Curator in the Exhibitions Department of Beth Hatefutsoth: curator of the exhibition on Georgian Jews
Philologist and Anthropologist: guest curator of the Beth Hatefutsoth exhibition on Georgian Jews
The way of life, customs and traditions which prevailed among the Jews of Georgia for centuries are gradually disappearing. One by one they are being forgotten, abandoned or replaced by others. Lifestyles change with the changing of the economic and social systems within which they exist, and customs and traditions are cast aside when the values and beliefs from which they sprang are discarded.
As in many other Eastern and Sephardi Jewish communities, the process of change among the Jews of Georgia was gradual and covert and was not marked by a kulturkampf or by the intergenerational conflict characteristic of East European communities. It began in the late 19th century, with the infiltration of Russo-European influences into Georgia; it was expedited by the Soviet occupation of 1921 and the efforts of the Communist regime to change the economic and social structure and to suppress the influence of religion and tradition. These efforts notwithstanding, the Jews of Georgia did not hasten to cast off their traditions. Many of the religious customs "went underground" or were practiced discreetly, and it may well be that persecution itself intensified attachment to tradition. The factors which most strongly influenced the traditional Jewish way of life were the spread of modernization, growing social integration with the non-Jewish milieu, and the transition from small communities to larger towns, all of which were on the rise from the 1960s onward.
The Georgian Jews who arrived in Israel in the immigration wave of the 1970s brought with them many of their traditional customs and practices. These served to maintain cohesion and to preserve their unique communal identity, which had been shaken by the shock of migration. This bolstering of tradition, however, was only temporary. In the crucible of Israeli society and culture, the traditions of the Georgian community are gradually and inevitably retreating.
In the 1970s, for example, Georgian immigrants to Israel observed many of the traditional nuptial customs, although they shortened them and adapted them to Israeli conditions. By the end of the 1980s, most of these traditions had disappeared, to be replaced by the rituals of the typical Israeli wedding celebration. The unique customs of the community have survived mainly in relation to food, music and dance. Those members of the community who continue to maintain a religious lifestyle are increasingly influenced by the Chabad movement and its traditions, which originate in Eastern Europe. A similar, though less acute, process is occurring among the Jews remaining in Georgia. It seems that before long little will remain of the rich and colorful world of Georgian Jewish traditions, beyond nostalgic demonstrations and commercialized folklore.
To attempt to depict the lifestyle and customs of Georgian Jewry is to attempt to reconstruct an entire world, many of whose components have vanished and been forgotten. To this day no thorough or wide-ranging study has been conducted on this subject, and those studies which are extant are few and fragmented.
The most comprehensive is a book by Rosa Tavdidishvili on the ethnography of the Jews of Kutaisi, published in 1940.1 This study, as well as that of J. Pulner on customs related to pregnancy, birth and circumcision, reflect a reality in which traditional customs were still firmly entrenched in everyday life. Unfortunately, most of the ethnographic and folklore studies conducted in the late 1930s and '40s by the researchers of the Historical-Ethnographic Museum of the Jews of Georgia were never published. The studies by Mazor and Elam, which describe marriage customs among Georgian immigrants in Israel in the 1970s, reflect the rapid changes wrought by immigration.
As the number of reliable witnesses to past traditions dwindles, researchers will be obliged to rely on existing written, visual and material sources; these too are meager. To date there is no evidence of the existence of a literature of responsa, halakhic rulings or community registers, which usually constitute an important source for the study of customs. Travelogues by non-Jewish travelers who visited Georgia mention the Jews only briefly and in passing. The most important and earliest source on the subject is a book by the Jewish traveler, Yosef Tcherny, who visited the Georgian Jewish communities in the 1860s and '70s. His vivid and detailed descriptions are valuable testimony, and seem to reflect centuries-old customs and practices. His verbal descriptions come to life in paintings by the self-taught artist, Shalom Koboshvili, painted during the years 1938-1940. Koboshvili, who was the guard at the Jewish Museum in Tbilisi, documented the life and customs of the Jews, and particularly the community of Akhaltsikhe at the turn of the century. Another important source are the photographs taken by the ethnological research expeditions of the Jewish Museum, sent in the 1930s to create a record of Jewish communities throughout Georgia.
Similarly, the material culture of Georgian Jewry has scarcely been studied. The large ethnographic collection of the Jewish Museum in Tbilisi was transferred to various places after the museum was closed. Those objects which reached museums and research institutes in Tbilisi were well-preserved, but there is a lack of vital data on their provenance, dating and use. A small number of objects may be found in museums and private collections in Israel. In the course of the investigations preceding the preparation of this book and the exhibition, we made every effort to locate such objects among Georgian Jews in Israel but, regrettably, with minimal success. The checkered history of the past few generations, the waves of immigration to Israel, and the tendency to cast out the old in favor of newer acquisitions, have left very few of these old objects in existence. At the same time, the hundreds of photographs we collected from family albums and the dozens of interviews we conducted with Georgian immigrants to Israel are important additions to the sources noted above. It is to be hoped that the strengthening of contacts between researchers in Georgia and in Israel will lead to the uncovering of additional sources.
The clothing of Georgian Jews resembled that of the non-Jews, and up to the beginning of the 20th century Jews, too, wore the traditional Georgian costume.
The women's garments consisted of a long-sleeved shirt of cotton or linen which served as an undergarment, above it a long-sleeved dress, open in the front, with a low neck revealing the undershirt. The bodice was close-fitting and the hem was decorated, usually with ribbons or lace embroidery. Dresses for ceremonial occasions were made of brocaded velvet or silk. Attached to the belt were two wide silk ribbons, embroidered in silk and metal thread with flowers and plants, which decorated the front of the dress.
The head-covering - chikhticopi - consisted of a velvet crown, sewn onto cardboard, embroidered with metal or colored silk thread and decorated with beads. It covered the upper forehead, and over it was placed a veil of white lace, which covered the shoulders and sometimes fell to the middle of the back. The women's hair was arranged in a style known as luknebi, with two corkscrew curls falling on either side. These curls were sometimes made of artificial hair. The chikhticopi and the decorative ribbons were apparently worn mainly on ceremonial occasions. For everyday purposes, women covered their heads with a flowered silk kerchief.
The raiment of the women of southern Georgia was characterized by vivid color and rich embroidery, and displayed distinct Turkish influence. The bodice of the dress was not closely fitted, and the sleeve-ends were wide. The head covering was a long veil, concealing shoulders and back.
The men's garments included the chokha, a knee-length woolen coat - black, or sometimes grey, white or red. It was fitted to the waist and belted with a leather belt with a silver buckle. Across the chest were two ammunition belts decorated with ribbons. Beneath the chokha the men wore a high-necked white or black shirt, fastened with a line of tiny buttons. The wide woolen black breeches sharwali - were pushed into the leather boots. Their head covering was the papakhi, a high hat made of sheepskin fur.
In the second half of the 19th century, European dress gradually penetrated Georgia, and it became the custom to combine traditional items of clothing with European styles. Photographs from the beginning of the century show women in European garments, wearing the traditional chikhticopi.
From the beginning of the 20th century it was apparently customary to reserve traditional dress primarily for ceremonial occasions, and it was worn mainly by older people. By the 1930s this dress had almost totally disappeared. Between 1930-1960, Jewish men wore the kudi, a large peaked cap. Women who observed tradition, mainly older women, covered their heads with a silk kerchief.
The Jews of Georgia engaged in commerce, agriculture and crafts, but their main occupation was petty trade. Most were peddlers of confectionery who toured the villages all week with their wares strapped to their shoulders or packed in sacks and conveyed on horseback. Some peddlers left their families for six months at a stretch or even for a whole year, trading in other parts of the country and returning home only for the religious holidays.
The Jewish traders had a dialect of their own, which included many Hebrew words.
Tcherny writes of the Jews of Abastumani and Adigeni engaging in "petty trade in the villages," the Jews of Atskuri "selling goods from Asia, chickens and eggs," and the Jews of Tamarasheni "peddling and selling all kinds of perfumes and garments brought from Tiflis.” According to the English traveler Tefler, commerce in the region of Svaneti in the north was conducted entirely by the Jews of Lailashi. The villagers bought salt, pottery and metal utensils from the Jews and paid for them with domestic beasts and hides. The profit was small, the roads were dangerous, and often peddlers fell victim to highway robbers.
The peddlers purchased their wares from more prosperous traders who owned stores or stalls in the market. The bigger merchants, particularly among the Jews of Akhaltsikhe, imported goods from Turkey. At the end of the 19th century, when trade with Europe and Russia expanded after the laying of railway tracks and the development of port cities along the Black Sea, more and more Jewish merchants traded abroad, particularly those from the larger towns of Kutaisi, Tbilisi, Batumi and Poti.
While it is true that most of the Jews did not make a living from farming, quite a large number owned sheep and cattle, gardens and vineyards; the produce was used for domestic purposes and was often an important source of additional income. There were few
artisans among the Jews, although in the 19th century weaving seems to have been a prevalent Jewish occupation. Under Communist rule, when commerce was badly affected, many Jews became artisans: hatmakers, shoemakers, glaziers, porters, wagoners, soapmakers, etc. They also took up such service occupations as shoeshining and photography.
During the last fifty years many Georgian Jews acquired university education, both in Georgia and in other central Soviet cities. They have taken up professions such as medicine, teaching, civil engineering and chemistry.
