Pedagogy

Yiddish in Georgia

Sarah Biskowitz and Lasha Shakulashvili

INTRODUCTION

Lasha and I first con­nect­ed on Yid­dish Face­book in Novem­ber, when he was appoint­ed as the first lec­tur­er of Yid­dish in the South Cau­ca­sus region. An advo­cate for Yid­dish in Geor­gia and around the world, Lasha gra­cious­ly offered to share his sto­ry with me and the read­ers of In geveb.



Please provide a brief bio of yourself:

I was born and raised in one of the most multicultural and multifaith cities in the world – Tbilisi. Both of my parents are ethnic Georgians and our family is Georgian Orthodox Christian. In fact, my first ancestor relocated from the Georgian mountains to capital city Tbilisi in late 1790’s and our family only speaks Georgian, which is among the most unique languages in the world and has a language group and alphabet of its own.

At the age of five, my parents took me to a language teacher who changed my life. She is a very special Ashkenazi Jewish woman, whom I also call my Godmother. She taught me English and Russian, as well as provided me, a Christian child, with an understanding of the Jewish faith, traditions, and languages. She also taught me how important it is to love your own roots in order to appreciate the value and beauty of other cultures. In her household I learned how crucial multiculturalism is and that there will be less hatred if people learn more about other cultures, religions, and customs.

As a proud Georgian and young scholar, I want to showcase that learning about other cultures will diminish the hatreds and phobias that exist in the world. Moreover, I firmly believe that because antisemitism was not invented by Jews, it is up to non-Jews, and not Jews, to end it. Promoting Jewish Studies among non-Jews is truly an effective way to fight antisemitism.

How did you come to teach Yiddish?

My very first connection with the Yiddish language in an academic setting was in Israel, when I received the full scholarship to enroll to the Naomi Prawer Kadar International Yiddish Summer Program 2021 at the Tel Aviv University. At the same time, I started learning Hebrew at the Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. Later, I joined and completed the inaugural class of Yiddish language at the School of Rare Jewish Languages, the University of Oxford.

My first teachers in Jewish languages were Frida Schatz and Yaad Biran, who convinced and encouraged me that the best way to transmit the knowledge is to teach. I did have doubts whether or not I am suitable for taking such a huge responsibility, however, I know that I shall encourage other students to follow my footsteps so that in a few years we will have several highly qualified specialists of Jewish Studies with proficiency in Yiddish.

Moreover, as a representative of a nation with a unique language and alphabet that struggles to survive in the era of globalization – I want to prove that both Georgian and Yiddish are very active and alive in the world, both inside and outside of academia. Teaching Yiddish in Georgian allows me to help these two languages thrive in the linguistic map of the world.

How did this Yiddish class come to be?

After completing my studies in Israel and Europe, I returned to Tbilisi and started thinking about how to make sure that Jewish Studies could continue to thrive within the Georgian academy. Throughout the last few years, there had been fewer and fewer students applying to the Jewish Studies department at the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (TSU), and I found this worrisome.

I submitted my academic certificates and diplomas from the Tel Aviv University, Paideia, and the University of Oxford and succeeded in officially approving the Yiddish course at the TSU. We decided to have ten seats, at the beginning; however, due to a very high volume of applications, we increased it to twenty-two (symbolically, the same as the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet).

What challenges have you faced teaching this course?

Yiddish has never been taught at universities in Georgia and we are struggling with the teaching materials. I have to invest a huge amount of time, energy, and creativity to provide students with knowledge as well as motivation.

Can you tell us about Yiddish historically in the South Caucasus region?

Georgia has always been home to various groups of Jewish people who would find a safe space for practicing their religious or cultural life. The first Ashkenazim and Yiddish-speaking people relocated to modern-day Georgia in 1801. The vast majority of them settled down in the cities of Tbilisi, Batumi, and Sokhumi. By the end of 1890’s, the Yiddish-speaking population of Tbilisi amounted to nearly 4000 people who owned businesses, served as doctors and had their own Ashkenazi synagogue. By the end of the nineteenth century, Tbilisi had two Yiddish-language schools.


On March 16, 1910, the “Jewish Division of the Musical-Melodrama Art” launched a Yiddish-language theater in Georgia. The society united members from various social groups of Georgia, all of whom spoke Yiddish as their first language. The performances were in Yiddish and the audience loved Jacob Gordin and his “Mirele Efros.” Only two posters from the theater have survived and they entail detailed information about the performances and actors.

In 1926, the Yiddish-language schools of Tbilisi were shut due to the antisemitic policies of the Soviet Union.

What would you like people to know about Yiddish in the South Caucasus region today?

My home university enabled me to apply the art of calligraphy into the teaching process. There are some amazing calligraphers in Eastern and Western Europe, who have inspired me to teach the Hebrew/Yiddish alphabet via drawing characters and allowing students to develop personal attachment to the alphabet.

One example of this interest involves an activity I designed for the first day of the Yiddish course. I was excited about my ambitious plan of returning Yiddish back to Georgian academia after nearly a century and therefore eager to make the first lecture a memorable experience for my students. I decided to revive an old and very delicious tradition of baking the “alef-beys” cookies; several hours prior to the class, I baked a batch of cookies representing three letters of the Hebrew/Yiddish alphabet – “alef” and “beys” for “alef-beys” and “lamed” for “limudim”. Later, I covered those twenty-two cookies with honey and sugar, as a way to help my students remember their first contact with the Yiddish language as a sweet experience.

What is your hope for the future of this Yiddish class, and Yiddish in Georgia?

I hope to attract as many non-Jewish students and young scholars as possible. Georgia has a wonderful Jewish heritage and the Yiddish language and culture truly are integral parts of it. Also, I am glad to welcome some of the Ashkenazi Jews in Georgia, whose ancestors spoke Yiddish in Georgia and who now wish to reconnect with their past and be able to put the family puzzle together.

Moreover, we have amended the Jewish Studies program at the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (TSU) and it will entail two Jewish languages as compulsory subjects of the academic degree. TSU will be one of the first academic institutions in the region to give an official academic recognition to the Yiddish language and include it in the curriculum along with Hebrew.

MLA STYLE
Biskowitz, Sarah, and Lasha Shakulashvili. “Yiddish in Georgia.” In geveb, February 2023: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/yiddish-in-georgia.
CHICAGO STYLE
Biskowitz, Sarah, and Lasha Shakulashvili. “Yiddish in Georgia.” In geveb (February 2023): Accessed Mar 04, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Sarah Biskowitz

Sarah Biskowitz works at the Jewish Women's Archive as the manager of the Rising Voices Fellowship.

Lasha Shakulashvili

Lasha Shakulashvili is a young Georgian scholar of Jewish Studies.