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The Jews of Georgia and Eretz Ysrael




Dr. Yitzhak David, Orientalist: researcher of the history of the Georgian Jews and their settlement in Eretz Yisrael.

Eretz Yisrael has always played a central role in the lives and faith of the Jews of Georgia. In his book on the history of Georgian Jewry (1926), Nathan Eliashvili writes: "Love and yearning for Eretz Yisrael were strong and profound... the Georgian Jew considered himself a citizen of Eretz Yisrael. In his imagination he lived there, in his country, and exile was but a long nightmare, brought about by his sins... All his life the Jew dreamed of going to Eretz Yisrael, to see it for once, at least, with his own eyes, or to be buried there in the fullness of years. This was his dream and by this he swore."!

It is an ancient tradition among Georgian Jews that they are the descendants of the Ten Tribes exiled by the kings of Assyria, who made their way to Georgia through Persia and Armenia. Even if the first Jews reached Georgia only in the days of Nebuchadnezzar or later, there can be no doubt that in the 4th century there was already a flourishing Jewish community there, which maintained close ties with the Jews of Eretz Yisrael. The Georgian Jews and emissaries who journeyed between Eretz Yisrael and Georgia seem to have contributed to the crystallization of religious outlooks and spiritual trends in the Caucasus; according to Georgian sources, they played an important role in the dissemination of Christianity in Georgia.

The Holy Land played a crucial role in Georgian Christianity, and the relative geographical proximity to the Holy Land helped foster close ties. For hundreds of years, and with impressive continuity, Christian Georgians journeyed to Palestine where they founded churches and monasteries. There were Georgian monasteries on Mount Sinai, in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, etc; the most central was the Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem where, it is believed, the eminent 12th-century Georgian poet, Shota Rustaveli, is buried.

Up to the 19th century there is almost no evidence of contacts between the Jews of Georgia and the Holy Land, but it is highly feasible that Jews from various regions of Georgia reached Palestine together with the Christian pilgrims. There are perhaps allusions to the links of the Jews of Georgia to Eretz Yisrael in European Christian sources from the 16th century, which describe messianic movements in the Caucasus and an army of "... Hebrew Caucasians" preparing to liberate the Holy Land and Jerusalem from the Turks.

Georgian contacts with Palestine were greatly reduced in the 17th and 18th centuries with the disintegration of the Georgian kingdom; these contacts were revived in the 19th century in the wake of the annexation of Georgia by Russia (1801) and after Russia joined other countries seeking a foothold in Palestine. Despite the delicate and complex relations between Russia and Turkey, the former scrupulously safeguarded its political and ecclesiastical interests in Palestine and protected the rights of its nationals who chose to emigrate to Palestine. This created a situation which also facilitated the immigration of Georgian Jews to the Holy Land.

Immigration from Georgia in the 19th century
Various tombstones in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives bear witness to the fact that Jews from Georgia reached Jerusalem from the first half of the 19th century; most of them apparently came to die and be buried in the Holy Land. One of the 19 ko/e/im (organizations based on the countries of origin) in Jerusalem, mentioned by Moses Montefiore in 1855, was that of the Gurj. From the 1860s on, the number of immigrants from Georgia increased as access became easier and means of transportation improved. Railway tracks were built in Georgia and the Ottoman Empire, and a maritime route was opened between Odessa and Jaffa so that the trip now took only one week. Some immigrants continued to use the previous routes. In this context, it is interesting to note the nickname of the prosperous merchant and traveler Yitzhak Moshe Ajikika, who was born in Jerusalem in 1886. According to legend, his father used to travel to the Holy Land by caravan, and the Arab desert-dwellers called him Haj Yitzhak (Haj meaning pilgrim in Arabic), which was corrupted to Ajikika.

Most of the immigrants came from Kutaisi, Akhaltsikhe and Tskhinvali and from relatively small towns, such as Bandza, Kulashi and Sachkhere. They were known as Gurjis, after the Turkish name for Georgia - Gurjistan. These immigrants could be distinguished from other residents of Jerusalem by the suffix of their names ¬"shvili" - meaning "son" in Georgian.

The history of several Georgian Jewish families which settled in Palestine is recorded in historical Georgian documents. It is recorded, for example, that the Baloashvili family from Kutaisi lived, like hundreds of other Jewish families from the serf class, on lands belonging to the Church. The father of the family, David Baloashvili, migrated from Georgia and reached Palestine as a Russian subject in the 1850s.

