Photography: Georgia on their minds

In the late 1960s, the Caucasus country’s Jews numbered upwards of 100,000.

On the way to the fields (photo credit: Eli Atias)
On the way to the fields
(photo credit: Eli Atias)
At what date in history did Jews begin to settle in Georgia? The answer to this question is either simple or complicated, depending upon which Georgia we are talking about. The first Jews to arrive in what is now the US state of Georgia were a group of 42 men and women who came across the Atlantic from England on the schooner William and Sarah and landed in Savannah on July 11, 1733. That is the simple answer. Those Jews, incidentally, were warmly welcomed by the Christian colonists already there, who were perhaps pleased to discover that the new arrivals included both a doctor and a wine maker.
No one, however, can say with any certainty exactly when Jews first appeared in the other Georgia, in the Caucasus region of Western Asia. The Jewish community’s traditional history states that the first arrivals made their way to Georgia during the Babylonian captivity, after the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the first Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. Non-Jewish Georgian sources place the arrival of Jews at various later dates, ranging anywhere from the first to the sixth century CE. One thing that can be stated with reasonable conviction is that the Jewish community of Georgia is ancient, one of the oldest in the world.
By the late 1960s, the Jews in Georgia are said to have numbered upwards of 100,000, comprising an ethnic group that had been an almost constant target of discrimination and persecution by the Soviet government since its takeover of Georgia in 1921. After the spike in government-sponsored anti-Semitism that followed Israel’s dramatic victory in the Six Day War, many Georgian Jews decided that enough was enough. In August 1969, 18 Jewish families wrote a public letter to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, demanding the right to leave the Soviet Union and emigrate to Israel. Two years later, another group staged a noisy hunger strike outside a post office in central Moscow, attracting international support that finally prompted the government to loosen its grip on Georgia’s Jews.
Tens of thousands of Jews began to leave, until by 1989 their numbers had decreased to a little over 24,000. More left during the 1990s, leaving the Jews of Georgia – along with Jews elsewhere in the former Soviet Union – dispersed in small communities that no longer fully function. The disappearance of government- provided health and welfare benefits that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union left many of these remaining Jews impoverished. Attempting to avert a humanitarian crisis, the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) began to provide welfare assistance and social support programs.
LAST SUMMER, seven Israeli photographers visited Georgia to document the lives of some of the country’s remaining Jews. The group’s main desire was to record what they saw of a once great community which survives today much reduced in numbers and self-confidence and whose future is uncertain.
The result of this visit is an exhibition of 50 of their photographs, called “In Search of Human Grace: A Photo Journey to the Jewish Community of Georgia, Summer 2011,” currently showing at Beit Hatfutsot – the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. These photographs – of people, places and glimpses of day-to-day lives – both sadden and inspire. They sadden as we look at abandoned synagogues and poverty-stricken, lonely old people; and they inspire with pictures that show also life, hope and renewal.
As curator Eli Attias writes in his introduction to the exhibition, “Henri Cartier Bresson has said that the secret to succeeding in a project of this nature is ‘the ability to look at the subject at eye level, whether he is a top designer or a beggar on the street.’ The reason this project was a success, and the reason for my desire to take part, derives from this specific group [of photographers] and what characteristics each individual brings to the group. Already in the photography process, I noticed the sensitivity of the group members.”
According to Attias, all seven members of the group appear to have been driven by the words of photographer Robert Capa, who famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
And close we become in these pictures, as we visit people ranging from the prosperous last Jewish doctor of Kutaisi to a woman in a dilapidated Khrushchev-era housing project, standing near the broken wall of her entire floor’s crumbling communal bathroom.
We meet individuals as diverse as a lonely old woman, isolated and very poor, and a very happy-looking young girl, preparing for a school program with her class, smiling at the camera with evident delight. Pictures of gutted, abandoned synagogues alternate with those of beautiful old synagogues still in use; pictures of filthy tenements dovetail with photos of breathtakingly beautiful landscapes – all part of Georgian Jewish life today.
Recalls Atalia Katz, one of the photographers, “I can tell you that even in the saddest scenes, I could still see hope.
They are really proud to be Jewish. Even in some of the most broken-down houses, where there was practically nothing, there were books, there were curtains, a potted flower, some sign of identity and of hope. And of pride. For example, one day, a very poor family invited us to their home. They opened the table, and the amount of food they served us that day was unbelievable. As poor as they were, they were proud and strong.”
In addition to sensitive documentation, the photographs are designed to provide additional assistance to the people who were photographed, as the seven Israeli photographers who went to Georgia last summer are not your usual gaggle of documentary photographers.
Most are amateur picture-takers, with “daytime jobs” as executives in Israeli industry and finance, as well as board memberships in some of Israel’s leading philanthropic organizations such as the Israel Venture Network, the Jewish Funders Network, and the New Israel Fund.
LEADING THE group last summer was Benny Levin, 62, co-founder and former CEO of NICE Systems, current chairman of the board of directors of dbMotion and vice-chairman of the Israel Venture Network, promoters of sustainable social change in Israel. Says Levin, “The concept here was to combine our hobbies of photography with philanthropy.
We wanted to use photography as a tool to build a group of philanthropists who care about Jewish societies worldwide, and build a platform that can be extended to people who do photography as a hobby for the good of philanthropy, as a marriage between photography and philanthropy.”
Toward this goal of “philanthropic photography,” Levin and his group have decided to make their work an ongoing project, called Jdocu, with its own website, Levin says that “In Search of Human Grace,” documenting the lives of Georgia’s last Jews, is Jdocu’s kickoff project.
The group’s next mission in philanthropic photography will be to the Jewish community of Cuba. “There are around 1,500 Jewish people in Cuba,” says Levin. “No one has yet documented the personal stories of the Jews in Cuba. Our work is a partnership with the JDC, Beit Hatfutsot, and the Jewish Funders Network.”
The group plans to go to a different place every year. Ethiopia and Bosnia are two places Levin mentions as likely destinations.
Their first objective will be to document personal stories of Jewish life worldwide and to bring these stories to the attention of Israelis. “The outcome is a group of people who care about Jewish society, who give back, and who donate on a platform where Israelis will be made aware of Jewish communities outside of Israel,” Levin explains.
Why the emphasis on making Israelis aware of Jewish communities in need of assistance? “I think that Israel is a strong country right now,” Levin says. “The days when rich Americans had to pour money into Israel are over. Israelis are strong, so why don’t we start helping Jews in need around the world? I’m not saying that we should stop helping Israelis, but I am saying that we are now strong enough to look outside our own borders and do something for the rest of the Jewish world and for other people as well. It will strengthen our image.”
And why bother going around the world taking pictures when high-powered donors could simply be asked for money, as is normally the case in the world of philanthropy? Photographer Katz replies, “Photography is a very strong way – maybe the strongest – of both expressing the inner self and showing things outside you. Its potential for documentation is enormous. In Georgia, we were seven photographers taking pictures of almost the same subject.
Each photographer has a distinct character and comes from his own world. This exhibition shows thus shows seven different points of view of what we saw. All together, we took more than 5,000 pictures in that one week. The result was a big, beautiful opportunity to present a picture and tell our story. And I’ll tell you this: it wasn’t easy. It was very hard. We spent a lot of hours, and we worked very, very hard,” she concludes, smiling broadly.
“In Search of Human Grace: A Photo Journey to the Jewish Community of Georgia, Summer 2011” is showing until April 20 at Beit Hatfutsot – the Museum of the Jewish People. Sunday to Tuesday 10 to 4; Wednesday and Thursday 10 to 7; Friday 9 to 1. Additional photographs of the journey can be seen at