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|Regions with significant populations|
|Georgia||1,405 (not including Abkhazia or South Ossetia)|
|Hebrew, Georgian (Judaeo-Georgian), English, Russian|
|Related ethnic groups|
|(Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, etc.)|
Jewish ethnic divisions
|Part of a series on|
|Jews and Judaism|
The Georgian Jews (Georgian: ქართველი ებრაელები, romanized: kartveli ebraelebi) are a community of Jews who migrated to Georgia during the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE. It is one of the oldest communities in the region. They are also widely distinguished from the Ashkenazi Jews in Georgia, who arrived following the Russian annexation of Georgia.
Prior to Georgia's annexation by the Russian Empire in 1801, the 2,600-year history of the Georgian Jews was marked by an almost total absence of antisemitism and a visible assimilation in the Georgian language and culture. The Georgian Jews were considered ethnically and culturally distinct from neighboring Mountain Jews.
The community, which numbered almost 60,000 as recently as the 1970s, has largely emigrated to Israel, the United States, the Russian Federation and Belgium (in Antwerp). As of 2014[update], only about 1,500 Georgian Jews remained in Georgia. According to the 2002 First General National Census of Georgia, there are 3,541 Jewish believers in the country. For example, the Lezgishvili branch of Georgian Jews have families in Israel, Moscow, Baku, Düsseldorf, and Cleveland, Ohio (US). Several hundred Georgian Jewish families live in the New York tri-state area, particularly in New York City and Long Island.
Georgian-speaking Jewry is one of the oldest surviving Jewish communities in the world. The Georgian Jews have an approximately 2,600-year history in Colchis. The origin of Georgian Jews, also known as Gurjim or kartveli ebraelebi, is debated. The most popular view is that the first Jews made their way to southern Georgia after Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and exile in Babylon. This claim is supported by the medieval Georgian historical account by Leonti Mroveli, who writes:
Then King Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem. The Jews who fled thence come to Kartli and requested from the mamasakhlisi [local ruler] of Mtskheta territory in return for tribute. He gave [a place] and settled them on the Aragvi, at spring which was called Zanavi, which was later renamed as Zanavi, the quarter of Jews.".
During their [Bartom and Kartam's] reign, Vespasian, the emperor of the Romans, captured Jerusalem. From there refugee Jews come to Mtskheta and settled with the old Jews."
The ancient Georgian historic chronicle, The Conversion of Kartli, is the oldest and only Georgian source concerning the history of the Jewish community in Georgia. The chronicle describes a version similar to that offered centuries later by Leonti Mroveli, but the period of Jewish migration into Georgia is ascribed to Alexander the Great:
...the warlike seed, the Honni [Jews], exiled by the Chaldeans, [came to Kartli] and requested the land for tribute from the Lord of the Bun T'urks [suburb of Mtskheta]. And they [Jews] settled in Zanavi. And they possessed it...
Georgian sources also refer to the arrival of the first Jews in Western Georgia from the Byzantine Empire during the 6th century CE. Approximately 3,000 of the Jews fled to Eastern Georgia, which by that time was controlled by the Persians, to escape severe persecution by the Byzantines. The existence of the Jews in these regions during this period is supported by the archaeological evidence, which shows that Jews lived in Mtskheta, the ancient capital of the Eastern Georgian state of Iberia-Kartli.
According to the Georgian hagiography, Jewish communities existed in Georgia in the 1st century. A Georgian Jew called Elias was said to be in Jerusalem during the Crucifixion and brought Jesus' robe back with him to Georgia. He had acquired it from a Roman soldier at Golgotha.
The Jews spoke Georgian, and later Jewish traders developed a dialect called Kivruli, or Judaeo-Georgian, which included a number of Hebrew words.
In the second half of the 7th century, the Muslim Empire conquered extensive Georgian territory, which became a province of the Arab caliphate. Arab emirs ruled in the Georgian capital Tbilisi and surrounding territory for nearly 500 years, until 1122.
Genetic studies carried out on Georgian Jews as part of a wider survey showed close genetic links with other Jews, and in particular with Iraqi and Persian Jews. This seemed to prove the historical accounts of Jewish migration from Persia into Georgia.
There is not much documentation about Georgian Jews under the Arab domination. In the late 9th century, Abu-Imran Musa al-Za'farani (later known as Abu-Imran al-Tiflisi) founded a Jewish Karai sect called the Tiflis Sect ("Tiflisites"), which lasted for more than 300 years. The sect deviated from Rabbinic halakhah in its marriage and kashrut customs. This sect did not represent the great majority of Georgian Jews, who adhered to traditional Rabbinic Judaism while maintaining strong religious ties with Baghdad and other Jews of Iraq. The nature of Georgian Jew's observance to rabbinic law was also noted by Benjamin of Tudela and Abraham ben David (also known as the RABAD or RAVAD).
Georgian annexation into the Russian Empire
Anti-Semitism under the Tsarist government
The tradition of the relationship between Jews and other Georgians has no signs of anti-Semitism, excluding the Tsarist government. For many centuries, the Church in Georgia did not incite against the Jews, and the Georgian Jews were visibly assimilated in the country's rural life and culture.
Revolution and independence
After the Six-Day War, huge numbers of Soviet Jews began protesting for the right to immigrate to Israel, and many applied for exit visas. Georgian Jews made up a large percentage of this number.
