Global Jewish Reflections | In Georgia and Azerbaijan, Food Felt Like a Family Reunion
While on a trip to the Caucasus with JDC Entwine, Rabbi Sarah Berman discovered the importance of food in bringing communities together and helping Jews in need.
By Rabbi Sarah Berman - Director of Adult Education, Central Synagogue | December 25, 2020
Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
I was on the other side of the world, and I didn’t speak the language, but sitting in a small room in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, food helped me feel like I was home. Members of the Jewish community shared what they had, welcoming my classmates and me with a simple but filling meal — fruit, bread, wine, and a savory herb salad. Their generosity made us feel loved.
It was an early summer day, and we were sitting together in the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Gori, having driven through a thick fog to arrive at the central Georgian city. We were on a JDC Entwine trip through the Weitzman-JDC partnership for students attending Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and we’d been traveling through Azerbaijan and Georgia for nearly a week. While we couldn’t convince them to sit with us, the women who power this community buzzed around us, making sure we didn’t go hungry. A group of cantorial, education, and rabbinical students, we felt like we were being welcomed home, like long-lost family members who had finally returned after a long separation.
After the meal ended I went to the kitchen to thank the women who had cooked for us. Not speaking any of the same languages, I expressed my gratitude with smiles and hand gestures, while they smiled back and laughed. It felt just like any family gathering I’ve ever attended!
In this week’s parashah, Jacob’s sons reunite with the brother they long ago sold to a passing traveler, the brother they must have assumed dead and gone. And it is food that brings them back together. The widespread famine that Joseph foretold from Pharaoh’s dreams has come to pass, and his family seeks relief from their hunger at the Egyptian court. It is in Joseph’s power to feed his hungry brothers, and he does so — not just in this moment, but for the rest of their lives. Pharaoh invites the Israelites to make Egypt their home, where they can comfortably live off the “fat of the land.” I can only imagine the palpable gratitude and relief as the Children of Israel went from fears of starvation to the promise of at last having enough food to meet their needs. The blessing of food collapsed the years and the strife that had separated this family.
Our differences were something to savor and learn from, because beneath it all we are all part of the same global family of Jews.
Over the last 2,600 years, Jews have lived in communities separated by geographic space, the separation compounded by the differing traditions and practices we have developed. What was so extraordinary about my JDC Entwine experience was how the space between us collapsed. North American Reform Jews and the Jews of Azerbaijan and Georgia talked together as we walked around the Caspian Sea port city of Baku, Stalin’s hometown of Gori, and Quba, an ancient Jewish enclave nestled in the mountains of Azerbaijan. We sang together as we celebrated Shabbat in Tbilisi with Georgian university and graduate students, and everywhere we went, we ate fresh, delicious food together. Our differences were something to savor and learn from, because beneath it all we are all part of the same global family of Jews.
Each city and town was special, with local hosts who welcomed us into their homes and synagogues, their community centers and streets. But it is the community of Gori that has stayed with me since the trip. Despite its fame (infamy, more accurately) as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, Gori has suffered from an economic depression that has lasted for generations.
As we ate, I didn’t yet understand that some Jews in Gori only eat when they receive food from the pantry or kitchen at the Hesed. And yet, the women who made our meal welcomed us like family — they smiled and laughed with us, fed us, and even offered leftovers! We could not talk to one another, but I felt the warmth of their welcome — and I began to understand the critical nature of the food assistance JDC makes possible for their community. This assistance is as essential for these Jews today as Joseph’s help was for his family in the Torah.
Jews have never been just one thing — one religious practice, one ethnicity, or one culture. What we have been is one family — a diverse, messy, cacophonous, stubborn, loving family. Parashat Vayigash reminds us that the differences can be overcome: We can draw close to one another (the literal meaning of “vayigash”), listen to each other, share a meal, and care for each other as family.
We Jews are at our best when we take care of all of the members of our family. Since the trip, my fellow travelers and I have donated funds to this community, and I have spoken about this experience from the bimah and shared these stories with visitors to a museum exhibition. The women of Gori reached out to us, taking care of us by sharing what they had. I try to reach back to them, with whatever support and assistance I can give. Because we are family.
Sarah Berman came to rabbinical studies after a career in the arts. She worked for more than a decade at the Seattle Art Museum, researching the museum’s broad permanent collections, and serving as curatorial lead for the collections of Ancient Mediterranean and Islamic Art. While in Seattle, she also developed and taught courses for children, teens, and adults in Jewish communal settings. Sarah grew up in Madison, WI, and earned her MA and BA in archaeology and art from Brown University. She is Rabbi and Director of Adult Education at Central Synagogue in New York City.