The neighborhood and the home
Although no residence restrictions were ever imposed on the Jews of Georgia, they
themselves preferred to concentrate in their own neighborhoods, and near the synagogue. In the second half of the 19th century, most Jews lived in small, crowded homes, under conditions of dire poverty. Tcherny writes that he found in Breti "sadness and gloom and great suffering in all those houses." In Sachkhere "their homes were all poor, each house was but one room.” Toward the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, there was a distinct improvement in the standard of living, and the more prosperous merchants built large and luxurious homes.
When the Communist regime was established in Georgia in the 19205, most Jews lost their source of livelihood and were left penniless. Many were forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere; some wandered to the Black Sea towns, while others moved to Kutaisi and Tbilisi. The economic decline was reflected in housing conditions: improvised wooden and tin structures were crowded densely together, without elementary hygienic facilities. Since the 1960s housing has improved, and many have moved from the Jewish quarters to the multi-storied buildings of the housing estates set up by the government on the outskirts of towns, or have built their own spacious houses.
Homes in the Jewish quarters were usually densely constructed. When families expanded, the children added wings to the parental homes, until the entire courtyard became a living area for the extended family. In both towns and villages, many of the houses were surrounded by a fenced courtyard with fruit trees, vines and vegetable plots. There were usually a chicken-run and a cowshed with one or two goats or cows, and sometimes a horse as well. In the courtyard stood a round clay oven - tone - for baking bread and for slow heating of dishes on the Sabbath. Often one oven served several families. In Mingrelia the courtyard also contained a well and a wooden granary built on high poles for storing corn. The houses were usually constructed of river pebbles or wood, and the housing density was the cause of numerous fires. In the homes of the rich, the first storey was built of fired bricks and the second storey of wood. Beneath or adjacent to most houses was a cellar which served as a storeroom for household objects. The sloping roof was constructed of wooden planks or covered with tiles. In the front of the house, and sometimes on three sides, was a covered porch with a wooden railing (in two-storey buildings the porch was on the second storey). In many houses the porch railing and posts were decorated with intricate wooden carvings. In southern Georgia the stone houses had flat roofs.
The traditional Georgian house contained one spacious room darbazi. It had a dirt floor and the walls were constructed of wooden planks, often plastered and whitewashed. The furniture in the room was sparse and served all of the family's basic needs; along the walls stood long wide sofas on which several people could sleep. These sofas were covered with colored rugs with long bolsters for reclining. Bedding was stored in recesses in the wall which were concealed behind a curtain or wooden door. Household utensils were also stored in recesses in the walls. The family's copper and pottery utensils were displayed on long shelves around the walls close to the ceiling. Clothes and valuables were kept in a large wooden coffer. In the center of the room, hanging over a fire from a heavy chain affixed to the ceiling, was the shwatzetzkhli (shwa - center; tzetzkhli - fire), a large copper cooking pot, used for heating, cooking and for boiling water. Beside it were low wooden stools, some with round backs. In the ceiling, above the shwatzetzkhli, an aperture to extract the smoke was sometimes the only source of light and air in the house. The walls of the house were decorated with colored rugs, and sometimes the skirting and doorframes were decorated with wooden carvings. Rich homes had a cellar - marani, where wine and food were stored. The wine was stored in large clay vessels buried in the ground. Smaller jars served to conserve pickled fruit and vegetables.
Towards the end of the 19th century, European influence increased, as reflected in the style of buildings, household utensils and furniture, particularly in the homes of the prosperous merchants who traveled to Turkey, Odessa, Moscow and European countries. Tcherny describes the new house of the notable Avraham Micha.elashvili from Sudzhuna, who had just returned from France, England and Turkey: "Exceedingly imposing and ornate, furnished and decorated half in the style of Europe, and half in the style of Georgia, and all of the very best.”
With time, the shwatzetzkhli disappeared and was replaced by a large dining table in the center of the room. Heating was provided by a fireplace built into the wall or by a metal stove, and water was boiled in the samovar. For decorative purposes, it became customary to use linen and cotton tablecloths and napkins with embroidery and lacework.
Because of the mild climate and the fertile soil, food was plentiful even in difficult times, and a great deal of time and many resources were invested in its preparation. Georgian cuisine was, and still is, characterized by a rich range of meat and vegetable dishes, seasoned with nuts, garlic and coriander; wine or arak and fresh vegetables and fruit are always served. Georgian Jewish cuisine differs from the cuisine of the surrounding society in its strict observance of the laws of kashrut and in the preparation of special dishes for the Jewish holidays, particularly Passover.
The women baked bread in the courtyard oven once or twice a week. The bread was made of wheat flour and yeast and was called tonispuri (tone - oven; puri - bread). A bread made of cornflour was more prevalent in western Georgia. Butter was also prepared at home using a wooden churn.
Once a year the women prepared a sauce made of small, sour green plums, cooked with garlic and coriander and stored in glass jars in the cellar. From these plums the women also prepared a dark, thick marinade, which served as the basis for various dishes. Today as well, every home has an abundance of dried fruit and home-made sweetmeats. The most popular of these is churchkhela, made of chopped nuts soaked in a mixture of grape juice and flour, and threaded on wires, resembling crimson candles. Every housewife takes pride in the various types of jam she prepares, which are served at light meals. In summer, when the fruit season is at its height, housewives prepare dried fruits for the winter. Apples, plums, peaches, figs, etc. are sliced into small pieces; each fruit is placed separately on a wooden tray and set out to dry on the roof or verandah. In addition, vegetables are dried to supply the family with fruit and spices during the winter season.
Among the most common dishes are khadjapuri - a baked dough filled with cheese or ground red beans; labia - a thick stew of red beans; khinkali - cooked pockets of dough filled with meat; satzivi chicken in nut sauce; gomi - a thick corn porridge; and salads made of various vegetables mixed with nuts and pomegranate seeds, and seasoned with garlic and coriander. Typical cakes are burbushela dough shaped like roses and fried in oil, and kishmishiani - layers of dough filled with nuts and raisins.
Georgia is blessed with an abundance of vineyards and is known for its excellent wines. For reasons of kashrut, the Jews were in the habit of preparing wine in their own homes, and since it also served for kiddush, its preparation was entrusted to the men. Wine was made at the end of the season, in September, at a lively family celebration. The grapes were brought in large straw baskets to the wine cellar or to the courtyard, and trodden in a wooden vat. The remnants of the grapes were transferred to a large wooden press. To prepare the arak, the dregs of the grapes were fermented in large pots, and the liquid was drained. Arak was also prepared from other fruit in similar fashion. Aromatic spices, such as roses, mint and cherries, were added to the liquid.
Wine is an integral part of every meal in Georgia. The focal point of any ceremonial meal, even today, is the benediction ceremony accompanying the drinking of wine - sadregrzelo.
Opportunities are frequently found for "setting out a table" (supris gashla): festivals, occasions of joy or mourning and, of course, entertaining guests. Georgians are known for their hospitality and take great pains to entertain their guests, holding feasts for them. Every household sets aside special delicacies for unexpected guests. From the beginning of the meal the table is loaded with various dishes, and more and more dishes are added - piled on top of one another - as the meal proceeds. In most cases, the diners are unable to consume more than a small part of the repast. The wine, usually home-made, is served in jars and poured into clay dishes, goblets or horns - kantsebi, and drunk down in one gulp.
The central figure at the feast is the tamada, the head of the table, who conducts the benediction ceremony. The host often acts as tamada, although in many cases he chooses one of the guests because of the latter's social standing or rhetorical skill.
The tamada raises his glass in a toast and delivers a flowery speech; the guests rise to their feet and also recite blessings, in turn, by order of age and status. After the first round, the tamada launches a second benediction, and the ceremony is repeated over again for several hours. There is a kind of quiet contest among the speakers for lofty language, eloquence and humor, and the success of the feast is measured by its length and by the quality of the benedictions. Each series of benedictions is dedicated to one of the guests or to a particular theme. They are usually chanted in a fixed order: at a joyful occasion the first benedictions are directed at the celebrants, and at a mourning feast the first glass is raised in memory of the deceased. The first benediction is followed by benedictions to guests, to the hosts, to relatives and to the notables present. Toasts are also offered to the well-being of the nation and the state, to peace, friendship, love, etc. Among Jews, the first blessing is dedicated to the shekhina (Divine Presence) and to Eretz Yisrael, where the shekhina rests. This benediction, known as the "benediction for the captive shekhina, " was an expression of yearning for Zion which was under alien rule, and for redemption. At ritual feasts, the main role is played by the hakhamim (rabbis, sages) who deliver sermons.
In the past women did not participate in these ceremonies, and sat at the end of the table or at a separate table. Communal drinking was a manifestation of "male companionship,” an expression of their intimacy and rejoicing. The celebrants, exhilarated by wine, sang piyutim (religious songs) and danced together.
