GEORGIA (Rus. Gruziya), republic in W. Transcaucasia. There is a tradition among the Jews of Georgia (the "Gurjim") that they are descended from the Ten Tribes exiled by Shalmaneser, which they support by their claim that there are no kohanim (priestly families) among them.
Georgian historical literature had used the term "Georgian Jews" already in the 11th century, but as a firmly established term referring to a specific community it was used only from the early 19th century after Georgia was incorporated in the Russian Empire. The Jews of Georgia call themselves Ebraeli and use Georgian language as their spoken and written language of communication, without resorting to the Hebrew alphabet. Georgian Jewish traders developed the jargon Qivruli (Jewish), many roots of which originated in Hebrew.
According to the 1897 census 6,407 Jews in the Russian Empire considered Georgian their mother-tongue. According to the 1926 census, the only census where each of the Jewish ethnic and linguistic groups appeared as a separate entity, there were 30,534 Jews in Georgia, among them 20,897 Georgian Jews and 9,637 were Ashkenazim. In the same census 96.6% of the Georgian Jews named Georgian as their mother-tongue, and their literacy rate reached 36.29%. In 1931 the State Planning Committee estimated their number at 31,974. The 1939 census showed 42,300 Jews (Georgian and Ashkenazi), representing 1.2% of the total population. The 1959 census reported that 35,673 Jews considered Georgian their mother-tongue. The 1970 census reported 55,382 Jews. About 70% of them left for Israel in the course of the next decade. There were some Georgian Jews who were registered as Georgians and not as Jews but no reliable estimate of their number was available. The Georgian Jews lived mostly in Tbilisi (Tiflis), capital of Georgia, the other centers being Kutaisi, Kulashi, Tshinvali, Gori, Oni, and Sachkhere.
One historical tradition speaks of the first Jews coming to the country after the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar 586 B.C.E. It is possible that this reflects the arrival of Jews from Babylonia in Georgia, the southern part of which was
included in 539 B.C.E. in the ancient Persian state. The Jews presumably spread to the rest of the country from the south.
Archaeological evidence supports the traditions by confirming the existence of Jews in Mtzkheta, the ancient capital of the East Georgian state of Kartli, in the first centuries C.E. Among the first Christian missionaries in the early 4th century, a Jew is mentioned named Eviatar or Abiatar from Urbnisi, as well as his sister Sidonia. Both were sanctified by the Georgian Orthodox Church. Mention is also made of the Jewess Salomea who wrote the life of Nina from Cappadocia who baptized the Georgians.
Georgian sources refer to the arrival of Jews in Western Georgia in the 6th century, evidently from the Byzantine Empire, and the further migration of 3,000 Jews into Eastern Georgia. This information might indicate a mass flight of Jews from the Western regions of Georgia, ruled by the Byzantine Empire – where they were subjected to severe suppression in the 6th century – to the south-eastern regions of Georgia ruled at the time by Persians who tolerated Jews. Sources also speak of Jewish migrations to Georgia from Armenia and Iran. It is likely that the toponym אפריקי mentioned several times in the Babylonean Talmud (e.g., Sanhedrin 94a, Tamid 32a) is to be read as efirike, i.e., Iberika or Iberia which was one of the ancient names of Eastern Georgia, as well as of Georgia as a whole.
After the Arab conquest of considerable territory of Georgia in the second half of the 7th century, it was transformed into a province of the Arab caliphs, although it remained a Christian country. In the late 9th century a Jewish sect emerged in Georgia which denied some laws of halakhah including marriage and kashrut regulations. The founder of the sect, Abu-ʿImran Musa (Moshe) al-Za'farani, went to Tbilisi (Tiflis) from the Babylonian Empire and was later known as *Abu-ʿImran al-Tiflisi, and the sect as a whole, which existed at least 300 years, was known as the "Tiflis Sect."
In the 9th century, Georgia was bordered to the east and north by the Khazar kingdom (see *Khazars), the elite of which adopted Judaism. There are no authentic data on contacts between the Khazars and the Jews of Georgia, but it is known that in the middle of the 10th century *Ḥisdai Ibn Shaprut wanted to send his famous letter to Joseph, the king of the Khazars, through Georgia which Ibn Shaprut called "Armenia" in accordance with Arabic terminology of the time.