Among the first immigrants was Levi Michaelashvili who, in 1866, founded a synagogue named after him, near the T orat Hayyim yeshiva on Hagay Street in Jerusalem. Among the prominent families which emigrated from Georgia during this period was the Hakhmishvili family, whose sons engaged in commerce and banking. In 1870, the well-known rabbi and writer Ephraim Kokia (Kokiashvili) arrived from Akhaltsikhe and purchased a large building complex on the Jewish Street in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. He restored it and founded a yeshiva and prayerhouse there. Relatives followed him to Jerusalem, among them Shalom Kokia who purchased a courtyard adjacent to the synagogue of the Stamboulites.

During his visit to Jerusalem in 1875, Sir Moses Montefiore was greatly impressed by the Gurji community; he writes in his diary: "I was greatly impressed by the heads of the Gurji community who settled in Jerusalem only five years ago, and now number some two hundred, and all of them came to the Holy Land by permit of the Government of Russia, and some of them have medals over their hearts. One of them, Eliyahu Ben Israel, has three such medals, one of which he received from the Emperor Nicholas, and two from the Emperor Alexander. When I asked their leader from whence these medals, he replied that during the war which Russia fought against the Circassians, all the Jewish warriors fought with zeal and great courage...”

Under Sultan Abd EI-Hamid II (1876.1909), there was a considerable increase in migration, due to both the economic development of Palestine and to the social and economic changes in Russia and in Georgia. The strong desire to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael is attested to by the correspondence among members of Georgian Jewish families; the sentence "May we meet again in the Holy City of Jerusalem" became a catchphrase. Young Georgian Jews who studied at the Jerusalem yeshiva returned to Georgia as teachers and rabbis. They established yeshivot in small towns and villages and made every effort to expand Jewish religious study and to strengthen links to the Holy Land. Among them were Rabbi Hayim Eliashvili, Rabbi Yirmiyahu Khakhiashvili, Yaakov Goralashvili, Rabbi Yitzhak Menesherov and others. The visits of emissaries from Eretz Yisrael became more frequent toward the end of the century, and their tales of the Holy Land contributed to the strengthening of ties.

The first Georgian immigrants settled in the area of Hamam el Ayin, Hagay Street and Hebron Street in the Old City of Jerusalem, where they maintained synagogues and yeshivot. In 1893 the first Georgian quarter, Eshe! Abraham, was founded near the Nablus Gate. According to Lunz, "the Eshel Abraham quarter was founded by one of our Gurji brethren, and next to it were built many houses by members of this community, and there is a synagogue there and the number of houses is one hundred."

According to Zuta-Sukenik, the Gurgi community numbered 600 in 1891, and 1,000 in 1909. According to Freiman, there were only 476 members in 1913, and six synagogues.7 The Gurjis lived in various quarters of the city, among them: Nahlat Shimon, Zikhron Moshe, Bab el Amud, Musrara, Rahilia, Mamilla, Yahudia and Bayit Vagan. At the beginning of the present century the Gurjis were dispersed among other Jerusalem quarters as well, such as Mas'udia and Zarafia, and in other towns. An isolated few took up farming, and cultivated orange groves and orchards.

The Gurji Community in Jerusalem
The Gurji residents of Jerusalem engaged in various types ofcommerce, mainly the textile trade, and expanded their businesses to other towns in the coastal plain and Galilee. They prospered particularly during the Christmas period, when tens of thousands of Russian pilgrims visited Jerusalem and the holy places throughout the country. Among these Georgian merchants were David Michaelashvili, who arrived with his family in 1889 from Sujuna and bought a house in Upper Saraya in the Old City, and the Israelashvili family, who founded a firm for import and export of cloth and textile goods in 1892. The social structure of the community of Georgian Jews who immigrated in the second half of the 19th century is described by the Chief Rabbi of Akhaltsikhe, Rabbi Yosef Davidashvili, in a letter written in 1888 to Hamelitz: "The few rich men who lived here have left and gone up to the Holy land to dwell there, and only the poor people remain here."

