Krymchak

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The Krymchaks (Krymchak: sg. кърымчах - qrymchakh, pl. кърымчахлар - qrymchakhlar) are a community of Turkic-speaking adherents of Rabbinic Judaism living in Crimea. They have historically lived in close proximity to the Crimean Karaites. At first krymchak was a Russian descriptive used to differentiate them from their Ashkenazi coreligionists, as well as other Jewish communities in the former Russian Empire such as the Georgian Jews, but in the second half of the 19th century this name was adopted by the Krymchaks themselves. Before this their self-designation was "Срель балалары" (Srel balalary) - literally "Children of Israel". The Crimean Tatars referred to them as zuluflı çufutlar ("Jews with pe'ot") to distinguish them from the Karaims, who were called zulufsız çufutlar ("Jews without pe'ot").

Language

The Krymchaks speak a modified form of the Crimean Tatar language, called the Krymchak language. It contains numerous Hebrew and Aramaic loan-words and was traditionally written in Hebrew characters (now it is written in Cyrillic script).

Origins

They are probably partially descended from Jewish colonists who settled along the Black Sea in ancient times. Jewish communities existed in many of the Greek colonies in the region. Recently-excavated inscriptions in Crimea have revealed a Jewish presence at least as early as the first century BCE. In some Crimean towns, pagan cults called sebomenoi theon hypsiston ("Worshippers of the All-Highest God", or "God-Fearers") existed. These quasi-Jews kept the Jewish commandments but remained uncircumcised and retained certain pagan customs. Eventually, these sects disappeared as their members adopted either Christianity or normative Judaism.

The late classical era saw great upheaval in the region as Crimea was occupied by Goths, Huns, Bulgars, and other peoples. Jewish merchants such as the Radhanites began to develop extensive contacts in the Pontic region during this period, and probably maintained close relations with the proto-Krymchak communities.

Middle Ages

In the late 600s most of Crimea fell to the Khazars. The extent to which the Krymchaks influenced the ultimate conversion of the Khazars and the development of Khazar Judaism is unknown. During the period of Khazar rule, intermarriage between Crimean Jews and Khazars is likely, and the Krymchaks probably absorbed numerous Khazar refugees during the decline and fall of the Khazar kingdom (a Khazar successor state, ruled by Georgius Tzul, was centered on Kerch). It is known that Kipchak converts to Judaism existed, it is possible that from these converts the Krymchaks adopted their distinctive language.

The Mongol conquerors of the Pontic region were promoters of religious freedom, and the Genoese occupation of the southern Crimea (1315-1475) saw increasing levels of Jewish settlement in the region. The Jewish community was divided between those who prayed according to the Sephardi rite, the Ashkenazim, and the Romaniotes. Only in 1515 were the different styles united into a distinctive Krymchak rite, by Rabbi Moshe Ha-Golah, a Chief Rabbi of Kiev who settled in Crimea.

Tatar and Turkish rule

Under the Crimean Khanate the Jews were required to live in separate quarters and pay a dhimmi-tax. A limited judicial autonomy was granted according to the Ottoman millet system. Overt, violent persecution was extremely rare.

During the Cossack rebellions and pogroms of the mid 1600s, the Krymchaks were active in ransoming fellow Jews who had been taken captive.

Russian and Soviet rule

Russia annexed Crimea in 1783. The Krymchaks were thereafter subjected to the same humiliations imposed on other Jews in Russia. Unlike their Karaite neighbors, the Krymchaks suffered the full brunt of anti-Jewish restrictions.

During the 1800s many Ashkenazim from Ukraine and Lithuania began to settle in Crimea. Compared with these Ashkenazim the Krymchaks seemed somewhat backward; their illiteracy rates, for example, were quite high, and they observed many superstitions . Intermarriage with the newcomers reduced the numbers of the distinct Krymchak community dramatically. By 1900 there were 60,000 Ashkenazim and only 6,000 Krymchaks in Crimea.

In the mid 1800s the Krymchaks became followers of Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini, a Sephardi rabbi born in Jerusalem who came to Crimea from Constantinople. His followers accorded him the title of gaon. Settling in Karasu Bazaar, the largest Krymchak community in Crimea, Rabbi Medini spent his life raising educational standards among the Jews of Crimea.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, civil war tore apart Crimea. Many Krymchaks were killed in the fighting between the Red Army, the White Movement and the Green Army. More still died in the famines of the early 1920s and the early 1930s. Many emigrated to the Holy Land, the United States, and Turkey.

Under Stalin, the Krymchaks were forbidden to write in Hebrew and were ordered to employ a Cyrillic alphabet to write their own language. Synagogues and yeshivot were closed by government decree. Krymchaks were compelled to work in factories and collective farms.

The Holocaust and after

Unlike the Karaim, the Krymchaks were targeted for annihilation by the Nazis. Six thousand Krymchaks, almost 75% of their population, were killed by the Nazis. Moreover, upon the return of Soviet authority to the region, many Krymchaks found themselves mistakenly deported to Central Asia along with their Crimean Tatar neighbors.

By 2000 only about 2,500 Krymchaks lived in the former Soviet Union, about half in Ukraine and the remainder in Georgia, Russia, and Uzbekistan. A few hundred Krymchaks still clinging to their Crimean identity live in the United States and Israel: animator Ralph Bakshi is the most famous of these.

See also

Sources

  • Blady, Ken. Jewish Communities in Exotic Places Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson Inc., 2000. pp. 115-130.
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