In the early Middle Ages Georgian Jewry was connected mainly with Persian Jewry, and through Iran with Baghdad, the religious center of eastern Jewry.
From the travel diaries of *Pethahiah of Regensburg, written in the second half of the 12th century, it might be concluded that some of the Jews living in "the Ararat country," i.e., in Trans-Caucasus, had emigrated to other countries. He also noted that during his stay in Baghdad he saw the messengers of the kings of "Meshekh Land," and those messengers related that the "Kings of Meshekh and all their Lands became Jews," and also that there were teachers among the inhabitants of Meshekh "educating their children in Torah and in the Jerusalem Talmud." Under the term "Meshekh" one of the Georgian tribes, the Meskhi, might have been meant. However no support has been found for the theory that this tribe as a whole or partially adopted Judaism. Another Georgian tribe, the Hevsures, have up to the present time preserved historical legends connected with Judaism. Chronologically this would accord with the time of Pethahiah's story.
In the 12th century Abraham *Ibn Daud (Rabad I) mentioned Georgia among the countries where the Jews adhered to Rabbinical Judaism and not to Karaism. In the synagogue of the small town of Lailashi in northwestern Georgia, there was preserved up to the 1930s, a Pentateuch manuscript of the 11th or 12th century which was revered not only by the Georgian Jews, but also by the Christian population who attributed to it miraculous properties.
When invaded by the Mongols some of the Jews of eastern and southern Georgia moved to western Georgia, which preserved its independence, and founded new communities there. In the 14th century mention is made of the Jewish community of Gagra on the Black Sea Coast, headed by R. Joseph al-Tiflisi. At the same time the philologist R. Judah ben Jacob either composed or rewrote a Hebrew grammatical work showing traces of influence of the Karaite school of Hebrew grammar.
The impoverished situation of Georgian Jewry after the Mongol invasion contributed to their becoming serfs. Numerous sources refer to their serfdom over a five hundred year period, starting from the end of the 14th century. The process of enslavement accelerated in the 15th–16th centuries when their situation deteriorated as a result of military invasions, first by Timur and then by the armies of Turkey and Persia, and also because of constant inner conflicts. All these events resulted in the disintegrating of the country into three kingdoms and five feudal territories, as from the end of the 15th century. Documents from the early 17th to the mid-19th century attest to the numerous cases of the selling of individual Jews or whole families and groups, or of their changing one owner for another as debt payment or as a gift.
Persistent wars and rebellions devastated entire regions of the country in the late 18th–early 19th century, depriving Jews of their property, and often to escape immediate danger they had to seek the protection of the local feudal lords, but in the final analysis they became enslaved by their protectors. However, one premise of their serfdom was always preserved: the owner was obliged not to force them to convert to Christianity.
The Jewish serfs occupied themselves with agriculture or with the traditional Jewish crafts: fabric weaving and dyeing. Some of them were involved in retail trade and other outside jobs, paying their masters a yearly compensation. As late as 1835, several decades after eastern Georgia had been incorporated in the Russian Empire, many Jews still lived on the estates of their feudal lords, and only a small proportion was engaged in outside jobs in towns. Free Jews who could buy their liberation now also lived in the towns. They were mostly affluent merchants or owners of large stores.
Throughout the period of their serfdom, migration – forced or voluntary – took place. Thus voluntary migrations to the Crimea occurred in the 15th–16th centuries. Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries were still to be found in the Crimea having family names of Georgian origin. In the 17th–18th centuries a forced migration occurred when Georgian Jews were driven out by Persian invaders to Persia together with tens of thousands of non-Jewish Georgians.
The Jewish serfs lived on their masters' estates as small groups, separated from each other. Due to their isolation and the absence of a uniting religious and spiritual center, their Jewish knowledge deteriorated. The German traveler Reineggs who visited Georgia in 1780 wrote about the rural Jews being called "Canaanites" by the urban Jewish merchants and weavers because of the former's poor knowledge of the religious laws.
Sometimes Jews converted to Christianity to escape their serfdom. The Georgian Church favored the conversions: documentary evidence exists of cases where the Church paid for the liberation of serfs who wished to convert. There were also cases when the feudal lords, contrary to their obligations, forced their Jewish serfs to convert to Christianity.
