Sunday, April 01, 2012

TRAVEL: Jews and Jeeps. By Judith Fein. (

( Every time I travel, I brace myself before learning the history of the Jews in each country, and how they were persecuted, subjected to pogroms, decimated and eliminated. But in Georgia, I found out, to my delight and surprise, that Jews were welcomed, admired and integrated. In fact, the most famous rulers of this country in the Caucasus may have actually been Jewish themselves.

Georgia, situated below Russia and north of Turkey, Armenia and Azerbijan, is a mountainous, multi-ethnic country with a language that is spoken nowhere else on earth. It has dishes like khinkali, khachapuri and pkhali that are beloved by foodies and a history of human habitation that goes back 1.8 million years. The country threw off the yoke of the Soviets in 1991, instituted democratic reforms after the Rose revolution of 2003, and is still struggling to get its economic mojo back after the collapse of the Soviet system that drained and exploited it for many decades.

Georgia prides itself on its religious tolerance; besides embracing Jews, it was one of the earliest countries to accept Christianity. Anxious to go there, I signed on for a trip with Medraft (; phone: +442081500687; email:, a 20-year-old, Israeli, custom off-road company that is focused on culture, nature and adventure. The company provides you with a four-wheel drive vehicle, local guides and the opportunity to go off-road, off the beaten track, drive through spectacular countryside, meet Georgians, visit their homes and find out about their lives, culture, history, food, drink and — in my case — for want of a better word, pro-Semitism.

After the Jeep adventure concluded, I stayed for another week so I could experience the highlights of the country and follow the Jewish story, which grew more fascinating every day.

Shortly after arriving in Georgia, every visitor learns about King David IV (usually called David the Builder) and Queen Tamar (his granddaughter; she was so powerful that she was known as King Tamar). Members of the Bagrationi dynasty, King David IV and Queen Tamar ruled over Georgia in the 11th and 12th centuries and transformed it into a political, commercial, military, cultural giant that controlled much of the Caucasus. It was the Golden Age of Georgia, with major educational, legal and ecclesiastical reforms and expansion. And, according to Lela Tsitsuashvili, museum curator, art historian and specialist in the history and culture of Jews in Georgia, it is no accident that David and Tamar are Biblical names. “The tribe of Bagrationi considered themselves descendents of King David,” she said, adding, “There are no documents that prove or disprove this.”

One of the first stops on the four-wheel tour was the historic site of Didgori. Locals still go there every Aug. 12 to commemorate the battle where David the Builder, with a force of 56,000 men, defeated a Seljuk Empire army that numbered up to 150,000 warriors on that date in 1121. A dramatic monument at the site, symbolic swords (that resemble fallen and wounded soldiers) stuck into the hillside, and a 360 degree panoramic vista make the site memorable for visitors. But what made it memorable for me was to stand there, wondering if David the Builder was inspired by the David-and-Goliath courage and military might of his ancestor King David.

Our cars came to a halt in Mtskheta, which was the capital of Georgia until the sixth century. There we visited the Svetitskhoveli cathedral, which was built in the early 11th century on the site of a fourth century wooden church. The church was a huge ecclesiastical center, and the frescos, baptismal font, icons, tombs of kings and the sepulcher of a devoted Christian woman named Sidonia attest to its importance.

Sidonia was an ardent believer in Jesus, and when she was given a piece of the robe he wore during his crucifixion (supposedly brought back from Jerusalem by a Georgian Jew), she was so overcome by emotion that she died, still clutching the robe in her hand. A tree sprung from her tomb. When St. Nino of Cappadocia brought Christianity to Georgia in the fourth century, she decided that wood from the tree would be used to build the church in Mtskheta.

Nino, who came from Cappadoccia, had resided in Jerusalem and spoke Aramaic or ancient Hebrew. When she arrived in Mtskheta, she could communicate with the Jews who lived there. According to Moris Kirkheli, who started Hillel and has studied the history of Jews in his country, the first Jews in Georgia probably arrived in Mtskheta as early as the eighth century B.C.E. and were followed by others who came from Babylon in 586 B.C.E. Subsequent waves arrived until the fourth century C.E. They adapted to Georgian society and were an integral part of it. They spoke Georgian but prayed in Hebrew. The Hebrew language is still reflected in modern Georgian: the word for Saturday is “Shabati” and the days of the week are counted from Sabbath on. Sam Shabati is Tuesday. Ot Shabati is Wednesday. Chud Shabati is Thursday, and so on. According to Lela Tsitsuashvili, the word beit is slang for house. Some Georgian names may even be of Jewish origin.

