Shuffling cautiously along the snow-packed road that cuts through the heart of the demilitarized zone, the soldiers take to joking around, asking about a visitor’s provenance.
“Siegel. That’s like Steven Seagal the actor, right?” inquires one Kalashnikov-wielding soldier.
He seems disappointed but nonplused when the visitor answers in the negative, pointing out that Seagal is probably not a Jewish last name.
“No, he must be Jewish,” the soldier responds. “He seems like such a nice guy.”
Everyone has a good laugh while a few make kung fu gestures. Further down the hill, the city of Tskhinvali hangs in ghostlike suspense, as though the last decade never happened.
Tskhinvali is a treasure trove of Jewish history, with the crumbling houses of the old Jewish quarter and its centerpiece, a grand synagogue from the 19th century.
But as the capital of the de-facto government of the Republic of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali is also another kind of treasure — one that seems ready to tear this region apart once again.
South Ossetia is one of two breakaway provinces of Georgia with Abkhazia, which is autonomous but remains part of Georgia.
A cease-fire since 1992 has prevented Georgia from waging war to hold onto South Ossetia, which has quasi-autonomous status as a conflict zone under the tripartite stewardship of Russia, Georgia and the rebels.
But with Russia, the main patron of the rebel government in South Ossetia, incensed over Western recognition of Kosovo’s recent declaration of independence from Serbia, that soon could change.
If, as some here believe, a war is on the horizon, Tskhinvali and what remains of its rich Jewish heritage again will fall directly in the line of fire.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested recently that Russia might recognize the independence of the breakaway regions of Georgia, a country whose government has tilted toward the United States and away from Russia in recent years.
Georgiaâ€™s attempts to cozy up to the West — it has applied for NATO membership and is a member of the World Trade Organization — have heightened tensions with Russia, its traditional patron. In October 2006, four Russian servicemen were expelled from the country for spying. That prompted a Russian embargo, with 70 percent of the countryâ€™s export market disappearing overnight.
The sudden talk about possible Russian recognition of the two breakaway provinces has ratcheted up the rhetoric on both sides, prompting Georgiaâ€™s leaders to warn that they will not tolerate the loss of the provinces.
On Feb. 14, during a speech in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said his country “does not have one kilometer of land to spare.”
In 1989, fighting between ethnic Ossetians and Georgians began in Tskhinvali. Although Soviet troops were able to maintain some semblance of order, it fell apart after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when South Ossetia declared independence and the region descended into civil war.
From the hills above Tskhinvali, the Georgian army rained down artillery shells by night and sniper fire by day. The Jewish quarter was the most heavily damaged area of the city.
Standing in front of her crumbling home, 69-year-old Sonya Gagloeva, an ethnic Ossetian, pointed to homes that used to belong to Jews.
“This whole neighborhood was Jewish,” she said, gesturing with her arm. “That street was Jewish and so was that one. They were all Jewish.”
Gagloeva worked at the synagogue for 20 years. She spoke fondly of her neighbors and recalled with sorrow the circumstances under which they left.
“They were very religious. Twice a day they would come to pray in the synagogue,” she said. “At the time of the war they had to leave. There were explosions and shooting everywhere.”
The few Jews who remained in Tskhinvali after the collapse of the Soviet empire appear to have fled completely. Some settled in Tbilisi, while many others moved to Israel. Eventually the civil war accomplished what decades of Soviet repression could not: It ran the Jews out of Tskhinvali.
Today the battle scars of that war are all too visible. Under the de facto control of the rebels since the shaky ’92 cease-fire, Tskhinvali has atrophied. Homes observant Jews occupied for centuries — several local Ossetians and Georgians recall being paid to light their stoves on Shabbat — are little more than rubble. They are a reminder, frozen in time, of why the Jews fled.
Tskhinvali once was one of the most Jewish cities in the country. There was even a yeshiva here, Gagloeva and others said.
But the real treasure of Tskhinvali is its historical significance as a nexus of Jewish learning and a place for the blending of Jewish traditions.
In 1891, an Ashkenazi rabbi named Avraham Khvolis moved to Tskhinvali from Lithuania, where he had studied at the Slabodker yeshiva. In Tskhinvali, Khvolis founded a school and synagogue, and he taught European rabbinical thought to Georgian Jews.
Jewish life flourished under Khvolis, and Tskhinvali remained a major communal center until the war in the early 1990s.
In recognition of the late rabbi’s importance, the Georgian government issued a stamp in his honor in 2006 — the first stamp in a former Soviet republic honoring a rabbi.
Today the synagogue Khvolis founded sits abandoned on a desolate street with what appears to be a hole from an artillery shell in its facade. On Sundays, according to a translator for the local government, Baptist services are held there.
The government of Georgia is uncompromising in its position on South Ossetia. Saakashvili has said he won’t consider Georgia free until Jews are allowed to return to worship in Tskhinvali.
Temur Iakobashvili, the newly appointed minister for reintegration, who is Jewish, said the government would use force to accomplish that goal should Russia recognize South Ossetia.
If Russia goes ahead with recognition, â€œthere is only one choice to take,â€ he said. â€œGeorgians will think to regain their territory by other means.â€
Pressed to elaborate, Iakobashvili is terse.
â€œMilitary. It doesn’t have to be elaborated,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s the only choice that’s left.â€
While South Ossetiaâ€™s independence is not recognized by any country, the de facto government in Tskhinvali draws at least some inspiration from an unlikely source: the State of Israel.
â€œYouâ€™re Jewish,â€ Minister of Information Irina Gagloeva tells a visiting reporter, â€œso you should understand our position.â€
Itâ€™s still unclear whether Russia will follow through on its threat to recognize South Ossetia and whether that indeed would prompt another war with Tskhinvali in the crosshairs.
Despite the looming dangers, some in Tskhinvali hope the Jews one day will return here.
“I remember when [the Jews] left,” said Irina Gagloeva, no relation to Sonya Gagloeva. “God willing, someday they’ll return.”