Gershon Ben Oren
Very little is known about the history of the Jews of Georgia. Up until the end of the 18th century there exist only the barest hints of information of Georgian Jews, based on bits of testimony preserved orally or in writing, or contained in travelogues. Minimal archeological evidence exists, as well. From the 18th century on the picture becomes clearer, thanks to official documents preserved primarily in the archives of churches and monasteries.
These are supplemented, by 19th century documents of the Russian government. During this period Russian Jewry began to show interest in the Jews of Caucasus, information about these Jews is found scattered in the Russian Jewish press, as well as in the writings of the Jewish traveler Joseph Tcherny, who traveled throughout Georgia in the 1860s and 1870s. The first attempts to investigate the history of the Jews of Georgia were made at the end of the 19th century, primarily by researchers interested in the myth of the Ten Lost Tribes and the mystery of the Khazar kingdom. Methodological scientific research began in the 1930s , mainly by scholars at the Historical and Ethnographic Museum of the Jews of Georgia that operated in Tbilisi.
This activity was brought to an end when the museum was closed in 1951, and some of the studies have never been published. Since then, only a few individuals have dealt with this subject, the most prominent being Nissan Babalikashvili. Following the recent developments in the Soviet Union, both Jewish and non-Jewish
researches have begun to show renewed interest in the history of the Jews of Georgia,
and it is hoped that their research will uncover hitherto unknown source material.
In light of the above, it is not surprising, that little has been written about the history of the Georgian Jews, and this article can only summarize the little that is known.
Traditions Regarding the Arrival of the Jews in Georgia
An oral tradition, passed from generation to generation by Georgian Jews, Ascribes their origin to the Ten Tribes exiled by Shalmaneser, Ring of Assyria, why settled them in ,,Halah and Habor, at the River of Gozan and in the cities of the Medes”.
The Jews of Daghestan and Kurdistan share this tradition. Researchers seeking support for this theory cite the dispute of the Talmudic sages concerning the location of the Ten Tribes : ,,Where did they go? Mar Zutra said: To Afrike” (Sanhedrin 94).
According to this researchers, Afrike – which appears in various places in the Talmud – Is Iberia, the ancient name for eastern Georgia. They reached this conclusion because the name Iberia was pronounced Iberika in Greek and Latin, and was transformed in Hebrew into Afrike-Efrika. There are those who bring further support for the antiquity of Jewish settlement in the Caucasus by identifying the name Cassiphia with the lands bordering the Caspian Sea.
According to this claim, Ezra sent messengers there in search of Levites for the Temple: “And I sent them with a charge unto Iddo the chief at the place Cassiphia, and I laid the words in their mouth to speak unto Iddo and to his brother, who were appointed at the place Cassiphia, that they should bring unto us ministers for the house of our G-d” (Ezra 8:17).
Regardless of these and other attempted proofs, the idea that the Jews of
Georgia originated among the Ten Tribes is strictly legendary, without any
The most ancient written tradition known today appears in the chronicles
of Georgia, Kartlis Tskhovreba. This source relates the Jews` arrival in Georgia
to the destruction of the First Temple: “Then Nebuchadnezzar the King captured
Jerusalem, and the Jews who escaped came to Kartli and requested land from the
Mamasakhlisi (prince, chief of a tribe or clan) of Mtskheta in return for the payment
of a head tax. He gave them land near Aragvi, near a spring called Zanavi, and settled
them there. The place they received in exchange for payment of the head tax is called today Kherek, because of the tax”.
Another reference in Kartlis Tskhovreba tells of Jewish refugees who reached
Georgia after being exiled by Vespasian and settled in Mtskheta, near their brethren
who had settled there long before. These Jews were called Uria or Huria, a term
common in early Georgian sources and those of the late Middle Ages. In the 19th
century, this term was replaced by Ebreili, while the term Uria became a pejorative
The Kartlis Tskhovreba was edited only in the 11th century, so one must
relate to the traditions it cites with caution, even if they are based upon very early
sources; it is quite possible that these traditions originated in an attempt to link
the arrival of Jews in Georgia to known historical events.
Nonetheless, there is room for assumption that Jewish settlement preceded the
Christian era. Georgia was located within the realm of influence of the great eastern
empires of the ancient world – Assyria, Babylonia and Persia – and maintained
commercial and cultural ties with them. Jews were likely to come to Georgia as
traders, emigrants or refugees, from the various lands of their dispersal, especially
during the period when Georgia was part of the Persian empire. It should be noted that in Armenia (Georgia`s southern neighbor) as well, there existed a large Jewish settlement during the 1st – 4th centuries.
From a passage in the Kartlis Tskhovreba one learns that the tradition of counting the Jews among the residents of Georgia was already accepted at a very early period. The entry states that Hebrew was among the languages spoken in
Georgia. “And in Kartli they spoke six languages – Armenian, Georgian, Khazaric, Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, and all the kings of Kartli, fathers and mothers, knew these languages.”
The earliest archeological evidence of a Jewish presence in Georgia consists of tombstones found near Mtskheta. The monuments, thought to be from the 3rd -5th centuries, bear engraved inscriptions in Aramaic and Hebrew. The influence of the Georgian language can also be discerned in the spelling. The Georgian name Gork, originating in the Persian language, appears on the stones – that of “Yehuda who was named Gork”. On another, that of Yosef bar Hazan, a goblet and pitcher are engraved.