The Jews of Georgia, like the Georgian people in general, are warm, open and convivial. Nathan Aliashvili attests that "despite subjugation to 'hard taskmasters,' the struggle for livelihood and the wearying round of journeys from village to village throughout the week, despite all these, the Jews were far from melancholy. The Jews of Georgia were known as merry people, filled with love of life.” The women worked together at various tasks: preparing bed linens for dowries, doing
patchwork for bundle kerchiefs - bukhchot, making lace embroidery, sorting wheat for Passover, making wax candles, etc. In the summer they would gather in the courtyard and in winter by the fireplace, passing the time pleasantly in gossip or song. The men, equipped with food and wine, would go out into the countryside, spending the day together in play, song and, mainly, in drinking. Through the long winter evenings, the family would gather by the fireside or the shwatzetzkhli, cracking sunflower seeds and listening to stories and legends. Wandering peddlers and emissaries from Jerusalem were always welcome guests, and their stories were listened to attentively.
On Sabbaths and festivals, after the prayers, people - especially the young men and women - gathered in groups for various games. The most popular games among the men were those requiring physical activity, prowess and courage: wrestling, ball games (the ball was usually made of rags), and one-legged catch games. A popular game was the "circle": in the center of the circle stood several men, with their belts heaped beside them. Those around had to snatch the belts without being caught; whoever succeeded was entitled to whip the men in the center.28 A popular game among the women was the pinjraoba: finding an object which had been hidden under one of a number of glasses placed upside down on a tray. Song and dance played a central part in any celebration.
On Sabbaths and holidays, as well as on weekdays, young men and women assembled for tashpandura - playing of musical instruments and dancing. As Tcherny describes: "When they but heard the first tone of the music, in one moment a crowd of women and maidens assembled from all the neighboring houses.”
The Jewish dances did not differ from the Georgian dances. Most popular were the bagdaduri, and the lekuri (which in the past few years have become known as kartuli), which are dances of mixed couples, sometimes danced by two women or two men, and often joined by other dancers. The partners dance opposite one another with rapid, delicate hand movements, without touching one another. Among the women, particularly in Akhaltsikhe and Kareli, a circle dance was also popular.
The women accompanied their dances by beating the daira drum and playing the garmoni, a kind of accordion. Other musical instruments which accompanied the song and dance were the doli a large leather drum, the salamuri, the zorna and the duduki, a wooden wind instrument, the panduri and the chunguri - string instruments.
The world of Georgian Jewry was populated with many supernatural forces, which could influence life, health and success for better or for worse. The rigors of daily life, poverty, disease, subjection to cruel masters, and the horrors of war created a sense of constant danger and increased the weight of the "forces of evil" These were the evil angels - tzudi-angelozi, spirits, malicious devils or performers of witchcraft. In order to guard against them it was necessary to be alert, to foil the enemy's schemes, to appease the spirits and to request the protection of the "forces of good." The Jews resembled their non-Jewish neighbors in their belief in the forces of evil and in the measures to be adopted against them, and these customs and beliefs became an inseparable part of Jewish beliefs and lifestyle.
Observance of the religious injunctions and respect for tradition were, of course, vantage points in the struggle against the forces of evil. It was popularly believed that observing specific mitzvot (commandments) or religious customs would guarantee atonement "for the sins of an entire year." Another important means of protection against evil was the taking of vows and the dedication
of religious utensils and kerchiefs to the synagogue. The influence and power of the hakhamim stemmed, to no small degree, from their role of writing amulets, reciting incantations or foretelling the future. In some cases non;Jews also appealed to the hakhamim for help, and this occupation was their main source of income.
The use of amulets was very widespread. Amulets were worn on the body (under the clothes), concealed in the infant's cradle, in or under the childbirth bed, or hung on the walls of the house. Women kept amulets in their coffers. Some of these amulets apparently came from neighboring countries and from Eretz Yisrael.
An important source of amulets were the shadarim (emissaries from Eretz Yisrael), whose main income came from selling them. Under Communist rule, when amulets were rare, pages from holy books were used as substitutes.
Of special importance were holy books to which hidden powers were attributed. One such book was an ancient manuscript (from the 10th or 11th century), preserved for centuries by the Jews of the village of Lailashi. Believing this book protected them, the Jews of Lailashi related many legends about its powers. Although less ancient, the Pentateuch of the Jews of Breti was a more famous example. According to legend, the book was found by a Jewish serf as it floated in a river enveloped by flames; miraculously, it was neither wet by the water nor burnt by the flames. A mysterious stranger instructed the serf to rescue the book from the river and to bring it to Prince Avalishvili, in whose home the book was preserved for many generations.
Acts of magic - kudianoba - were an accepted way to harm enemies or rivals and to bring luck. To this end, people turned to the kudiani - women skilled in witchcraft and in the means of overcoming it. They knew how to prepare love potions and to perform magic through incantations and objects to which magic properties were attributed, such as a thread twisted around a needle, a pin, a closed lock, herbs or animal limbs. Special powers were attributed to objects connected to the victim of witchcraft, such as nail clippings, hair and snips of garments. The kudiani wrapped these objects in a bundle and hid them in the ground near a crossroads, or under the victim's bedcovers.
Belief in the power of magic and incantations was related, to some degree, to popular medicine. Whereas witchcraft, however, was carried out in secret, the female soothsayers - ekimbashi - were highly and openly respected. They were skilled in the use of medicinal herbs and incantations and were summoned to the sickbed to cure burns or mend fractures.
The spirits of measles, chickenpox and mumps, known as batonebi (the masters), were thought to be particularly dangerous. When anyone fell sick with one of these diseases it was believed that the batonebi had taken up residence in the house, and it was necessary to appease them in order to convince them to leave. According to popular belief, the batonebi were particularly fond of the color red, and hence the room was decorated with red cloths. Since the batonebi also liked sweet things, sweetmeats were brought to them and a blessing was recited: "May your batonebi be as sweet as sugar (and agree to leave the house)." It was forbidden to anger the batonebi, and everyone who entered the house was obliged to ask their forgiveness and was forbidden to inquire about the health of the patient; medicines were concealed from them, and it was forbidden to raise one's voice or to quarrel in the house. Throughout the course of the disease, it was forbidden to launder, to slaughter chickens and to roast meat in the house, nor could sour or sharp foods be brought in. In order to gladden the batonebi, music was played and people sang and danced. This was, in particular, the task of the motsonebuli - an old woman who played the chunguri. She would arrive in the morning with flowers, water and sweets, and play and sing for the batonebi:
Batonebi, you have been sent by God - Lord of the roses,
In the month of May the rose blossoms, in June the grain ripens,
Batonebi, I beg you, listen well
In the home of the child, the rose flowers - Lord of the roses,
A golden cradle stands - Lord of the roses,
In which lies the prince - Lord of the roses.
They sing him lullabies - Lord of the roses,
'Hush, hush' to the prince - Lord of the roses.
She continues to plead: "Let me be his expiation, let me be the ransom for the batonebi. I have brought you a bouquet of cyclamens and roses. Arise, walk away, see the fields and go out there, and as for him with whom you have been sitting, leave him to our care. Please go, let me lead you away (pointing to the door). Here is the meadow, here are the cyclamens and the roses, the water and the haystacks. Let me be your expiation, Let me be your ransom, batonebi."
If the batonebi were particularly 'angry,' the motsonebuli would kneel down, ask their forgiveness, plead with them not to harm the sick child and to agree to accept in its stead another living creature: a chick or a lamb, which she swung over the bed, as in the kapparot (atonement) ceremony on the eve of the Day of Atonement. If all this was to no avail, she would take colored cloths, cakes, coins, nuts, colored eggs, flowers and sweets and throw them into an area of ruins so that the batonebi would play with them and be occupied. When the patient recovered, his feet were bathed with pure water into which sugar and flowers were thrown. If the patient died, no mourning rituals were observed in the house to avoid angering the batonebi, and they were sent on their way with song and dance.
The cycle of life
The extended family, the jalabi, was always the main factor influencing the life of the individual and the network of social relations. The individual had no social standing outside the family framework, and even when there were disputes and tensions within the family, nobody would ever contemplate abandoning it. The extended family constituted a cohesive social framework and a single economic unit, encompassing all the married sons and their families, who usually lived in or near the parental home.
'The father was, of course, the supreme authority for all family members, and his was the decisive opinion on every matter. At the same time, the materfamilias enjoyed central and respected status. She was responsible for all domestic affairs and was in charge of the education of her children and grandchildren. The unmarried daughters and the daughters-in-law were under her supervision and were expected to obey her absolutely. There were particularly strong ties of love and admiration between sons and mothers. A son would do nothing against the wishes of his mother, paid her every respect and considered himself responsible for her honor and well-being. The status of the mother was influenced by the indigenous culture. At all levels of Georgian society there were expressions of respect and honor for the woman, as an object of romantic yearning and as wife and mother. There was a clear distinction between the worlds and occupations of men and women, and the superiority of the male was absolute. Yet, at the same time, men were expected to show respect to women. This expectation is expressed in a popular folk saying: "Even the dog respects the woman, and would never show its tongue to her.” The ideals of family honor demanded of women modesty and absolute fidelity to their husbands, but they were free to go out and were not concealed behind locked doors or veils, in contrast to the situation in the Moslem cultures which bordered on Georgia. The standing of Georgian Jewish women was strongly influenced by this freer attitude, and there was a striking contrast between Georgian Jewish women and the women of the neighboring Jewish community, the mountain Jews of Dagestan who lived in
a Moslem milieu.
