Friday, January 13, 2006

Yom Kippur in Georgia

Yom Kippur at the synagogue here in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, in October 2005, was a very unfamiliar affair.

First of all, Georgian Jews more or less follow the Sephardic liturgy of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and African Jews, and my family is Ashkenaz from Eastern Europe, so I don't know the tunes of the chants or the various procedures of their services. Second, the genders are split, which is very strange for a reform Jew like me; to get to their section, the women have to traverse a series of stairs, doors and fire escapes straight out of a Legend of Zelda dungeon.

But nothing could prepare me for the strangest thing of all. Halfway through the service, the Rabbi stopped and turned from the ark to face the congregation. I expected another sermon, but instead he began mumbling loudly and incredibly fast. I tried to make out the words, unable to tell at first if they were Georgian, Hebrew or Russian. They sounded like numbers. Then congregation members started calling out numbers, and I realized that this was what it seemed to be: an auction! The rabbi auctioned off three spots for carriers of the Torah scrolls, which went for eight hundred lari, one thousand lari, and in a bid that caused the old men around me to gasp and gossip, ten thousand lari (about five thousand dollars).

After the shofar (ram's horn) was sounded to close the day's services and begin the new year, everyone milled around outside while women from the synagogue's balcony pelted us with rock-hard candy that stung and raised welts where it hit us. The children were fiercely efficient about collecting the candy as it hit the ground, and they were very good at it, being so much closer to the ground than the rest of us.

Mind you, after 24 hours of fasting, I'm not getting my snack stolen away by some kids. To get my own piece, I had no choice but to shoulder aside two five year-olds and snatch it out of their fingers!

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