According to the Georgian legislation the Jewish serfs of Georgia were divided into three categories: the King's serfs, the Feudal serfs and the Church's serfs. Both groups of Jews, free and enslaved, were not admitted to serve in the army, and instead of military service payed the "army ransom." When in 1801 eastern Georgia was included in the Russian Empire the category of the King's serfs became the "Treasury Serfs" obligated to pay taxes to the Russian treasury. In 1864–1871 serfdom in Georgia was abolished, and the former serfs among Georgian Jews moved to towns where the Jews had been already settled, and became engaged mainly in retail trade.
A comparatively small share of the Jewish population was engaged in various crafts, mainly in shoe and hat making. Before the revolution of 1917 this share did not exceed 3–5% of the Jewish labor force. Women dealt with weaving and dyeing for home and for sale. Some families also possessed land plots, mostly under grape cultivation.
The structure of the Jewish community finally developed following the liberation of Georgian Jews from serfdom and their subsequent urbanization. The liberated serfs coming from the same settlement as a rule moved to the same town where they attempted to establish their own synagogue, settling around it. Usually such a group consisted of a limited number of large families encompassing three or four generations.
Each group elected its *gabbai responsible for all the affairs connected with the synagogue's activity. The ḥakham authorized the religious life of the group combining functions of a rabbi, ḥazzan, shoḥet, mohel and teacher of medreshe (ḥeder). The Georgian Jewish groups from rural settlements lived side by side in a new place of settlement, so the Jewish population concentrated in one part of the town which later turned into the Jewish quarter of the given town.
Open outbursts of antisemitism in Georgia became frequent in the second half of the 19th century. Causes stemmed from the process of urbanization of the Jewish community and the consequent change of occupation by the majority of Jews who now chose trade as their livelihood; from the influence of Russian antisemitism; and from turning the Jew, a
In the second half of the 19th century, six blood libels occurred in Georgia which at the time constituted the highest concentration of cases not only in the boundaries of the Russian Empire, but in the whole world. The biggest and best known happened in 1878 in the little town of Sachkhere where nine Jews were accused of the ritual killing of a Christian child in anticipation of Passover. The trial of the nine took place in Kutaisi and became known as the "Kutaisi trial" which drew the attention of the civilized world. Although the accused were not found guilty, the local population remained convinced that the Jews used Christian blood for preparing maẓẓot. Other blood libels in Georgia took place in 1852, 1881, 1882, 1883, and 1884. In 1895 the Kutaisi Jews suffered from a severe pogrom. In 1913 a gang headed by the deputy governor of Kutaisi systematically extorted money from the Jews, and those refusing to pay were killed.
One of the most important events in Georgian Jewish life in the 19th century was the establishment of contacts with Russian Ashkenazi Jews who began to settle in Georgia after it was joined to the Russian Empire. For decades the relations between the Georgian Jews and the Ashkenazi communities remained strained: the Georgian Jews considered the majority of the Ashkenazi Jews living in Georgia as godless or insufficiently observant, while the Ashkenazim often looked down on the Georgian Jews. Contacts became closer only at the end of the 19th century, but even then their relations were strained.
At the end of the 1890s R. Abraham ha-Levi Khvoles (1857–1931) – a pupil of the famous Lithuanian Rabbi Isaac Elhanan *Spektor – was elected chief rabbi of the town of Tzkhinvali. His only language for communicating with his congregation was Hebrew, and as time passed the number of Jews of the town using this language increased considerably. In 1906 Khvoles established the first talmud torah in Georgia where about 400 pupils studied. He was the first in Georgian Jewish life to introduce education for girls, inviting for this purpose a female Hebrew teacher. To accustom the Jews to crafts and skills he brought in experienced teachers who taught boys shoemaking, leather tanning, soap-boiling, and other skills. He sent some of his best students to the Lithuanian yeshivot to continue their education and receive the title of rabbi. In time, such practice became common among the Georgian Jewish communities. Rabbi Khvoles influenced other communities throughout Georgia: for example, in 1902 a school for children was established in Tbilisi where teaching was conducted according to the "Hebrew in Hebrew" system. The teachers for the school came from Vilna.
The Social-Democratic movement which emerged in Georgia at the end of the 19th century had almost no impact on the Jews. One Jewish Social-Democrat, Itzka Rizhinashvili (1885–1906), who became well known, was killed by police in Kutaisi.
