Vayakhel: Georgian Genes

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Vayakhel Moshe – Moses gathered the entire community of Israel
– Opening of this week’s Torah portion

Last weekend I traveled back into a time warp. Though it was New York in 2004, I was transported to a different time and space – one that roused genes that have been lying dormant within my psyche.

I spent Shabbat at the Georgian Jewish Community in Rego Park, Queens.

Several hundred Georgian Jews filled the synagogue on the corner of Yellowstone and 83rd Ave. [For some odd reason many streets in Queens are triplets of the same number: There’s an 83rd Avenue, 83rd Street and 83rd Road. Go figure…]

The prayer service was beautiful. Different than anything I had heard, every word of the prayer is pronounced in a singsong melody. Lecho Dodi was particularly exquisite.

I studied the faces. The eyebrows, the eyes and the foreheads. It felt like being surrounded by 400 clones of my father.

I pose to them a question: “You have an appointment at 8PM. Travel will take 1 hour. What time do you leave for your meeting?” “8PM” they all cry out. You see, travel time is at the expense of the person you are going to meet, that person should have taken into account the time you need to travel.

This is classic Georgian attitude.

As I study them, I remember what one Russian thinker once told me. “Georgia is a country of paradox: No one is more aristocratic than a Georgian aristocrat; no one is as lowly as a Georgian lowlife.”

Georgia is situated between the Black and Caspian Seas. The Georgian Jewish community is over 2400 years old, some say 2700 years. The first Georgian Jews arrived in this southern part of Russia following the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in the year 422 bce, 2426 years ago.

Some say the Georgian Jews originate from the ten tribes, which explains why they don’t have any Kohanim and Levites. Others say that when Ezra returned to Israel from Babylon to rebuild the Second Temple he granted permission to the Jews who emigrated to Georgia to remain there provided that they send him all the people he would need for the Temple, including the Kohanim and Levites.

Obviously, proper research is required to determine the historical veracity of these statements.

So here I am, a New York born Jew, sitting among people who I have never met, yet feeling like a fish in water.

Fascinating to witness how their embrace of certain Sephardic traditions is with the same zeal as Ashkenazic Jews adhering to Ashkenazic customs. For these Georgian Jews kissing a Sefer Torah, placing their hand on the head of a groom, blessing and celebrating each other’s simcha, is done with profound innocence, with deep pleasure. Warmth exudes as they delight in each other’s joy. So much love goes into each word of the Torah reading – the twists and nuances are pronounced with an alacrity I have yet to hear at other synagogues. From an Ashkenazic perspective the Sepahrdic Georgians can be seen as being lax in certain areas. Yet, in some areas their innocent faith, their basic axioms can teach us all something. Indeed, from their perspective there are areas in which Ashkenaizm may appear lax.

Like two parallel but different worlds – Jews from Georgia have ingrained in them certain customs, while Ashkenazim have others. Powerful to see commitment take on two different courses, yet with the same passion. So many similarities, yet so many differences.

Friday night I spoke for the younger generation of the Georgian immigrants. Their language is English and they are well integrated into American culture. It was a true pleasure to speak with them. Intelligent (they even laughed at most of my jokes…), warm, comfortable.

As I sat watching this surreal scene, I realized the challenge we all face:

Many of us avoid leaving our own environments. How often do you find people traveling in “packs,” hanging out with people like themselves, people who dress alike and hang out in the same social circle. That may be more comfortable and provide security, but it also tends to create a ghetto-like mentality. Recycled air can become stale. Inbreeding often numbs vitality.

You know hen you grow most? When you get out of your conventional orbit and interact with new people, new environments, new milieus. “Leave your land, you place of birth and the home of your parents” was the way G-d commanded Abraham. After that history was never the same.

Indeed, a secure person does not need the constant validation provided for by peers. He has the courage to enter new and unexpected situations and holding his own.

Here I was sitting in a shul that had very little in common with the shuls in which I grew up. Yet, I let go of my habits and preconceptions, and I joined.

Suddenly I realized the sheer power of Vayakhel Moshe, Moses gathering the entire Jewish community. Millions of people of different backgrounds, diverse and different, yet all together as one community. The Talmud tells us that “one who sees an assembly of 600,000 Jews, makes the blessing ‘blessed is the Master of secrets,’ because people’s way of thinking is different from one a other, people’s faces are distinct from one another”, it takes a master of secrets to know what is in the heart of each one of these 600,000 (Berachot 58a and Rashi).

Diversity is a most powerful aspect of life. It is driving engine that provides a constant source of fresh energy. Every distinct personality makes its unique contribution into the big picture, and we are all enriched in the process. Most of us can barely appreciate the uniqueness of several individuals. It takes a ‘master of secrets’  to appreciate the all encompassing beauty of 600,000 individuals.

Divisiveness is a plague. Jewish divisiveness is a travesty. Yet, its may be our greatest challenge today. 60 years ago the Nazis were able to unite Jews in rabid hate. It made no difference what type of Jew you were. Sephardic or Ashkenazic, Chassid or Misnaged, Russian or Litvish, black or white, affiliated or unaffiliated, observant or non – all were considered as one. Today, in prosperity and freedom, we stand divided. What is our message to our children, to ourselves, to G-d: Is persecution, G-d forbid, the only way to unite us all?!

Can we unite with the same intensity in love and in peace?

Every so often, perhaps each of us should make an effort to visit other synagogues and communities, unlike the ones we are accustomed to. Perhaps each of us should invite to our Shabbat table new types of people, people who may be different than you are. Host a monthly discussion in your home or office. Turn your home into a place where new ideas are exchanged

The time has come to create new platforms, engage in innovative dialogues, pioneer fresh interactions that bridge our diverse strengths.

Get out of your comfort zone and then welcome it. It may teach you a thing or two. It may make you a greater person.

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shmuli steinberg
14 years ago

Are georgian jews considered sephardi or ashkenazik???