The Jews of Mtskheta were very helpful to Nino, and, inspired by her, some of them converted to Christianity and became Christian Jews. A beautiful catalog called “Georgian Jews: History and Culture,” co-written by Lela Tsitsuashvili, reports that the first priest of Mtskheta was a local Jew named Abiathar and that the strong attachment of Jews and Christian Jews to the holy city of Jerusalem was reflected in local place names like Bethlehem, Golgotha, Mount Tabor and Mount of Olives. An information panel at the small visitor center near the cathedral says that the Jews of Mtskheta lived near the entry bridge to the city.

In the Samtavro Valley in Mtsktheta is the largest ancient burial site in Georgia. More than 4,000 graves have been excavated from several layers, and they date from the eighth century B.C.E to the eighth century C.E. Visitors can see burial mounds, hole graves, pitcher shaped graves, tiled graves. The remains from an ancient settlement include an oven for baking bread, a sanctuary, a dung channel, houses with niches for idols, dishes used for sacrifices. Archeologists have found Hebrew inscriptions on stele at this site as well as first century C.E. Jewish relics and ritual funerary objects.

Outside of Mtskheta and majestically poised on top of a hill is Jvari monastery, an important pilgrimage site and the first Georgian church. A huge cross was erected by St. Nino, and, presumably, some of the Christian Jews from Mtskheta worshipped there. Moris Krikheli pointed out the place where two rivers meet down in the valley; “Jews lived along the banks of the rivers,” he said.

Krikheli’s focus on Mtskheta as the locus of ancient Jewry is echoed by Professor Guram Lordkipanidze, who presides at the Israelite center at the State University in Tbilisi and is involved in ancient Israelite excavations in Georgia. Although the professor was unavailable during my visit, his assistant Nino Goisashvili told me that it is believed there was a synagogue in Mtskheta, and digging will start soon. She emphasized that there are different versions of Jewish history in the country. One account has the northern tribes of Israel arriving at the time of the Assyrian conquest in the eighth century B.C.E., and bringing with them their knowledge of trade, carpentry, tool making and handcrafts. They were instrumental in helping Georgia become a kingdom. The alternate version is that Jews first arrived in the first century C.E. Although there is archeological evidence for the latter, the former persists in legends. It is also possible that Jews came to Georgia at the time of the Babylonian exile, perhaps leaving Babylon by choice or by coercion. Krikheli cited one lesser-known story about King Solomon having a wife from Georgia and one from Armenia. The descendents of these unions were appointed as kings from Jerusalem, and this was the beginning of the kingdom in Georgia.

I was looking forward to visiting Kutaisi, the second biggest city in Georgia, and I was not disappointed. David the Builder lived there, and, according to legend, Jason sailed in the Argonaut on the local Rioni River to get the Golden Fleece. The Bagrati Cathedral was built at the end of the 10th century and is worth a visit. Nearby are the ruins of a military fortification, a small church and an 11th century wine house where you can still see kvevri, or clay wine vessels, in the ground. Each kvevri is about three and a half feet across. Our guide said that surely the Jews in Georgia used this traditional wine-making technique.

A long drive above the city took us to the 11th century Gelati Monastery, which, like Bagrati, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The monastery, founded by David the Builder, was one of the great spiritual and cultural centers of Georgia in the Middle Ages. It was also an academy where scientists, philosophers and theologians lived and worked. Inside are magnificent frescos, carvings and relics of saints. The monastery was referred to as “new Athens” and, poignantly, “the second Jerusalem.”

At the entrance of a separate building is David’s tomb, which lies under an engraved stone slab in the ground. According to my guide, the powerful king said he was a sinner, and that everyone should walk over his heart! I found the story and the tomb humbling and moving.

In Kutaisi is an old Jewish cemetery with, most notably, small stones for young children who perished. The Hebrew letters on the tombstones are connected, without spacing between words.

One of the highlights of the trip was Vardzia, a 12-13th century cave city that is built vertically into the hills on 13 stories and is an architectural and engineering masterpiece. There are about 600 rooms, and it is estimated that, at Vardzia’s height, 50,000-60,000 inhabitants lived in this important economic, religious and cultural center. Today, 10 monks still reside there. The beehive of caves includes rock-cut chapels and churches, domed rooms, four monasteries, underground shelters for times of strife, pharmacies, great halls, stables, houses, secret tunnels and frescos. Not to be missed is the striking fresco of King Tamar, which was painted in her lifetime. Standing next to her father, she wears a magnificent jeweled robe and no chinstrap, which signifies that she was not yet married. I was riveted by the portrait of the Georgian queen, whose lineage may have been so close to my own.