The family was the main guarantee of continuity and survival for this isolated Jewish community. Its strength almost totally prevented the possibility of mixed marriage, and it transmitted Jewish traditions from generation to generation. It was due to the solidity and cohesion of the family structure that the religious precepts of kashrut, ritual cleanliness and the Sabbath were observed even under Communist rule, when community frameworks and educational networks were destroyed in other Jewish communities throughout the USSR. Although the past few generations have witnessed a shift away from religion, there is still no rift in the Georgian community between secular and religious elements, and Jewish tradition is still the main expression of commitment towards the family.
The ceremonies marking the central events of the life cycle - birth, circumcision, marriage and mourning - have played a vital role both in fostering adherence to faith and tradition and in consolidating ties within the family, among relatives and between family and community. These ceremonies reflect the central values on which society is based, and the relationships and roles within the family and the community.
Over the centuries, traditions and customs unique to this community have been added to the life-cycle ceremonies, as well as to religious and seasonal ceremonies dictated by the halakhic framework. Although it is difficult to ascertain the source of these customs and their age, the influence of Georgian culture is clearly evident and finds different expression in various areas. Thus, for example, the unique features of the culture of south Georgian Jews (Akhaltsikhe and its environs) are influenced by local Moslem culture.
The similarity which is sometimes observed between the customs of Georgian Jews and those of the Jews of the neighboring regions the mountain Jews, and the Jewish communities of Kurdistan, Persia and Turkey - attests to the fact that, despite the geopolitical isolation of Georgia, the Jews maintained ties with their brethren elsewhere. Within the scope of the present article, we can discuss only a few of these customs.
Birth and circumcision
Pregnancy and confinement were accompanied by numerous customs and superstitions, aimed at banishing the evil angels or annulling witchcraft which might harm the pregnant woman, the woman in labor or the newborn infant. Many of these customs were shared with non-Jews.
Barrenness was attributed to witchcraft performed by a person who sought to harm the woman or her family and, consequently, special care was taken to protect the bride against harm during the courtship and nuptial period. She wore on her body an amulet containing special herbs, coal or sulphur, wrapped in a black ribbon. Sometimes a closed lock was placed on her belly. Many beliefs were connected to guessing the sex of the fetus and to ensuring the birth of a son.
The delivery of the firstborn child always took place in the home of the maternal parents. Several days before the confinement the mother came to take her daughter home, and the husband's family held a feast in their honor. The future mother lit candles and kissed all the mezuzot (parchment scrolls affixed to doorposts), and her mother-in-law bid her farewell by saying: "Just as I send you in peace - so may you return in peace. May this confinement be over 'with one cry', and may you give birth to a son who will have a long life and hatzlaha (success - in Hebrew)."
The confinement took place in the living room, but if an infant had once died at birth in that room, another place was chosen. During the delivery nobody was allowed in the house, all doors and windows were closed and were sometimes covered with black cloth. During the actual delivery a flame was lit in order to banish the evil spirits, which were believed to fear fire. In order to ease the birth, all the closets, the oven and other closed objects were opened; all knots in the mother's clothing were untied and her jewelry was removed. An amulet was hung on the wall to safeguard her, and a stone or horseshoe was placed at the front door. A knife with a black handle, coal, pepper, garlic wrapped in black cloth, and a book of Psalms, or a page from it, were placed under the pillow and at the foot of the bed; on the bed the cover of a Torah scroll was sometimes spread. Special powers were attributed to the lock and key of a synagogue.
If the confinement was particularly difficult, special measures were taken to avert danger: an old woman was invited to throw three eggs at the wall and recite, "With the same ease that this egg has broken, may you bring a child into the world." The husband was also summoned to help; he poured water in his coat pocket for his wife to drink, in the belief that his strength would thus pass over to her and the birth would be easier. If the delivery was protracted, the husband turned to his wife and cried out in a loud voice: "Give me the child.”
In particularly difficult deliveries the hakham was summoned. The woman in labor asked forgiveness of all those against whom she had sinned, and he cancelled all her vows. The women in the room lit candles, and placed silver coins and dough in her hands, atonement for her having neglected the duty of lighting candles, setting aside part of the bread or giving charity to the poor. The woman who prepared the dough prayed and said: "Lord of the Universe, deliver this woman 'with one cry' and give life to the newborn child. Give us all a joyous day and a fair moon, and bring the Messiah son of David, savior of Israel, and may we all be privileged to see the resurrection of the dead. May the merits of our fathers protect us, and by virtue of this dough may we all be privileged to see the Holy City of Jerusalem, and may your beloved people never lack for food and drink, and if I have not carried out the mitzvah of setting aside hallah (bread), please forgive me for this, and take in return this hallah which I am now preparing.” It was the custom to go to the synagogue, to open the Holy Ark and to light a candle. Sometimes the kerchief of the woman in labor was placed in the Ark, or a kapparot (atonement) ceremony was carried out, after which the cockerel was given to the poor. It was also customary to blow the shofar (ram's horn) in the belief that the sound would banish the evil spirits; alternatively, a minyan (ten men) was assembled to pray, to recite Psalms and to visit the family graves to ask the dead to plead for the future mother.
Even after the delivery, dangers were still present, and the mother was bound by strict rules of conduct. Great importance was attributed to the food she ate during the year after giving birth mainly dairy products; some women abstained completely from meat dishes throughout this year.
The newly-delivered mother remained in bed for five to seven days.
For forty days after the delivery of a son, and sixty after the birth of a daughter, she was regarded as unclean and did not leave her home. At the end of this period, she went to wash in the bathhouse and the mikveh (ritual bath), accompanied by a close female friend - ertguli. On their return they went to the synagogue, and after the prayers the new mother circled the synagogue three times, kissing its walls and praying for the welfare of her family. If she encountered a dog, a cat or a pig, she was obliged to retrace her footsteps and bathe again in the mikveh. She then paid visits to the homes of neighbors and relatives, giving preference to the richer families and those with many children. The hosts greeted her with three nuts, three slices of bread, and three glasses of wine (nuts for an abundance of milk; bread - so that her child would grow like yeast; wine - so that he would be as strong as wine).
The first week of life was considered very hazardous for the newborn infant, particularly the day of circumcision. It was the custom to take a handful of earth from the place where the child was born and wrap it in a length of cloth. The bundle was placed beside the infant as a protection against evil spirits, and sometimes the child wore it up until the age of ten. The infant was never left unattended in the house; the fire was always lit, the doors and windows were closed in the evening, and nobody was allowed to enter. Coal and a silver coin were placed in the child's bath water so that his character would be pure and clean as silver. The water was poured away next to the four walls of the house. In order to strengthen the child, wine mixed with water was poured on his head, or else his face and head were smeared with an egg placed in the water of his first bath. In order to
confuse the evil spirits, a strange woman was asked to suckle the firstborn son for the first few days,
and the baby was dressed in old clothes. Girls were dressed in boy's clothing, and vice versa.
After the first three days, when the infant lay beside its mother, it was placed in a cradle and all the family was invited to celebrate the event. It was important that the cradle - aquani - be set up in the home of a happy family where no child had ever died. On both sides of the cradle lighted candles were placed, and beside them yeast dough, nuts, water and wine. A book of Psalms, garlic, a knife or a small axe were placed in the cradle, and on it were hung the umbilical cord and the foreskin, as well as an amber necklace, strips of leather, a Shield of David, a punctured stone, silver coins, a small broom, etc. These served to protect and to distract the infant.
If the child had been long awaited, or if there had been cases of infant mortality in the family, he was denoted sanatreli, and given an unusual name. The sanatreli was 'sold' to another family in a special ceremony: the child was laid on a straw platter and onion skins collected throughout the pregnancy were scattered over him. He was then handed through an opening in the wall to the other family, which 'bought' him. The 'purchasing' family raised the child for several years. The sanatreli was dressed in unusual clothes or inside-out garments, and was never left unattended lest the evil angel harm him. If the child fell ill, his name was changed, vows were taken and the akimbashi (wise women soothsayers) were summoned. When the sanatreli was nine years old, his hair was clipped and the family 'repurchased' him. On his return home, a feast was held in his honor, and a Torah cover or decoration was donated to the synagogue.
The father or eldest brother of the newly delivered mother was usually godfather to the first child. This role required considerable outlay, but the godfather's 'reward' was expiation for his sins for a whole year. The garments for the circumcision were sown by a woman who was on close terms with the family and who had never lost a child of her own. The sewing was completed by noon, and the neighbors were invited to take part in the ceremony.
The evening before the ceremony a pillow, known as Elijah's chair, was prepared for the infant, as well as a round tray on which were placed nine cups, nine pairs of candles, a silver goblet containing cloves, a decanter of dark wine, lumps of sugar and a packet of cotton wool.
On the morning of the circumcision the child was bathed, and all the women helped dress him and gave him their blessing. The child was secured to the pillow and covered with silk kerchiefs which the women had brought. The oldest woman present, or the wife of the godfather, held to the child's lips a piece of cotton wool soaked in wine or a teaspoon of wine mixed with sugar, so as to sedate him.