Jews occupy a special place in Georgian traditions about the spread of Christianity in the country. A legend cited in several versions of Kartlis Tskhovreba links the Jews of Georgia with the story of Jesus` crucifixion. It tells of emissaries from Jerusalem who presented themselves before the Jews of Georgia and asked them to choose sages from among themselves, who would travel to Jerusalem and take part in Jesus` trial. Two distinguished Georgian Jews went to Jerusalem – Elioz of Mtskheta and Longinoz of Karasani. They were present at the crucifixion, and took home with them Jesus` robe. Upon their return to Georgia, Elioz` sister went jut to greet them and embraced the robe to her heart. She then became so grief-stricken over the death of Jesus that she fell down and died. She was buried with the robe in her arms, and at the site of her grave in Mtskheta there grew a cedar brought from Lebanon.
A folk legend relates that a certain tombstone in the center of the Svetitskhoveli cathedral in Mtskheta marks her grave. It may be that this legend contains a hint that there were “Christian Jews” among the Jews of Georgia even before St.Nino began preaching Christianity.
At the center of the traditions about the spread of Christianity in Georgia stands the figure of Nino, a woman who came from Cappadocia around 330 CE. It is told that she began her mission in the village of Urbnisi, located about 100 kilometers
from Mtskheta, and inhabited by many Jews. There are those who hold that the name Urbnisi originated in the term Uriat Ubani, meaning “Jewish neighborhood”. The legend relates that Nino was received kindly by the Jews, since she spoke their language – Hebrew.
Among her first pupils were Abyatar the Priest, who was – according to the story – the grandson of Elioz, and his daughter, Sidoniya. According to this traditions, Abyatar – who is called Uriakopili, that is “the former Jew” - “knew the Old Covenant very well, and sought the covenant of Christ without fear and with dedication”. He also taught his new faith to many people, including King Marian and Queen Nana. Siboniya, who followed Nino along with six Jewish mothers, was witness to the miraculous deeds performed by the missionary. Some of the stories about Nino are told in the name of Abyatar and Siboniya.
The Christianizers brought about a schism in the Jewish community. Tradition tells of men who sought to stone Abyatar, and only the intervention of the king saved him. When Nino baptized the king and most of residents of Kartli with him, there were no Jews of Mtskheta among them, but only fifty families, descendants of Barabbas (the thief who was saved from crucifixion alongside Jesus and who, as legend has it, reached Mtskheta).
There is no question that the legendary element in these sources is quite extensive, and it is difficult to determine the grains of truth. It is known that Christian missionaries in different countries viewed the Jews as a primary target for their teachings, and there arose in the Jewish diaspora communities of “Christian-Jews” who viewed Christianity as a form of renewal of the Jewish faith. It is reasonable to assume that in Georgia, too, Christian ideas were accepted by the Jews before they were accepted by the native Georgians, whose beliefs were influenced by the Persian religion.
It is probable, however, that these traditions were fostered by the Church with the aim of strengthening the position of Christianity in Georgia at the beginning of its
development, and to grant it legitimization. In any case, one may conclude that a large and well-established Jewish community existed in Georgia at the beginning of the 4th century, even if it is not possible to estimate its size of relative proportion to the general population.
Testimony to the fact that a stable Jewish community existed in Georgia two hundred years later may be found in a 6th –century Georgian source. This document relates the story of a Persian youth who fled his homeland and traveled to Mtskheta, to learn about the Christian and Jewish faiths in order to choose between them. It is told that he entered a synagogue, whose status is described as equal to that of the prayer houses of the other religions in Mtskheta.
The Jews in the Middle Ages.
While knowledge about the history of the Jews of Georgia up until the 4th century is scarce and unclear, even less information is available regarding their fate during the Middle Ages. The known Georgian sources from the 4th – 17th centuries hardly mention the Jews. Furthermore, there are very few archaeological finds or Jewish manuscripts from this period. Nonetheless, it remains difficult to disprove the traditions of ancient and continuous Jewish settlement on Georgian territory.
During the 7th century, the Moslem Empire grew even stronger, and following the conquest of Persia and Armenia, Georgia was conquered as well. Arab emirs ruled large portions of the land until 1122. In 10th – 12th century Jewish sources outside Georgia, Georgian Jews are mentioned in connection with the struggle between the Karaites and the rabbinical Jews. Karaite scholars who describe the development of the Karaite movement and its internal sects mention a group called Tiflissi. This name stems from the epithet applied to the group`s founder, Musa (Moshe, Moses) az-Za`farani, who seems to have come from Baghdad to Tiflis (Tbilisi) during the second half of the 9th century. Yehuda Hadassi described him as “Musa az-Za`farani, known as abu-Imran al-Tiflisi, who moved from his homeland to the state of Tiflis”.
We have so little information about az-Za`farani`s group, that it is difficult to determine whether its center existed in Tbilisi for very long. However, one may assume that the group`s followers spread elsewhere in the east. Be that as it may, from the very fact of the group`s existence, one may draw the conclusion that there were contacts between Georgian Jews and the neighboring Jewish communities.
Other sources mention the Jews of Georgia as being rabbinical Jews. The RAVAD (Rabbi Avraham ben David) , in his book Seder Hakabala (“Order of the Tradition”), lists the Jews “of the land of Girgashi, that is called Girgashtan [i.e., Georgia],” among the communities faithful to rabbinical Judaism. Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Babylonia (Iraq) during the second half of the 12th century, relates that in Baghdad, the headquarters of the ReishGaluta (“Head of the diaspora”), he observed Jews from various eastern countries, including some who lived in “the land of Gargain on the river of Gihon, and they [the people there] are the Girgashis and they are of the Christian religion. These Jews were granted permission by the “Head of the Diaspora”… to appoint a rabbi and hazan (cantor) over every congregation since they come to him to receive ordination and authorization and bring him gifts and presents”. Ptakhia of Regensburg, another Jewish traveler of the period, writes of the Jews from “the land of Ararat” (a name applied to the southern Caucasus), mentioning Jews he met in Baghdad who called themselves “Jews from the land of Meshech” and teach their children Torah and the Jerusalem Talmud. It is customary to identify Meshech – mentioned in the Bible as one of the northern peoples – with the south Georgian tribe of Meskhi. From these sources, it may be concluded that in the 12th century the Jews of Georgia were within the circle of influence of the yeshivot (talmudic academies) of Babilonia.
