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Behind the Headlines: Making Matzah in Georgia: Jews Persevere Amid Shortages

In a dark synagogue basement, amid the heat and overpowering smell of kerosene, the Jews of Gori are frantically trying to make enough matzah for Passover.

Making matzah is not a simple matter for the 800 Jews who live in this small rural town in this former Soviet republic.

The electricity is sporadic at best, and there are severe shortages of both food and water.

In the muddy cobblestone courtyard of the once-elegant and no-crumbling synagogue, a long rubber hose leads from a jerrycan of gasoline to a generator, which is pumping and belching smoke. Only the generator keeps the dim lights on in the basement and the matzah machinery cranking along.

Although it is April, a heavy snow is falling, adding to the deep slushy puddles that fill the street of the city that was the birthplace of Stalin.

A mixture is pulled into long strips on an ancient production line. Young boys from the community cut the strips into squares and drape each square over long wooden poles. The poles are eased into the oval mouth of a cavernous stone oven where a wood fire roars.

The cramped basement is alive with activity.

People bring their own huge sacks of flour, children grab tastes of the hot matzah as it comes out of the oven and the young boys an old men of the community join forces. They race round, trying to get as much matzah baked as possible before the generator fails or runs out of gas.

A man with a abacus and a scale sits in the entrance to ensure that each family gets its fair share.

Next to him, five turkeys wait in a wire cage; today is also the day for slaughtering kosher meat.

The activity here is not new. Throughout the Communist period, the Jews of Gori managed to make their own matzah.

This year they hope to bake more than three tons of matzah, enough both for themselves and for the neighboring towns of Surami and Kareli, with just 300 and 150 Jews, respectively.

Not far from the synagogue in Gori is a small, well-preserved house in the middle of the town square. This is the house where Stalin was born.

Georgia lies on the Causasus mountain range, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. A fertile and once known for its vineyards and orchards, Georgia is today racked by ethnic conflicts, civil war and crime. It has a population of 5 million people, enough for its own branch of Orthodox Christianity.

Jews are believed to have lived in Georgia for 26 centuries, having settled here after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.

About 25,000 Jews live throughout the country today, most in the capital of Tbilisi. Almost all are Georgian, though some Ashkenazi Jews came here from Russia and the Baltics, Fleeing anti-Semitism. Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and after 70 years of repressive Communism, the Jewish community is now rebuilding itself.

“Georgians are very proud that there is no anti-Semitism here,” say Temuri Yakobashvili, a member of the Jewish Community and a diplomat with the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Tbilisi is part village, part city. Colorful stone an wood houses with elaborate balconies scale gentle hills an fill tiny winding alleys.

Two strikingly beautiful brick synagogues are now open in Tbilisi. The community also boasts a small yeshiva plus a Jewish school for boys and girls that has 85 pupils. Several Hebrew immersion programs have recently emerged, and a small kindergarten is just beginning.

A welfare society, supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, helps more than 500 elderly Jews who cannot survive on their pensions. Volunteers deliver tea, oil sugar, rice, soup mix and candles. But often there is no gas to heat the soup or boil the rice.

The average salary is $1.50 a month, and the average pension 50 cents. Due to food shortages, prices are high.

“Things are desperate. It is impossible to even buy enough bread with this money,” says Rabbi Ariel Levine, the chief — and only — rabbi in Georgia.

During the past few decades, an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Jews have left Georgia to immigrate to Israel, and some are still leaving each month.

Many of the remaining Jews say they are torn between their love for Israel and their feeling that Georgia is their home.

“If the government can bring order, the Jews will stay,” says Levine.

For many Jews living under Communism in the Soviet Union, matzah was their only link to Judaism. And even though Jewish life has developed here in Gori, once home to some 2,000 Jews, that special link continues.

Despite the snow and lack of flour, water and electricity, through sheer determination, the Jews in the birthplace of Stalin will once again have their matzah for Passover.

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