The woman then handed each of the guests a glass of wine, a lump of sugar, a clove and a lekekhi cake, and blessed the child. The circumcision was usually performed in the synagogue. The mother, who was not permitted to attend, handed the child over to the godfather, saying: "Just as I give you this healthy child, may it remain so during the circumcision." When the procession left the home of the mother's parents, children threw coins, little round nuts, raisins and pistachio over the porch. When they reached the synagogue, the cantor sang: "Welcome, gathering of the faithful" and "Praise the Lord whose grace is everlasting." The father picked up the child, turned to the gathering and said, "Kahal, shalom aleichem" (Hebrew - Congregation, peace be with you) and handed the child to the godfather. After the circumcision, the father pronounced the child's name. The Hacham blessed the wine and cloves, and all the participants handed them around, drinking the wine and smelling the cloves.
Following the ceremony, the procession returned to the home of the maternal grandparents. The godfather returned the child to the mother, saying: "When you gave me your son, he was not circumcised; now I return the child to you safely, stamped with the mark of our father Abraham…Care for him and raise him to Torah, mitzvot and good deeds, so that he may be a true and pure son of Israel, like his forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, David and
Solomon, never abandoning his faith. May the Lord bestow on you, in honor of his birth, plentiful livelihood, and may you never have need of charity. May the Lord bring peace to the community and to the world, among friends and enemies, abroad and at home. May this child be whole in body and of good cheer, and may you enjoy forty good days, and may all your children have long lives." After the circumcision a feast was held.
Each of the guests brought food, and the hosts contributed as well. They drank, recited blessings and sang piyutim. Attendance at the feast was considered a great mitzva and the saying was: "Do not throwaway even a bone left from the circumcision feast. Gnaw at it and you will be granted atonement for the sins of the entire year.” The circumcision ceremony and the naming of the child protected him against the malice of evil spirits. The first son was usually named after a paternal relative. Sickly children were generally given the name Abraham, Isaac or Chaim. Daughters were named on the first Sabbath after the birth.
Among the lifecycle rituals, the nuptials were the most important.
The events around a wedding lasted for a long time, and consisted of a series of strictly observed ceremonies and rituals. These were intended to guarantee the success of the marriage tie, fertility and prosperity, and to avert dangers and harm and the evil eye. When a youth reached the age of eighteen or twenty and a girl fourteen or sixteen, the first matchmaking negotiations were launched. In the past, cradle matches were also the custom. In Kutaisi, from the end of the 19th century on, it was the custom to prepare a girl for marriage with the help of a special woman tutor - ostati. This woman was responsible for the girl's chastity and good manners, taught her embroidery and dressmaking, and reading and writing in Georgian. Initiative for a match was almost always taken by the bridegroom's parents, usually by the mother. It was customary to send a dominant family member, often the older brother of the bridegroom's father, to establish the first contact with the bride's family. There were several stages to the contact:
Khe/is daqvara - the handshake - a kind of preliminary vow preceding betrothal.
Sitquis gatana - saying the word - spreading the news of the contact in the community and the neighborhood.
Garigeba - the arrangement - setting the conditions, essentially drawing up the financial contract.
Dabeveba - exchange of guarantees - validating the contract by exchanging coins or rings, or both.
Nishnoba - betrothal.
(In some cases, these stages was held on two occasions: the garigeba and the nishnoba, and sometimes on one, the nishnoba.) The betrothal ceremony took place in the bride's home, usually with the participation of the family and relatives alone. In the past it was customary to perform the nuptials during the betrothal ceremony by giving a coin or ring to the bride in the presence of a hakham, and by reciting harei at mekudeshet... (Behold you are consecrated unto me...). However, testimony regarding this custom is equivocal, and it is not clear if this was always the case. When the nuptials did not take place, it was permissible to annul the betrothal by returning the gifts, and a get (divorce document) was not required. The betrothal ceremony was symbolized by a sugar cone (tav shakari - "sugar head" - in western Georgia, and shakar-puri - "sugar and bread" - in eastern Georgia) brought by the bridegroom's family. In Akhaltsikhe, according to Tcherny, the guests went in procession from the bridegroom's house to the bride's home carrying thin wax candles. One of the men carried a round copper tray on which was placed a sugar cone covered with a silk kerchief,
nuts, dried figs and fruit. The hakham brought with him two silver or gold coins given to him by the bridegroom's father. He gave one coin to the bride's father, and then entered a separate room where the bride sat with the other women, their faces veiled, When the hakham entered, the women rose in his honor and the bride uncovered her face. The hakham gave the bride the second coin, saying: "I am the emissary of the bridegroom, and you are consecrated with this coin to the bridegroom according to the laws of Moses and Israel. “
In Kutaisi and Tskhinvali it was the custom to enter the bride's home with the right foot and to recite a blessing: Siman tov ve'mazal tov (a good sign and a lucky sign). The bridegroom's parents entered first and after blessing the bride, distributed lumps of sugar. All those present exchanged blessings and sugar. The bridegroom's parents placed a silk kerchief on the bride's head, adorned her with rings and bracelets, handed her the sugar and said: "May your life be as sweet as sugar." The betrothed couple gave one another gold coins – nishani. After the ceremony a feast was held, and the guests ate, drank and recited blessings late into the night. On leaving, they received from the bride's parents a tray with a sugar cone, fruits and sweetmeats, similar to the one they had brought with them, and continued on to the bridegroom's house for more feasting.
Several months usually lapsed between the betrothal and the wedding. During this time many ceremonies took place, intended to strengthen the ties between the families and to prepare the dowry and the gifts, as well as to consolidate the economic status of the young couple.
Throughout the betrothal period the families of the bride and the groom sent one another presents. The main despatch of presents dzgveni - took place shortly after the betrothal ceremony. The presents were placed on round copper trays covered with silk kerchiefs. The trays were carried on the heads of young men, family members and friends; it was important that the giftbearers be 'happy' people who had suffered no catastrophes and, above all, that they be trusted by the family and well-disposed towards the young couple. They arrived at the bride's home in a merry procession, and the first to enter uncovered the trays and announced the presents. The trays were placed in a central spot, and everyone who entered the room recited a blessing and sprinkled sugar on the presents with a circular movement, from left to right, for good luck.
The dzgveni included sweets, cakes and gifts for each member of the family. The bride was sent an entire set of clothing and cosmetics. The bridegroom received a tobacco pouch and a pouch for his prayer shawl - tzitziti - from velvet or silk, which had been embroidered by the bride's mother. Both bride and groom were sent purses filled with coins. Some people sent nine items of each type of gift or cake. The bridegroom's family was the first to send the dzgveni, and several days later the bride's family reciprocated. The number of trays was always uneven - five, seven or nine, and the bride's family sent a similar number in return plus one additional tray. The families tried to include in the dzgveni as many expensive gifts as possible, so as to gain prestige in the community. The recipient family held a display of all the presents for family and neighbors. In Akhaltsikhe it was the custom to send the dzgveni on holidays and to include the special dishes of that holiday. On the Feast of Shavuot it was customary to add a calf whose horns were decorated with a red or white ribbon and with lighted candles, and with a gold coin around its neck. The calf was then slaughtered and eaten at a festive meal. Before the wedding, relatives sent the betrothed families foodstuffs for the wedding feasts.
Until the wedding ceremony the betrothed couple were forbidden to meet in private, this being considered a grave sin which could cause their untimely deaths. At the same time, there were opportunities for them to visit one another's homes. In the intermediate feast days, the bridegroom would come from his village to that of the bride, and if he was lucky the bride's father would invite him home, so that he was sometimes able to see the bride and exchange a few words with her.6° Sometimes the bridegroom's family took a vow not to invite the bride to their home until the wedding but, generally speaking, the bridegroom's family invited the bride to their home for several days or a week. The entertaining of the bride in the bridegroom's home - gadatzveva - was intended to examine her qualities and to prepare her for her role as housewife. It was the custom to place a broom or shovel by the threshold, and if the future bride stopped and returned it to its proper place, this was a sign she would be a good wife. She was expected to know how to sweep all corners of the house, to mend clothes, to launder, etc.
If she carried out these tasks successfully without wetting the hem of her dress, she was considered a worthy bride; if she was slovenly, the bridegroom's mother or the wife of his eldest brother, taught her the chores.
During the betrothal period the relatives of the young couple invited them to their homes for the Sabbath, held feasts in their honor and gave them gifts. A week or two before the wedding, on a Tuesday, the ceremony of the cutting of the bridal dress material - kabis chela - took place. The bridegroom's mother arrived with the daughters of the family and female relatives, and brought precious gifts for the bride, usually jewels and particularly a watch and a gold chain. This all-woman event was attended by relatives from the bride's family, the ostati and her wetnurse (if she had one). Everyone watched carefully lest some witchcraft be performed which might harm the bride. The bridegroom's mother brought two lengths of cloth - one for the dress to be worn at the wedding ceremony and the second for the week after - as well as sugar and sweet yeast loaves. When the dress material was about to be cut, all the women rose to their feet, and the bridegroom's mother handed the bride bread and sugar, saying: "Like the yeast and the sugar, may you swell and be sweet and bring joy and blessings to everyone. And may God give you a good hour, a good and beautiful day... and may the Exile come to an end, and may the Messiah son of David arrive. And may I and all have a good wedding ceremony. Amen, so be it." The mother measured the length of the dress, added another measure, and said: "May there be plenty and may nothing be lacking." Then she cut out a strip of cloth, rolled it up and gave it to the bride.
During the feast the bridegroom's mother sat at the head of the table, and invited the bride to sit at her side. A tray was placed before the bride, on which the bridegroom's mother placed all her presents. It was handed round the table and each of the women present added her gift, until it returned to the bride. All the women blessed the bride and entertained her with singing and dancing late into the night. After the women left the men took their place and the feasting and merrymaking continued.
