Documenting the Rich Visual Legacy of Georgian Jewry
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
Cylindrical wooden Torah case with large crest, red velvet "kabah" and silver-plated Torah finials from the large synagogue in Kutaisi. The unusual feature of protruding staves was found in Georgia.
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 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.
Interior of the large synagogue in Kutaisi, dated 1886.
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.
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.
Exterior of the large synagogue in Kutaisi, dated 1886.
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.
Interior of the large synagogue in Surami, with view of tevah, heikal, and wall and ceiling paintings.
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.