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Documenting the Rich Visual Legacy of Georgian Jewry

Beth Hathfutsoth

Georgia, a country situated between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, is on the crossroads of Europe and Asia. The Jews of Georgia trace their history to the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. In fact, this year, the government of Georgia plans to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the Jewish community there.

The Georgian Jewish community is culturally rich and diversified, reflecting the influences of the old Russian and Ottoman Empires, of Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Eastern traditions, and the later impact of Hasidism. Having lived for centuries in peace with their Christian neighbors, the twentieth century has seen the Jewish community depleted by war and immigration, and today numbers no more than three thousand souls. While a wealth of synagogues and ritual objects are testaments to this once-thriving community, this visual heritage is in danger of disappearing.

An expedition of the Center for Jewish Art set out for Georgia in September 1997. Three researchers and two photographers, led by Center director Dr. Aliza Cohen-Mushlin, traveled over one thousand miles through areas devoid of electricity and running water to document the artistic and architectural remnants of Georgian Jewry. Center researchers documented a total of fourteen synagogues, some of them damaged by natural disasters or closed due to lack of congregations, and an abundance of ritual objects.

Interior of the large synagogue in Kutaisi, dated 1886.

In the two synagogues still in use in the capital Tbilisi, researchers saw unusual wood carved Torah finials, an Ottoman Torah pointer, a variety of Torah cases, some cylindrical and others with eight and sixteen facets, bound in velvet or studded leather.

The Torah cases are covered by a small garment (kabah) which resembles a Torah mantle with a flat top and an opening fastened by six ribbons. Above the garment, the Torah staves are adorned with many kerchiefs, and surmounted by Torah finials.

The Akhaltsikhe Synagogue of the Georgian Jews, built in 1905, consists of two large halls. The upper hall which has a women's gallery is sumptuously decorated with geometrical motifs. The spacious lower hall is used by men for daily prayer services and has no women's section.

The early twentieth century Ashkenazi synagogue is a very lavish synagogue with a barrel vaulted ceiling decorated with four Stars of David, clouds and stars around its axis. Above the ark is a round window with Tables of the Law flanked by two stained glass windows. As in other Ashkenazi synagogues, the Torah scrolls are covered with mantles and not cases which is most common in Georgia.

Researchers traveled next to Gori, Stalin's birthplace, but were unable to find anyone responsible to show them the small synagogue. Tskhinvali, which lies in the Osetiya region of Georgia, was their next brief stop. They were told that the Jews fled during the 1993 civil unrest, when South Osetiya tried to gain independence from Georgia and the remaining synagogue was burned down. There is a UN outpost here and researchers encountered UN soldiers on both the entrance and exit of town, and again when they left the region.

In the remote village of Oni the researchers documented a stone synagogue built in 1895 with a large cupola and arches, which researchers were told was modeled after an earlier structure in Warsaw. Among the ritual objects recorded were a pair of Torah finials in the Austro-Hungarian style, and a pair of local, conical shaped finials covered in black velvet, probably used on Tish'a b'Av. Torah arks (heikhalim) in Georgia are constructed in two or three sections adjoined side-by-side. In the nine-bay Oni Synagogue the Torah scrolls were divided between the two sections of the Torah ark. Researchers documented five cylindrical Torah cases with staves protruding from both the top and the bottom. Since Torahs in cases are traditionally read in an upright position standing on the tevah, these protruding staves present a slight logistic problem, whereby two persons must balance the Torah and case, while a third is reading.

Interior of the large synagogue in Surami, with view of tevah, heikal, and wall and ceiling paintings.

At one time, the Jews of Oni comprised fifty percent of the population. In the aftermath of a destructive earthquake in 1991, which partially destroyed the famous synagogue, many of the remaining Jews left. Today only one hundred Jews reside in Oni. The synagogue was renovated in 1995 on its one hundredth anniversary.

A visit to Kutaisi, whose two hundred year old Jewish community numbers one thousand today, revealed three yellow stone synagogues, all sturdily built in the latter half of the last century, featuring porticos at the entrance, decorative wall paintings and arched windows. All three synagogues are in use today. Documented in these synagogues were several pairs of Torah finials, some spool-like and strung with silk, a design unique to Georgia. There was also a cartouche-shaped Torah shield, dated 1885, from Poland. Many of the cylindrical shaped Torah cases with staves protruding from the bottom are topped with different shaped crests, which open together with the cases to reveal dedicatory inscriptions.

In the rural village of Kulashi, once predominately Jewish, three synagogues were documented, one of them a rectangular structure built entirely of wood, another made of red brick, and a third half-timbered. The synagogues still house a number of empty Torah cases, empty prayer shawl and phylactery bags, books, and two abandoned Torah scrolls. No Jews remain in Kulashi today, all having fled during the civil war, and the delapidated synagogues are guarded by local Georgians.

The sumptuous synagogue in Vani, now home to only two Jewish families, contained several pairs of finials, one of which reflected Persian influence, and another Austro-Hungarian. Also stored in the three-section Torah ark were four Torah cases, three cylindrical and one twelve-faceted.

Researchers documented two synagogues in Surami, home to an active Jewish community of three hundred. The larger synagogue is situated below a medieval citadel. The interior is decorated with landscape paintings of mountains and lakes and beautiful fan motifs on the slanted ceiling. Fifteen Torah cases were documented, one of them octagonal and fashioned from beach wood, as well as a noteworthy collection of finials and pointers. Only one Torah scroll remains in Surami; the rest were stolen. Among the books lay a 1783 edition of the Zohar, printed in Poland.

In Akhaltsikhe, near the Turkish border, there are two synagogues, one of which now serves as a sports hall. Both structures were built for the Sephardi community there. The active synagogue, dated 1863, features a very large central tevah. The Torah ark is on the west wall, the entrance is in the south, and the women's gallery with its high latticed screen is on the east wall opposite the Torah ark. Among the ritual objects documented in the sumptuous Akhaltsikhe Synagogue were a silver Torah pointer with a flattened hamsa hand from 1881, a brass Hanukkah lamp, and a nineteenth century faceted leather Torah case. The Torah cases in Akhaltsikhe, in contrast to those in Oni, Kutaisi and Surami, have a flat base and the Torah staves jut out above only, as in Tblisi. In the cemetery, which sits on top of a hill opposite the synagogue, researchers documented some unusual tombstones from the mid-nineteenth century which reflected the wealth of the community. Some are constructed with a high base of grey stone, with a rounded top like a sarcophagus, made of red stone. Others are three-tiered, in the Armenian mode and unlike other Jewish tombstones found in Georgia.

Twenty-four Jewish families remain in the town of Kareli, researchers' last stop in Georgia. A new synagogue was built there eight years ago on the spot of an older synagogue which burned down in the 1970s.

The videographer who accompanied this expedition was able to record on film the ritual objects found in synagogues and private homes, Torah readings and other traditional ceremonies in the synagogue. Elders and leaders of the community were also interviewed on video.

This expedition was carried out with the generous support of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York and Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation in cooperation with the Project Judaica Foundation of Washington, D.C., Mark Talisman, President.


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