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Georgian-Israeli-American Nexus - 2003-06-26


Etery Pichkhadze Benitzhak, broadcaster and editor in VOA’s Georgian Service, has lived three different lives in three different worlds. Her childhood and young womanhood passed behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet Georgia. From the early 70s, as a young mother and budding journalist she lived in Israel. Since 1989 she has worked for the Voice of America in Washington, raising an American son and, she says, gradually becoming an American herself.

“What I realize, what you get in your childhood, the fundament you get, it doesn’t change drastically. But it takes on some additional taste, some seasonings, you know. And what I am, I am the mixture of Georgian culture, Israeli culture, and American culture, and I’m proud of each of them.”

Etery Pichkhadze -– as she is known on the air -- is the daughter of an economist and a Georgian language teacher. She grew up in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and then in the sunny Abkhazian port city of Sukhumi. She says that as a child she was oblivious to the realities of the Soviet Union, and remembers instead a happy home with parents, grandparents, two brothers and a sister, and an emphasis on studying, on music and dance.

“Everything changed at the end of the 50s, when Khrushchev came and we knew that everything was lies around us. And it was of course frustrating, because you lived in a country that was full of lies, and you knew that there were gulags, and people were dying, and there was starvation. It caused me to become older than I was, because I was no longer the happiest child in the world. I knew that the world around me was not so bright, and not so true, and not so kind, and not so just.”

The Pichkhadze family was Jewish, but Etery says that –- regardless of what may have been the case in other parts of the Soviet Union –- in Georgia she never experienced any anti-Semitism or any repression because of her faith. Her family observed the Jewish dietary laws and visited the synagogue on holy days. Nevertheless, when the door cracked open and it became possible for Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel, the Pichkhadzes made the tough decision to leave Georgia.

“I tell you, honestly, I didn’t know ever that I’m a stranger in this country, as a Jew. Nobody let me feel this. But being raised in a religious family, every day Jews say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem’. This is what my grandmother said every day. That means that I always from my childhood knew that if ever there will be the possibility to go there, to get out of this regime, I have to go to my historic country, to Israel.”

In the summer of 1974 Etery Pichkhadze left for Israel with her two young sons. After three months in an absorption center, set up to help new immigrants in Israel learn Hebrew and begin to get to know the new country, Etery found a job as editor with a fledging Georgian-language magazine. Working for the magazine and later for a Georgian-language daily newspaper, she studied journalism at the local university. She says she had always been interested in writing, and even as a little girl had contributed poems and stories to children’s magazines. But she is thankful that she acquired the skills of a journalist in Israel.

“Because I wasn’t spoiled as a journalist in the Soviet Union. That is, I was not a Soviet journalist, I was in the West when I started this. And that gave me the right direction.”

In the late 1980s, Etery Pichkhadze learned that the Voice of America was recruiting journalists for its Georgian Service. She came to Washington, thinking she would return to Israel when her contract expired in two years. But events carried her along with them.

“The time was very important when I started, because it was 1989, when the perestroika was at the end, and tremendous changes were taking place in the former Soviet Union. Demonstrations, and then the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in Georgia came Gamzakhurdia, civil war, and the changes when Shavarnadze came to power. You know, I was fully in these events, because it was really my job. And I don’t know how many years passed….”

Ms Pichkhadze became an editor in the Georgian Service, she wrote and hosted programs, she conducted round-tables and call-ins, she interviewed scores of newsmakers, she reported on breaking events. She says she continues to enjoy her work, and believes the Voice of America continues to have an important mission in Georgia.

“Today, after the Soviet Union collapsed, I think the role of the Voice of America is not diminished at all. And why? Because the country is going to democracy. And democracy is not a brick, or something like that to put and build something. Democracy is a process. And we’re helping people in this process. We are giving them the true picture, true story.”

Etery Pichkhadze’s two older sons and the rest of her family remain in Israel. Her third son, Isaac, grew up in the United States and, she says, is totally American in mentality and lifestyle. Etery herself also finds herself becoming an American.

“From the beginning, I didn’t know America. Today I am more confident, because when I’m talking about American values, I know that it is part of me, already, and it sounds differently. But it is very difficult for me, everyday life. It is very tough for me because every day the terrorist acts in Israel, what’s going on there, endlessly. And my two sons are there, and they’re serving in the army, my two brothers are there, my sister--all of my family is there and when something happens there I can’t function until I realize what’s going on, and how everybody is.”

Etery Pichkhadze Benitzhak, a Georgian, an Israeli, and an American -- one of VOA’s seven hundred or so international language broadcasters.

English Feature # 7-37597 Broadcast June 30, 2003