The bridegroom's garments were prepared by the bride's mother. On the night before the wedding, the wedding clothes were taken to bride and groom by loyal family friends, together with a decanter of wine, yeast bread and a silver coin. In Akhaltsikhe and Kareli the henna ceremony was held on the night before the wedding (Wednesday). This ceremony, traditional among Jewish communities in Islamic countries, was unknown in other parts of Georgia.
At midnight a procession came to the bride's home, headed by the beadle of the synagogue bearing a platter with four loaves of bread in which lighted wax candles were stuck, and a dish filled with henna. The bride was seated, two loaves with candles were placed on her head, and she painted her nails and the palms of her hands, as did all the other women. After the ceremony the bread was removed from her head, and the women danced before her. Meanwhile, a feast for the men was held in the bridegroom's home. Before dawn the celebrants conveyed the bride by candlelight, with song and dance, to the bridegroom's house. There she was given bread, butter and honey, and after dipping her fingers in them she made marks on the doorpost - a sign of plenty and joy. At the same time, the bridegroom went out onto the roof of his house holding rice and a white rooster. He would then scatter the rice on the head of the bride and set the rooster free, as a sign of fertility.
In eastern Georgia, the papis chama feast was held on the night before the wedding. Relatives gathered in the bridegroom's house for a feast consisting mainly of porridge. During the feast, one of the guests would run forward and smear the porridge on the bridegroom's face. In the ensuing merrymaking all the guests would try to smear one another. The women also took part in this occasion, and those who had the most porridge smeared on them were believed to be the most beautiful on the wedding day. A similar event also took place in the bride's home.
The dowry was displayed a week before the wedding, or at noon on the wedding day. The bridegroom's relatives, together with the community notables and the hakhamim, came to the bride's house where her father showed them all the dowry. The items and their monetary value were recorded in the appendix to the ketuba (marriage contract) or on its reverse side. The list also included presents from relatives on the bride's side. After calculating the value of the dowry and adding twenty percent, everything was wrapped up in large bundles. Sometimes the bundles were taken at once to the bridegroom's home, and sometimes only after the wedding ceremony.
On the Sabbath before the wedding the entire congregation was invited to the occasion. Women invited women, and men invited men. It was customary to send a thin round loaf of bread to each family which had been invited. Since the 1950s it has become popular to send printed invitations. These are usually decorated with photographs of bride and groom, with traditional Georgian motifs such as flowers, leaves, branches, doves, goblets, wine bottles and drinking horns - kantsi, and sometimes Jewish motifs such as Torah scrolls, a Star of David and verses in Hebrew letters were added, On the day before the wedding the bride was brought to the bathhouse and then to the mikveh. In Akhaltsikhe the bride went out in the morning, accompanied by a crowd of men and women, singing, playing musical instruments and dancing. In Kutaisi and Tskhinvali the bride and her companions went to the mikveh only after dark, and the bride covered her face lest she be identified.
At the head of the entourage was the dade - the bridesmaid a mature woman particularly close to the bride: her grandmother, aunt, older sister or sister-in-law. She was responsible for preparing the bride for her wedding night, and accompanied her in her first steps after the wedding. The bride carried her new clothes in a bundle kerchief, and an embroidered towel prepared specially for this day. The dade brought a large silver or copper cup which she filled to the brim with mikveh water, poured it on the bride's head and blessed her.
On the following day, the day of the wedding, the "best man" shoshpini - accompanied the bridegroom to the mikveh and sometimes also to the bathhouse. On their return he and one of the brothers dressed the bridegroom, blessed each garment and taught him how to recite the blessings at the ceremony and how to answer those who blessed him.
Before the wedding ceremony the women dressed the bride. This task could only be fulfilled by "joyous women" with many children, so as to bring the bride good luck and fertility. Each woman dressed the bride in one garment, while the dade did not remove her gaze from the bride lest someone perform acts of witchcraft against her. Bride and groom wore magnificent garments specially tailored for the occasion. We have no record of special wedding costumes before the 20th century, except in Akhaltsikhe, where the bride wore an ornate dress, known as the golden dress. In the 1920s it became increasingly more popular for the bride to wear white, and a white headdress. In the 1930s a tiara was added, patterned with _ colored flowers, made of wax and metal threads - gvirgvini. This tiara was made by a special seamstress, and female friends and relatives borrowed it from one another. From the beginning of the century, with the introduction of European dress, the bridegroom wore a western-style suit and a peaked hat. Since the 1930s it has been customary for the bridegroom to wear a flower made of metal thread and wax, similar to the bride's gvirgvini, in his buttonhole. This qecoration, worn on the left is called gulisvardi (flower on the heart).
The nuptial ceremony, known as ketuba, was performed in the home of the bride or in the synagogue, and many of its components are still practiced today. The ceremony began with a procession from the bridegroom's house to the bride's, with the members of the entourage carrying lighted candles. At the head of the procession walked the musicians, and everyone sang piyutim (religious hymns) and nuptial songs. If bride and groom did not live in the same town, horsemen escorted the procession. When the ceremony was performed in the synagogue, a similar procession escorted the bride. At its head was the makharobeli (the herald), a boy or young man from the bridegroom's family. The herald entered the bride's home first and, in rhyme, announced the bridegroom's arrival. Members of the bride's family tied a kerchief around his arm and gave him wine to drink. After drinking the wine, the herald smashed the glass as a symbol of good luck.
It was the custom to close the door against the bridegroom, who "purchased" his right to enter by handing over a silver coin through one of the children (in recent times, the bridgroom slips a banknote under the door). The role of the makharobeli was common among Georgians as well.
During the ceremony the couple stood on a large cushion on the sofa. If the ceremony was conducted in the synagogue, they stood on the teva (reader's platform). Beside them stood the shoshpini and the dade, whose task was to guard against witchcraft which might harm the young couple. In Akhaltsikhe, those present held thick wax candles, painted various colors or wrapped in gilded paper. In other places the shoshpini held a large candle - kelaptari - made of wax produced from honey and prepared by the bridegroom's mother. This candle was retained after the wedding and was lit at the circumcision ceremony of each of the couple's sons. According to the custom of Georgian Jews, the bridegroom's prayershawl (talit) served as the canopy. After the bridegroom had wrapped himself in his talit and blessed it, young men from the family grasped the four corners and raised it above the heads of bride and groom. The ketuba was brought to the ceremony wrapped in a white kerchief and was rewrapped after being read. Bride and groom grasped the ketuba by its upper corners, and the shoshpini and the dade grasped it by its lower corners. The hakham recited the first blessings and handed the glass of wine to the bridegroom. After sipping wine he handed it on to the bride. It was customary for the bride to turn her back on the gathering while drinking. The dade, the shoshpini, the parents and the witnesses also tasted the wine. After the bridegroom placed the ring on his bride's finger, all the congregation sang Kol sason vekol simha (Hebrew - "the sound of happiness and the sound of rejoicing,,). The hakham read the ketuba and sometimes repeated it in Georgian translation. When he completed the reading, the bridegroom drank wine, and, guided by the hakham, recited the Hebrew verse: "If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning," sprinkling drops of wine on the floor with each word. All those present tried to taste the drops - as a guarantee of good luck. When he finished, the bridegroom smashed the glass on the floor. When the ceremony ended, a kind of 'contest' was held between bride and groom, each trying to tread on the other's foot. It was believed that the one who won would be the ruler of the family. This last custom is now disappearing, particularly among veteran immigrants to Israel. .
In Akhaltsikhe it was the custom to prepare a kind of cubicle made of the parochet (curtain of the Ark) and carpets, known as adjela. After the reading of the ketuba, the bridegroom lifted the bride and seated her in the adjela. He then returned to his place, and the hakham and the congregation sang a special song in his honor. They then called out besiman tov (Hebrew - good sign, good luck), and the bridegroom returned to the bride and sat by her side for hityahadut (communion). They were then served food and drink. The adjela was traditional among the Jews of Akhaltsikhe until the 1920s, and the couple slept there for the first seven nights following the wedding. The custom was also prevalent among Christians and Moslems in southern Georgia, but was unknown in other parts of the country. A similar tradition, the talamo, was practiced among the Jews of Turkey.
In Karteli the kabaluli dance was performed after the ceremony. The mother, sister or sister-in-law of the bridegroom danced before the young couple, waving a special yeast cake with lighted candles on it. She was followed by a woman from the bride's family, holding another cake, baked in the bride's home; bride and groom and other members of the family joined in the dance. The celebrants placed banknotes on the cake in appreciation of the dancer. The remnants of the kabaluli candles were safeguarded lest they be used for witchcraft against the young couple. After the nuptials a small boy from the bride's family was seated on her knee, as a guarantee of male offpsring.
After the guests had eaten and drunk, the celebrants left the bridegroom's house for the wedding feast. This was the moment when the bride parted from her family; she left the protection of her parents, and her mother-in-law now took responsibility for her. On leaving, she was forbidden to turn her head to look back at her parents' home. At the head of the celebrants walked the herald, this time a boy from the bride's family. He was followed by the hakhamim, the young couple and the rest of the wedding party, apart from the bride's parents. Everyone held lighted candles and sang. The makharobeli proclaimed the arrival of the bride with a verse: "I, the herald, have come to gladden your hearts. Empty Hl,o hall because I am bringing a beautiful woman." On the threshold the young couple were handed a glass of wine, yeast dough sprinkled with sugar, grains of sweet rice and raisins and a lump of sugar a symbol of fertility and sweet life. The bride stuck her fingers in the dough, and sprinkled rice on the celebrants.
