Georgian Jews

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Georgian Jews



The presence of Jews in Georgia, according to oral traditions and ancient literary works, dates back about 2,500 years. Despite considerable assimilation into Georgian society, Georgian Jews preserve their identity and see themselves as descendants of the ten branches of Israelites who were settled in Midia by Assyrian kings.

Georgian Jewish culture, although it preserves its distinct character, is integrated into Georgian culture. Many Georgian Jewsscholars, writers, artists, financiers, doctors, sportsmen, people active in government and public lifeare active participants in Georgian life.

Nevertheless, beginning in 1970 Georgian Jews began to emigrate to Israel. According to the 1970 national census, 55,400 Jews were residing in Georgia, of which 40,000 were Georgian Jews. The 1979 census showed 28,000.

History and Cultural Relations

Georgian annals provide some information about the arrival of Jews in Georgia and about some of the major events in their history. The first mention of Jews in Georgia is associated with the era of the Assyrian conquerors (eighth century b.c.). Other documents date the arrival of Jews in Kartli (eastern Georgia) to the time of the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Navukhodnosorom (586 b.c.). According to the annals, Mtskhetskii Mamasakhlisi (the head of a feudal household) settled Jews at Zanavi, near Mtskhet, and gave them land on the condition that they pay tribute (Georgian: kharki; Hebrew: kherek, kherk ); as a result, that locality acquired the name "Kherki" (Kartlis Tskhovreba 1949, 1973). The same source indicates that after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD. 70 a large group of Jews came to Kartli and settled in Mtskhet near Jews who had already settled there. There were thus several important Jewish migrations to Kartli, separated by varying intervals. Several historical sources place the first settlements of Jews not at Kartli (Mtskhet) but on the Black Sea coast of Georgia, at the mouth of the Ch'orokh River, at Guria, and at Laziki (Kolkhida) from the ninth to the eighth centuries b.c.

Aside from the Georgian historical sources, there is information about Georgian Jews in works by Armenian historians (Favstos Buzand, Movses Khorenskii, Arakel Tavrizskii) and by Jewish travelers of the eleventh to twelfth centuries (Benjamin Tudelskii, Fetakhia Regenbumbrskii, Yehuda al-Khariz).

Jewish settlements were established across Georgia over the centuries: in eastern Georgia in Tskhinvali, Surami, Ali, Mzovreti, Akhaldaba, Ateni, Tsilkani, Urbnisi, Samachablo, Gremi, Eniseli, Khovle, and elsewhere; in western Georgia in Oni, Sachkhere, Chikhori, Chaltatke, Kutaisi, Senaki, and elsewhere. A significant number of Jews lived in southern Georgia as well, at Samtskhe-Saatabago.

The size of the Jewish population is not given in the sources, although according to Kartlis Tskhovreba their numbers were so large and their language so widely distributed that Georgians spoke "Jewish" (probably some form of Aramaic) as well as Georgian. The same source says that Aramaic was one of the six conversational languages formerly spoken in Kartli.

Historically, Jews in Georgia lived together in one village or "quarter," where their houses of worship and places of social and cultural significance were located. Schools of Jewish scribes, translators, and theologians were widely known; the Mtskhetsk religious community commanded particular respect. Mtskheta was, with its sanctuaries (bagini ), the center of Georgian Judaism. It was here that, according to legend, the shroud of Saint Eli and the tunic of Jesus Christ were buried, having been brought from Jerusalem by Mtskhetsk Jews.

Georgian Jews always maintained strong ties to Jerusalem (they corresponded and actively took part in religious debates). The Jewish diaspora was distinguished by its own culture and communal organization. The Georgian historical tradition connects the rise of the first Christian community in Iberia (Kartli) in the first century with Jews residing in the vicinity of Mtskhet. The first members of the Christian community had been Jews, and the first Christian church was a formerly Jewish sanctuary upon which, with permission of the Jewish clergyman, Abiatar, Saint Nino erected a cross.

Although a majority of the Jewish population of Georgia lost its language, retaining it only for religious use, it succeeded in carrying through the centuries a stable way of life, retaining its ethnic self-awareness and its adherence to the religious traditions of its ancestors. The traditional onomastics were preserved as well, on the basis of which family names were structured, built on Georgian models of word formation for personal naming.

Jews in Georgia since ancient times have been called "Georgian Jews," evidence of the social and psychological intermingling of these two peoples and of their cultural closeness.

Georgian Jews were not subjected to ethnic or religious persecution. The kings of Georgia entrusted them with diplomatic missions and sought their advice on trade with neighboring countries. In difficult times, Jews took up arms in defense of their homeland.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Marriage. Marriages among Georgian Jews were, as a rule, endogamous. The Georgian Jewish marriage ceremony was tied to the agricultural calendar: in the fall and beginning of winter, it was associated with the harvesting of crops, particularly of grapes; in the spring, with the rebirth of nature. This ceremony preserves completely the wedding traditions of Jews of biblical times; it is a mystery play representing the union of heaven and earth, fertilization of the earth, and the growth of plants.

The traditional closeness of the Jewish family is grounded in traditions of loyalty and moral behavior of the spouses, particularly the wife. Raised in strict accordance with ancient traditions, she was to be modest and discreet in relations with men, particularly those with her father-in-law and the older brothers of her husband. A daughter-in-law might not address her father-in-law for years, and if she did, she would call him "Batonno" (lord, sir). She would also address her mother-in-law and her husband's older brothers respectfully.

