Crimea, ca. 2000.

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Indigenous Rabbinite Jewish community of the Crimean Peninsula. The term Krymchak (also Krimchak; “inhabitant of Crimea”) was first introduced by Russians following the annexation of Crimea in 1783; the name was chosen to distinguish them from Karaites as well as from the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe. Gradually the members of the community, whose language is Judeo-Crimean Tatar, also began to refer to themselves by this term, their previous self-appellation of Syrael (Israel) surviving residually in their folk poetry. Officially, in Crimean Tatar, both Rabbinite and Karaite Jews were called Yahudiler, but in the unofficial everyday language the pejorative term Chufutlar (“Yids”) was applied to both groups. Rabbinites were called Zülüflü Chufutlar (“Yids” with sidelocks) and the Karaites Zülüfsüz Chufutlar (“Yids” without sidelocks).

Hellenized Greek-speaking Jews first settled in Crimea in Panticapaeum (today’s Kerch) in the first century BCE. Their presence in Panticapaeum as well in the Bosporan towns of Phanagoria and Gorgippa in the first through fifth centuries CE is well documented archaeologically. Hebrew names on amphorae dating to the third century were found during excavations of the Bosporan town of Tanais, and may be seen as evidence either of Jews residing in that town or of their involvement in trade there. Archaeological findings attest to the presence of Jews in Chersonesus as early as the first century CE and to the existence there of an organized Jewish community in the late fourth through early fifth centuries. Inscriptions testify to the merging with the Jewish community of non-Jewish slaves released by Jews. Another group that may have merged, albeit partially, with Jewish community was the Sebomenoi ton Theon (God-fearers), whose profession of the Most High God (Theos Hypsistos) was strongly influenced by Judaism. In the early 630s, the Jewish population increased with the arrival of Byzantine Jews fleeing forced conversion in areas of Crimea bordering Byzantium.

Between the 660s and the early 680s, the Khazars gained control over most of Crimea. There were at least two waves of migration by Byzantine Jews to Khazar Crimea, both a result of renewed attempts by Byzantine emperors to forcibly convert Jews in the early 720s and about 930. Jews continued to reside in the Kerch Strait area in the seventh through ninth centuries, as well as in Partenit and Aluston (later known as Alushta), both located on the southern shore of the peninsula. In all probability, the Khazars not only governed Crimea, but also amalgamated there with the original Jewish community and Jews who had escaped from Byzantium.

Despite the downfall of the Khazar kingdom in the late tenth century, the Jewish presence in Crimea continued. By the early thirteenth century, the total consolidation of Jewish inhabitants of Crimea into one community had been completed. This community formed a peripheral part of Greek-speaking Jewry in the eastern Mediterranean area known as Romaniots.

In 1239, Tatars of the Golden Horde conquered most of Crimea. Solkhat (known also as Qyrym, which gave its name to the peninsula as a whole) became the official seat of the governor and retained its importance as a major caravan trade center following the proclamation of the sovereign Crimean Khanate (1449–1783). The first textual evidence of Jews in Solkhat dates to 1278 and attests to the existence of both Rabbinite and Karaite Jews. In 1358, a Rabbinite exegete, known as Avraham Kirimi, wrote an extensive Hebrew commentary on the Pentateuch titled Sefat emet at the request of a Karaite pupil of his who was a son of the head of Solkhat’s Karaite community.

In 1459, Jews are mentioned as living in another town of inner Crimea called Qyrq-Ier or Qyrq-Or, known since approximately 1610 as Chufut-Kale; (Chufut-Qale; “Yids’ Castle”), located near the capital of the Crimean Khanate, the town of Bakhchisarai. For a time, both Karaites and Rabbinites lived in this town, but the Rabbinites departed in the eighteenth century, leaving there an exclusively Karaite community. However, by the end of the nineteenth century the latter also left Chufut-Kale, and since then the site has been abandoned. Hebrew inscriptions dating from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries in Tepe-Kermen, a nearby abandoned town, attest to a Jewish presence there as well. Whether the residents were Rabbinite, Karaite, or both is impossible to determine.

Another Crimean town inhabited by Jews, possibly dating from the thirteenth century, is Mangup, located about 30 kilometers northeast of Sevastopol’. In 1475, Turkish forces captured the town. An Ottoman register from the 1520s lists one Jewish neighborhood, inhabited by 48 households (28% of the town’s households), as well as 3 Jewish widows. The Jewish population of Mangup was predominantly—perhaps even overwhelmingly—Karaite, but Rabbinites lived there too. The Karaites were the last to leave in 1793, at which point the town was abandoned.

