TA exhibit highlights last rural Georgian Jews

Story of Kakiashvilis common among Georgian Jewish Diaspora: Proud of their past, but the future lies elsewhere.

Mikhail Kakiashvili, last native member of Oni, Georgia_370  (photo credit: Eliezer Yaari )
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 Tuesday.

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 of Oni.Wild growth obscured most of the tombstones on the ground and the snow-capped Caucasus mountains were seen glistening in the distance.“His 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 (JDC).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 ailing.“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 community.”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.“He is 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.“Our next trip is to visit the Jewish community in Cuba,” said Yaari. “Our biggest problem is that too many people want to go.”