It seems that most of the immigrants belonged to the relatively prosperous class of Georgian Jews, and succeeded in transferring to Palestine enough resources for family livelihood and for investment in building and commerce. Particularly renowned for their great wealth were Ephraim and Shalom Kokia, who built grand courtyards and palatial houses, with large rooms paved with Italian marble.9 The historian Zeev Jabez, who visited Palestine in the 1890s, praised the Gurjis for their contribution to the development of commerce and for their mutual aid: "These people, tall and strong and brave, who come here bearing their weapons like true Circassians - they are not learned, yet they bring great blessing to Jerusalem, for they come with their bundles of money. They bring commerce to our brethren, and little by little they are making Eretz Yisrael into a land of commerce, and many of their rich men have good qualities, for the greater among them support the lesser, not by giving charity but by putting goods from their stock into their pockets, and they are partners with them and work with them and take a small share from them, until the poor man can stand alone. Then the rich man takes back his investment and departs. Therefore all the merchants prosper, and they have neither a kolel nor haluka (charity funds), neither trustees nor emissaries, and they are the richest among our brethren. Nahum Dov Freiman writes in the same spirit: "There is no hard and exhausting work which the Gurji Jews will spurn, and thus one will not encounter in Jerusalem a Georgian Jew begging for bread. There are among them some poor men who receive charity... or scholars who engage in study alone, and the community supports them and they are not a burden on the general public... Among them are also rich men, and through their diligence in commerce they are building up houses of commerce, they earn well and employ other poor Jews... One may say of our Gurji brethren 'A healthy mind in a healthy body.' These, our brethren, are marked by courage and valor, unparalleled among our people."

These descriptions were more than slightly exaggerated. The list of recipients of charity from the Moses Montefiore Memorial Fund (1900-1901) does include names of Gurjis.

Even if the Gurjis were not learned, as Javez pointed out, they invested great effort in educating their children. A list attributed to the Chief Rabbi of Akhaltsikhe, Rabbi Yosef Davidashvili, in a letter written in 1888 to Hamelitz: "The few rich men who lived here have left and gone up to the Holy land to dwell there, and only the poor people remain here."

It seems that most of the immigrants belonged to the relatively prosperous class of Georgian Jews, and succeeded in transferring to Palestine enough resources for family livelihood and for investment in building and commerce. Particularly renowned for their great wealth were Ephraim and Shalom Kokia, who built grand courtyards and palatial houses, with large rooms paved with Italian marble.9 The historian Zeev Jabez, who visited Palestine in the 1890s, praised the Gurjis for their contribution to the development of commerce and for their mutual aid: "These people, tall and strong and brave, who come here bearing their weapons like true Circassians - they are not learned, yet they bring great blessing to Jerusalem, for they come with their bundles of money. They bring commerce to our brethren, and little by little they are making Eretz Yisrael into a land of commerce, and many of their rich men have good qualities, for the greater among them support the lesser, not by giving charity but by putting goods from their stock into their pockets, and they are partners with them and work with them and take a small share from them, until the poor man can stand alone.

Then the rich man takes back his investment and departs. Therefore all the merchants prosper, and they have neither a kalel nor haluka (charity funds), neither trustees nor emissaries, and they are the richest among our brethren.

Nahum Dov Freiman writes in the same spirit: "There is no hard and exhausting work which the Gurji Jews will spurn, and thus one will not encounter in Jerusalem a Georgian Jew begging for bread. There are among them some poor men who receive charity... or scholars who engage in study alone, and the community supports them and they are not a burden on the general public... Among them are also rich men, and through their diligence in commerce they are building up houses of commerce, they earn well and employ other poor Jews... One may say of our Gurji brethren 'A healthy mind in a healthy body.' These, our brethren, are marked by courage and valor, unparalleled among our people."

These descriptions were more than slightly exaggerated. The list of recipients of charity from the Moses Montefiore Memorial Fund (1900-1901) does include names of Gurjis.

Even if the Gurjis were not learned, as Javez pointed out, they invested great effort in educating their children. A list attributed to 1876 notes: "The people of Gurjistan have returned here these seven years and dwell in the Holy City of Jerusalem, and they have founded themselves a synagogue of the community of Kutaisi in Gurjistan... and they have two houses of study and yeshivot and they study night and day.,,12 In the Gurji Talmud Torah "She'erit Israel," Hebrew was studied in Hebrew, and studies were open to all other communities as well: "And many of the members of other communities receive a decent elementary education there." Members of the Gurji community studied at the Shaar Ha-Shamayim yeshiva, where they engaged mostly in the study of kabbala (Jewish mysticism), and at the Sephardi "Tiferet Yerushalayim" yeshiva.

The Gurjis who held Russian nationality were associated with the Sephardi kolel. Thus, for example, the General Sephardi Register (1851-1880) lists the names of Gurji Jews. They apparently appeared as an independent kolel only for fund-raising purposes. From the last quarter of the 19th century, the heads of the Gurji community sought to secede from the Sephardi kolel and to be considered an autonomous community, conducting its own affairs and institutions independently.15 There was particular need for the purchase of a separate plot of land for a cemetery, because the Sephardi kolel extracted high payment from the Gurjis for burial. The raising of funds among the Jewish communities in the Caucasus and in Georgia through emissaries, and the allocation of these funds in Palestine, were also the source of incessant disputes between the Sephardim and the heads of the Gurji community. Despite the fact that in 1895 an inter-community conciliatory committee was set up iQ Jerusalem, the disputes continued with regard both to burial payments and to allocation of charitable funds. By 1913 the community had its own kolel and bet din (religious court).