The Black Sea coast of Crimea was controlled by Venice from the beginning of the thirteenth century. From the 1260s until the 1470s it was subject to Genoa, and from then until the late eighteenth century it was partially or entirely under Ottoman rule. Jewish communities existed in Kaffa (Kefe; now Feodosiia, in the southeast), Soghudaq (now Sudak, about 60 km southwest of Feodosiia), Baliqlaghu (now Balaklava, within the municipal boundaries of Sevastopol’), and Alushta. The important seaport town of Kaffa had 92 Jewish households in the 1520s, and 3 Jewish neighborhoods (one inhabited by “Jewish Circassians”—in all probability mountain Jews of the Caucasus), consisting of 89 households in 1542–1543, in both cases roughly 3 percent of the town’s population. Alushta and Baliqlaghu lagged well behind: the former had 20 households in the 1520s and 18 in 1452–1453, 13 percent of the town’s population; the latter 15 households in the 1520s and 11 in 1542–1543, respectively 8 percent of the town’s population in the 1520s and 7 percent in 1542–1543. In Soghudaq, the Jewish population, already negligible in the 1520s (just 2 households), became nonexistent in 1542–1543.

Kaffa was the center of Crimean Jewish life; Jews lived there long before it came under Ottoman control. In the 1420s, the town had both Rabbinite and Karaite communities, each with its own synagogue. Onomastic evidence suggests that Kaffan Jewry came to include immigrants from Italy (Lombrozo, Piastro), the Mediterranean Sephardic diaspora (Konort, Tabon), Turkey (Izmirli, Stamboli), and Georgia (Gurji). The arrivals were overwhelmingly Rabbinites.

Not much is known about the occupations of Kaffan Jews. A Jew from Kaffa known in Russian documents as Kodzya Kokos served as a diplomatic intermediary between Ivan III (1462–1505), grand duke of Moscow, and Mengli Giray (1466–1514), ruler of the Crimean Khanate. Ottoman registers of 1487–1490 provide us with knowledge about Jewish merchants. They were involved in the sea trade from Kaffa to Istanbul and some ports of Anatolia westward and to Azak (now Azov) eastward. Kaffan Jewish merchants imported European woolen cloth and silk and exported hides from inland Crimea. Among the hide exporters, Khoja Arslan Yahudi was the richest Kaffan Jewish merchant.

According to data of the late seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries, Kaffa was at that time one of the Crimean towns where Jews were involved in slave trade. Conversely, they often served as intermediaries in ransoming people held captive by the Tatars, and ransomed East European Jewish captives. Some of those who were ransomed settled among their redeemers. This explains the appearance among Krymchaks of such names as Bershadskii, Varshavskii, and Lekhno (originating from the land of Lakhs, i.e., Poles). Many other members of the Krymchak community were also, according to family tradition, of East European Ashkenazic extraction, though their surnames are Crimean Tatar. The proportion of Krymchaks of Ashkenazic extraction at the beginning of the twentieth century is disputed but most likely did not exceed 25 percent.

One of the ransomed East European Ashkenazic Jews was the Talmudic scholar Mosheh ben Ya‘akov of Kiev, known as Mosheh ha-Goleh (the Exile; 1449–ca. 1520). He spent the last years of his life in Kaffa, where he proposed to its Rabbinite community a new liturgical rite that came to be known as nusaḥ Kafa. This system represented a compromise between the Romaniot rite of the old settlers and those of the latecomers, mainly the Ashkenazi rite. The format was accepted first by Kaffan Rabbinites and shortly later by all Rabbinite Jews of Crimea. The ritual homogenization of Crimean Rabbinite Jewry thus occurred during the sixteenth century.

During the last decades of the sixteenth century Crimean Tatar, written in Hebrew characters, with a certain admixture of Hebraisms, became the language of the region’s Rabbinite Jews. Thus, Crimean Rabbinite Jewry became homogenized linguistically as well. So the sixteenth century is to be regarded as the formative age of Crimean Rabbinite Jewry as a distinctive community, distinguished from all other Rabbinite communities by both language and liturgy.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the major center of Crimean Jewish life had moved to Karasubazar (now Belogorsk), a significant inland center of trade and crafts. Karasubazar remained the main residence of Crimean Rabbinite Jews until the 1920s–1930s, and it was there that the community’s social and economic structure took shape. For more than 300 years, the history of Crimean Rabbinite Jews is predominantly that of the Karasubazar community.

