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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

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Pesach in Tbilisi

Tags: Travel
Tbilisi Shul

Jodie Shupac, Special to The CJN


In some ways, I couldn’t have chosen a more random place to visit if I’d spun a globe and left it up to fate.

Unlike its vast northern neighbour Russia or Turkey to its southwest, Georgia generally attracts little North American media coverage. References to it, as experience has taught me, are likelier to evoke images among Torontonians of the southern U.S. state than of the rugged, post-Soviet country bridging Europe and Asia.

Still, the colliding factors of a finished job contract and my Georgian-Canadian friend deciding to leave Toronto – his home of 10 years – to return to Tbilisi, saw me boarding a flight for the latter, Georgia’s capital. I was to spend two weeks exploring what I soon learned is a country rhapsodized for its stunning mountain ranges, its lush valleys and verdant wine region.

And yet, my mother – ever a staunch pragmatist and a self-identified “Conservadox” Jew – was not impressed.

“You’ll miss Pesach,” she said starkly, after I told her I would be spending the first half of April in Georgia (“the country”).

I assured her I would not. After all, what is Chabad – the chassidic outreach group committed to providing Sabbath and holiday experiences to Jewish residents and travellers in far-flung places the world over – for? I had friends who’d attended a Chabad seder in India! A seder in Tbilisi would be fine.

Indeed, a Google search revealed that Georgia has an extremely rich Jewish history, and a Jewish community that’s thought to date back to the sixth century Babylonian exile and is one of the world’s oldest. Although the majority of Georgian Jews emigrated to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union, shrinking the community from roughly 100,000 to 13, 000, many of those who remain maintain a strong Jewish identity and traditions.

Suddenly, my visit seemed less random, offering me the chance to discover a faraway Jewish community that most Toronto Jews know little about.

On my second day in Georgia, my friend and I wandered through the sloping, cobblestone streets of old Tbilisi. Among the weathered buildings with their paint-curling facades and ornate balustrades, we came upon the Orthodox synagogue – one of two shuls in Tbilisi – a brick building erected in 1904. In the courtyard, several older men sat on a bench, munching idly on pieces of matzah, though it was still a week before Passover.

Curious, I approached them and asked if they spoke English or Hebrew. They didn’t, so my Georgian friend translated. Yes, they were Jewish; Yes, they had lived in Tbilisi their entire lives, Yes, the synagogue had an active, though modest, congregation. And yes, they ate matzah before Passover, because – why not?

One man offered to give me a tour, and I followed him inside the synagogue, taking in the beautiful, blue and gold-patterned walls, the elegant archways and the sumptuous golden ark. I was overcome by the wonderful strangeness of sharing certain customs, parts of a narrative, even, with a wizened Georgian man missing most of his teeth. Exiting the synagogue, I met the Israeli-born Chabad rabbi with whom I’d been e-mailing about the seder. We chatted briefly, and I noticed that his car’s license plate read “JEW 077.“

Later, I recounted this to my dad over the phone, and he chuckled, remarking that having such a license plate would indicate Georgia’s lack of anti-Semitism. Indeed, compared to other European countries, Georgian Jews have, historically, experienced little persecution and currently enjoy good relations with their Christian and Muslim fellow citizens.

A lack of anti-Semitism, relative proximity to Israel and, of course, the country’s sheer beauty, have made Georgia an increasingly popular tourist hub for Israelis, a fact I encountered first hand. High up in the Caucasus mountain ranges in northern Georgia, on every trail I hiked and in each hill-topped monastery I visited, my ears would perk to the familiar sounds of Hebrew being spoken.

In a café in a small northern mountain village called Kazbegi, I ordered my morning coffee from a tattoo-clad Armenian waiter in Hebrew, which he’d picked up from the throngs of Israeli backpackers. I enthusiastically asked for it with “chalav kar, lo cham” (cold milk, not hot).

On the first night of Pesach, my friend and I arrived promptly at the dining hall at 8:30 p.m., the hour the rabbi had indicated in his e-mail. Only a handful of guests were there, and the rabbi was nowhere in sight.

“Georgian time,” my friend grumbled, though I countered that the delay must be attributable to “Jewish time.”

By 10 p.m, the hall had filled up with about 50 people – mainly Israeli tourists, mixed with the odd Russian family and a smattering of Americans. The rabbi’s wife beckoned to me to light candles with her, explaining that the second night of Passover tended to be more dominated by Georgians. I had planned to “go Israeli” and not attend the second seder, so I was disappointed that I would not get to meet them.

The seder finally began, with the rabbi heartily leading the proceedings in both Hebrew and English. At one point, he was stumped for an English word, and my Jewish day school education kicked in, allowing me to supply it for him.

I earned an enthusiastic “Todah, Judy!” and became his official translator of the evening. The trill of sheepish pride I experienced whenever he called on me for assistance – not to mention the fact that he insisted of calling me “Judy,” as every Hebrew teacher I’ve ever had has – felt oddly reminiscent of sitting in rabbinics class at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, emerging from a daydream to give the rabbi the right answer.

At well past midnight, with the seder drawing to a close and the Israelis growing restless, the table settled on a common tune for the Passover classic, Echad Mi’yodeah (who knows one?), belting it out with renewed vigour.

A pang of homesickness aside, I felt comforted knowing I had not, after all, missed Pesach. Even more, I’d gotten to encounter a glimmer of Jewish life in a place that, however obscure it had seemed initially, is home to an active, albeit small, Jewish community anchored by deep and resilient roots.


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