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The full scale of the Georgian Synagogue’s deterioration is masked by the darkness — there is no money for electricity. It is a touching sight. A small group of old friends sit in the dim light on the sagging wooden floorboards as Chernyak leads prayer. On the wall behind the ark there is a mural of an anonymous, rural idyll, done in bold brush strokes, with the towering jagged teeth of mountains in the background. The mural evokes a land of milk and honey, the sub-tropical playground for the USSR’s elite; the Abkhazia of reminiscences and childhoods before the outbreak of the 1992 war.
The service is short and we soon assemble for Kiddush in a small room once used as a prayer hall by Krymchak Jews, a community of Turkic Jews who also once lived here but have since left. My questions have brought back old memories, inflamed by talk of this frozen conflict.
“Anti-Semitism isn’t really a problem here,” explains Chernyak. “Abkhaz have a pretty neutral relationship towards Jews.” I am reminded throughout the course of the day that these Jews are patriotic Abkhaz nationalists. There seems to be little sense of solidarity with the Jews who fled, and Chernyak reinforces this point. “If there was ever discrimination, it was mainly against the Georgian Jews — more due to their Georgianness rather than their Jewishness, so to speak,” he says.
What, then, of the Chechen volunteer forces led by Wahabbi extremist Shamil Basayev that were crucial to the Abkhaz victory in 1992 over the fleeing Georgians? Ashkenazi (“not Ashkenadze”) reassures me, “The Chechens didn’t bother us,” he said, adding casually, “They had their own scores to settle with the Georgians.”
“Who are the us?” I ask.
“Jews,” he responds with a toothy grin. As stew is served, a voice from the corner of the room chimes in, “Ashkenazim, that is, Russian-speaking Jews, are real Jews. These Georgian Jews are all assimilated. They’re no different from regular Georgians.”
A chorus of silent nods joins the sound of contented munching. But a bespectacled babushka bristles with indignation. “My grandfather,” declares a woman named Michal, “was a Georgian, and he was a real Jew!”
“Of course. Everybody’s grandfather was a real Jew,” says Chernyak to subdued laughter.
Aside from some contact with Sochi’s Jewish community across the border in Russia and aid from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jews of Sukhumi receive a bare minimum of financial aid. And of late, to be a real Jew here has not been easy. As the community of elders file out into the balmy Black Sea spring, they take home the remainder of the Sabbath challah, as if to illustrate the point.