From the end of the 19th century Zionist circles sprang up in the Ashkenazi communities, and its members began to propagate Zionist ideas among the Georgian Jews. Rabbi David Baazov, one of the founders of Zionism in the Georgian communities, participated in the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903. The majority of the Orthodox leaders, the ḥakhams, actively struggled against the spreading of Zionist ideas among Georgian Jews. Emissaries of the Ḥabad movement, who arrived in Georgia from 1916, also resisted the penetration of Zionism.
World War I interrupted the process of Georgian aliyah to Palestine which had begun in 1863. By 1916, 439 Georgian Jews were living in Palestine, the majority in Jerusalem where they established their own quarter near the Damascus Gate. They had to leave the quarter after the anti-Jewish Arab riots of 1929 had led to its partial destruction.
Most Georgian Jews going to the Holy Land belonged to the poorest strata of the community and engaged in physical labor. In Jerusalem, many were freight-handlers. Only a small number became prominent in trade. These included the Kokiashvili (Kokia) family which owned a network of shops and large land holdings in Jerusalem. The Dabra family (Davarshvili) traded on a large scale, mostly in Jerusalem. The Ḥasidov (Khasidoshvili) and the Khakhamshvili families founded banking businesses.
Despite the fact that the main motivation for aliyah was religious, only a small number of ḥakhams went to the Holy Land. The well-known ḥakham of Akhaltzikhe, Yosef Davidashvili, arrived in the 1890s; Simon ben Moshe Rizhinashvili published in Jerusalem in 1892 a Hebrew-Georgian textbook and conversation book, Sefer ḥinukh ha-ne'arim ("The Book for Education of the Youth"), in Hebrew letters; Efraim ben Ya'akov ha-Levi Kokia published in 1877 in Jerusalem the religious and philosophical treatise Yalkut Ephraim al ha-Torah im Ḥamesh Megillot ("Comments by Ephraim on the Torah and the Five Scrolls"); he also wrote Sam Ḥayyim: likkutim u-musarim tovim ("Elixir of Life: Extracts and Benevolent Morals").
After the October 1917 Revolution, the Georgian population expressed its strong desire for independence, and in May 1918 a democratic republic was established. In the Georgian Executive Assembly, two places were allocated for representatives of the Georgian Jews, and one for the Ashkenazim. In the process of the elections, a small group of young assimilatory Jews, headed by the brothers Yosef and Mikhael Khananishvili were backed by Social Democrats – Mensheviks who formed the coalition government. This group considered the Georgian Jews as Jewish, not from the ethnic point of view, but as Georgians differing from the rest of the population only by their religion. They fought Zionism in concert with some Georgian Jewish religious leaders, supported by members of the Ḥabad movement which had acquired considerable influence in Kutaisi and in several other towns. Kutaisi became the center of the anti-Zionist movement, whose participants abstained from taking part in the All-Jewish Congress in Tbilisi
The Association of Zionists of Georgia became the leading group in the congress. The three Jewish representatives elected by the congress to participate in the Executive Assembly were rejected by the Georgian Election Committee which was averse to Zionist representatives and preferred two candidates elected at the Kutaisi congress held at the same time by anti-Zionist groups. The Ashkenazim protested against this action by refusing to elect a new Ashkenazi representative instead of the rejected one.
When the Red Army invaded Georgia in February 1921 the population fled on a mass scale; 1,500–2,000 Jews left Georgia, and about 1,000–1,200 of them arrived in Palestine. The rest settled mainly in Istanbul where a Georgian Jewish community had been in existence from the 1880s. In 1921, there were 1,700 Georgian Jews in Palestine.
At the outset of the Sovietization of Georgia the central Soviet authorities adhered to a policy emphasizing respect of local traditions including religious beliefs. This attitude applied also to Georgian Jewry. The government bodies did not interfere in affairs connected with Jewish religion and synagogues were open as previously. In the early 1920s, Zionist activities also were not impeded. The Zionist school in Tblisi was reopened in 1921 after a short interruption, being now called the Jewish Labor School No. 102, and Hebrew was taught there as the national language of Georgian Jews. In 1924 a Zionist organ appeared in Georgian called Makabeeli, but only three issues were published. In 1924–25 the semi-legal ḥalutzic youth organization called "Avoda" managed to function and the youth theater company "Kadima" presented plays on Jewish themes in Georgian.