While most Soviet Jewish emigration was individual, Georgian-Jewish emigration was communal. Due to Georgian-Jewish traditions of strong, extended families and the strict, patriarchal nature of Georgian families, Georgians immigrated as whole communities, with emigration of individuals causing a chain reaction leading to more emigration, and brought their community structures with them. For example, nearly the entire population of at least two Georgian towns made aliyah. At the time the emigration started, Israel had a policy of scattering the population around the country, and was experiencing a housing shortage, with the result that Georgians were assigned housing in different parts of the country. The Georgians began demanding that they be concentrated together, and the crisis reached a fever pitch when several families threatened to return to Georgia, and new immigrants, forewarned by predecessors, began demanding to be placed in specific areas upon arrival. Although Prime Minister Golda Meir criticized the Georgians' desire to "isolate themselves into ghettos", the Israeli Immigrant Absorption Ministry eventually bowed to their demands, and began to create concentrations of around 200 families in twelve areas of the country.
In Israel, Georgian immigrants successfully integrated into society, but faced certain problems. Georgian immigrants were usually able to find jobs with ease, and often worked in light industry jobs, such as dock workers, porters, and construction workers, but faced certain issues. One major issue was religion; the Georgian Jews were often devout and had fiercely clung to their traditions in the Soviet Union, and were stunned to discover that Israeli Jews were mostly secular. As a result, Georgian immigrants demanded their own separate synagogues to continue their unique religious traditions, which the government agreed to, and enrolled their children in religious schools rather than regular schools.
Independence and Georgia today
According to the 1897 Russian Empire Census, there were 12,194 people whose native language was "Jewish" in the two provinces that largely covered today's Georgia: Tiflis Governorate (5,188) and Kutais Governorate (7,006). There were 3,419 Jews in Kutaisi city (10.5% of the population), 2,935 in Tiflis, 1,064 in Batumi.
Georgia's population almost doubled between 1926 and 1970, then began declining, with dramatic declines in the 1970s and 1990s, when many Georgian Jews left and moved to other countries, especially to Israel.
The traditional language of the Georgian Jews is Judaeo-Georgian, a variant of Georgian, characterized by a large number of Hebrew loanwords, and written using either the Georgian alphabet or Hebrew alphabet. Besides speaking Judaeo-Georgian, the Georgian Jews speak the languages of the peoples surrounding them. In Georgia, these include Georgian and Russian; in Belgium, Dutch; in the United States and Canada English; and in Israel, Modern Hebrew.
Aliyah and diaspora outside of Georgia
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Many Georgian Jews now live in Israel. In the United States, the principal Georgian Jewish synagogue is the Congregation of Georgian Jews in the Forest Hills section of Queens, New York City.
Notable people in the US
One notable Georgian Jew in USA is Tamir Sapir, born Temur Sepiashvili, an immigrant taxi driver turned businessman from New York. Another notable Georgian Jew is Dr. Yuri Busi (born Yuri Busiashvili), who was known for being the physician for the actress Lucille Ball.
Notable people in Israel
In Israel, most Georgian Jews settled near the coast in cities such as Lod, Bat Yam, Ashdod, and Holon. There are Georgian Jews in Jerusalem as well, with several prominent synagogues.
Notable people in Russia & Israel
- Mikhael Mirilashvili (b. 1960), businessman and philantropist based in St Petersburg and Israel
- Yitzchak Mirilashvili (b. 1984), son and partner of Mikhael Mirilashvili
- "All-Russian population census 2020". rosstat.gov.ru. Retrieved 16 January 2023.
- The Wellspring of Georgian Historiography: The Early Medieval Historical Chronicle The Conversion of Katli and The Life of St. Nino, Constantine B. Lerner, England: Bennett and Bloom, London, 2004, p. 60
- Forget Atlanta - this is the Georgia on my mind By Jewish Discoveries and Harry D. Wall Feb. 7, 2015, Haaretz
- Mountain Jews: customs and daily life in the Caucasus, Leʼah Miḳdash-Shemaʻʼilov, Liya Mikdash-Shamailov, Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem), UPNE, 2002, page 9
- Statistics of Georgia Archived 31 August 2006 at the Wayback Machine
- Batumi Archeological Museum, seen March 2020; also Tbilisi Jewish Museum, seen March 2020
- "Georgia", World Jewish Congress Jewish Communities Database
- Begley, Sharon. (7 August 2012) Genetic study offers clues to history of North Africa's Jews | Reuters. In.reuters.com. Retrieved on 2013-04-16.
- Ben-Oren, Gershon. "The History of the Jews of Georgia until the Communist Regime". The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.
- Michael Curtis, Mordecai S. Chertoff: Israel: Social Structure and Change.
- 100 Georgian Jews Make Aliyah to Israel since outbreak of crisis. Jewishinstlouis.org. Retrieved on 16 April 2013.
- "Демоскоп Weekly - Приложение. Справочник статистических показателей".
- "Демоскоп Weekly - Приложение. Справочник статистических показателей".
- "tab30.XLS" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 July 2014. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
- "Население грузии".
- "Приложение Демоскопа Weekly". Demoscope.ru. 15 January 2013. Archived from the original on 12 October 2013. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
- http://www.ajcarchives.org/AJC_DATA/Files/2002_13_WJP.pdf[bare URL PDF]
- "Powered by Google Docs". Retrieved 14 April 2013.
- YIVO | Population and Migration: Population since World War I. Yivoencyclopedia.org. Retrieved on 14 April 2013.
- "All the World Loved Lucille Ball". people.com. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
- Shapira, Dan (2008). "Gleanings on Jews of Greater Iran under the Sasanians: (According to the Oldest Armenian and Georgian Texts)". Iran and the Caucasus. 12 (2): 191–216. doi:10.1163/157338408X406010.
- Caucasus article in the Jewish Encyclopedia
- World Congress of Georgian Jews
- Way of life and customs by Rachel Arbel and Lili Magal from World Congress of Georgian Jews
- WATCH: Forget Atlanta - this is the Georgia on my mind, Haaretz