All photos by Tariq Zaidi/courtesy of Tariq Zaidi

Bleak Photos of Georgia's Lonely, Dwindling Jewish Population

Self-taught photographer Tariq Zaidi's striking images tell the story of the last Jews in the former Soviet country.

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Dec 21 2017, 2:50pm

All photos by Tariq Zaidi/courtesy of Tariq Zaidi

There was once a thriving Jewish population in the country of Georgia. Now, just 3,200 Jewish believers remain. Photographer Tariq Zaidi went in search of those who stayed and found a proud and protective community lost in time.

There have been Jews in Georgia for 26 centuries. The first are said to have settled in Western Georgia during the Babylonian times following the invasion of Israel. Further waves of people entered fleeing persecution by the Byzantine Empire. Locals claim that at one point there was a vibrant community of 250,000 Jews living in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi alone.

But after the reestablishment of the state of Israel and the opening of the borders of the USSR in the late 1980s, there was mass Aliyah (relocation from the diaspora back to Israel). Many families moved to Eastern Europe and the the United States in search of work. Several hundred Jewish Georgian families now live in the New York tristate area alone. But this mass exodus means that over the last 30 years, most Jewish settlements in Georgia have gradually been abandoned, or have shrunk to ghostly fragments of their former selves.

There are now just a few cities in Georgia with a Jewish population. In Kutaisi, Georgia's third-largest city and once a strong Jewish settlement, only 220 people of Jewish heritage remain.

"I'm often drawn to small communities who are fighting to survive in some way," said Zaidi, a self-taught photographer who left a high-level corporate job in 2014 to take photos full-time. "So when I found out that there were so few Jews left in Georgia, I wanted to see if I could document their way of life."

Perhaps one reason why they've stayed is that the Georgian Jews live in a state of relative harmony with their Christian neighbors. "Everyone I spoke to said that they had never experienced any anti-Semitism here," said the British-born Zaidi. "But they are fighting against a changing world. Many pillars of the Jewish community, such as the Kosher bakeries and restaurants, have closed down or are now deserted. Most places still have at least one synagogue, although many are dilapidated and without a dedicated rabbi or much of a congregation."

Georgia is a country known for its disproportionately large and healthy elderly population, but the region's limited financial resources mean that many aging Georgians also live in relative poverty.

"Nearly all of the Jews I met are deeply observant. They are determined to stay connected to their roots and traditions. It's all they have left now that their families have moved away."

Scroll down for more photos.

Rivka sits in her dilapidated home in Kutaisi, Georgia. She was born into a rich Jewish family, but lost everything after putting all her money into a pension fund during the Soviet regime. Out of her nine family members, she is now the only one left. She rarely leaves her house. © Tariq Zaidi

Rivka looks at a picture of her beloved brother. She was never married, never had children, and says that she does not have any friends. © Tariq Zaidi

Lena, 78, lived all over Eastern Europe trying to escape the Nazis. She survived the Holocaust in Ukraine when she was just four years old. She remembers waiting in line all night with her mother just to get one loaf of bread. She eventually arrived in Georgia in 1975, and worked as a tailor for 30 years. After the death of her husband and the emigration of her daughter, she now lives alone in her apartment in Tbilisi. © Tariq Zaidi

Moris Pozini was born in Georgia. He was once the boxing champion of Soviet Transcaucasia and Moldova. He now lives in a small room in the courtyard of the main synagogue in Tbilisi. © Tariq Zaidi

Khantsia, 96, was born in Romania. She studied as a tailor in Bucharest and was a member of a secret Jewish organization. In 1941, her hometown was bombed, so she was moved to Turkmenistan. In 1945, she came to Georgia. Khantsia is lucky, as she has help from a caretaker. Georgia's aging population and limited resources mean that many elderly Georgian Jews are alone and living in relative poverty. © Tariq Zaidi

Arkadi Kurchishvili is a math teacher, born in Tbilisi in 1932. For 45 years, he worked as a physics professor at the state university while also writing over 100 scientific articles. He has three children, six grandchildren, and ten great-grandsons. Two of his children live in Israel. © Tariq Zaidi

Hamlet Pichkhadze, 77, is a watchmaker in Kutaisi. He has lived here his entire life. There were once many Jewish watchmakers in Kutaisi, but he is the only one that remains. He has a wife and two daughters living in Israel. © Tariq Zaidi

Rena admires her doll and an old photograph of herself. The former actress says that she is sad that she is no longer beautiful.

© Tariq Zaidi

Rena was born in St. Petersburg but came to Georgia with her parents at the age of three. At 14, she became an actress in the Georgian Youth Theatre, but had to stop at 24 when she became ill. Her mother died in 1978, which she claims turned her hair white overnight. Her husband died in 1980, and she now lives alone at her home in Tbilisi. She never had children. © Tariq Zaidi

Shaliko was born in Tbilisi to a single mother, as his father died in WWII before he was born. He grew up in a close-knit Jewish community in the old town of Tbilisi. He used to teach the Torah in Jewish schools. He has three daughters; one in Russia, the other two in Georgia. © Tariq Zaidi

The elderly Jews of Georgia are some of the poorest. Hesed Eliyahu in Tbilisi, part of a network of social service centers of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, brings food, home care, medical care, and winter relief to these individuals. At the center, they can enjoy communal meals, participate in social activities and special exercise classes.

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

Rabbi Ahimelech Rozenblat sits in his office in Tbilisi. His mother's family came to Georgia about 150 years ago from Belarus and his father came to Georgia during WWII from the Ukraine. © Tariq Zaidi

The main synagogue (also known as the Great Synagogue and the Georgian Synagogue) was built in 1904 and founded by Jews from Akhalzikhe, who settled in Tbilisi in the late 19th century, hence its additional name, "Synagogue of the People of Akhalzikhe." © Tariq Zaidi

Man wearing Tefillin. Tefillin consists of two small leather boxes with each containing four sections of the Torah inscribed on parchment. They are worn by male observant Jews during weekday morning prayers. © Tariq Zaidi

Tallit prayer shawls touch the Torah as it is removed from the Ark during a Thursday morning minyan service at the main synagogue in Tbilisi. © Tariq Zaidi

This Jewish Cemetery in Kutaisi, over a century old and nearly seven square kilometers in size, is where almost 70,000 Jews are buried. © Tariq Zadid

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