This synagogue in Tblisi, Georgia is an identical match of colors, style and materials to that of the churches in the area.
Yotom eventually passes me off to the Synagogue’s Rabbi. Rabbi Chaim spoke in a deep and charismatic Hebrew, totally lacking any foreign accent despite his citizenship and ethnic roots in Georgia. I have translated his remarks into English: “We have always been happy here, living in the Jewish sector with a school, butchers, and strong community.”
During the many lectures offered in my Study Abroad program, I had been studying the Georgian identity, and how integral the Georgian Church and the Georgian “Mountain Warrior” archetype was to this Balkan region. I asked the Rabbi, “How do you think the congregation identifies? As Jews? As Georgians? As something else?”
“We are all definitely Jews here. Sometimes, when we speak the same language, or eat the same food as our neighbors, we can say we are a ‘Georgian’ sub-sect, but we are first and foremost Jews.”
Ya’acov, an older, slower moving man who was one of the last the people to leave the synagogue, embodied these words. Attending the other synagogue of Tbilisi, only a few blocks down the street, he told me, “I go here because I am Jewish, I know I am Jewish in my heart!” He finishes a long speech about how he does not speak Hebrew or know prayers, but has memories of his parents owning dusty old prayer books in Hebrew. To him, a culturally secular man who grew up without much Jewish education but who now goes to synagogue weekly, “being Jewish” is a type of citizenship unrelated to where you are living. Strong enough such that that he attends synagogue services weekly despite not knowing what he is saying or engaging with the intellectual/philosophical questions that Judaism traditionally encourages.
Although reminiscent of the stance many a Jew would take, and similar to the summer camp experience of numerous secular American Jews, I think he meant the citizenship semi-literally. To him, and other Jews I spoke to in the Balkans, being Jewish was undersood literally as an ethnicity. Lectures I attended would list ethnic groups such as Azeri, Armenian, Osettian, and Jewish.
Locals I spoke with in Georgia treated ethnicity very differently than we do in the states. Your country of origin was not necessarily a sufficient answer to the question “What are you?” That is, they never asked “Where are you from?”; instead they asked variations of the ethnicity question for which your answer must be tied to an ethnic group that spoke a unique language. Interestingly then, nationality and religious background were not quite as meaningful as ethnicity, which encompassed Judaism for those that identified and those that didn’t.