From Tbilisi with love: the Judaica of Georgia

THE Jews of Georgia started to settle in the Georgian mountains and fertile valleys at the time of the First Exile from this land in the fifth century BCE, according to the Georgian Chronicles (Kartlis Tskhovriba) written in the 11th century CE.

THE Jews of Georgia started to settle in the Georgian mountains and fertile valleys at the time of the First Exile from this land in the fifth century BCE, according to the Georgian Chronicles (Kartlis Tskhovriba) written in the 11th century CE.

The ancient Greeks knew Georgia’s western coastlands around the Black Sea as Colchis. Legends relate that Colchis was the destination to which the Greek wanderer Jason set course in his voyages to find the Golden Fleece.

The Diaspora Museum on the Tel Aviv University campus has brought both together in an exhibition called In the Land of the Golden Fleece: the Jews of Georgia, their History and Culture, which opens tomorrow.

THE EXHIBITION comprises photographs, paintings, Judaica and other artifacts from Georgia, many from the Jewish Museum of Tbilisi. The museum has only recently reopened after Stalin ordered its closure in 1951.

Some of the clothes, utensils and other artifacts are displayed in three rooms, reconstructions of typical Jewish interiors from different periods and areas of the close to 70,000-sq.-km. former Soviet republic. They include paintings by the self-taught Jewish artist, Shalom Koboshvili.

The photographs are from ethnographic records of the ’20s and ’30s. Many are photos from the family albums of Georgian Jews now in Israel.

It’s only in this century, says curator Rahel Arbel, that there has been any systematic attempt to write a history of Georgia’s Jews.

THE FIRST real evidence of their presence there was a tombstone from the fourth century CE found at an archeological dig, and documents from the late Middle Ages mention the Jews.

Otherwise theirs has been an oral-history tradition spanning two and a half millennia. There never were very many Jews in Georgia, Arbel points out, only about 20,000 or 30,000. For the most part they assimilated into the lifestyle and culture of their Georgian neighbors, yet retained their Jewish identity and beliefs.

Outside the war zone in the ’40s, Georgia’s Jews escaped the horrors of World War II but suffered from Stalin’s persecutions and the regime’s repression of minority cultures. They were among the first to fight for the right to emigrate.

But unlike other Central Asian republics, Georgia has never had a tradition of antisemitism, probably because the Jews were scattered in small communities. It was only towards the end of the last century that they began migrating to Tbilisi and Georgia’s second city, Kutaisi.

The exhibition was mounted by Arbel and by her fellow curator, Lily Magal, who was born in Georgia.

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