After an anti-Russian and anti-Soviet rebellion in Georgia was suppressed in 1924, Soviet policy changed for the worse. Legal and semi-legal Zionist activities were cut short. The economic regulations resulted in the bankruptcy of many Jewish traders, large and small. The Zionist group, headed by D. Baazov and N. Eliashvili, appealed to the local authorities to allow Jews to occupy themselves with agriculture, but were turned down. The two leaders then suggested that the authorities should allow those Jews who could not be engaged in Georgian agriculture to leave for Palestine. Two hundred families applied to leave, and in October 1925, 18 of them were allowed to emigrate, under the leadership of N. Eliashvili.
In the mid-1920s industrialization and secularization became the Soviet authorities' main aims for the Jews of Georgia, who were dragged to factories as a working force, or compelled to join craft cooperatives and collective farms.
In 1927–28, OZET (the organization for settling Jewish workers on the land) strengthened its activities, and its Georgian affiliate established branches in many towns. The first Jewish collective farm was formed in 1928 in Tziteli-Gora. By 1933 there were 15 collective farms with a population of 2,314 and land area of 1,540 ha. In 1928 efforts were made to settle some Georgian Jewish communities in *Birobidjan and in certain regions of the Crimea assigned for Jewish agricultural settlement, but these attempts failed. The Jewish collective farms in Georgia contributed to local Jewish welfare, as a means to alleviate their difficult material conditions; moreover they could continue to live according to their religious and communal traditions observing kashrut, Sabbath, Jewish festivals, and so on.
From the outset of the 1930s, however, the authorities decided to break the Jewish traditions by eliminating the ethnic homogeneity of the Jewish collective farms; as a result the Jewish community could no longer function. Thus in 1931 in establishing a collective farm in the small town of Mukhrani the Jewish collective farmers were mixed with the Georgians and Armenians, the collective farm being declared "international." Toward 1934 the collective farm in Akhalzikhe, established in 1931 as a Jewish undertaking, lost its ethnic homogeneity.
The policy of integrating the Jewish collective farms was conducted against the background of intermittent blood libels occurring in Sachkhere in 1921, in Tbilisi in 1923, and in Akhalzikhe in 1926. Moreover, the ethnically heterogeneous collective farms became a convenient target for anti-religious campaigns, which had become common in Georgian Jewish life from the end of the 1920s.
From 1938 the Jewish collective farms were united with non-Jewish ones, and the Jewish farmers started to leave them on a large scale. Thus the experiment of turning part of Georgian Jewry into agricultural workers ended, with the sole exception of the first Georgian-Jewish collective farm of Tziteli-Gora which continued to exist up to the beginning of the 1970s.
As its main tool to drive Jews to work in industry and to establish producing cooperatives, the Soviet authorities founded "Evkombed" ("All-Georgian Committee for Assisting the Jewish Poor"). The committee was created in 1928 after a fire in the Jewish quarter of Kutaisi which was burnt to the ground: dozens of people perished and about 6,000 lost their homes.
In 1929 a considerable number of Jews were working in the silk factories in Kutaisi and in Tbilisi. In 1931, 1,430 Jews joined the production cooperatives of shoemakers, hat-makers, leather-tanners, and others, half of them in Tbilisi. The majority of those cooperatives served as cover for the private activities of a large family or several closely connected families; the ethnic homogeneity of the productive cooperatives allowed the members to observe Jewish tradition, and in the first period of their existence Sabbath was the rest day.
The efforts of the authorities to eradicate the religious tradition and to mix nationalities within each co-operative was partially successful. The immediate result was the flight of Jews from mixed co-operatives. On the whole the attempt to industrialize Georgian Jewry failed, and by 1935 only 7,000 Jews were involved in the process.
Religion was considered by the authorities the main ideological impediment to their efforts to influence the Jews, and they accordingly tried all means to secularize the community.
