Shalom Koboshvili : Georgia’s Jewish Heritage

May 12, 2014

Despite Tzipi Hotovely, the beautiful Knesset member whose Jewish-Georgian heritage has sparked pride in the Georgian Jews that remain today, do you really know anything about Georgia’s Jewish heritage?

Shalom Koboshvili’s works, although not very well known, are a alluring reminder of the diversity of Judaism around the world. They are a representation of the beautiful and rich culture that Georgian Jewry once held. Something which sadly has dissipated through the scourges of time. His most famous painting called “Taking the bride to the bath house” is a perfect example of the way Georgia’s Jews although inherently Jewish were also, without a doubt, very unique.

The colors, the clothes, and the rituals of a people and culture that has its roots in the old Babylonian captivity dating back from the 6th century B.C, they were the subjects of most of Koboshvili’s paintings. This, of course, for very good reason as the weddings and festivals of Mizrahi Jews were and are rather different not in function but in form from the European Ashkenaz.

Georgia’s Jews are probably one of the oldest diasporic communities, and although they are an amalgamation of both Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews, the former is the majority. The truth is that from Kaboshvili’s paintings it is obvious that Mizrahi Jews resembled the Turkic cultural forms of the area such as the colored shawls which covered women, and the interesting hats that functioned as day kippot for men. These are very different from the more common Ashkenazi look that we have grown accustomed to.

Yet, what is my point?

Jews are probably one of the most diverse and varied people in this world, and Georgia’s Jews are a perfect example of just that fact. They are a piece of the puzzle, really only a part of the greater heterogeneity of world Jewry. Yet, it is essential not to forget that despite their specific culture and traditions they are still Jewish. Just a different type of “Jewish”.

Traditionally, Georgian Jews pray in Hebrew, however their everyday language was and is Judeo-Georgian which is an interesting mix between a Turkic dialect and Hebrew. This synthesis of culture is not only found amid language, but also food, clothing and pretty much every aspect of their lives. It is perhaps for this reason why even today Jews of Georgian origin see themselves, rather proudly I dare say, both as Jews and Georgians. This rich combination, of course, can be seen across all other Jews around the world as well. This versatility is what makes Jewish culture and history so worthy of study. This is why Kaboshvili’s work, although forgotten, is so important. It is really one of the last windows into a mostly lost world.

Koboshvili was born in Akhaltsikhe in a very poor family. As most Jews of modest means his family meant to make him into a Rabbi, which means that he began studying Talmud and Gemara at a very young age. However, he became disillusioned with a traditional education, as his interests turned to art and painting at the anger of his father. After many years of trials, pain and hardship Kobovshili became a watchman at the Jewish Historic Ethnographic Museum where his constant contact with art inspired him to paint the Jews of his home village.

It is mostly unclear whether Koboshvili was able to live off his paintings, or really what happened to him until his death in 1941. Not only are the records scarce, but it seems that modern historiography has almost completely forgotten about him as an artist. His only testament is the work he has left behind.

From the celebration of Yom Kippur to the the collective bread making by village women, Koboshvili’s pieces are a representation of the historical realism that has become scarce in modern art. A great deal of his works have been forgotten in the National Museum of Georgia in the 1950’s, where they are still found today. They are worthy of our remembrance not only because of their salient Jewish context, but also for their colorful beauty.

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