A quick delay and layover in Dubai, and I arrived in Baku with very few expectations. I was here to join an Entwine Insider trip that would travel to both Azerbaijan and Georgia for about a week. The city of Baku itself is interesting, with big modern style buildings right next to somewhat old world Soviet large buildings. It’s a city where you see modernity and tradition coming together from people, clothing, architecture and more.
Wherever you go there’s always someone Jewish.
Quick relevant plane story. I sat next to two people on the flight who work for the tourism board in Baku. They asked about my itinerary, and typically as I travel I am sometimes careful of sharing my Jewish background or what I am doing. So I just casually said I was meeting a group and we would also be visiting Quba. The man said, “ahh I see what type of trip it is” and I figured he assumed I was Jewish. He then started speaking in Hebrew, to which I replied, oh I don’t speak Hebrew well, and he revealed that he himself was Jewish. Seriously, what are the odds, on a flight from Dubai to Baku, Azerbaijan I sit next to likely the only other Jewish person on the plane! I couldn’t believe it. But again, you just never know…it got even better when I arrived at the hotel.
Upon arrival, I was greeted with having to wait 20 minutes for my room to be ready. While I’m sitting in the lobby a group of older men sit down and I hear them speaking Hebrew. I start talking with one or two of them (not in Hebrew), but they are there with their wives, an Israeli singing group, who are about to give a performance at the hotel for an event organized by the local Chabad. They then point to another group of people and say you should talk to them, their American. I walk over and there is a group of Jewish adults who planned a trip to Azerbaijan and Georgia for a birthday trip who have also just found out about the singing. What are the odds? So I popped into the performance, listened to a little bit of Hebrew singing, saw the 50+ women in the room who are part of the local Chabad activities, and really remembered what this year is about. Global Jewish community. Truly at its most unexpected.
Touring with a group.
While only spending two days in Azerbaijan we were able to see a lot. I’ll share what we did below, but for me part of what was exciting was getting to do this with a group. I’ve done lots of alone touring so it was special to watch my peers have these experiences, as they grapple with their feelings, and consider some of the same questions I have all year. The joy of participating in a group is that you can talk through your thoughts, reflect, and learn from one another’s life experience, differing backgrounds, and various perspectives. While this trip was of course about the individual experience of each country and its community, but it was just as much about how my peers see the world, the challenges of group travel, and getting to know new friends.
Baku is beautiful, a very clean city. We had a city tour and visited the local Jewish community. The Chesed center is small due to some budget cuts, but the seniors we visited were happy to continue their weekly visits doing crafts and participating in community. The group split up to do some home visits with seniors JDC serves who are more confined to their homes. It was a sobering experience for some, in that visitors from the Jewish community can sometimes be some of the only visitors these folks get.
However the woman I visited was celebrating her birthday the day we visited and she continued to receive Skype phone calls and well wishes during our whole visit. She has no husband or children and was an engineer and manager for many years. She shared with us wisdom about keeping personal information to yourself, being a leader, and while she didn’t say it explicitly being a good neighbor. She shared how much her neighbors help care for her, and stop in to help, or that the people around her will help her cross the street. This is not always the story in home visits, and was not everyone’s experience but for our group it was heartening to hear and see that she has a community, and even her cat who help keep her company.
What I am taking away: The importance of making these visits in our home communities. Often we think of things like home visits and tours as things we do exclusively on trips to foreign or more poverty stricken places. The reality is that seniors or others in our local communities often have similar needs, and similarly would welcome visitors especially if they don’t have a lot of family, or family lives far away. When my grandparents were alive I have such fond memories of visiting in their various residences, and when they were in community living spaces how the others around them benefited and appreciated the visits. When you are seven years old and a bunch of Russian ladies see you walking into Lincoln Towers it’s like you are the star of the show. So a reminder or request. Find a group or go on your own and visit a local senior home. Alternatively find out if there are people who are home bound and could use a visitor. If you don't know where to find these opportunities ask. It’s not a one way street, just as they will appreciate your visit, you’ll likely leave inspired, with a smile and feeling good too!
Day two started with a drive to Quba, a town that is entirely Jewish and has been for thousands of years. Better known as the Mountain Jews these Jews have lived here somewhat undisturbed. Jewish life looks a touch different than we are used to. Much of the practice has been handed down over generations through an oral tradition. More remarkably the community has stayed strong to its roots and not assimilated into society. Though it has picked up some customs from its neighbors – things like taking your shoes off before entering the synagogue. It’s a place that challenged even Hitler in his decision of whether or not these were people who were to be eliminated like their Ashkenazi neighbors, and that hesitation saved many from the same fate as those in other places. The very fact that this place of Jewish life still exists today is fascinating.
We stopped into one of the synagogues – taking off our shoes before entering. While entirely different than our norm, it’s a reminder of how place, space, and tradition influence how and what we do, and in many ways how we explore and connect with religion.This community in the mountains of Azerbaijan has survived for thousands of years holding close their Jewish roots and even closer community and gender norms, it is what has helped them survive all these years. Can it continue to hold on tight to these ideas, traditions, and bonds?
It’s challenging. The community itself is shrinking, much like others where young people are moving away for opportunity, jobs or a different life. What does it mean for this community specifically? While today life continues, you can feel that it has lost its vibrancy, that it is somewhat isolated, and that the young people want to be connected to the outside world which could lead to a loss of tradition.
While visiting with a group of young girls we got a sense of different communal challenges mostly of modernity vs tradition. Gender roles like women's responsibility for all cooking and cleaning in the home are the norm here, and while these girls are gaining an education, they are also dreaming of travel, more education and potentially moving to Israel. It’s again this question of what will happen to this community as it modernizes, but part of these norms and local history is what has helped the community continue for so many years.
Was that all?
During our time in Baku we were also able to tour the old town, have lunch in the nicest and trendiest Kosher restaurant I’ve been in, visit with a few young people from local the local Hillel and get a feel for the land. In general Baku is definitely worth the visit. There was plenty that we drove past as well and didn’t have time to check out. Then it was onto Tbilisi!