Juhuri, which belongs to the family of Iranian tongues, was the language of the Jews who live in the eastern Caucasus Mountains, an ethnic group whose members were also known as “Mountain Jews.’ For years the Jews of the Caucasus lived as a minority in the northern part of Azerbaijan and in Dagestan. In that region there is a larger population of Muslims of Persian origin, who speak a similar language, called Tat. That is why linguists call Juhuri “Judeo-Tat.”
According to a tradition prevalent in the community, the Jews of the Caucasus are descendants of tribes exiled from the Kingdom of Judea after the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the First Temple. They settled in Persia, where they acquired one of the dialects of Persian, at the same time preserving a considerable vocabulary of Hebrew words. When the Persian rulers wished to strengthen the northern borders of the empire, they resettled these Jewish tribes in the Caucasus.
Until the 20th century, Juhuri was used mainly as the everyday spoken language. Hebrew was the community’s principal written language, and was also the language of prayer and study, with almost all Jewish men in the Caucasus learning to read and write it from an early age. When the members of the community began using Juhuri as a written language, they used Hebrew letters similar to Rashi script (a semi-cursive typeface for Hebrew used by early typographers). The first two books printed in Juhuri in Hebrew script - a prayer book and a book about Zionism - were published in 1908 and 1909, respectively. The Jews managed to preserve their unique language for hundreds of years, until the Russians arrived in the Caucasus.
In the mid-19th century, Russia annexed the region, and the Russian language began to spread in the Caucasus. As education became more secular, the Jews developed commercial ties with the Russian community, and many of them moved from rural areas to the cities, which were populated by Russians. But only after the communist revolution did the mass transition from Juhuri to Russian begin.
In 1929, following the Russification efforts of the communist government and its attempts to suppress any trace of religion, speakers of Juhuri stopped writing in Hebrew letters and began using the Latin alphabet. Ten years later they began to write the language in Cyrillic letters. This transition made reading the language very difficult, because the Cyrillic alphabet did not suit the unique sound system of Juhuri.
Why is it that after hundreds of years, during which the Mountain Jews managed to preserve their unique language in a multilingual environment, it has almost disappeared over the course of a few decades in the 20th century?
Vitaly Shalem, a native of Pyatigorsk in the Caucasus, who immigrated to Israel in 1992, is so preoccupied by this question that he decided to write a master’s thesis on it in the linguistics department of Tel Aviv University. Shalem, 36, belongs to the generation whose mother tongue was Russian rather than Juhuri. “My parents didn’t speak Juhuri to me, although they did speak it between themselves,” he says. “The little I knew I learned from my grandmother.”
Shalem examines the sociolinguistic aspect of the language and tries to document its history from the pre-Revolutionary period to the present. “In my thesis, I ask whether the language is really in danger of extinction. My answer is yes, although not at the moment. My guess is that in about 40 years it will be extinct. Experts tend to blame the Soviet government and its enforced policy of Russification for the extinction of the language. But the linguistic policy of the Soviet government is only part of the issue. The more important reason for the decline of Juhuri was apparently sociological.
"Beginning in the 19th century, the prestige of the Russian language increased steadily, and fluency in it was considered a path to success. The Mountain Jews found themselves in an uncomfortable situation. Although they gave the Russians a friendly welcome, certainly compared to other communities in the Caucasus, the attitude of the Russian government toward them was not significantly different than its attitude toward the other inhabitants of the region. The Russians considered the Jews, like the other Caucasian communities, uneducated, inferior and lacking professions.
"The main reason for this attitude was the Mountain Jews’ ignorance of Russian. Even the Ashkenazi Jews in Russia [Jews of European origin] looked down on them. The key to success in the new world in which they found themselves was the ability to speak Russian without a trace of a foreign accent. Knowledge of Juhuri was considered an obstacle that was liable to prevent the people of the Caucasus from speaking perfect Russian. The attitude of the speakers toward their language changed, and they even stopped speaking to their children in Juhuri."
From my uncle’s website.