Domestic Unit. As a rule, Georgian Jews lived in large extended families. At the beginning of the twentieth century, with the introduction of capitalism into the villages and for other socioeconomic reasons, large families began to break down more frequently into small, nuclear families.

Division of Labor. Primary occupations of men were agricultural work, craftsmanship, and trade. Work that fell into the category of men's obligations was directed by the elder male, usually the father. After the father's death, the oldest son was supposed to become the head of the family and to be endowed with the same rights and to command the same respect as the father. The head of the family would distribute current and seasonal work, watch over its timely accomplishment, regulate relations with the outer world, provide for the family's needs, give children in marriage, and divide property. At the same time, to be the head of a family did not mean to direct affairs only in accordance with one's own desires: in deciding questions that were important for the family, the head of the family usually consulted the household.

Primary responsibilities of women were child care and domestic work. Household chores were divided among the daughters or daughters-in-law and the mother-in-law. The eldest woman (usually the mother-in-law) directed the women's work. She was in charge of everything in the home, and daughters-in-law unquestioningly followed her instructions. Among the personal responsibilities of the mistress of the house were the baking of bread and the preparation of food. All remaining housework was performed by daughters-in-law. In the event of the death or incapacity of the mother-in-law, the responsibilities of mistress of the house were passed to the eldest daughter-in-law.

Women's contribution to agricultural activity was minimal. It was considered a disgrace for women to engage in agricultural workplowing, sowing, weeding. They participated only in harvesting.

Socialization. In the family, great attention was paid to the teaching of children. Boys from a young age were inculcated with a love for crafts and trained in agricultural work; girls, in housework and needlework. Ten- to 12-year-old girls were expected to have mastered these tasks.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In feudal Georgia, the socioeconomic and legal status of Jews was almost identical to that of the general Georgian population. Socially, Jewish serfs were on the same footing as Georgian serfs and bore equally the heavy yoke of oppression by feudal lords. Like Georgians, Jewish serfs were divided into royal, church-monastic, and court serfs. There were among Georgian Jews both important traders who possessed estates and serfs, and tenants and craftsmen.

Later, when the Russian autocracy abolished the Georgian Kingdom (1801), the condition of Jews worsened significantly. The laws of czarist Russia automatically extended to Jews, in effect stripping them of their civil rights and sharply limiting their choice of occupation, place of residence, and education. After the abolition of serfdom many Georgian Jews, having lost their land, that is, their economic base and their sociopolitical rights, were compelled to take up petty trading; others sought, with great difficulty, to make a living by agricultural work and in the trades. Jewish craftsmen founded trade unions, primarily for purposes of solidarity. Most Jews were engaged in small craftsmanship, as much for the satisfaction of personal needs as for sale.

Political Organization. The overthrow of czarism was followed by a period of restoration of Jews' civil rights in the 1920s. In 1924, a society for the organization of land use by Jewish workers was formed. The establishment of Jewish collective farms began in 1927, and in 1932 a committee to aid impoverished Jews was organized; it concerned itself with issues of culture and education as well.

Arts. In 1925 the Jewish dramatic troupe Kadima was founded in Tbilisi under the directorship of G. Baazov, who subsequently became well known as a writer and playwright. G. Baazor was the first Jewish writer to introduce the subject matter of the life-style, character, and routine life of Georgian Jews into Georgian literature. The same topics were the basis of the creative work of the Jewish writer Rosa Tavdidishvili. In 1933 a Jewish historical-ethnographic museum was established in Tbilisi, which became essentially a scientific-research establishment that trained researchers, uncovered historical documents and archival materials, and produced indices of artifacts of material and spiritual culture that illustrated Jewish history and life. Three volumes of historical-ethnographic materials were published by the museum.

During World War II (1941-1945), Georgian Jews contributed to the rout of the Axis forces. Many of them were killed in battle, including several associates of the historical-ethnographic museum.

The museum was closed in 1947, resulting in the interruption of important scientific work. Only in 1983 was work resumed, under the auspices of the Georgian Republic Academy of Sciences, at the I. A. Djavakhishvili Institute of History, Archaeology, and Ethnography. At present, research is being conducted on the material and spiritual culture, ceremonies, and customs of Georgian Jews. The dietary system of Jews living in eastern Georgia in the second half of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries has been thoroughly researched, and the results of this research show that Georgian Jews' dietary system, which retained its ethnic characteristics, was enriched by traditions developed in reaction to local geological and environmental conditions and the specific requirements of agriculture. A Georgian-Jewish association, which has been functioning in Tbilisi since 1989 under the auspices of the Georgian Academy of Sciences, is studying relations between Georgians and Georgian Jews.


Chichinadze, Z. (1904). Georgian Jews in Georgia. Tbilisi.

Dzhindzhikhashvili, Z. (1990). "Way of Life and Culture of Georgian Jews (Dietary System)." Ph.D. dissertation, Tbilisi.

Favstos Buzand's History of Armenia (1953). Erevan.

Jewish Travelers of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (1882). St. Petersburg.

Kartlis Tskhovreba (History of Georgia) (1949, 1973). Vols. 1, 4. Tbilisi.

Kiknadze, Z. (1989). Conversion of Georgian Jews to Christianity. Tbilisi.

Moissei Khorenskii's History of Armenia (1893). Moscow.

Works from the Historical-Ethnographic Museum of the Jews of Georgia. (1940) Vol. 1. Tbilisi

Yoseliani, P. (1843). A Short History of the Georgian Church. St. Petersburg.

Zhordaniya, T. (1842). Chronicles and Other Documents of Georgian History. Tbilisi.

ZOIA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI (Translated by Dale Pesmen)

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Georgian Jews

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