Until 1783, the Muslim government of the Crimean Khanate regulated Jews as well as Christians (mainly Armenians and Greeks) according to the so-called Covenant of Omar, which granted a degree of communal autonomy so long as certain—often humiliating—special obligations were fulfilled. Foremost among these was the requirement to pay a special protection poll tax (jizyah), representing a substantial portion of the khan’s income. Eighteenth-century sources detail other obligations Jews had to fulfill, including handing over one-tenth of their bread to the authorities; providing the Khanate’s employees with lodging, food, and horses; and paying trade and municipal customs duties. In addition, during given periods Jews had to turn over a certain quantity of cereals from their granaries, pay a levy on inheritance and property following its division, as well as an unspecified “levy on vineyards of Jews.” They were forbidden to sell alcoholic beverages to Muslims, to build houses and tombs higher than Muslim ones, and to ride on horseback. An especially humiliating duty involved carrying Tatars across mud and slush.

The Rabbinite Jewish community had both a lay and a religious leadership. At the head of the former stood the kaya (manager), who represented the community to the Crimean Tatar administration. He was responsible for the strict fulfillment of numerous duties imposed by Khanate authorities. In collecting levies, he was aided by the gabeleji (levy raiser), who was most likely also in charge of collecting communal taxes on real estate, the revenues of which were used to aid the poor.

The head of the religious hierarchy was the rebi (rabbi), who also served as ritual slaughterer and as circumciser. The term rebi was also applied to the teacher of the midrash, which is the Crimean Rabbinite equivalent of the Ashkenazic Talmud Torah.

The rabbi was assisted by the ḥazan, whose duties were evidently broader than those of a cantor in Ashkenazic communities. The ḥazan could also serve as a midrash teacher. The administrative manager of the synagogue was the gaba’i, who was assisted in technical services by the shamash (beadle). The only rabbi of the Karasubazar Rabbinite Jewish community under the khanate whose name is known was David ben Eli‘ezer Lekhno (Heb., Leḥno; d. 1735). His historiographic work, Devar sefatayim, written in lucid Hebrew, has been partially published. His work on Hebrew verbs and synonymy, “Mishkan David,” has not yet appeared in print.

Most community members were artisans (furriers, hatters, smiths, jewelers, saddlers, and tanners). They lived in a restricted Jewish quarter consisting of several densely populated streets.

An important expression of Krymchak culture from this period was poetry that was intended to be recited orally, often within families, and was recorded in a jonk (handwritten anthology) spanning several generations. Evidently this was the time when the practice developed to collect specimens of oral poetry in Judeo-Crimean Tatar into handwritten anthologies. Sometimes a jonk was assembled by several generations of a family.

With the annexation of Crimea by the Russians in 1783, khanate legislation pertaining to Jews became invalid. The annexation did not bring about dramatic changes in the social and economic structures of the community. Most visible was the growing dominance of leather and fur-related crafts, such as saddlery, shoemaking, and especially manufacturing of the Crimean Tatar–style hats made of black lambskin. A letter to the tsar from a certain Ya‘akov Barukh, a resident of Karasubazar in 1818, refers to loss of life as a result of an 1810 epidemic, and states that Rabbinite Jews in the town numbered 150 households. Even though the Rabbinite Jews of the Crimea were subject to tsarist legislation concerning Jews, which was generally unfavorable, the attitude of the authorities to the community tended to be basically benevolent: the tiny community of artisans delivered by Russian rule from the humiliating Covenant of Omar obligations was neither under suspicion of disloyalty, as were the Crimean Tatars, nor perceived as commercial competitors, as were the Crimean Greek and Armenian communities.

In 1867, an outstanding Talmudic scholar, the Jerusalem-born and -educated Ḥayim Ḥizkiyah Medini (1832–1904), was invited to be the rabbi of Karasubazar, a position he retained until returning to Jerusalem in 1899. Medini tried to mold the spiritual life of the community according to his standards of religiosity—that is, according to the tolerant and open, yet at the same time strictly Orthodox Jerusalem Sephardic pattern. He introduced Sephardic liturgy, although some Krymchaks apparently continued to use the Kaffa liturgy. Under Medini’s urging, some sacred texts were published in the original Hebrew, accompanied by a Judeo-Crimean Tatar translation. According to the census of 1897, the number of Jews whose mother tongue was Turkish-Tatar was 3,481, of whom 95 percent lived in Crimea.

In 1902, a Talmud Torah was founded in the Crimean capital of Simferopol’. Supported by the Enlightenment-inspired philanthropic Society for the Promotion of Culture (or Enlightenment) among the Jews of Russia (OPE, based in Saint Petersburg), the school was but a short-lived experiment. Far more successful was the semi-secular Crimean Talmud Torah, established in 1911 in Karasubazar, with Russian as the language of instruction for general studies. Its founder and headmaster was Sak-Yuda Kaya (Isaak Samuilovich Kaia; 1887–1956), the first Krymchak to graduate (in 1909) from the Vilna Teachers Institute.

