Editor’s note: while certainly not as prominent as Rabbi Sam’s, my Jewish identity plays an important role in both my life and my travels. Before reading this article, I had never heard of Quba. But now, I look forward to one day experiencing a different aspect of the history of my people through a visit here. For more of Sam’s Jewish and secular adventures, click here to visit his index page.
With a new year comes new hopes and goals; it is also an exciting time for travelers as Top Destinations lists are published by seemingly every travel site and publisher. At the end of each year, I think about which destinations that I dreamed of I got to explore that year, and for the coming year, are there any opportunities ahead for me to visit a place that I have always wanted to see. In 2022, I not only did great global travel (hitting eleven countries, including Israel twice, plus Puerto Rico), but I got to achieve one of my biggest bucket list items. In my last article, I wrote about how I visited Azerbaijan, and spend most of my time in its fascinating capital of Baku (click here to read about Baku); however, another city in the country has caused Azerbaijan to be one of my most desired travel destinations for many years. On my first date with the woman who would become my wife over five years ago, Jill asked me what is the most off-the-beaten-path place that I want to go, and I told her without hesitation, “Azerbaijan.” The reason for my fascination with this country that so many Americans have never heard of, let alone could not find on a map, has to do with the town of Quba (pronounced Goo-ba). Quba is a city about 2.5 hours and a hundred miles north of Baku; it is located in the Caucuses Mountains and less than thirty miles south of the Russian border, and has a population of roughly 40,000 people.
So why have I dreamed of going to this town? The town lies on the Kudyal River, and across the river is a small village called Qırmızı Qəsəbə (pronounced Gyrmyzy Gasaba), translated as Red Village. The Red Village is known as the world’s last remaining shtetl. For those who are unfamiliar, a shtetl is a village in Eastern Europe that is entirely or largely Jewish (think Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof). There were once thousands of these shtetls; my grandfather was born in the shtetl of Brailov in present-day Ukraine, but his, like most were destroyed by the Nazi invasion into the Soviet Union, and others disappeared under the Soviet-regime’s abolishment of Jewish religious practice. The Red Village survived, however, as it was shielded from Nazi invasion, and was left alone by locals and Soviet authorities. At its height, the village had 18,000 Jews living in it, but following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many went to Israel. Today, roughly 4,000 Jews call the village home, but most of these individuals spend their summers in the shtetl and work for higher wages in Baku, Moscow, or Israel the rest of the year. When I was there, the town was inhabited by approximately 500 individuals.
My giant fear in visiting the Red Village was that I had put the town on a pedestal in my mind. What if it was just another city that had McDonalds, Starbucks, and everything else? Was I going to go all the way there just to be disappointed? To get to Quba, my driver picked me up early Saturday morning; our group’s itinerary unfortunately did not allow me to get into Quba before Shabbat. As the Jews of Quba were not familiar with the Western European and American concept of various movements of Judaism, they were rather perplexed that a rabbi was coming to visit them and driving on the sabbath; this led to a great discussion and explanation with interested locals later on. After more than a couple of hours driving, we arrived at the gates of Quba and saw the snowcapped Caucuses in the background. As we approached one of the bridges that led across the river, featuring statues of lions standing guard, I felt my heart racing. There it was, and it was everything that I had imagined it to be.
The Red Village got its name from all the red roofs of the buildings. While Jews had lived in the area since the 13th century, this town was established in 1742 after the local ruler had told the Jews they could live on the other side of the river and would be guaranteed safety from persecution. The Jews of this town developed their own ethnic identity as Mountain Jews; their practices are more along the lines of Sephardic Jews. Among Russians, this village was nicknamed “the little Jerusalem”. The Mountain Jews speak three languages: Azerbaijani, Russian, and also a unique language to them called Judeo-Tat, which is a hybrid of Farsi and Hebrew. Going through the village, the streets were completely empty due to it being Shabbat; every business was closed, and every door had a mezuzah on its post. The town used to have thirteen synagogues, but due to the declining population, has only two active ones today: the larger Six Dome Synagogue, built in 1888, is used during the summer when the town’s population is larger and for special occasions like holidays, and the Hilaki Synagogue built in 1896, but recently renovated. The service that I attended was inside the Hilaki Synagogue and was only attended by men. It was explained to me that the women only attend for holidays or a bar mitzvah. An interesting cultural observation of the synagogue was that it followed the Muslim practice of requiring individuals to remove their shoes before entering, which was something I had not experienced before. During the service, I was given the honor of an Aliyah, being called up for a blessing before the reading of the Torah. Getting to hear my Hebrew name called and approach the bima (raised platform where the Torah is read) in a shtetl was one of the most emotional Jewish moments I have ever had in a prayer setting.