World War I inflicted a severe blow on the Gurji community. Many of its members were impoverished, and the community dwindled. Contact with Georgia was severed and immigration ceased. The Turks expelled Russian nationals from Palestine. Some returned to Georgia, while many fled to Egypt. Several of the refugees who reached Egypt volunteered to serve in the Jewish Battalions commanded by Trumpeldor and Jabotinsky, among them Yosef Ephrimashvili, Yaakov Leviashvili, Sepiashvili and others. Jabotinsky described them in his diary as follows: "There are also seven Gurjis whose long surnames ended in 'shvili'... These seven young men, all tall and upright, with sculpted features, were the greatest heroes in the battalion. I loved them greatly for their quiet demeanor, their modesty, their self-respect and their respect for their comrades, for their elders and betters…”

The Zionist Immigration
When the war ended, ties between Palestine and Georgia were renewed. Despite the political instability, immigration resumed, influenced by the Zionist awakening in the independent Georgian Republic (1918-1921), and the presence of thousands of Jewish refugees, soldiers and pioneers passing through Georgia en route to Palestine. The Soviet takeover, which spelled the end of Georgian Zionists' hopes for national, cultural and educational activity, and the worsening of the economic situation, led to increasing pressure for immigration. The leaders of Georgian Zionism drew up plans to organize the immigration of hundreds of families to Palestine.

But the obstacles which the authorities placed in their path, together with the disregard on the part of Zionist institutions, caused a lengthening delay. Only in 1925 did Rabbi David Baazov and Nathan Eliashvili succeed in traveling to Palestine to examine the absorption possibilities. They were greatly disappointed to discover that the leaders of the Yishuv and the Zionist movement were unwjl\ing to allocate the necessary resources. Moreover, members of the Gurji' community in Palestine were preoccupied with their affairs and divided among themselves, and were not ready to help. After great effort they succeeded in obtaining certificates for fifty of the 200 families which had applied to immigrate. Their disillusionment increased when they returned to Georgia and discovered that many of the families which had planned to immigrate had lost their money and were now unable to cover immigrated in the second half of the 19th century is described by the travel expenses. The great hopes were shattered. Only a small group of families, headed by Nathan Eliashvili, set out for the Holy Land, among them several prominent members of the Georgian Zionist movement, such as Yitzhak Hananashvili and Moshe Krikheli. The immigrants reached Palestine when the economic crisis was at its height. The promises of land allocation were not fulfilled, and the immigrants were settled as agricultural laborers in Petah Tikva. Living conditions were poor, livelihood meager and wages low. The immigrants, who were all married with children, suffered greatly. Nathan Eliashvili died in March 1929, and did not live to see his dream of widescale pioneering immigration from Georgia realized. In the summer of the same year, most of the families settled in Shkhunat Yaakov in Binyamina. They encountered great hardship, and their economic and social absorption was marked by many disappointments. Meir Magalashvili led the group, waging stubborn struggles with PICA and other settlement authorities.

Only after years of tribulations did the settlers begin to prosper. This group of settlers did not establish connections with members of the Gurji community who had integrated into the economic and social fabric of the country. In the 1920s and '30s the committee of the Gurji community operated as an independent body, separate from the Sephardi community, dealing mainly in charitable activities on behalf of needy members of the community. As individuals, however, they blended particularly well into the Sephardi community, in many cases intermarrying.

The older quarter near the Nablus Gate and the Gurji homes in the Old City were abandoned after the 1921 and 1929 riots, and members of the community dispersed to other Jerusalem quarters and to settlements throughout the country. The synagogue in Hagay Street was closed down, and the Torah scrolls were transferred to the Gurji synagogue in the Zikhron Moshe quarter.

At the end of the 1920s contact between Georgia and Palestine ceased almost completely, and few members of the community in Palestine maintained a correspondence with relatives in their country of origin. In Georgia, the Soviet regime suppressed all Zionist activity and severely curtailed religious and national education, but did not succeed in stifling the strong yearning for Eretz Yisrael. Towards the end of the 1960s the Jews of Georgia were among the pioneers in the struggle for renewed immigration from the Soviet Union. The public appeals of the Jews of Georgia (August 1969) to the UN Commission for Human Rights marked a turning point in the struggle for the right to immigrate, resulting in the opening of the gates of the Soviet Union and in the great wave of immigration of Georgian Jews in the 1970s.




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