Georgian Jews - History and Cultural Relations

Georgian annals provide some information about the arrival of Jews in Georgia and about some of the major events in their history. The first mention of Jews in Georgia is associated with the era of the Assyrian conquerors (eighth century B.C. ). Other documents date the arrival of Jews in Kartli (eastern Georgia) to the time of the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Navukhodnosorom (586 B.C. ). According to the annals, Mtskhetskii Mamasakhlisi (the head of a feudal household) settled Jews at Zanavi, near Mtskhet, and gave them land on the condition that they pay tribute (Georgian: kharki; Hebrew: kherek, kherk ) ; as a result, that locality acquired the name "Kherki" ( Kartlis Tskhovreba 1949, 1973). The same source indicates that after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD. 70 a large group of Jews came to Kartli and settled in Mtskhet near Jews who had already settled there. There were thus several important Jewish migrations to Kartli, separated by varying intervals. Several historical sources place the first settlements of Jews not at Kartli (Mtskhet) but on the Black Sea coast of Georgia, at the mouth of the Ch'orokh River, at Guria, and at Laziki (Kolkhida) from the ninth to the eighth centuries B.C.

Aside from the Georgian historical sources, there is information about Georgian Jews in works by Armenian historians (Favstos Buzand, Movses Khorenskii, Arakel Tavrizskii) and by Jewish travelers of the eleventh to twelfth centuries (Benjamin Tudelskii, Fetakhia Regenbumbrskii, Yehuda al-Khariz).

Jewish settlements were established across Georgia over the centuries: in eastern Georgia in Tskhinvali, Surami, Ali, Mzovreti, Akhaldaba, Ateni, Tsilkani, Urbnisi, Samachablo, Gremi, Eniseli, Khovle, and elsewhere; in western Georgia in Oni, Sachkhere, Chikhori, Chaltatke, Kutaisi, Senaki, and elsewhere. A significant number of Jews lived in southern Georgia as well, at Samtskhe-Saatabago.

The size of the Jewish population is not given in the sources, although according to Kartlis Tskhovreba their numbers were so large and their language so widely distributed that Georgians spoke "Jewish" (probably some form of Aramaic) as well as Georgian. The same source says that Aramaic was one of the six conversational languages formerly spoken in Kartli.

Historically, Jews in Georgia lived together in one village or "quarter," where their houses of worship and places of social and cultural significance were located. Schools of Jewish scribes, translators, and theologians were widely known; the Mtskhetsk religious community commanded particular respect. Mtskheta was, with its sanctuaries ( bagini ) , the center of Georgian Judaism. It was here that, according to legend, the shroud of Saint Eli and the tunic of Jesus Christ were buried, having been brought from Jerusalem by Mtskhetsk Jews.

Georgian Jews always maintained strong ties to Jerusalem (they corresponded and actively took part in religious debates). The Jewish diaspora was distinguished by its own culture and communal organization. The Georgian historical tradition connects the rise of the first Christian community in Iberia (Kartli) in the first century with Jews residing in the vicinity of Mtskhet. The first members of the Christian community had been Jews, and the first Christian church was a formerly Jewish sanctuary upon which, with permission of the Jewish clergyman, Abiatar, Saint Nino erected a cross.

Although a majority of the Jewish population of Georgia lost its language, retaining it only for religious use, it succeeded in carrying through the centuries a stable way of life, retaining its ethnic self-awareness and its adherence to the religious traditions of its ancestors. The traditional onomastics were preserved as well, on the basis of which family names were structured, built on Georgian models of word formation for personal naming.

Jews in Georgia since ancient times have been called "Georgian Jews," evidence of the social and psychological intermingling of these two peoples and of their cultural closeness.

Georgian Jews were not subjected to ethnic or religious persecution. The kings of Georgia entrusted them with diplomatic missions and sought their advice on trade with neighboring countries. In difficult times, Jews took up arms in defense of their homeland.

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