We learn a bit about the spiritual life of Georgian Jewry in the Middle Ages from a manuscript written in the town of Gagra on the shore of the Black Sea in 1208, dealing with Hebrew language and grammar.
Unfortunately, we have no additional information about the Jews during the period of Georgian independence and prosperity, which began during the days of
King David “the Builder” (1089 – 1125) and reached its apex during the “Golden Age” of Queen Tamar (1184 – 1213). However, one may assume that the unification of Georgia under the House of Bagration and the development of trade and crafts, brought about an improvement in the Jews` status. Marco Polo, who passed through Georgia in 1272, notes that “Tiflis is inhabited by Georgian and Armenian Christians, as well as a number of Moslems and Jews”. The book of Georgian chronicles refers to a certain “captain of trade” – (did vattsari) named Zanchen Zerubavel, who was sent by the royal court to bring Queen Tamar`s bridegroom from Russia. There are those who believe this Zerubavel was a Jew.
The Mongol conquest put an end to Georgian independence and brought death and destruction upon the land, undoubtedly, this dealt a blow to the Jews as well. Nevertheless, a hint of the existence of Torah learning and centers of Jewish spiritual creativity among the Georgian Jews during the 14th century may be discerned in the writings of Rabbi Isaiah of Tabriz. In the introduction to his kabbalistic Sefer Hakavod (“Book of Honor”), the author introduces himself as “Isaiah, who is called Rabbi, son of our Rabbi Yosef al-Tiflisi, may his memory be for blessing”.
The main source about the condition of the Jews during the Middle Ages is a collection of documents from the 17th – 19th centuries published by the Historical and Ethnographic Museum of the Jews of Georgia. These documents shed light on the judicial, social and economic condition of the Jews toward the end of the Middle Ages, and perhaps during previous centuries as well, if one assumes that their situation remained static.
The status of the Jews was determined by his place in the feudal system practiced in Georgia during the Middle Ages and up until the middle of the 19th century. As a rule, Jews belonged to the serf class – kamani – that is, persons having a master. This class included peasants, craftsmen and petty traders. Jewish serfs, like others, were divided into different types, each with its own distinct economic status, rights, obligations, and degree of dependency on the master. The Jews, whose traditional occupation was trade, remained, for the most part, petty traders and
peddlers moving from village to village, although many had small plots of land as well, mainly for growing fruit trees and viticulture. Some Jews were craftsmen; others, who had no property at all, received from their masters a house and plot of land, and the right to trade and to run the master`s stall or shop. The Jews who owned property of their own where permitted both to sell and to purchase more land. Jews are mentioned in many documents as involved in the buying and selling of land, houses, vineyards and other agricultural property. It is also known that there were Jews who were themselves master of serfs, including Christian serfs. There is no doubt that many Jews were quite well-to-do.
The rights and obligations of the serf – Jews and others – were defined in connection with the factors that led to the person becoming enserfed. Persons who became serfs of their own free will, because they sought a master to defend them, had greater rights than serfs who were sold by their former masters, or transferred to new owners as presents or dowry or in payment of debts. As the status of serfs donated to churches or monasteries was defined in writing by the former masters, they were protected somewhat from tyranny. We learn, for example, from a document dated 1789 that three Jewish serfs engaged in trading activities were donated by Queen Miriam of Imereti to the monastery of Gelati, and their obligations were defined as the yearly payment of a tax of 15 mirtsil (a monetary unit) and a liter of candle wax.
Serfs differed in the degree of freedom of movement they were granted and in the amount of taxes and labor obligations placed upon them. Taxes were usually paid in various products, rather than money, and labor obligations were met either in the master`s domestic economy or on his fields. Serfs had to pay for special rights, such us the use of pasturage or the engaging in trade. They were obligated to give their masters presents on various occasions, such us family events and holidays, and to be at their service when needed. Serfs were also obligated to appear for military service if called upon to do so by their lords. Jews usually bought exemption from this obligation by paying special taxes. Apart from taxes paid to the master, serfs had to pay royal and church taxes as well.
The status of a serf was directly related to the type of master to whom he belonged. There were serfs of the king, serfs belonging to a church of monastery, and serfs indentured to princes. In general, the latter were considered to be in the worst position.
From the 17th century, as the central government became weaker and the economic condition of the princes declined, the tendency to exploit the serfs increases, and the burden of taxation placed upon them grew heavier.
Princes did not hesitate to separate families or to uproot serfs from their homes and communities if they needed them as payment for debts, or as part of gift. In many cases, Jews were victims of pillage and kidnapping by robber-princes.
Documentary sources indicate numerous cases of cruelty and extortion, leading Jewish serfs to flee the tyranny of their masters in favor of the patronage of monasteries or the monarchy.
The Jews` judicial status was, as stated above, identical in every way to that of the other serfs. Nevertheless, it is still possible that there were some masters who, moved by religious zealotry, treated the Jews harshly, and that the Jews, because they belonged to a minority group, found it more difficult to defend their rights. Even if they were not discriminated against by law, it may be supposed that their identity as Jews limited their opportunities for social advancement. The feudal system in Georgia left quite a wide leeway for social mobility, and movement from group to group within the serf class was common. Anyone who became the subject of his master`s kindness, thanks to his loyalty or faithful services, could joint to ranks of the Tarkhany group which is granted him privileges and exemptions from obligations. Documents mention only isolated cases of Jews who were granted membership in this group, but many examples of those labeled “former Jews” who were both Tarkhany and “warriors”. Testimony that a Jew could improve his condition by converting to Christianity may be found in a document dated 1746: The Jew, Daniel Aranashvili, received an exemption from all taxes after he was baptized as a Christian.