The feast was held in the bridegroom's house or in a special hut built for the occasion beside the house. The bridegroom's father launched the celebration by raising a glass in blessing and selecting the tamada - head of the table. The benediction ceremony was conducted according to the protocol of a Georgian feast, but differed in that the number of glasses toasted increased from round to round: they began with three, continued with five, seven, nine, etc.; the glasses were placed on a platter which circulated among the guests.
The musicians played throughout the feast, and as the evening proceeded, the guests danced. The favorite dance at wedding feasts was the shalakho or the bagdaduri. Today it is the custom for men to hand banknotes to the women dancers during the dance, after which the women give them to the musicians. The feast lasted until morning, when the head of the table was handed a copper salver, laden with a whole turkey and two bottles of wine - tamadis dzgveni. The head of the table then collected the wedding presents, placed them on the platter and proclaimed each one to the celebrants.
At dawn the guests left for the bride's home to bring back the dowry. There, a table was laid at the door in their honor, and the celebration continued. This event was known as dilis sari. In many cases it was preferred to bring the dowry a day or several days before the wedding.
The celebrations continued for a week after the wedding ceremony. The families exchanged presents and invited each other to feasts while, throughout the week, the best man would escort the bridegroom to the synagogue, where both sat on special cushions with white covers. On the Sabbath, the bridegroom was called up to the Torah (Shabbat Hattan), and his parents then held a feast in his honor. During the first days the bridegroom's mother observed the conduct of the bride, in particular regarding her days of ritual purity; if the bride erred in her calculations, she instructed her. About one month after the wedding, the young couple visited with the bride's family. The groom would bring his mother-in-law a silk kerchief or dress, and the couple was given an expensive. gift - items of jewelry or clothing.
Mourning and burial customs
Among the Jews of Georgia there was no official hevra kadisha (burial society), and all members of the congregation dealt with ritual purification of the corpse and buria1. The hakham accompanied the family throughout the mourning period, and played a central role in the ceremonies and rituals of burial and mourning. The men or women (according to the sex of the deceased) who dealt with the purification of the corpse were known as tanis banelebi, and members of the congregation treated them with respect.
When a person was dying, members of the family, friends and neighbors assembled around his bed, and in the presence of the hakham, took leave of him, revoking all his vows by calling out mehila (in Hebrew - forgiveness). After the death, the women assembled to lament the deceased. In the past it was the custom to wear one's best clothes in his honor, while in recent generations it has become customary to wear black mourning clothes.
The deceased was placed on the ground, covered with expensive clothing and with silk kerchiefs, and at his head and feet two candles were lit. The mourners sat around weeping and praising him, and approached him one by one, asking him to be their advocate before God.
The shroud was prepared by poor, old women - suderis mkravi (the shroud seamstresses). Prosperous families tried to bring shrouds from Jerusalem. When the ritual purification of the corpse was completed, the clay vessels in which the water had been brought were smashed. After the corpse was removed from the house it was customary to close the door and knock three times - to ensure that there would be no more deaths in the house.
According to Tcherny,"the deceased is conveyed to the cemetery with candles and with song and music," as was the custom of the non-Jews. This custom is practiced to this day, and in many cases musical instruments are used - drum, clarinet and accordion - both in the funeral procession and in the farewell ceremony in the home of the deceased.
In recent generations, under the influence of the Christian milieu, the photograph of the deceased has become an important component in mourning ceremonies and funerals. In the mourning house a photograph in a black frame is displayed beside the corpse, and a large photograph or several photographs are carried at the head of the funeral procession. Sometimes the escorts wear photographs of the deceased in their buttonholes. In many cases the tombstone is decorated with a photograph of the deceased; in recent years some wealthy families have erected a statue of the deceased on the tombstone.
If the deceased was over thirteen, the funeral procession moved to the synagogue courtyard, where the hakham delivered a long eulogy, interspersed with sayings from the sages and verses from the Torah. After the eulogy, the women took their leave of the deceased and left the funeral procession. In the past the women went down to the river to wash their hands and faces, and then threw kerchiefs into the water. One of the women brought vessels of water to the mourning household to wash the hands of those returning from the cemetery.
During the funeral procession it was the custom (apparently only in recent years) to carry the deceased in a coffin, although he was not buried in the coffin. A bag of earth from the land of Israel was placed at his head. When a woman died, her ketuba was buried with her. In Kutaisi the deceased was buried with a silver ring engraved with his name, so that his name would be remembered when the dead were resurrected. When the men returned from the cemetery they sat down to a feast of wine, bread, beans, dairy foods and eggs. In Kutaisi two candles were lit on the spot where the body had lain, and beside them were placed a small vessel with flour, a small stone, a cup full of water and a row of cracked eggs.
Feasts of dairy foods, accompanied by sermons delivered by the hakham, were held on each of the seven days of mourning. Tcherny explains these feasts through a midrash (homiletic story) he heard from a hakham in Kutaisi. According to this midrash, the Jews of Georgia believe that there is no Hell for Jews for two reasons: Firstly, death brings atonement for a man's sins; secondly, God told Abraham that his sons would some day betray His teaching, and offered him the choice of punishment in Hell or punishment through long, bitter exile. Since Abraham chose the second punishment, they were exempt from Hell. Hence, every Jew who dies goes straight to Heaven and should not be mourned, and at the mourning feasts the guests eat and drink as at other ritual feasts.
Great value was placed on comforting the bereaved, and the mourning family was never left alone, lest evil angels harm them.
In the mourning household, the minha (afternoon) prayer was recited, Psalms were recited and chapters of Mishna (Oral Law) were studied, but the mourners also attended services in the synagogue. When they recited the kaddish prayer in the synagogue, "the rabbi would stand behind them, and they would pray together sitting on the ground in front of the Ark. After the shaharif (morning) prayer, they would kiss the hand of the hakham, and he would comfort them and recite the £1 Ma1eh Rahamim prayer." On the Sabbath, after the arvit (evening) prayer, the entire congregation visited the mourners.
After the seven days of mourning, and again after thirty days, large feasts were held in the house of the deceased, and the eating of meat was permitted. It was customary for the guests to bring cooked dishes with them. On the thirtieth day the mourning family went to the cemetery. The women spread the clothes of the deceased on the grave, sat on rugs at its foot and lamented. The oldest and most respected woman among them collected coins for the poor in her kerchief. The men brought wine and food and ate near the cemetery. This tradition, as well, was apparently borrowed from the non-Jews.
During the eleven months of mourning feasts were held every Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the month) in memory of the deceased, and the hakhamim were invited. Every Friday those who engaged in purification of the dead were sent a platter of food. Throughout this period an oil candle - kandi1i - burned in the home of the mourners. It is the tradition today as well to place the clothes and shoes and a photograph of the deceased person on his bed, and the mourners and comforters approach the bed to mourn him and to address appeals to him.91 After the year of mourning a great feast was held, and the mourners were permitted to wear new clothes, to attend celebrations and to hold nuptials for their children. A widow or widower was allowed to seek a new partner, although in many cases, even if they were widowed young, they demonstrated loyalty to their children and family and preferred not to remarry.
On religious festivals members of the family and the congregation assembled and celebrated together in a spirit of exhilaration and religious awe. Families convened for festive meals and sent one another presents. After the prayers, they assembled in groups to play games, to sing and to dance, and in some cases to study Torah and Hebrew together.
The Jews of Georgia were not always acquainted with all the religious laws and precepts, and in isolated communities, lacking an accurate calendar, the dates of festivals were sometimes miscalculated. Generally speaking, festivals were celebrated on time, and many of the traditions accepted in other Jewish communities in the Diaspora were known in Georgia as well. Over the generations a range of customs and traditions, influenced by the locale, were added; several of these are mentioned below.
Before Rosh Hashana (New Year) it was the custom for people to ask whether they owed one another anything, and to reply: halali (from the Arabic word: halal- exempt). On the eve of Rosh Hashana, after returning from the synagogue, everyone kissed the mother of the family. The father then preached to the family and advised them on how to conduct themselves during the new year. One of the older women of the family brought vessels filled with water from the river, and as she entered she sprinkled water on the doorposts and said: "Just as these vessels are filled with water, may our house be filled with blessings and plenty."
Before Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the kapparot (atonement) ceremony was performed; a rooster was swung around the head of a man and a hen around the head of a woman. To perform kapparot for a pregnant woman, a hen and two eggs were used.
On the night before Yom Kippur the congregation went to the synagogue to revoke vows; they recalled the dead and pr8pared their favorite dishes, which they sent to the poor. Before the pre-fast meal all the family members lit tall candles - keJaptari, and each family brought a candle to the synagogue.
On that same evening, people asked pardon of relatives and friends.
The intermediate days of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) were a time of celebration, and young men and women gathered to dance together. The sukkah (tabernacle) was decorated with expensive cloth, with greenery and fruit, and a chair was placed inside for Elijah the Prophet. On the night of Hoshana Raba (the seventh day of Sukkot) people gathered in a home where there was a sukkah. to conduct the ceremony of tikkun (night liturgy), and in the synagogue they recited Psalms and remained awake all night.
