In the wake of the recent Russian-Georgian conflict, hundreds of new Georgian Jewish immigrants have relocated to Israel, and Nana is one of them. Today she meets me in Tel Aviv to share her story. She joins me at a table in a lovely Georgian restaurant, where we are served beef dumplings and pickles, amid a décor of purple glass chandeliers and gilded mirrors. It’s a touch of pre-Soviet Georgia in contemporary Tel Aviv.
Until three years ago, Nana, 32, lived in the Georgian town of Gori, hometown of Stalin. After it became the literal epicenter of Russian-Georgian strife, relocation became a necessity. “I saw our house collapse when our neighborhood was bombed,” she relates. Luckily, Nana and her two young children were outside when the bombing occurred, and they escaped serious injury.
When Nana fled Georgia, with her children and mother in tow, she didn’t even bring a change of clothes, as she had lost everything in the bomb blast. She arrived in Israel still in a state of shock, but was quickly settled in an absorption center in Ashdod, where she reunited with her brother and his wife and children. Nana was eligible for a financial grant, and was soon able to move into a comfortable apartment with her children and her mother, who babysits while she works. With a background in business accounting, Nana has been able to find work doing book-keeping for a nearby merchant.
The Jews of Georgia
Jews of Georgian origin constitute one of the world’s oldest surviving Jewish communities, with a 2,600-year history in the area. It is commonly believed that Jews first settled in the southern part of the country after Nebuchadnezzar’s conquered Jerusalem, when they were exiled in Babylon.
Georgian Jews have preserved both their religious way of life and their ethnic identity over centuries. Even in the worst days of Stalinism, they successfully resisted efforts to close synagogues, and they did not intermarry of assimilate at the level of Jews in European parts of the former Soviet Union. More than 30 different Jewish institutions exist in Georgia today, as well as a several schools, three Jewish newspapers, and a Jewish radio and television station. Synagogues are found in most cities with larger Jewish communities.
Even as late as the 1970s, the Jewish community in Georgia numbered at least 80,000, but today only 10,000- 12,000 remain. Since the early 1980s, over 80 percent of Georgia’s Jewish population has left the country, with most immigrating to Israel. As with Jews in other countries of the former Soviet Union, Georgian Jews have found that a post-communist society has not freed them from discrimination. And the financial realities of the new world order have been daunting.
Georgian Jews in Israel Today
While only around three percent of Soviet Jewry is of Georgian origin, Georgia Jews have made up at least a quarter of Jewish immigrants to Israel from former Soviet republics. When immigration to Israel first began, Georgian Jews were among the most eager to take part. Traditionally, Georgian Jews’ migration to Israel has been more a matter of mass community efforts rather than lone individuals. In earlier decades, whole communities launched efforts to move to Israel, and thousands of townspeople undertook the aliyah process together. Because of their insistence upon living among other Georgian immigrants, new arrivals were assigned to one of 12 areas in the country with concentrations of at least 200 Georgian Jews. These areas include the Ashadod area where Nana settled.
In addition to their decreased emphasis upon assimilation, Georgian immigrants to Israel demonstrate much greater religious observance than the majority of Israelis. For these immigrants, Israel has represented a religious ideal more than a political state, and they wear their skullcaps proudly. Even those who are nonreligious affirm their Jewish identity through the honoring of religious customs. One of the primary concerns of re-settled Georgians in Israel has been the lack of strict religious elements in schools and other institutions, and they have been strenuous in demands for the government to ensure that their religious practice can be fully developed in their new country.
Most Georgian-born Jews in Israel today, however, seem happy to both maintain the traditions of their old country and to embrace the freedoms and opportunities of their new home. Nana is friends with several immigrants from the Gori area and nearby communities. One couple she knows has taken up temporary residence in Kibbutz Messila, but she looks forward to them joining her soon. They compare notes about their immigration experiences, and all agree that their reception has been a warm one.
As for Nana, she dreams of opening her own accounting business, finding a husband who can be a good father to her children, and living in peace with her extended family and friends. When asked whether she considers herself a Georgian first and foremost, she pauses, then says: “I consider myself first a good mother, then a good Jew. The spirit of Georgia will always be in my blood. But Israel is my future.”