Mikhail Kakiashvili, last native member of Oni, Georgia_370 .
(photo credit: Eliezer Yaari )
A group of people gathered around an enlarged photograph at the launch of a new
photo exhibit at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People on
The portrait showed an elderly man wearing a blue shirt and a
dark cap standing guard over the old Jewish cemetery in the small Georgian town
Wild growth obscured most of the tombstones on the ground and the
snow-capped Caucasus mountains were seen glistening in the distance.
name is Mikhail Kakiashvili and he will be the last Jew in Oni,” said writer
Eliezer Yaari, who snapped the photo when he visited Georgia last summer. Yaari
was part of a group of Israeli photography enthusiasts called JDocu which
traveled to the Caucasian country to document the local Jewish community in
cooperation with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
They toured the land taking photos of the people and places they
came across and upon return organized an exhibit at the museum in north Tel Aviv
on Georgian Jewish life.
One of their more memorable stops was Oni, where
they met Kakiashvili and a dozen or so local Jews, most of whom are old and
“Kakiashvili holds the keys to the synagogue and drives once a
month to Tbilisi to bring back kosher meat,” Yaari said. “He rarely comes to
Israel. I don’t know why. We learned on our trip not to ask too many
questions. But when he passes away that will be the end of the
Five minutes later the image of the last guardian of the
Jewish community in Oni sprang to life when none other than Kakiashvili himself
arrived to the surprise of most of the people in the room. He had the same
expression on his face and wore a similar cap to the one he had on in the
picture, but the blue shirt was gone, replaced by a dark grey blazer on account
of the occasion.
An astonished Yaari gave the man a warm bear hug and
Georgian Ambassador to Israel Vakhtang Jaoshvili shook his hand.
here visiting us,” Kakiashvili’s son, who lives in Israel, said in rudimentary
Hebrew on behalf of his father. “He might make aliya one day but we have the
synagogue in Oni to take care of. It is very beautiful and we have many things,
many sacred books there.”
The story of the Kakiashvilis is common among
the Georgian Jewish Diaspora. They’re proud of their past in Georgia, but their
future lies elsewhere.
From a peak of maybe 100,000 people, there are
currently about 6,000 Jews in the country.
Unlike other Eastern European
countries, Georgia was never occupied by Germany and the Jewish community was
not decimated by the Holocaust.
The community proved robust even under
communist rulers, who found it hard to impose some of their harsher measures on
the isolated and remote communities of the Caucuses.
But the fall of the
Iron Wall allowed Georgian Jews to seek better economic opportunities in Israel,
the US and elsewhere and the community went into decline.
One of the aims
of the exhibition, whose photos are on sale with all proceeds going to the
Jewish community of Georgia, was to capture small communities of Georgian Jews
in their ancestral homes before they vanish. Curators said the exhibit, titled
“In Search of Human Grace,” will be on display at Beit Hatfutsot until April 20.
In the meantime, JDocu is already organizing its next trip.
trip is to visit the Jewish community in Cuba,” said Yaari. “Our biggest problem
is that too many people want to go.”