Georgian Jews. History of a diaspora

Jewish man from the Southern Georgian Akhaltsikhe. Photo by Dmitri Ermakov

Our new co-author, Jacopo Miglioranzi studied Caucasian languages and cultural anthropology at the university of Venice. He does his research of anthropology of religion in the South Georgian province of Samtskhe, the town of Akhaltsikhe among the local Armenians and Georgians. Hopefully he will regularly inform about his research the readers of río Wang.

The ʻGeorgian Jews’ (ქართველი ებრაელები, kartveli ebraelebi) are one of the oldest communities in the Caucasian region. According to some, they came here 2600 years ago, and thus they are one of the oldest surviving diaspora communities. This is attested by a number of medieval Georgian chronicles, such as the ʻConversion of Kartli’ (მოქცევაი ქართლისაი, moqtsevai kartlisai), a unique local source of the history of the Jewish community of Georgia. The Georgian Jews have long formed a special group, which distinguished itself not only from the local indigenous population, but also from other Jewish communities, such as the Ashkenazi Jews.

The Georgian Jews were engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry, crafts and trade. Due to the circumstances of the diaspora, many of them held sheep and cattle, farmed land or grapes, but these never were their main occupation. These kind of economic activities remained always static in comparison to the dynamics of trade, and their main economic activity was retail trade. Most traders were traveling candy salesmen, who traveled throughout the week in the surrounding villages on foot or horseback, with their bag tied on their back or on their horse. Some of them were far from their homes even for months or the whole year, and only the religious holidays provided an opportunity to return to the family hearth.

Jewish woman from Akhaltsikhe. Photo by D. A. Nikitin, 1881

According to the English traveler Tefler, in the northern part of Samtskhe province, commerce was almost entirely in the hands of the Jews of the village of Lailashi. The inhabitants of the villages purchased salt, pottery, metal and household items from the Jewish merchants, and paid for it with skins and domestic animals. The profit was very low, the risk very high, the roads dangerous, and the itinerant vendors often fell victim to robbers.

The itinerant vendors bought the goods from well-to-do wholesalers, who had shops or desks in the market. The rich merchants – who lived in a fair number in the town of Akhaltsikhe – imported their wares from the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, at the time of the trade boom between Europe and Russia – due to railway construction and the development of the Black Sea mechant cities –, a growing number of Jewish merchants moved away, especially to surrounding major cities, such as Kutaisi, Tbilisi (then Tiflis), Batumi and Poti. This led to a typical transformation of local economy, which is not uncommon in diaspora communities: the society based on “movement” became a “less dynamic”, crafts-based society. Not that the crafts had been lacking from the community’s division of labor, but until then it played a secondary role.

As the drawings kept in the museum of Akhaltsikhe’s Rabati fortress show, until the late 19th century the Jewish artisans mainly dealt with weaving and dyeing, and from the early 20th century on, more and more of them became hatmakers, shoemakers, glaziers, porters, coachmen, soapmakers, or even shoeblacks or photographers.

The town of Akhaltsike in the late 19th century. The Jewish quarter lays under the fortress, beyond the left edge of the image.

The town of Akhaltsikhe, lying only a few kilometers away from the Turkish border, especially felt the economic change, as their Jewish community always lived from trade with the former Ottomans. This community went through a rapid demographic decline from the beginning of the century, primarily because the affluent Jewish families moved to the larger cities and the commercial centers.

After the advent of Communism, from the early 20s, commerce experienced a further drastic and inexorable decline, while the development of agriculture and industry flourished. The new politics of industrialization and secularization, the creation of OZET  (Общество землеустройства еврейских трудящихся, Society of Jewish agricultural workers) in 1927-1928, as well as the experiment of kolkhozes under Jewish leadership, which lasted until 1938, severely affected the traditional family structure. The small, but homogenous Jewish communities, which until the 1930s managed to preserve their language, started to be isolated and fragmented between the various kolkhozs, thus their traditional community life began to deteriorate.

The religious policy of Communism has left very few synagogues in Georgia. The oldest synagogue of Akhaltsikhe, which could still work, was founded in 1741. However, the old synagogue has long ceased to work, only its stone building stands between two rivers of mud, such as the streets are in Rabati, the oldest quarter of the town. It was closed down and converted into a sport palace in Soviet times. The new synagogue, built in the 1920s and still operating, stands only some twenty meters higher, in a much more modest building. Its single mark is a Star of David in the shadow of the traditional aluminium roof.

The first synagogue of Akhaltsikhe seen from the new synagogue, with the fortress in the background

The first Jewish communities of Akhaltsikhe settled in the town about five hundred years ago. Today, only a dozen Jews live here, mainly due to the “return to Israel” movement. In the 1970, nearly 100 thousand Jews lived in Georgia, who migrated at a rapid pace in recent years, mainly to Israel, the USA, Russia and Belgium, so that in 2004 only 13 thousand live in their homeland. Emigration has also left its mark in the liturgy: “the Jews of Akhaltsikhe must pray in a shortened form, as they are not enough for a minyan”. However, the former extent of the Jewish community is demonstrated by the old cemetery on the top of a hill above the Jewish quarter, whose origins reach back to the 17th century. On some of the headstones “Seigniors”, that is, “gentlemen” is inscribed in the Judeo-Spanish Ladino dialect. It seems that the Jews of Akhaltsikhe are also different form other Georgian Jews, due to their origin in the Iberian Peninsula. Another small Jewish cemetery is located in the hamlet of Atskuri on the banks of the Mtkvari/Kura River, just opposite another small building, a Turkish bath.

Akhaltsike, the fortress (above), and to the right of it, on the barren hillside, the huge walled Jewish cemetery (below), seen from the Armenian church of the Savior


In Akhaltsikhe, in the multi-religious context of Catholics, Armenians, Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims, the communities adapted to each other in daily life. A characteristics of the Jewish community of Akhaltsikhe, just like that of their Armenian neighbors, was its dynamic and open structure, the “many-valued identity”, which was able to accept every outside influence, unlike many other Jewish diaspora communities.

Over the centuries, the traditions and customs of this community also adopted many Georgian habits, most obviously those of the Georgian feasts and church holidays. The impact of Georgian culture is clearly seen in many areas, although equally evident is the similarity of the customs of the Georgian Jewish communities to those of the Jewish communities in Kurdistan, Persia and Turkey, which shows that, despite Georgia’s geopolitical isolation, the Jews always had close ties to their fellow believers living nearby.

The question of borders, which has by now become essential between the Caucasus countries (think of the decade-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, or the question of the affiliation of Samtskhe-Javakheti), was not yet so crucial a century ago. On the contrary, the diaspora communities of the region (primarily the Jews and Armenians) flourished and developed their own space due to the freedom of movement and adaptation. As already mentioned, the Georgian Jews, especially those in Akhaltsikhe, could more actively integrate in the social and urban context than many other communities of the Jewish diaspora. This also stemmed from the variety of connections between the city and the villages, which was important not only commercially, but also because it allowed the Jewish – and other – communities to expand their borders and their social space.

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Road from the Jewsih quarter to the Armenian church of the Savior

2 comentarios:

Tim Bucknall dijo...

what a brilliant Blog, I love Lwow too :-)

John A. Graham dijo...

Thank you for this excellent report on the Jews of Akhaltsikhe. This is important documentation, I would love to hear more! - John Graham (music scholar in Georgia)