Adding to the rich cultural diversity in Israel, we have the Circassians. Mainly living in two communities in the North and numbering approximately 4,000, the Circassians’ history goes way back to pre-4th century. Originally from what is present-day Russia – from between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, they were the indigenous people of the Caucasus Mountains. They lived from Sochi to Baku: their capital city was Nalchik and they were known as the Adyghe (Adiga) people. In their language Ady means highlander and ghe means sea. Between the 4th and the 9th centuries, many of them converted to Christianity. When the Tartars and Ottoman Turks conquered their territory, many were forcibly converted to Islam. The Turks called them Cherkess which was Latinized to Circassian. After many years as dhimmie under the Ottomans, most adopted the Muslim religion voluntarily. 1763 marked the 100 year war between the Circassians and the Russians for access to the Black Sea. Eventually, in 1864, Russia launched a genocidal campaign. 90% of their population were exiled from their land – put on ships bound for the Balkans, Anatolia, Bulgaria and Turkey. From there they were taken to the Middle East and can be found throughout the Levant. Their population is about 1.5 million.
Because they were such good fighters, the Ottomans took them in as brother Muslims; and it was the Turks who scattered them throughout the Lebanon/Syria/Israel/Jordan region as a counterweight tothe non-Muslim Jewish, Christian and Druze populations as well as to the Bedouin. Even though they are Sunni Muslim, they are not Arabs. They were brought here in the 1870s as tax collectors for all the other Arab villages in the surrounding area (today, this practice no longer exists).Here in Israel, they maintain excellent relations with the Jewish and Arab populations. The Circassians, although very separate with their own language and educational system, all serve in the IDF. They have kept their ancient phonetic language, Adyghebza, but are fluent in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Their educational levels are very high, their communities, impeccably clean with flowers blooming in every windowbox and garden. There are only 26 family groups or clans within the Israeli Circassian community.
We visited the two Circassian towns recently. Kfar Kama (pronounce Comma) is a thriving village on the upper slope of Har Tavor (Mt. Tabor) in the lower Galilee. The mountain village is walled in, an old form of defense. All of the stone houses are interconnected, sharing a back or side wall. The only way through into the village is from a guardpost/ gate, like a fort. The mosque stands in the very center of the town. And it is the location of the Circassian Heritage Center. Every day, the center welcomes Israeli school groups as part of their educational enrichment program. We were greeted graciously by our docent, Ibek, dressed in a black costume and high fur hat.
After sharing their history with the large group, several members of the village put on a dance exhibition in their native noble costumes. Red and black are their battle colors, turquoise symbolizes the sea and green, the land from which they came.
All Circassians are taught the traditional dances from the time they are young, and all can play at least one musical instrument. The women have much power in their society, and are free to make their own decisions. When a young man comes of age, it is traditional for the Circassian man not to ask permission of the girl’s parents to marry. He asks the girl to marry him directly. This is where the story gets good. Without her parent’s knowledge, the bridegroom and his male attendants, kidnap the beloved at an agreed upon time and place. Two of the bridegroom’s attendants, then go to her family’s home to inform the parents (after she has not shown up). The family must then go out in search of their daughter, but it is the girl’s decision entirely to marry. The parents have no say in the matter. The bride is taken into the groom’s family’s home, and it is they who pay for the entire wedding feast. The families marry within their clans. Sometimes the men travel to Eastern Europe or Turkey where other clan member reside to find their betrothed.
Much of their labor today is agricultural. Olive growing has played a large role in their subsistence . They follow the Muslim dietary laws (refraining from pork, Hallal slaughter) with the exception of fish. Because so many of their people were killed in the Black Sea War, fish and seafood are off the menu in homage to their brethren. They are fairly famous for their smoked meats and hard smoked cheeses. The cheese shop in Kfar Kama boasts of the oldest cheese in Israel: this hard, smoked cheese is shaped like an enormous dagger and is 43 years old!
Today in Israel, about half of the Circassians are devout, the other half fairly secular. There is no pressure to be traditional, although all intimately know the culture and traditions. Observant women wear a white headscarf, like Druze women, but the Circassian style for every day is more like a hijab. Colorful clothes as well as pants are worn by the younger women.
The other Circassian village is Rechaniya, near the Lebanese border, established in 1878 by 66 families. It too is built in the fortified walled village style with a central mosque as in Kfar Kama. Because of their location, the village maintained active ties with their Lebanese and Syrian relations across the border. This proved problematic for the Israeli authorities during the 1967 and Lebanese Wars. Frequent home searches were conducted by the IDF for security reasons. Smuggled weapons were confiscated and some of the Rechaniya townsfolk were temporarily moved to Kfar Kana, 30 miles to the south. Mostly, they preferred to remain neutral during the wars Israel faced. Today, friendly relations have been restored. They pride themselves as being full Israeli citizens and part of the fabric of society. Many Circassians today serve in the police and border patrol units. Several are noted Israeli football stars.
Hani Madaji is the owner of the Rechaniya restaurant, Nalchik. There you can eat like a local, feating on lots of carbs, some baked, some fried, all with different fillings. One of the favorites is Haliva, a fried dough dumpling filled with Circassian cheese, potatoes and herbs. Some variations use beef and leeks.
There are Kalkata, dumplings filled with sheep milk yogurt and paprika; memjak, a savory lentil dish and an interesting type of chicken salad. The shredded, cooked chicken is dressed with a rich, garlicky tehineh and is served at room temperature. Before eating a red olive oil that has been infused with spicy Aleppo pepper and paprika, is drizzled over top. Walnuts, also are sprinkled over (Note: for those visitors keeping Kashrut, this food is definitely not Kosher! Still, interesting to see and learn). Also in Rechaniya is a specialized cheese dairy that has been in the same family for generations. It is an art that has been passed down from mother to daughter for hundreds of years.
Nadi explained to us when we asked how the Circassians fit into society in Israel today that it is a matter of tolerance. They see other people and other cultures as having tremendous dignity and worth as human beings. We are all brothers and sisters, she said. We seek to live peaceably among our own people and alongside the other Israeli citizens. However every Circassian carries deep within him the desire to go back to their original homeland that is today part of Russia. They are all a part of the Great Circassian Diaspora. For them, May 21 is their Genocide Remembrance Day. In both Kfar Kama and Rechaniya there are parades, special services and speeches made. All are welcome to attend.