Folk tales cited by Tcherny tell of Jews who became important figures in the King`s court, but these stories are not mentioned in any documents. Neither do the sources make clear whether Jews were among the important merchants involved in international trade.
The political disintegration of Georgia during the 15th – 19th centuries, and the absence of political stability, severely harmed all strata of the population. The number of people in Georgia declined greatly, and entire regions were abandoned. The Jews also experienced great suffering; echoes of those difficult days were preserved in testimonies that Tcherny herd from Georgian Jews. Invasions by Moslem tribes from the eastern Caucasus or from Adzharia, and military campaigns by the Persian and Turkish armies, forced entire communities to abandon their homes and seek new places of settlement time and time again.
During the 15th – 18th centuries, Georgia, like the rest of the Caucasus, was an inexhaustible source of slave trade. Thousands of Georgian residents, mainly boys and girls, were sold each year in the slave markets in Akhaltsikhe, Tabriz, Trepizond and Constantinople. Some were sold for profit by their masters, while others were kidnapped to fill the quota of slaves demanded by the rulers of Persia and Turkey as part of the tribute demanded from conquered territories. The Jews, too, were forced to pay their share of this cruel tax.
There are various testimonies which lead us to assume that the number of Georgian Jews declined drastically during the Middle Ages, to a much grater extent than the decline in the general population. This assumption rests largely on oral traditions from various regions of Georgia; according to these traditions a large Jewish population once existed in these regions, but nothing remains of it. Tcherny and European travelers in the 19th century observed ruins in a number of places in Georgia, which the local residents identified as former Jewish dwellings. Hints of an earlier Jewish presence may also be found in such appellations as Uriatubani (“Jewish neighborhood”) and Naurieli (a place that belonged to a Jew”), applied to a village neighborhood, house, field, cemetery, or even a church.
Among Georgians, Ebreilidze, which means “Jewish son”, is a common family name, and may indicate that these families originated with Jews who were forced to convert. Mamistvalishvili notes the names Uriakopili and Uriakopilishvili which appear in 18th century documents, as proof of the frequency of conversion by Jews.
These claims strengthen the assumption that the attenuation of the Jewish community was due in part to the many Jews who converted to Christianity. Yet this information does not elucidate the factors that led to the conversions. Was conversion part of a process of voluntary assimilation and acculturation, or was it the result of persecutions and coercion? Some of the sources mentioned above hint that conversion led to an improvement in the converts` economic and social position. Menwhile, only minimal evidence has been found indicating that pressure was placed on Jews to convert.
Most writers on the subject of Georgian Jewry accept the view that hatred of Jews such as predominated in other countries hardly existed in Georgia, and that there were always friendly neighborly relations between Georgians and Jews. This opinion was expressed in the writings of prominent Georgian thinkers at the end of the 19th century. It became more widespread during the period of Communist rule, when it was the tendency to blame the Tsarist regime for the blood libels and anti-Jewish riots that occurred during the 19th century.
Aaron Krikheli, in his article on the Jews during the feudal period, supports this view. According to Krikheli, the absence of evidence regarding church incitement against the Jews, or religious persecutions, expulsions or riots, is proof of the tolerant attitude of the Georgian people toward the Jews. Nathan Eliashvili argued that the Georgian people “was by nature a people that loved the stranger, and greeted everyone who came to their land cordially. They felt they had a moral obligation to treat the Jews with honor, since they thought the Bagration family, the royal house so beloved and honored by the Georgian people, was of Jewish origin. Similarly, they knew that these great men, the forefathers and famous people mentioned in the holy writings – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, as well as Jesus and the Apostles, all
came from Jewish origins, and that which served as a source of hatred for other peoples in other lands, was in Georgia a source of blessing for the Jews”. To give added weight to Eliashvili`s words, it may be recalled that King David`s sling and harp appear on the royal seal of the House of Bagration, and that Moses, and in particular, David, were always figures especially revered in Georgia. The traditions about the Jews who had assisted in the spread of Christianity in Georgia may have also contributed to the Georgian`s positive attitude toward the Jews.
The view that the Georgians, in comparison to other nations, excelled in their tolerance of religious minorities, is shared by Western historians. David Long, for example, claimed that Georgian-style Christianity was never fanatical nor inclined to persecution of others, and treated Moslems and Jews with tolerance.
Even if these claims cannot be disputed, one must be careful to avoid the tendency to over-idealize. In the descriptions and stories in Tcherny`s book there are testimonies one cannot ignore, indicating that there were those among the native Georgians who hated the Jews. Even Eliashvili qualified his own assertion (cited above), stating that in Georgia too, under the influence of the Christian faith, “people began to look upon the Jews as the people who tortured Jesus Christ, and the legends and tales about Jews using Christian blood also began to find a nest in their hearts”.
Under the Tsarist Regime.
The annexation of Georgia to the Russian Empire in 1801 had long-term implications for Jewish life, as expressed in changes in the economic and social status of the Jews and in internal developments in their communities. The changes came about very slowly and were hardly felt during the first half of the 19th century. The gradual improvement in the security situation made life easier for itinerant peddlers, but the status of the serfs did not change. The Russian bureaucracy tended not to interfere in the affairs of the princes, and the princes continued to do with their serfs as they wished. When Jews appealed to the authorities for aid and protection against
the tyranny of their masters, the officials ruled only rarely that the Jews` complaints were justified. The Jews, along with the other inhabitants of Georgia, were compelled to wrestle with the unyielding Russian bureaucracy, and periodically new difficulties, such as trade restrictions, were placed in their path.
