An American Girl Meets Her Georgian Husband in Israel

            May 2013    
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My First Trip to Ashdod

By Abby Tor

Chaim and I had been dating for a couple of months and we both knew that we would spend our lives together and were talking about marriage. The word was starting to get out. His older brother, in Ashdod, had already heard through the grapevine, that Chaim, "had an American girlfriend". Furthermore, I was beginning to hear interesting things about Georgians from the people around me in the university.

One day the dorm "house mother" came to see me. She had seen me with Chaim and one of his friends. She wanted to warn me about Georgians that they were different and I should stay away from them. I let her know that he was my boyfriend and I was okay with the fact that he was Georgian. I was also told by others that Georgians "carry knives in their pockets". Somehow, I wasn't put off by any of this, mostly because Chaim didn't seem like the kind of person they were describing. So far, I hadn't seen any knives.

I finally decided on my own, that it was time for me to check out what everyone was trying to warn me about. I asked Chaim to take me to meet his family in Ashdod. He was happy to do so.

In those days, Ashdod was a small dusty town, perched on the edge of the desert. There were about five main areas, named in a burst of creativity by the authorities as: areas Aleph, Bet, Gimmel, Daled and Hey.

Bus number 312 from Tel Aviv made the circuit around the town dropping people off at each of the aforementioned neighborhoods. The driver would ask the passengers, at which neighborhood they were getting off the bus. He took one look at Chaim and knew that he was descending at "daled". The demographics of Ezor daled were entirely Georgian. Chaim's face proclaimed his address.

Finally, the bus reached it's last stop, which was, in fact, Ezor Daled and in those days was the town bus station. It was a small, dun colored shopping center that had been built by the government only a couple of years earlier. There was a bank, a makolet, a vegetable market, a cafe and a few other desultory looking businesses. To my eyes, people looked poor and burdened. It seemed to me that you could almost see the pain and disappointment in some peoples' eyes. Everyone was walking around with arms full of plastic bags and other packages. I was so sheltered and naive at the time, I didn't realize that people were walking around with plastic bags in their hands, because they did their grocery shopping by foot, as opposed to the way my mother did it, with a big American station wagon.

It was only a five minute walk from the bus "station" (if you can call it that) to Chaim's parents' home. In that five minute walk, my life perspective changed entirely. I started to realize the fact that not all Jews are like the ones that I grew up with. They didn't all have college degrees and speak Yiddish. They weren't all polite southerners who tried to blend in with the "goyim"

The apartment buildings were the ubiquitous "sochnut" buildings that were put up quickly and cheaply by the government to house the wave of new immigrants that were swamping Israel's shores in the 70's. They were definitely bare bones, but infinitely better than the tents that had housed the thousands of immigrants that migrated to Israel in the 50's.

Each building was four stories, because the rule was, that if a building was more than four floors there had to be an elevator. Therefore, these buildings were walk ups. They were the color of the sand dunes that started at the end of the street and on each floor there was a square of color that was intended to add some kind of architectural detail to the buildings. The buildings were built around a courtyard with a playground. When I arrived in 1974, two years after the arrival of most of the families in Ezor Daled, the courtyard was bare and the playground had been totally dismantled. Apparently the residents didn't know how to care for a common area. The children played in the sand devoid of toys or color.

As we approached the buildings, I could see a large group of men congregated directly below Chaim's parents' apartment. The men were all clearly Georgian which was obvious by their distinctive appearance and dress. Most of them wore traditional Georgian hats which were made of black velvet adorned with little circles of silver embroidered onto the round caps that peaked on top of the head. Most of them were dark skinned,and had unusually wide foreheads, black eyes and hair.

There was a lot of activity: groups of men were gathered around others who were playing backgammon or dominoes. The games were fast, furious and intense, The action was punctuated with shouts and loud slapping of the pieces on the board - clearly a matter of life and death. Others were talking verbosley and emotionally and gesticulating wildly to emphasize their points. The small children ran among the men and the older ones watched the games as intently as their elders.

On the other hand, the women were not present at this outdoor gathering. They were watching from their windows above. They also wore distinctive headress: bright colored paisely scarves were wrapped around their heads, behind their ears and tied in a knot on the top of the head. To me it looked to be the most unattractive way to tie a headscarf.

It was also clear, that although the women weren't standing outside, they were closely monitoring the activities of their husbands and children, and their admonishments rained down upon the men and children from the windows above.

As we progressed slowly down the street the action came to a halt as people stopped their conversations and stared at us walk by. Clearly my presence was highly unusual in that corner of the world.

Arriving at apartment number 1 at Rechov Keren Hayesod, number 3006 the door was opened immediately by a woman wearing the typical scarf and homemade, shapeless, colorful dresses of the Georgian women. Assuming this to be Chaim's mother, imagine my surprise to find out that she was, in fact, his nineteen year old sister in law and mother of a six month old baby.

Chaim's parents, Gogutza and Soso, their daughter in law and two grandchildren at Purim

  In addition to nineteen year old Natella and baby Mira, living in the three bedroom apartment were, Natella's husband, Alyosha, his parents, Gogutza and Soso and Gogutza's mother Esther. We were soon joined by youngest brother, Timori who was serving in the IDF. I was quickly reminded of the warnings of my classmates in Tel Aviv when he pulled a six inch switchblade out of his uniform pocket.

The apartment was 90 square meters (about 900 sq ft) and included three bedrooms,a living room with a dining corner, a kitchen and a bathroom. The Georgian immigrants had been able to bring their furniture and possessions with them to Israel so the decor reflected their homeland. Georgians love crystal and china and lots of "bling" although Chaim's mother was more low key than most. To me that apartment felt small, dark and cramped but eventually I was to learn that it was considered a pretty big apartment because there were three bedrooms.

Baby Mira was clearly the light of the lives of the inhabitants of Keren Hayesod 3006/1. Her sweet little smile made up for some of the pain of displacement, culture shock and the language barrier. She slept in a traditional, Georgian, hand carved wooden cradle. I was surprised to learn that there was a plastic tube that took the baby's urine from the cradle into a container below, therefore avoiding the need of a diaper. When the baby was asleep, the cradle was covered with a cloth almost like a parakeet's cage.

That first day in Ashdod everything seemed so strange and foreign to me but I remember clearly thinking to myself, "One day this will be normal for me" It did eventually come to pass as I imagined it, but it took many years.


The author on the left with Chaim next to her, together with some friends from the Tel Aviv University


from the May 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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