Following the service, which was done entirely in Hebrew, the kind rabbi and I walked to the beit midrash, a house of study, where we ate lunch with several members of the community and discussed the differences between American Judaism and that of the shtetl. Another observation I made was that many of the involved members of the community were young adults, who had not grown up under communism, and seemed to be more interested in having a religious identity. I noticed that one young man in the community had a fairer complexion than the rest of the residents. The rabbi explained to me that this guy, in his early 30s, was from Russia and fled because he was going to be conscripted into the army and forced to go to Ukraine to fight. It was a sad reminder that not only has Putin victimized the Ukrainian people, but he has also caused suffering among his own people and forced people like this young man to become refugees.
Following lunch, I explored the town some more. There is a museum dedicated to the history of the Jews of the town, but it was of course closed on the Sabbath, so I will need to visit it another time. A must for the town is to go to its edge and walk to the middle of the old bridge, built from bricks and stones over a century ago. From this bridge, you not only are treated to a beautiful view of the river, but also a great look at the town. To get another great angle of the village, drive up the hill to the Jewish cemetery, filled with hundreds of graves dating back nearly three hundred years. The newer graves are more elaborate and follow the Russian custom of having pictures of the deceased on the tombstone, sometimes even a full body life-sized depiction. See if you can spot the grave of the man who allegedly lived to be 128 years old. From the edge of the cemetery, you can look down on the village and the river and get marvelous panoramic views.
The city of Quba on the other side of the river has a couple of noteworthy sites itself. An important place to the Azerbaijani collective narrative is Quba Genocide Memorial Complex. In 2007, when a soccer stadium was being built in the town, a mass grave of over 500 individuals, many elderly people and children, was uncovered in Quba. It is believed that these victims were killed by Armenian gangs in 1918. Like every conflict, the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan is complex. I am not an expert on the conflict but am just sharing the Azerbaijani narrative that I was exposed to while in their country. On the site of the mass grave, the Azerbaijanis have built a memorial that goes indoors and down a tunnel into another building. These two buildings tell the story of the Azerbaijanis of the area before 1918 and then about the massacre and conflict with Armenia in 1918. During your visit to the memorial, a guide of the center will walk you through and provide narration.
Aside from this somber site, there are also old Turkish bathhouses and mosques in the town that can be visited and nearby, there is great hiking. There is also a beautiful forest that I went through in the town, where merchants sold apples. Quba brags about its great apples, pomegranates, and persimmons, among other fruits, and the multiple varieties of these fruits they have. Our driver was also excited by the baklava of Quba, which he had promised to bring back to his children, as Quba is known to have the best baklava in the country. It seemed that every block had multiple homemade baklava shops and several types to choose from at ridiculously cheap prices. Grabbing a box of baklava is a sweet way to end a long day on your way back to Baku if you are not staying in the area.
If you are Jewish, a visit to Quba will be truly the experience of a lifetime. It is like a time warp to something that once existed that is a part of many of our heritages. Even if you are not Jewish though, you will find this town to be a truly unique adventure and cultural encounter. If nothing else, the trip for the Caucasus’ best baklava is worth the drive. I will never forget, and will always cherish this day as one of my greatest travel moments for the rest of my life. This year, check something off your bucket list, and in doing so, discover something about who you are.
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