The implementation of the 1864 decree to free the serfs in Georgia brought to immediate relief. The nobles did not hasten to release the Jews from their obligations, and most of the Jewish population remained severely impoverished.
During the second half of the 19th century, Georgia experienced significant economic growth, which left its mark on the Jews as well. The paving of roads, building of railways, the growth of the Black Sea ports, and initiatives taken to expand local agriculture and industry, together contributed to a burst of commercial development. A class of medium and large merchants grew up among the Jews. They dealt in trade between various parts of the country, also penetrating the field of international trade which was dominated mostly by Armenians.
These developments led to demographic changes. Entire communities left their villages and moved to towns. New Jewish communities were founded in the towns of Sukhumi, Poti and Batumi on the Black Sea shore. In Tbilisi, where there had been a very small Jewish community, the population grew significantly. As the century drew to a close, Akhaltsikhe`s status as a center of trade with Turkey was impaired, and the Jewish community steadily declined, its members migrating to various commercial centers in the Caucasus, mainly Tbilisi. In contrast, the Jewish community in Kutaisi grew in both numbers and wealth. Some of the biggest merchants in the country were Kutaisi Jews, the most famous being Aaron Eligulashvili.
The Jews who at first welcomed the new regime, soon discovered its dark side, its anti-Semitic indications. The spirit of Jew-hatred, brought to Georgia by Tsarist officials and by the Russian Orthodox Church which sought to supplant the local church, found an echo among certain local circles; this climate encouraged such manifestations of benighted fanaticism as blood libels. Although most blood libels were not publicized beyond the rural areas in which they occurred, two cases became well-known throughout Georgia and beyond.
In the wake of the blood libel in Surami in June 1850, the local Jewish community of Istanbul. The case was brought to the attention of Moses Montefiore , who turned to the Russian count Michael Vorontsov, viceroy and governon of the Caucasus, requesting his intervention. Although Vorontsov was known as an enlightened governon who contributed much to the development of Georgia, he limited himself to evasive words and efforts to clear the Russian judicial autoritiesof the charge of perversion of justice.
The second blood libel occurred in Sachkhere in April 1878. Nine Jewish peddlers, accused of murdering a Christian girl and using her blood to bake matzot, were put on trial in the Kutaisi district court. The blood label was widely covered by the Russian Jewish press, arousing feelings of anger and frustration. Prominent Jewish figures, headed by Baron Horace O. Guenzburg in St. Petersburg, were enlisted by Aharon Eligoulashvili to act in the matter.
Two well-known attorneys, Krupnik, a Jew, and Aleksandrov, a Russian, were called upon to defend the accused; they succeeded in refuting the accusations of the prosecution and in acquitting the defendants.
This affair, which seemed to signal an intensification of the Russian regime`s anti-Semitic policies, evoked much interest among world Jewry, many of whom had been unaware of the existence of the Georgian Jewish community.
In Georgia itself, the blood libels incited a wave of anti-Jewish expressions and acts of physical violence.
Another result of the Russian annexation of Georgia was the development of ties between the Georgian and Russian Jewish communities. The 1804 decree that declared the Caucasus to be part of the Pale of Jewish Settlement opened the way for settlement of Russian Jews in Georgia. Jews were attracted to the region by its many economic possibilities and by the pleasant climate. The Russian government`s attitude toward the settlement of Ashkenazi Jews in the Caucasus was ambivalent. On the one hand, the government was interested in the contribution the newcomers might make, since many of them were skilled craftsmen. On the other hand, the authorities were
motivated by their traditional inclination to restrict the area of Jewish settlement, and they were influenced as well by local people who feared Jewish competition.
As a rule, instructions to limit Jewish migration came from the Ministry of the Interior in St.Petersburg, while the local authorities in Georgia tried to curtail or cancel these regulations. In 1827, the Ministry of the Interior issued an expulsion order that included not only foreign Jews, but local Jews as well; the speedy intervention of the local authorities prevented the expulsion of the latter. In spite of the decree, the migration of Jews from Russia to Georgia gradually gained momentum. They arrived with temporary residence permits, issued only to professional artisans and specialists who were in demand, and later to former soldiers in the army of Tsar Nicholas I who were allowed to live outside the Pale. Additional expulsion decrees were issued in 1835 and 1847. At mid-century, there were only several dozen Ashkenazi Jewish families in Tbilisi.
In 1852 the government once again allowed Russian Jews to settle in Georgia, although with many restrictions. Nonetheless, the number of Ashkenazy Jews in the country grew steadily. Many Jews arrived without the proper permits and lived in constant fear of expulsion. In 1890 there were some 100 Ashkenazy Jewish families living in Batumi, but only 47 had the proper authorization. Most of these Jews made their living as craftsmen. Others were involved in the international oil trade which flourished, as oil reached the town through pipelines from Baku, on the Caspian Sea. Generally speaking, the authorities knew about the families living in Batumi without permits, but they preferred to ignore this fact as long as there were no problems or disorders stemming from economic crises or inter-ethnic tensions.
The situation was similar in other large towns. The Ashkenazi Jews were prominent in professions which contributed to the penetration of Russian-European culture into Georgia. They were pharmacists, physicians, tailors, jewelers, watchmakers and hatmakers, as well as purveyors to the Russian army.
Until the end of the 19th century, few ties were developed between the native Georgian and the Ashkenazi Jewish newcomers. They did not know each other`s
language, and a wall of exclusivity separated them. The Ashkenazi Jews held the Georgians in contempt, viewing them as primitive and ignorant. The Georgians, in turn, kept aloof from the Ashkenazis, whom they viewed as heretics and transgressors of Jewish law.
