Reflecting on Georgia

We experience a thousand years of Jewish heritage


At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, the Republic of Georgia has been home to one of the oldest Jewish diaspora in the world dating back to the Babylonian exile some 2,600 years ago.

Since then, waves of refugees arrived escaping Byzantine persecution in the sixth century, then again after the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, and during the early 19th century, with the arrival of first Ashkenazim who had been forced out of Russia.

For much of the two millennia, Georgian Jews have lived without antisemitism. Some say that there was Jewish blood in the Georgian royal lineage. King David's harp and sling appear on the royal seal of the beloved House of Bagrationi that ruled from the early Middle Ages.

The most popular rulers of the dynasty, King David the Builder and King Tamar (a woman) had Biblical names. Jewish figures such as Abraham, Moses, and David are revered in Georgia.

None of that prevented the mass emigration of Georgian Jews in the 1970s with a larger wave departing in the early 1990s with the fall of Communism. The community fell from 100,000 to a mere 3,000, largely Sephardic, observant and almost all living in the capital, Tiblisi.

Wide boulevards, new bridges and cutting-edge architecture exist alongside the cobblestone lanes of the old city, and the ancient fortress overlooking the capital.

In the mix there are two active synagogues, Ashkenazi and the much larger Sephardic shul, the latter with high marble columns and elaborate frescos. A minyan is held every day, and on Shabbat the congregation will bring out 100 people.

A Jewish cemetery exists on a hill top and many of the headstones bear life-size images of the deceased, some depicting their occupation or passions (music, food, cars).

The Georgia National Museum features an outstanding historical collection of costumes, religious artefacts, and paintings collectively capturing a century of Georgian Jewish life.

A few hours to the west is Kutaisi, one of the most ancient cities in the world and today, the second largest in Georgia. According to legend, it is here that Jason sailed in the Argonaut to get the Golden Fleece. Perched above the city is the Gelati Monastery, which was both a spiritual centre and scientific academy.

In Kutaisi, a small community of about 200 Jews gathers at a compound, site of a newly renovated synagogue. Here, a minyan is held daily, often bolstered by visitors from Israel and Georgian Jews who have emigrated.

Travelling south, toward the Turkish border and past the popular Bordoni mineral springs, we arrive at Akhaltsikhe, once a magnet for Jewish traders at the crossroads of Silk Road, linking the Ottoman Empire and Asia.

There are less than 10 Jews in the city, and one open synagogue. It is a beautifully designed Sephardic shul, with finely crafted ceiling depicting the ubiquitous Georgian walnut trees, and a Mechitzah, the divider of the women's section, in golden hazelnut filigree. According to the caretaker, Shimon Levishvili, the Torah dates back 500 years from the Sephardi exile.

Akhaltsikhe is a fascinating city, with two Unesco world heritage landmarks - the Rehati castle and Separa monastery - and a renovated compound featuring a gleaming mosque and a stunning archeological museum.

The museum, a beautifully designed modern structure, contains findings from Christian, Muslem and Jewish presence in the city, an age-old display of multi-culturalism. There's also artefacts from archeological digs in the region, where some of the first evidence of human culture was found.

A visit to the Black Sea resort, Batumi, is not a must for the heritage traveller, as it is packed with neon-lit hotels and seaside amusements. There is a synagogue, however, rarely used and ignored by most who come for the seaside.

Not to be missed, though, is the breathtaking and rugged Caucasus mountain range. Kazbegi. The focal point is the Sameba monastery, majestically poised at 15,000 feet high. In the remote village of Oni, in the western range, Jews once made up about half the population. These are the descendants of the legendary mountain Jews of the Caucasus. There are less than 100 Jews in Oni and one active synagogue. During the summer, the Jewish population swells with Israeli trekkers and jeep tours.

Lastly, Georgia is a secret gem for the gastronome. It lays claim to the oldest wine-making culture in the world, going back some 8,000 years.

The wine ageing process is unique, sealed in huge clay vessels called quevri and inserted in the ground to the neck. From fermentation through to maturation, it takes place in these vessels. The result is bold wines, of exceptional flavour and complexity.

Food can be a delight for the vegetarian, with delicious long and pointy breads called puri, baked in deep circular clay ovens. Khachapuri, the Georgian "pizza", filled with cheese and potato is a national dish. And the ubiquitous walnut is ground into pastes, sauces and served with eggplant and other dishes.

Wherever you go, there are roadside grills - literally small barbecues on the side of highways - providing smoked meats to hungry travelers but also fish, usually trout, plucked from the mountain streams or farmed fresh.

Georgia regards its Jewish community with respect and appreciation yet the numbers dwindle thanks to emigration to Israel and the US But it is safe to say that it is far too soon to write the last chapter of a legendary community in a country that wants them to stay.

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