For Georgian scholars, learning Hebrew becomes labor of love

Journalist: Maradia Tsaava

Topic: Minorities

Tornike Psuturi, 24, has had a life-long love affair with Hebrew. 

It was fueled by a passion for the bible as a child, and dreams of traveling to Israel. So when he graduated from high school in 2014, Tornike jumped at the chance to major in Hebrew at Tbilisi State University at the Hebrew-Aramaic faculty.

“The Jewish people had a very important impact on this country and there is a lot to explore in literature, traditions, religion, and archeology,” he said. 

Jewish settlers first came to Georgia around 2600 years ago and the Georgian Jewish community is one of the oldest in the country. Even today Israel remains one of Georgia’s closest allies and trading partners.

The two countries overall trade turnover for 10 years (2010-2019) was $320.5 million. 

In addition, Israel invested $120 million in foreign direct investment in Georgia for the same period. 

“We are very closely interrelated with Jewish people and Israel, both academically and historically, but unfortunately, we still haven’t acknowledged these ties as well as we could,” Tornike said.

Over the years, he has relished in his own discoveries, like finding similarities in some traditions in mountainous Georgian villages and ancient Jewish cultures.

“This profession has a lot in background and history, as well as opportunities in the future… The more professionals we have, more unexpected things will be discovered.” 

Tornike can still recall the moment when he learned the Hebrew alphabet, and started writing his name—and the names of his friends—in Hebrew to practice. But his enthusiasm began to wane once it became clear the university program fell short of expectations.

He said the coursework at the university was too general and not geared toward a deep study of the language or Jewish studies. A main complaint is the number of hours dedicated to Hebrew—six a week instead of the usual eight academic hours for foreign language studies. Students like Tornike also were disappointed that the course did not include an in-depth study of Judaism. 

Nino Alimbarashvili, 25, who has Jewish ancestry, was also keen on learning the language when she applied to the faculty at TSU.

 “I expected to learn the language on a level that would allow me to translate or work as an interpreter, but it didn’t work out this way. Along with language, other important classes, like the history of Jewish people and the country of Israel, were also not very important on this course,” Nino said.

Tornike was undeterred: he went to private tutors to sharpen his command of the language, and has worked independently on translations to hone his skills. 

But he and many of his colleagues worry they might be the last generation of Hebrew scholars in the country. 

“My profession has lots of opportunities and it’s devastating to see it on the edge of disappearing,” he said.

“The lack of professionals is the main problem, because without them knowing how to explore, research and study, our friendship of 26 centuries will remain nothing more than words that are often repeated during holiday feasts.” 

Other Georgian Hebrew scholars agree. 

Tekle Ekvtimishvili, 25, is studying for her Master’s in Jewish studies at Goethe University Frankfurt after finishing her bachelor in TSU. She said the German program, unlike the Georgian faculty, forces students to conduct serious academic research.

“There is a big gap between academic work and the studying process in Georgia [and Germany]. Here, we are already involved in academic research. We help our professors and through the research we conduct or the technical issues we deal with, we gain huge experience. For instance, now I’m helping two of my professors with two studies,” she said. 

Part of the problem, according to past and current students, is that Georgian universities do not treat Hebrew as a major; instead it is linked to Aramaic at Tbilisi State University and is part of the international relations program at Ilia State University. 

For TSU students, that means spending about a third of their academic year studying Aramaic instead of Hebrew. Students also complain there are not enough academic hours dedicated to Jewish studies, including history of relations between the peoples and the history of Israel. In addition, some cite a lack of exchange programs with Israel and Israeli universities. 

“There is no connection between us and Israeli universities, no exchange programs, while Israel has one of the best education systems in the whole world. And what is also important, the students are never involved in academic studies, academic works,” Davit Grdzelishvili, 25, a former student of the TSU program, said.

Ran Gidor, Ambassador of Israel to Georgia, noted that while there are no official exchange programs between the two countries’ universities, there are other opportunities for students to study in Israel.

“We are a small country with a small embassy and unfortunately we don’t have resources for government scholarships like German, French, American or British embassies do. We have an agreement on academic and cultural cooperation between our two countries, but this agreement has not been operated yet because of the political situation in Israel,” he said.

“But there are many universities in Israel that offer scholarships and I don’t know why Georgian students don’t apply independently, individually.”

Mamuka Butskhrikidze, 50, a professor at the TSU program, said a strong language program is key to creating the next generation of Hebrew and Jewish studies scholars.

“The language is the first thing a professional has to know very well. Language has to be the main instrument for the professional. There are other important subjects that deepens the knowledge, but those subjects should not damage the main, core ones,” he said. 

“I think the curriculum should concentrate on teaching modern Hebrew, empowering connections with Israel and developing a program that would give students rich knowledge. There are a lot of things that have to be changed and updated in the program.”

He noted that TSU has a strong history of teaching Hebrew; in fact it was one of the few universities that were allowed to teach the language during the Soviet Union.

Today, Ilia State University also offers Hebrew as part of the International Relations-Europe and New East Department. Professor Lali Guledani is working to update the curriculum. 

“Here, at Ilia State University we also face the problem of passionate students disappearing. I think the right thing to do is to face reality and follow the demands of the time,” she said. In the last five years, only 32 students have elected to study Hebrew, compared to 95 learning Turkish in the department. 

She noted that promotion has helped other language departments: interest in Turkish flourished since Georgian television stations started broadcasting Turkish soap operas. Likewise, interest in Islamic studies increased once the Embassy of Iran started offering exchange programs. 

Darejan Gardavadze, 51, Head of Quality Assurance Office at the Faculty of Humanities at TSU, noted that the program has never been that popular—over the past three decades, the undergraduate class is usually no more than 10 students, and only half of that in the master’s program. Part of the problem, she said, is that the Hebrew-Aramaic department has always focused on linguistic theory, rather than practical language study or research-orientated scholarship. That, she said, has to change if the program wants to attract more students. Darejan added, however, that there has already been progress.

“We have an Israeli Centre on the faculty, where academic works are presented and public lectures and meetings are held to strengthen Georgian-Jewish cultural and historical tradition. Meanwhile, the university has a close relationship with the Embassy and with the top universities of Israel in order to get scholarships for Georgian students,” she said.

“I’m sure that more practical projects that are yet to come will lead this course to become more popular in Georgian youth."

Lali agreed that some positive steps have already happened. 

“Along with young professionals, I myself was also involved in a Goethe University Frankfurt grant studying the Hebrew language among Georgian Jewish people. There is still a lot to explore, study and analyze, and we are still trying to make this dying field survive a little longer.”


This story is produced with the support of the Israeli Embassy in Georgia.

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