In fact there were only a few Torah scholars among the newcomers. Many had abandoned the traditional Jewish lifestyle. In time, synagogues were established in the towns with large numbers of Ashkenazi Jews, and Talmudei Torah ( Jewish religious schools) were also opened. However, there were very few Ashkenazi rabbis, religious teachers and ritual slaughterers to serve the needs of these Jewish communities in Georgia.
Changes and New Trends at the End of the 19th and Beginning
of the 20th Centuries.
During the second half of the 19th century, Georgian Jewry had not yet awakened from its state of arrested development. Tcherny who traveled through Georgia during the 1860s and 1870s, lamented bitterly that not only had the ideas of the haskalah (Enlightenment) and the innovations of the time not gained any foothold, but that the Georgian hakhamim (religious leaders) were ignorant and the community leaders were ineffective. Only at the end of the century did the winds of change begin to have an impact on the traditional lifestyles of Georgian Jews.
Among the well-established merchants, particularly in Kutaisi, the tendency to integrate into society and to acquire education became more pronounced. The number of Jewish high school students increased continuously, and there were even those who went to study in universities in Odessa and other places in Russia or abroad. Some of these youths were involved in the Georgian national movement, but only a few isolated individuals joined the revolutionary movement. One such student from Kutaisi, Yitzke Rizhinashvili, was killed by the Tsarist police in 1906, and was later considered one of the heroes of the Communist revolution in Georgia. On the whole, manifestations of alienation from Judaism and assimilation were rare.
A more significant change took place in the field of Jewish education. Until this time education was limited to heders ( traditional Jewish elementary schools) run by poorly trained, old-fashioned teachers. Responsible for the change was Rabbi Avraham Halevy Khvoles, a student of the renowned Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spektor of Kovno.
Khvoles arrived in Tskhinvali in the1890s as an emissary of Rabbi Spector`s yeshiva. At the request of the local Jews, he accepted the post of communal rabbi and began to gather students. In 1906 he established a Talmud Torah where, in time, some 400 pupils from Tskhinvali and the surrounding area studied under ten teachers brought from yeshivot in Russia.
Rabbi Khvoles was a supported of the Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”) movement, and the spirit of the Enlightenment was not foreign to him. As Khvoles was an enthusiastic advocate of the Hebrew language and did not speak Georgian, Hebrew became his language of instruction and conversation with the students. Rabbi Khvoles also delivered his synagogue sermons in Hebrew. Studies in the school were conducted in a nationalist-Zionist sirit, and special attention was given to the study of Bible. Selected students were allowed to make use of Khvoles` private library, and to become acquainted with traditional Jewish sources and modern Hebrew literature.
Rabbi Khvoles brought about a genuine revolution in the conservative Jewish community when he opened classes in his school for the study of crafts, in order “to teach pupils unqualified to be Torah scholars, real and useful crafts, that will allow them to make a living without resorting to petty trade”. Even more revolutionary was his bringing in a teacher to teach Hebrew to girls. In the estimation of Krikhely, after a few years of Khvoles` work in Tskhinvali, about half the local Jews knew how to speak Hebrew. However, in spite of the admiration in which Khvoles was held by the Jews, he still had opponents who were suspicious of his innovations, and more than once his school was in danger of closing for lack of funds.
Khvoles encouraged his talented students to study in the yeshivot of Brisk and Vilna. A number of these young men became teachers, educators and leaders of the
Zionist movement in Georgia, such as David Baazov, Nathan Eliashvili and Meir Magalashvili, among others. David Baazov, who was one of Khvoles` first students and one of the first Jews in Georgia to be attacted to Zionism , was appointed by the Tsarist authorities as the official rabbi of Oni , after completing his religious studies in Slotsk, Kovno and Vilna.
In the Talmud Torah that Baazov established in Oni in 1905, the students studied – in addition to Talmud and Jewish law – Hebrew, Bible, grammar, history, Russian and Georgian. The clear haskalah tenor of Baazov`s Talmud Torah and his enthusiastic Zionist activities aroused the hostility of many Georgian Jews and alienated the wealthy Jews of Kutaisi, who had initially given him financial support. Baazov`s desperate appeals to the Zionist leader Menahem Ussishkin for funds that would enable his school to continue its work went unanswered, and the school closed down in 1917.
The conservative circles who opposed Zionism and the Enlightenment became even more aware that they would have to encourage the study of Torah so as to strengthen religious faith in the face of change and innovation. The conservatives` leader was the hakham Reuven Aluashvili of Kutaisi, who waged a fierce struggle against both the Zionists and the assimilationists. Aluashvili , who was much respected by the Jews of Kutaisi, warmly welcomed Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, the emissary of the Lubavitcher rebbe, who arrived in Kutaisi in 1916. Levitin came for the purpose of establishing a yeshiva, “the aim of which will be to spread the light of the Torah, for there are God-fearing men in the place, but they are common folk, and do not know the Torah at all”.
Other religious schools were established elsewhere in Georgia – in Kulashi, Suzhuna and Sachkhere. Among the founders and teachers were Georgian Jews who had lived in Jerusalem and graduated from Jerusalem yeshivot. The most prominent were hakham Simon Rizhinashvili, author of the first Hebrew textbook for speakers of Georgian, and Rabbi Haim Eliashvili, founder of the Talmud Torah in Sachkhere in 1908. It appears that there were also Georgian Jews, mainly in Tbilisi, who sent their
children to study in Ashkenazi Talmudei Torah. In general, however, the children of the two communities studied in separate schools.
The first endeavor in which the Georgian and Ashkenazi communities manifested genuine cooperation was Zionist activity, although the initiators of this cooperation and the most influential partner were the Ashkenazis.
