I know, I get tired of the “saving dying languages” trope too, it’s a worthy activity but the stories all run together after a while. And yet I found Shany Littman’s Haaretz article on Juhuri (Judeo-Tat, spoken by the so-called Mountain Jews) in Israel interesting enough to want to pass it on; I guess I’m a sucker for the minority languages of the Caucasus. The article focuses on the Theater of the Eastern Caucasus, “the only theater in the world that stages plays in the Juhuri language,” which was founded in 1923 in Derbent and has been operating in Israel since 2001, but it has a good discussion of the history of the language:
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…. 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…. In the mid-19th century, Russia annexed the region, and the Russian language began to spread in the Caucasus…. But only after the communist revolution did the mass transition from Juhuri to Russian begin….
[Poet Boris] Hanukayev says that during his childhood there was a very rich cultural life in Derbent conducted in Juhuri, even under the communist regime.”There were kolkhozes [collective farms] where almost the entire population was Jewish. They had theaters and musical troupes that performed in Juhuri,” he explains. “These plays were usually related to Persian folklore, because for the Jews, the high culture was Persian and Azeri, not Hebrew. We were not familiar with [Hebrew poets Haim Nahman] Bialik and [Shaul] Tchernikovsky. The authors we read were Yono (Yona) Semyonov, whose language was very rich and peppered with Hebrew words and expressions borrowed from the holy tongue, Mishi (Moshe) Bakhshiyev, who wrote prose and poetry, Hizghil (Yehezkel) Avshalumov, who wrote prose and satirical and humorous plays, Sergei Yezgayev, a poet and a philosopher, and Danil Atnilov, who was a poet with a surprising and subversive vision.”
There’s a lot more fascinating material in the article, and someone should write a book about these people if there isn’t one already. Thanks for the link, A S!