“Yosef Ashkenazi,” a smile creeps across my new acquaintance’s wizened face as he introduces himself and adds “but not Ashkenadze!” That pronunciation would leave Yosef with a typically Georgian surname. But the –adzes and the –shvilis — another telltale Georgian name ending — have all but left Abkhazia. Seventy-year-old Yosef Ashkenazi is, of course, an Ashkenazi Jew, as are the majority of Jews left in this Caucasus territory that has declared itself an independent republic.
It is a republic recognized by only a handful of states in the world, most notably Russia, which has backed the current government strongly. Neighboring Georgia, meanwhile, continues to claim the land as its own. In 1992, more than 200,000 Georgians fled this territory, including the Georgian Jews, part of a wave of ethnic cleansing and atrocities committed by both sides in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union.
That was two decades ago. This Sabbath it’s peaceful as Ashkenazi and I walk together into the sun-drenched courtyard of Sukhumi’s synagogue on Inal-Ipa Street to greet a row of octogenarians beneath a fig tree, with whom I chat in Russian. The community’s average age in 2004 stood at 72 and hasn’t gotten younger since then.
The synagogue building is as well worn as its occupants and their wartime memories.
In that context, Ashkenazi’s pun on his surname carries a sinister undercurrent. Abkhazia’s entire Jewish population is now estimated at between 100 and 200, compared to the 1989 figure of 1,308 in the city of Sukhumi alone. The –shvilis and –adzes — that is, the Georgian Jews, whose flight was arranged by the Jewish Agency for Israel in 1993 — will not be returning here. War has cleft this Jewish community in two, giving it the dubious distinction of a Jewish population under threat, though not by anti-Semitism. In fact, the small Ashkenazi remnant still here seem to lose little sleep over the fate of the vanished Georgian Jews. For some, like Ashkenazi, it’s good riddance.
Today, on one side of the synagogue courtyard stands the derelict Ashkenazi synagogue. Navigating its hallways in the dark one finds a mikvah and a thoroughly burnt out matzo oven. The much grander Georgian Synagogue faces it. This is now where the Ashkenazi remnant holds its services. Reconstructed in 1958, the Georgian shul’s faded frescoes on the outer wall depict Biblical scenes of an ancient city surrounded by floral decoration.
Unlike many communities across the former Soviet Union, Chabad has yet to reach these lush Black Sea shores, and the community is led by Igor Chernyak, 38, a veteran of a Moscow yeshiva and president of the Abkhazian Jewish Congress. He leads the Shabbat morning service in the Georgian Synagogue as a small group of 15 pensioners occupy perhaps a fifth of the shul’s seating on a collapsing floor. An Israeli flag hangs limply from the bimah, or stage. Rivka Cohen, Israel’s ambassador to Georgia, made a brief visit in 2004, one of the few recent signs that the town’s remaining Jews are not forgotten.