Crimea became Soviet only at the very end of 1920. In 1921, it was proclaimed a Soviet Autonomous Republic within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). In the early 1920s, the number of Krymchaks dropped noticeably as a result of the civil war, the severe famine of 1921–1922, and immigration to Palestine and the United States.

Because Krymchaks were viewed as part of the indigenous “oriental” population, the Soviets applied to them the Communist Party’s so-called Eastern policy, designed to combat religious prejudices in an indirect and cautious manner. Until 1928–1929, the Soviet authorities refrained from directly attacking the community’s deeply rooted religiosity. In the mid-1920s, the traditional religious education of Krymchak children was still actively being conducted. Yet a network of Communist-inspired secular schools, with Judeo-Crimean Tatar as the language of instruction, was established. The first of these was evidently in Karasubazar as of 1921. A network of literacy courses for adults was also organized. Not later than 1923, a Krymchak club was established in Simferopol’, at which an amateur theatrical group performed, and in 1928, a similar group performed in Kerch.

By the early 1920s, Krymchaks had begun migrating from Karasubasar to the larger towns of Crimea, chiefly to Simferopol’ and Kerch. In 1926, Simferopol’ was the main Krymchak center, with 25.5 percent of the community concentrated there, whereas only 16.3 percent still lived in Karasubazar. In the late 1920s and the early 1930s, two Krymchak kolkhozes were set up, but by and large (except in these kolkhozes and possibly in some Karasubazar workshops), Krymchaks now had to work in ethnically heterogenous collectives with Russian as the only language of communication. Consequently, increasing numbers of Krymchaks abandoned Judeo-Crimean Tatar in favor of Russian; indeed, the Soviet census of 1926 indicated that 24.5 percent of Krymchaks declared Russian to be their language. Although no relative numerical data are available for other years of the 1920s and the 1930s, there can be little doubt that the shift from Judeo-Crimean Tatar to Russian gathered momentum in those years. The only significant Krymchak poet of this period, Iakov Chapichev (1909–1945) wrote in Russian. As a Red Army officer, he was discharged from the army in 1938, during the Great Terror, but was later reinstalled. He died in action against the Nazis near the end of World War II and was posthumously awarded the highest military distinction, the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

On the eve of the German occupation of Crimea in late 1941, the commandant of Einsatzgruppe D, whose task included making Crimea Judenrein (free of Jews), asked Berlin if the Krymchaks were to be considered Jewish. The answer was positive. The first to die were the Krymchaks of Karasubazar: on 15 November 1941, they were taken out of the town and shot. Between 11 and 13 December 1941, the Krymchaks of Simferopol’ were shot near the nearby village of Mazanki. Of the estimated 6,500 Krymchaks on the eve of the war, at least 5,500 were exterminated. An anonymous poem in Judeo-Crimean Tatar tells of the extermination of the Krymchaks of Simferopol’, and mourns “the death of my people,” demanding that those who perished be remembered. The poem bears a striking resemblance to Yitsḥak Katezenelson’s “Ha-Shir ‘al ha-‘am ha-Yehudi she-neherag” (The Song of the Murdered Jewish People).

The violent official Soviet antisemitism of 1948 to 1953 induced a small group of Krymchak intellectuals to look for ways to escape the stigma of being Jewish. By the mid-1950s, this group requested the Supreme Soviet and the Ministry of the Interior to regard the Krymchaks not as Jews but as a separate ethnic entity. The request was granted, and the Krymchaks’ ethnic status was changed in their identity cards (internal passports) from Evrei (Jew) to Krymchak.

According to the 1989 Soviet census, 1,448 Krymchaks resided in the Soviet Union. Of these, 900 (62.2%) declared Russian their mother tongue. Given the complete Russian acculturation of practically all young and middle-aged Krymchaks, and the prevalance of mixed marriages (mainly with Russians), the Krymchaks had by that time become a group on the verge of complete assimilation within the surrounding (predominantly Russian) population. The bond that kept the community together was their residual collective memory, with its main manifest expression its memory of the Holocaust. A decision to commemorate the massive extermination was initiated in summer 1945 by a group from Simferopol’ who came to the execution site to rebury the bones of those killed. Holocaust Memorial Day began to be commemorated annually since 11 December 1945 by a massive gathering of Krymchaks in Simferopol’ on that day, and a visit to the extermination site. The commemoration is a distinctively Jewish ceremony. It bears a name strongly associated with Jewish religious tradition: T[u]kun, a shortened form of the Hebrew ti(k)kun yom ha-zikaron (institution of the day of commemoration) or ti(k)kun ha-neshamah (institution of [prayer for] the soul). Heads are covered, traditional Krymchak food is distributed; songs in Judeo-Crimean Tatar are sung, even though most participants have a very vague, if any, knowledge of the language; and Kaddish Yatom (the prayer for the deceased) is recited by a person known to have expertise in Jewish religious tradition.