The first Zionist organization in Georgia was founded in 1897 in Tbilisi by Mikhail Shtreicher. Within a short time additional organizations arose in Tbilisi and other Georgian towns. Their members were Ashkenazi adherents of the Enlightenment. The leadership was aware of the need to enlist support for the Zionist idea among Georgian Jews, but little was done in this direction, and new members were slow and hesitant to join. The reason for this was not a lack of attachment to Eretz Israel; on the contrary, this cornerstone of their faith was strengthened during the second half of the 19th century, when hundreds of Georgian Jewish families – influenced by emissaries from the land of Israel – immigrated to Israel. These ties, however, were a natural continuation of the community`s traditional way of life, while Zionist activity encouraged the adoption of new concepts and the restructuring of existing frameworks. Consequently, Zionism was looked upon with some reservation.
The Zionists in Georgia were involved mainly in organizing educational activities, collecting contributions for the international Zionist movement, and selling Jewish national bank shares. Much energy was wasted on internal power stuggles and splits. The Zionists also suffered from harassment by the authorities, who were suspicious of any and all efforts to organize politically. As Zionist activity was illegal, Shtreicher`s success in obtaining an official permit to hold Zionist gatherings made Tbilisi a center of Zionist activity in the Caucasus.
An important landmark of Zionist development in Georgia was the First Congress of Caucasus Zionists, held in Tbilisi on August 20, 1901. Menahem Ussishkin, “delegate” to the Caucasus region from the Zionist Executive Committee, was the guest of honor.
David Baazov, then an enthusiastic youth of 18, was among the participants in this congress. Ussishkin was very impressed by Baazov and encouraged him to become active in disseminating the Zionist idea among Georgian Jewry.
After Baazov returned from his studies in Slotsk, he divided his time between the Talmud Torah he established in Oni, and Zionist activity. He participated in the Eighth Zionist Congress in 1907, where he delivered a lecture in Hebrew that was received enthusiastically, and in 1908 he visited Eretz Israel. Baazov oftenspoke in synagogues in various places, and his sermons and speeches were very inspiring, especially among the youth.
The wealthy classes in Tbilisi, headed by Aaron Eligoulashvili, also showed sympathy for the Zionist message, and expressed a willingness to render material and other support.
Even before Zionist consciousness penetrated into wider circles, it became the focus of a sharp public debate. The first opponents of Zionism were the conservatives headed by hakham Reuven Aluashvili of Kutaisi. They were supported by anti-Zionist rabbinical circles in Russia, in particular the Habad Hasidim whose center moved to the city of Rostov-on-the-Don with the outbreak of World War I. Ashkenazi rabbis and Georgian hakhamim cooperated in opposing Zionism. They were prepared to use any means to discredit Baazov and other Zionist activists, whom they labeled “missionaries and Christianizers, heretics and renegades”. They called upon the Sephardi Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem to excommunicate Baazov. Matters deteriorated to the point of denunciations to the authorities, who became even more suspicious of Zionist activities.
After the suppression of the 1905 revolution, the Russian authorities took an especially hard line with the Russian Jews.
The government`s policies led to renewed alienation of the Georgian rabbis from the Ashkenazi Jews. The rabbis turned to the authorities and clamed that “they are genuine Georgians, their language is Georgian, their homeland is Georgia, their customs, character and spirit are Georgian. They have no ties or communication with
the Jews of Russia. They are peaceful and loyal and devoted to the monarchy, unlike the people of Russia.” These claims united traditionalists and “assimilationists” – students who claimed that the Jews differed from their neighbors only in their religion. The conflict moved beyond the bounds of the Jewish community and found a place in the Georgian press, where the disputing sides published sharp polemical notices.
The activities of the Zionist movement and the public debate surrounding them led to increased interest in Jewish matters on the part of the Georgian intelligentsia. As early as the 1880s, Georgian nationalist writers and cultural figures had expressed sympathy in the press and in literary works for the Jewish people and its national aspirations. This sympathy stemmed from several sources: esteem for the Jews` contribution to human culture; a feeling of identification with the Jewish people which, like the Georgian people, had lost its independence, yet despite persecutions and misfortunes did not give up its national and cultural distinctiveness; recognition of the shared fate of the Georgian and Georgian Jewish peoples for generations; opposition to anti-Semitism in general, as a pernicious social phenomenon, and to Russian anti-Semitism in particular, as a characteristic feature of the repressive Tsarist regime.
Among the writers and publicists of the narodnik (populist) movement who claimed to be fighting for the rights of the peasants, there were those who presented the Jewish merchant in a thoroughly negative light – as someone who collaborated with the exploiters and enslavers of the common people. In most cases, however, the class character of the Jewish merchant was emphasized rather than his nationality. In response to such descriptions, other writers emphasized the historical circumstances that compelled Jews to withdraw from productive occupations.
The Zionist idea was received with understanding and even enthusiasm by several Georgian cultural figures. But others viewed it as an historical mistake that interfered with the Jews` integration into the Georgian people. The debate over these questions which took place in the press was devoid of the poisonous anti-Semitism
which characterized discussions of the Jewish question in Europe and Russia during the period.
The list of writers and publicists who dealt with the Jewish issue is a long one, and includes several great writers of the period; the writer and leader of the Georgian national movement, Ilia Chavchavadze, is one such example. As early as 1881 Chavchavadze published an article on the situation of world Jewry, in which he explained the background to the Jews` distress and anti-Semitism, using historical analysis. Chavchavadze and the prominent poet, Akaki Tsereteli, translated into Georgian poems on Jewish topics by Lord Byron and Lermontov, and even wrote their own poems expressing sympathy for the Jews` sufferings. But the poey and revolutionary, Herodion Avadoshvili, exceeded them all. His poems, “Hear! O People of Israel” and “Lamentation of the Jews”, expressed enthusiastic Zionist sentiments. After the blood libel of Sachkhere and the disturbances that occurred in Kutaisi between Christians and Jews in 1895, Sergei Mesekhi and Anton Purtseladze came out forcefully in defence of the Jews. They sharply condemned manifestations of religious and national zealotry as contrary to Georgian culture and tradition.