For some time the authorities toyed with the idea of creating a Soviet Georgian-Jewish culture, of the same type as the Soviet-Yiddish culture. In 1934 they established a "State History and Ethnography Museum" of the Georgian Jews with the official aim of studying the history and customs of the community and struggling against "survivals of the past in its life." This undertaking attracted a group of young Jewish scholars. About 60 pictures were exhibited in the Museum of Shlomo Koboshvili, an artist of the 1920s, whose pictures depicted Georgian Jewish everyday life and the past of Georgian Jewry. When the museum was closed in the early 1950s, the pictures disappeared. The best-known Georgian author of the 1920s and the 1930s was Herzl *Baazov, novelist and playwright, the subject of whose works was Georgian Jewish life.
In 1937–38 the authorities clamped down on Georgian culture, attacking both Jewish religion and secular Jewish culture. In September 1937 nine ḥakhams, of whom two were Ashkenazim, were arrested, in Tzkhinvali (called Staliniri at the time), and killed in prison without trial. In the beginning of 1938 Herzl Baazov perished in prison.
The only Jewish cultural establishment that continued to exist was the History and Ethnography Museum, but in 1948 its director, Aharon Krikheli, was arrested, and soon after, in the early 1950s, the museum was closed.
Thus, the Soviet authorities finally destroyed the non-religious Georgian-Jewish culture which they had assiduously established in the pre-war years. Only from the end of the 1950s did poems and stories by writers belonging to the community and describing its life begin to reappear.
The Soviet rule was far from successful in its efforts to destroy the religious tradition. Even in the 1960s and in the 1970s most Georgian Jews observed religious traditions: visiting synagogues, observing kashrut, and conducting their family life according to religious Law. Many of their children studied in illegal ḥeders. The authorities were aware of these schools but chose not to notice them.
Although statistical data are lacking, it may be presumed that a considerable proportion of Georgian Jewry became adjusted to the economic situation in Georgia after World War II, viz. the flourishing of private enterprise in trade and small stores under the cover of the state trade and industrial establishments, with the silent acquiescence of the local authorities. The latter used these enterprises to boost the economy of the republic and raise their own affluence.
However whenever they had to organize a show trial of "violators of the Soviet economic laws," demanded by the central authorities, the Jews were always chosen as a scapegoat. Jews predominated among those convicted for economic crimes in Georgia, were punished severely, and sometimes sentenced to death. Community life developed amid continuing blood libels: in 1963 in Tzkhaltubo, in 1964 in Zestafoni, and in 1965 in Kutaisi.
After the *Six-Day War Georgia was the leading region in the Soviet Union for Jewish demonstrations and petitions demanding the right to leave for Israel. The letter of Aug. 6, 1969, by 18 heads of Georgian families to the United Nations containing an appeal to influence the Soviet government to allow them to leave for Israel, was the first document of the aliyah movement in the Soviet Union to receive wide publicity in the West. The mass aliyah of Georgian Jewry began in 1971; by 1981, about 30,000 of them had immigrated to Israel.
E. Salgaller, in: JSOS, 26 (1964), 195–202; A. Harkavy, Ha-Yehudim u-Sefat ha-Slavim (1867), 106–20; J.J. Chorny, Sefer ha-Massa'ot be-Ereẓ Kavkaz u-va-Medinot asher me-Ever la-Kavkaz (1884); A.L. Eliav (Ben-Ammi), Between Hammer and Sickle (1969), passim; M. Neistadt, Yehudei Gruzyah (1970); Histoire de Géorgie depuis l'antiquité jusqu'au XIXè siècle (attrib. uncertain, trans. M.F. Brosset (Rus. name M.I. Brosse), 7 vols., 1849–58); J. Baye, Les Juifs des montagnes et les Juifs géorgiens (1902); A. Katz, Die Juden im Kaukasus (1894); D.M. Maggid, in: Istoriya yevreyskogo naroda, 12 (1921; = Istoriya yevreyev v Rossii, 2 bk. 1) 85–95; M.S. Plisetski, Religiya i byt gruzinskikh yevreyev (1931); Yevreyskaya Biblioteka, 7 no. 12 (1880), 1–188 (on the Kutaisi blood libel); Al Yehudei Berit ha-Mo'aẓot, published by the Israel Ministry of Education and Culture (1970). THE 1990S: U. Schmelz and S. DellaPergola in AJYB 1995, 478; Supplement to the Monthly Bulletin of Statistics, 2 (1995); Mezhdunarodnaia Evreiskaia Gazeta (MEG) (1993).