Another important connection to David and Tamar was in Dmanisi, an off-the-tourist-trail destination about 90 minutes from Tbilisi. It was first occupied before the sixth century, and in the eighth century it was a small city. By the 12th century it was large city, where David the Builder and King Tamar stayed in the fortified castle. I wandered among the evocative ruins, which include Tamar’s bathroom. I pictured her dressing in one of her jeweled robes.

A short walk from the castle ruins led to the site where the oldest (1.8 million years) hominids in Europe were found. Nearby are wonderfully executed sculptures of what our early ancestors looked like. There was no Jewish connection, but there was certainly one of the heart.

I took a private tour of the capital city of Tbilisi with Lika Kakiashvili (; +995 25 6173), a very affable and knowledgeable Georgian Jewish guide. According to her, anti-Semitism was introduced to Georgia during the Russian tsarist era. The Russians brought with them story that Jews used Christian blood to bake their matzot. A few Jews were put on trial for this offense, but there was no significant persecution of the Hebrews.

Lika said there are about 5,000 Jews left in Georgia today, and 2,000 of them live in Tbilisi. About 56,000 Jews lived in Georgia during the Soviet occupation and, before that, there were many more. But the Russians closed synagogues and exiled rabbis. They did the same hatchet job on other religions as well. Lika’s mother, whom we met when Lika took us to their modest but comfortable apartment in an old Jewish neighborhood, summed it up this way with humor and irony: “Jews were never repressed in Georgia before the Russians. Georgia was always busy being repressed itself!”

We walked to the Sephardic synagogue in Tbilisi, which was built in 1904. An elder congregation member told me that about 20-25 people come to pray each day; on Shabbat the numbers can swell to 100. The hachem or hazan leads the service. There is a rabbi for all of Georgia in Tbilisi, but he’s not at this synagogue (it was hard to get information from the man about the “other,” Ashkenazi, synagogue).

When I asked how the Jews of Tbilisi could afford such an elaborate, elegant synagogue as the one we were in — with faux marble décor, elaborate paintings on the walls, two archways, gilding, soothing light blue and brown hues — I was told that Georgian Jews from all over the world donate money for the synagogue.

Continuing down the streets of Tbilisi, we passed an old yeshiva building and a former synagogue; neither is in use today.

We stopped at the Sioni church, where St. Nino’s original cross in housed. Copies of it can be seen throughout Georgia. It has a drooping cross branch that is attached to a vertical branch. According to legend, Nino made the cross by tying the two branches together with strands of her hair.

Just before twilight, Lika drove me to a Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Tbilisi. It was, hands down, the most startling graveyard I have ever walked through. The deceased are portrayed in their prime as huge, life-sized figures, taken from photographs and etched in black stone. One man stands next to his beloved car. A woman looks like she just wiped her hands on her apron and walked out of the kitchen. A singer is surrounded by a microphone and musical notes. Lika said this depiction of the dead was Georgian style and is found in Georgian cemeteries. The photographic etchings were expenses and stand as a testimony to the prosperous Jewish community that existed before so many left.

The most personal, revelatory moment for me occurred when I was in a Jeep in the Caucasus mountains. We reached the high-altitude village of Tori, which is inaccessible to the without four-wheel drive. The roads were unpaved, men ploughed their fields with oxen, and Medraft arranged for us to be invited to the house of a very open-hearted villager. He offered us chacha — the bracing Georgian liquor that is made from grapes, sometimes with the addition of honey — and motioned to us to sit on his wooden porch. He toasted us with an elaborate Georgian-style toast and said we were welcome to walk around his humble abode.

I went inside. It was almost barren except for a wood-burning stove, a bed with a straw mattress, a rustic kitchen with a few pots, pans and implements, and a faded, warped wooden floor. Something about the house felt oddly familiar: it was the way I imagined my grandmother’s house in the Ukraine, before she left the shtetl as a child and came to America.

The Medraft guide mentioned that our host originally came from the Ukraine. I immediately remembered that my grandmother told me the floor of her house in the shtetl was made from pressed goat excrement.

“What was the floor of your house made of in the Ukraine?” I asked.

“Goat excrement,” the man replied. “Here we use wood, but there it was pressed from the excrement of goats.”

In the impoverished mountain village, I came home to my ancestry in a way I never had before in my life.

IF YOU GO TO GEORGIA: Turkish Airlines has flights to Tbilisi, and I highly recommend them. ( I flew New York to Istanbul and Istanbul to Tbilisi on Turkish Airlines. They also fly from Israel to Istanbul, and from Istanbul to Georgia.

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