There are no exact statistics citing the number of Krymchaks who left the USSR and its successor states with the massive exodus of Jews that started in 1989. Empirical evidence as well as numbers provided by Krymchaks who have immigrated since then to Israel lead one to assume that at least 50 percent left. Most have settled in Israel, with a few moving to the United States and Germany.

Suggested Reading

Igor’ Veniaminovich Achkinazi, Krymchaki: Istoriko-etnograficheskii ocherk (Simferopol, Ukr., 2000); Aleksandr Aibabin, Etnicheskaia istoriia rannevizantiiskogo Kryma (Simferopol, Ukr., 1999); Abraham Ben-Yaacob, “Medini, Ḥayyim Hezekiah ben Raphael Elijah,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 11, cols. 1216–1217 (Jerusalem, 1971); Itzhak Ben-Zvi, “Sifrutam shel yehude Krim,” Kiryat sefer 28 (1952/53): 251–254; Ken Blady, “On the Russian Riviera: The Krimchaks of the Crimea,” in Jewish Communities in Exotic Places, pp. 111–130 (Northvale, N.J., and Jerusalem, 2000); D. I. Dan’shin, “The Jewish Community of Phanagoria,” Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia 3.2–3 (1996): 133–150; E. Leigh Gibson, The Jewish Manumission Inscriptions of the Bosporus Kingdom (Tübingen, 1999); Norman Golb and Omeljan Pritsak, Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century (Ithaca, 1982); Peter Golden, “Khazars,” in Turkish-Jewish Encounters, ed. Mehmet Tütüncü, pp. 29–49 (Haarlem, 2001); Warren Paul Green, “The Fate of the Crimean Jewish Communities: Ashkenazim, Krimchaks and Karaites,” Jewish Social Studies 46.2 (1984): 169–176; Iala Ianbay, “The Krimchak Translation of a ‘Targum Seni’ of the Book of Ruth,” Mediterranean Language Review 10 (1998): 1–53; Halil I·nalcik, Sources and Studies on the Ottoman Black Sea, vol. 1, The Customs Register of Caffa, 1487–1490 (Cambridge, Mass., 1995); Anatoly Michailovich Khazanov, The Krymchaks: A Vanishing Group in the Soviet Union (Jerusalem, 1989); Igor Kotler, “Crimean Jewish Family Names,” Avotaynu 5.1 (1989): 6–10; Irina Levinskaya and Sergei Tokhtas’yev, “Jews and Jewish Names in the Bosporan Kingdom,” in Studies on the Jewish Diaspora in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods, ed. Benjamin Isaac and Aharon Oppenheimer, pp. 55–73, Te‘udah 12 (Tel Aviv, 1996); Rudolf Loewenthal, “The Extinction of the Krimchaks in World War II,” The American Slavic and East European Review 10 (1951): 130–136; Isaak Dov Ber Markon et al., “Kirimi, Abraham,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 10, col. 1046 (Jerusalem, 1971); Cengiz Orhunlu, “Kefe,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., vol. 4, pp. 868–870 (Leiden, 1976); Maria Polinsky, “Crimean Tatar and Krymchak: Classification and Description,” in The Non-Slavic Languages of the USSR: Linguistic Studies; New Series, ed. Howard Aronson, pp. 157–188 (Chicago, 1992); Yehuda Slutsky, “Lekhno, David,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 11, col. 7 (Jerusalem, 1971); Vasilii V. Struve and A. K. Gavriloov, ed., Korpus bosporskikh nadpisei (Moscow, 1965); Velvl (Ze’ev) Tchernin, “Der inhalt fun di terminen krimtshak un krimtshakishe shprakh,Sovetish heymland (November 1983): 149–157; Gilles Veinstein, “La population du sud de la Crimée au début de la domination ottomane,” in Mémorial Ömer Lûtfi Barkan, pp. 227–249 (Paris, 1980), also photo-reprinted under no. IX in his Etat et société dans l’empire ottomane, XVIe–XVIIIe siècles (Brookfield, Vt., 1994).