The women also took part in this vigil "and they all walked abroad and sat around the synagogue." The merrymaking reached its height on the eve of Simhat Torah (Rejoicing of the law): "During the hakafot (circuits) people stood on the long benches of the synagogue, the children walked in front with lighted candles and scrolls decorated with apples and silk kerchiefs, and danced like goats…and behind them walked the bearers of the Torah scrolls, and after them many of the people were dancing and singing... then two men took up one man and carried him… and finally all the people carried both large and small in their arms."
On the following day, Simhat Torah, "they visited one another... and recited the kiddush and benedictions over fruit and all kinds of food. From the prayer service to minhah, and at night as well, they marked the holiday all night with dancing to the sound of drums, accordion and flutes.”
On Hanukka (Feast of Lights), candles were lit by slicing open potatoes, pouring in oil and adding wicks. A particularly joyous festival was Purim which, according to Nathan Eliashvili, "was the happiest festival and the most popular among the people.”
The merrymaking began after the reading of the Megilla in the synagogue and lasted all night. Throughout the week "the table was neverending." The exchange of gifts (mishloah manot) continued, people visited one another, "eating and drinking and singing songs and piyutim," and the dancing and playing of music in the courtyards and the houses did not cease for a moment. Unique to Purim was the custom of riding horses: "Formerly it was their custom to ride horses in a long row like the militia... to the sound of song, but now they ride one by one, and young boys also gallop on the horses”.
Passover was preceded by lengthy preparations - baking of matzot (unleavened bread), cleaning the house, cleansing the dishes and removing leavened bread from the house. Those who owned land allotted a part of a field for growing the wheat from which the flour for matzot was made. During the grinding of the flour, wax candles were lit inside the millstones, lest the flour be leavened, and so as to prevent "Satan and devils from taking over the flour”
On the seder night, known by Georgian Jews as Haggada (tale of the Exodus), the extended family assembled in the home of the paterfamilias. The Haggada was read in Hebrew on the first night and in Georgian as well on the second night. During the reading a young boy would leave the house wearing traveling clothes, and would knock on the door. "Those who were seated at the seder asked him: 'Who are you?' and he replied: '[ am a Jew,' 'And who will believe that you are a Jew?' they asked, and he replied: '[ have a tzitzit (fringed prayer shawl).' 'That is no sign, give another sign,' they replied and accepted no sign until he cried, '[ am circumcised like you.' 'If that is so,' they asked, 'if you are a Jew, why have you come all this way to us? Do you not know that we have a feast of matzot, and how have you been on the road till now?' The boy replied that he had come from Jerusalem, and according to another version, from Egypt. Only after pleading at length, was the boy allowed to enter and often, in order to increase the merriment, he was asked to let them see with their own eyes that he had been circumcised..." In Tskhinvali, when they reached the verse 'In each generation a man should regard himself as if he had departed from Egypt,' the hakham wrapped a matza in a kerchief, "placed it over his shoulder and walked four paces to show' the celebrants how the people of Israel had walked out of Egypt with their bread on their shoulders." After completing the reading of the Haggada, people played with red-painted eggs, a game that continued throughout the intermediate days.
The centrality of the synagogue in Jewish life in Georgia was so great that Nathan Eliashvili stated: "The Jew considered the synagogue to be his main home”. Decades of Communist rule did not undermine the status of the synagogue. Aryeh Eliav, who visited Georgia in the 1960s, wrote: "On the Sabbath and festivals, the synagogues are filled to bursting point, not only with men but also with children of all ages. The women's section is filled with old women and young mothers with babies in their arms, and the building is filled with the healthy and normal uproar of a congregation of believers." Every Sabbath, before the minha prayer, the congregation arrived early to hear the sermon of the hakham, and before the arvit prayer "young men assembled to sing old-established songs from ancient times" as noted in the introduction to the book of piyutim collected by Yaakov Hananashvili. Circumcisions, and often weddings, were held in the synagogue. During funeral processions, the hakham would preach a sermon at the door of the synagogue.
Charitable activities were organized through the synagogue. The poor and needy approached the congregation directly during prayers, mostly on the Sabbath and festivals, and the members announced the sum of their donation, which the gabai (synagogue treasurer) collected after the festival or Sabbath. Sometimes the reading of the Torah was deferred until all the rich men had announced their donations, and if the prosperous hesitated to give, the hakham urged them to do so until the entire required sum had been collected.
The hakham, spiritual leader of the congregation, served as rabbi and usually also as hazzan (cantor), shohet (ritual slaughterer) and melamed (teacher), as well as head of the religious court. The hakhamim were deeply involved in community life and took part in every important event in family life. Sermons were delivered at feasts, and at every Sabbath and festival in the synagogue; they combined legend and moral teaching, Bible stories and rabbinical midrashim, with the aim of bringing the unlearned closer to the spirit of the Jewish faith.
The education of the children was the responsibility of the hakhamim. Lessons took place in the synagogue building and sometimes even in the main sanctuary. The students were divided into three groups: the first group studied the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the prayers and related laws; the second group studied the Bible, often with Rashi commentary; the third group - which was the smallest - included the outstanding students who studied Mishna, Gemara and halacha (Jewish law) and who later continued their studies, often receiving ordination as hakhamim.
The synagogue was usually located at the center of the Jewish quarter and was both large and luxurious. The congregation willingly donated money for its upkeep, and these sums came from vows, donations, aliyot to the Torah and other honors which were sold to the highest bidder. At the same time, the dire poverty from which Georgian Jewry suffered during many generations left its mark on the synagogues as well. Communities often found it hard to renovate or rebuild synagogues that had been burned or ruined.
As a result of historical upheavals and decades of Communist rule, few ancient synagogues remain in Georgia. Most of the existing stuctures were built at the beginning of this century or later. The oldest synagogue active today is in Akhaltsikhe, built in 1741. During the 19th century, most of the synagogues were apparently built of wood or stones, and rough unhewn stones. With the improvement in the security situation and the economic standing of the Jews, large and luxurious buildings made of brick or hewn stones were built, such as the synagogue in Kutaisi, inaugurated in 1886, and the Great Synagogue in Tbilisi, built in 1895-1903. The synagogue in Oni, built in 1895, is a stone structure, the largest and most ostentatious in the town. Many of the synagogues are surrounded by a wall, and in the courtyard are buildings for various religious purposes, such as a mikveh (ritual bath), an abattoire, a bakery for matzot and a Talmud Torah.
The interior of the synagogues resembles the synagogues of Eastern communities. The teva (reader's platform) is at the center or near the wall opposite the hekhal (Ark), as in Akhaltsikhe. In most places the teva is wooden and is large and elevated, reached by several steps. Sometimes it is emphasized by four pillars which support the ceiling and create a frame, as in Kutaisi and Kulashi. In the newer synagogues the teva is usually at the front of the hall, near the hekha/. In the past the seats faced the center; the chairs or benches were built along the walls, and around the teva there was open space. This arrangement made it possible to maintain the customs described by Tcherny: "After prayers, when it is time to leave the synagogue, each and every man must perform one hakafa (circuit) of the building around the teva, and he must try not to leave from the same side he entered." According to another custom, anyone who went up to read the Torah "was obliged, on his return, to walk around the synagogue and kiss the hats of all the people around the synagogue”. Today, the rows of seats face the hekha/ (Ark) in most synagogues, but in addition, there are seats along the walls and around the teva. In Akhaltsikhe, to the sides of the teva are two seating sections surrounded by a wooden rail, with a large table at the center.
There is no way of knowing how the synagogues were decorated in the past. It seems that in the past few generations there has been a growing trend to add decoration. Thus, in the 1940s, the ceiling and walls of the Great Synagogue in Tbilisi were decorated with drawings of geometrical motifs and plants. Other synagogues were decorated with drawings, such as a picture of Mount Sinai above the hekha/ in the Great Synagogue in Kutaisi, or pictures of imaginary landscapes of Eretz Yisrael in the synagogue in Surami. In the Tbilisi synagogue the walls are decorated with large plaques with the words of the main prayers, in Hebrew or Georgian transliteration, and colorful calendars.
Generally speaking, the more Torah scrolls the better, and those who could afford to do so considered it a great privilege to donate a Torah scroll. The introduction of a new scroll was celebrated lavishly, and the donor was accorded great honor. The Torah was placed in a case of wood and leather, and on it a brocaded or velvet cover decorated with silk kerchiefs which the women donated when taking vows. The Torah scroll handles were ornamented with decorative rimonim (Torah finials) - limoni, some of wood, but most of silver and with bells. Some were in the form of fruit, resembling the rimonim of Persia, Kurdistan and Iraq. Since there were few Jewish. silversmiths in Georgia, these rimonim may have been brought from neighboring countries. Others, unique in their structure, were in the shape of a round, square or six-sided tower, with a top shaped like a cone or cap. Although the identity of the craftsmen is unknown, these rimonim were apparently made in Tbilisi at the end of the 19th century, and may reflect an earlier artistic tradition. Like the intricately-decorated ketubbot (marriage contracts) which we discovered in the course of our research for this exhibition, they are worthy of a general study of the popular artisanship of Georgian Jews.