucklin, the school’s ESL teacher, commends her for being frank and responsive: “It’s great having her strong presence in the class.”

He also admires her social progress. In her dormitory she’s been spotted watching Korean-language movies with her new Asian pals, reading the subtitles to understand what’s going on.

At Idyllwild, all academic classes are held in the morning, to leave afternoons free for lessons, rehearsals and practice sessions. Life is so busy that Tsiperovich finds time to practice her violin only five or six hours a day. Back home, her passion for the instrument led her to practice 12 hours daily. Such devotion had its downside: she was prone to developing injuries in her hands, wrists and feet.

Her family, though always supportive, is not especially musical. In fact, a career in music was completely Tsiperovich’s idea. She was only 3 when she saw a televised concert of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G and became obsessed with learning the violin. She began lessons before she turned 4, and it wasn’t long before she was winning competitions and presenting public recitals. She is also a gifted visual artist, who received her current instrument from an American oil company after it used one of her paintings in an advertising campaign.

Tsiperovich admits that in Azerbaijan it’s almost impossible to follow the rules of religious Judaism (her family’s tiny synagogue is now defunct). Nonetheless, she learned from an early age to respect Jewish tradition. She was active in her local chapter of the World Jewish Agency, also known as Sochnut, an organization that encourages Diaspora Jews to feel connected with the State of Israel. It was Sochnut that paved the way for her to participate in an Israeli music festival, where her violin performance won first prize. Because her stay in Israel coincided with her 13th birthday, she was able to celebrate an impromptu bat mitzvah in a local synagogue. Though her parents were far away, she was by no means lonely.

In Israel, Tsiperovich says in her careful, accented English, “I felt like I am at home. I felt so warm. People were so close to me.”

Now she’s learning to feel at home in the United States. She says Hirsh often acts as “my parent in America” and sees her during holidays. Hirsh took Tsiperovich to Utah over winter break for her first attempt at skiing. Still, it’s hard for her not to miss all that she has left behind. When her school took its spring break in late March, she flew to her home city of Baku, on the Caspian Sea, to reunite with her family for the first time in five months. As luck would have it, she was able to share in the festivities of her favorite holiday, Azerbaijan New Year.

Tsiperovich is determined to follow high school with four years at a major American music conservatory. Because her long-range goal is to forge a career as a soloist, it’s likely she won’t be spending many more New Years in her native land. The life of a professional musician can be heartbreakingly tough, but it offers one great reward.

“When you play music,” Tsiperovich says, “you feel really free.”