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I have the Georgian Synagogue to myself. It’s deliciously cool inside, though the broken floorboards beneath the pews make for an interesting stroll. I find a framed piece of calligraphy in Hebrew and the curls and hooks of Georgian sequestered in a corner near the Ark, behind a stack of yellowed Soviet-era newspapers encrusted with dust. Eventually, Ashkenazi and one of his friends poke their heads through the doorway. Ashkenazi offers me a chance to see the community’s old photograph album, which we read beneath the fig tree. Black and white Soviet-era photos show a lively community throughout the years of Khrushchev and Brezhnev. The beaming Soviet bar mitzvah boys seem somehow anomalous, yet a poignant English-language letter dated from October 1970 confirms the community’s vibrancy at the time.
“We are pleased to see the Jews of Sukhumi, especially the young, following their religion, and we wish our brothers and sisters well,” write American visitors Jonathan Bernstein, Joy Silber and Miriam Weinberger. “May all their wishes be fulfilled.”
Ashkenazi is keen to show me pictures of the Ashkenazi synagogue in its former glory, a sepia picture of three yarmulked Jews arguing in the courtyard, the shul’s doors open behind them. Above their heads, just beneath the synagogue’s roof, are written the words “Peace to the World” in three languages- Russian, Hebrew and Georgian.
With the photo in mind, I later inspect the old Ashkenazi synagogue’s façade and see that something other than time has taken its toll. The Georgian script has been replaced. Atynchra Apsny!, or Peace in Abkhazia! reads the new Abkhaz Cyrillic script. The arguing Jews, at least, remain constant.
I broach the subject with Ashkenazi. “What are you saying?” he asks with polite hostility. “That,” he says, pointing at the now old text evident in the photo and sliding the book slowly from my hands “is Arabic.”
We stand beneath the peeling frescoes and part ways. Ashkenazi asks me again where I’m from, and I refresh his memory.
“From England? English are Ashkenazim, right?”
“Yes. Not Ashkenadze.”
He chuckles. As I walk out of the courtyard and onto Inal-Ipa Street, I can still hear him laughing.
“Real humor,” observed the Abkhaz writer Fazil Iskander “is the trail we leave on the way back from the abyss.”
Contact Maxim Edwards at email@example.com