The sympathetic attitude to the Jews among Georgian intellectual circles also found expression in the field of politics. Georgian representatives to the Duma, strongly defended Jewish interests on many occasions. The spirit moved Georgian students who witnessed the 1905 pogroms against the Jews of Odessa to come to the Jews` defence with their own bodies; one of them even paid for this with his life. Such demonstrations of sympathy strengthened the Jews` feelings of belonging and identification with the Georgian people and its struggle for independence.
The Period of the Georgian Republic
The Georgian Republic`s declaration of independence on May 26, 1918, raised great hopes in the hearts of the Jews. The Tsarist regime had been despised by Jews and Georgians alike, especially after the cruel acts of repression following the 1905 revolution. Furthermore, the Menshevik wing of the Social Democratic Party that took
power in Georgia with the declaration of independence, demonstrated sympathy for the Jews, on the whole.
The period of World War I and the severe food shortages in Georgia in 1917 brought about a deterioration in the economic condition of the lower classes. Jews were among those harmed by violent outbreaks and riots that occurred on account of the anarchy prevailing in various regions. By contrast, the situation of the wealthy merchants improved, as they brought in handsome profits during the war, and enjoyed the removal of trade restrictions after the declaration of independence.
The Jewish communities, which until this time had turned inward, underwent a radical change. The newly granted freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom to organize politically led to an increase in the Jews` involvement in public events and sharpened the internal disputes between the Zionists and their opponents. The Zionist movement, the first to benefit from the new situation, intensified and broadened its activities. Rumors about the Balfour Declaration and the conquest of Palestine by the British aroused great enthusiasm among the Jews and intensified the desire to go to Eretz Israel. The presence of Zionists among the thousands of Jewish soldiers drafted into the Tsarist army and stationed in the Caucasus during the war also made a significant impact.
In August 1917, the Zionists of the Caucasus region held a congress in Baku. David Baazov participated as the representative of the Georgian Jews. As a result of his speech, the congress adopted a resolution calling on the Tarbut (“Culture”) society to include Georgia in the scope of its activities and to establish educational and cultural institutions there.
Several months later, the Zionist movement achieved two important successes in its work among the Georgian Jews. First, a school with a Hebrew and Zionist orientation was founded in Tbilisi, supported by wide circles in the community. It was headed by Nathan Eliashvili, a bright and well-educated young Zionist, a student of Rabbi Khvoles. The school became a center of Zionist activity, and “in a short time the sound of Hebrew was heard ringing from the pupils` classrooms, and in the streets they sang nationalist Hebrew songs”.
The second achievement was in Kutaisi, where the first Zionist newspaper in the Georgian language was published. It was called Khma Ebraelisa (“Jewish Voice”), and was edited by Shlomo Tsitsiashvili. David Baazov, his son Herzl, Nathan Eliashvili and Ben-Zion Eligoulashvili were among the contributors. The newspaper appeared for about eight months as a bi-weekly and acquired a large readership. It published articles on current events, and focused on describing the situation of Georgian Jewry and on disseminating the Zionist idea. The editorial board also maintained a library of works on Judaism and Zionism.
As the elections for the Constituent Assembly of the Georgian Republic, scheduled for February 1919, approached, tension grew in the Jewish communities. The committee responsible for preparing the elections allotted the Jews three seats at the assembly: two for representatives of the Georgian Jews and one for the Russian Jews.
The opponents of Zionism in Kutaisi elected their representatives separately. Hakham Moshe Davarashvili, who was a student of Rabbi Khvoles in Tskhinvali and completed his studies in the yeshiva of Radin, was chosen to speak for Agudat Yisrael. Yosef Eligoulashvili, a merchant and economist, the son of Aaron Eligoulashvili and a member of the Menshevik party from his youth, was also chosen as a representative.
The Zionists suffered bitter disappointment when the election committee of the Georgian Republic Constituent Assembly preferred the Kutaisi representatives who had joined the Menshevik list, and disqualified the Zionist representatives who had been elected by the “Jewish National Committee”. Eliahu Goldman, a socialist who had come to Georgia as a soldier, was chosen as representative of the Ashkenazy Jews.
The Menshevik party won 109 of the 130 seats at the Constituent Assembly; on the Georgian Republic`s declaration of independence, the signatures of Davarashvili and Eligoulashvili are proudly displayed alongside the signatures of the other representatives to the Constituent Assembly.
While hakham Davarashvili saw his main job as defending the rights of the Jews and guaranteeing the hegemony of orthodoxy in the Jewish community, Yosef Eligoulashvili stood out for his involvement in economic matters. Eligoulashvili, a graduate of the Institute of Trade in Moscow, had ties and experience in the business world and was therefore sent to Europe as commercial representative of the republic. He was later appointed Deputy Minister of Finance, Trade and Industry.
The leaders of the Zionist movement felt wounded by their disqualification from the Constituent Assembly. They viewed this act as a betrayal of the principles of freedom the republic claimed to uphold, and an intrigue aimed intentionally against Jewish national aspirations. In response, they turned their main efforts toward promoting aliyah.
The conquest of Georgia by the Red Army in 1921 delivered a heavy blow to the hopes of both the Zionists and their opponents, and exposed the Jews of Georgia to dangers such as they had never known before. The new regime would bring about the destruction of trade, thereby removing the economic basis of the Georgian Jews` livelihood, and would systematically and purposefully attack the religion and heritage handed down to the Jews by their forefathers.