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Book Reviews

The Jews of Khazaria

Mark Glanville  |  Winter 2007  -  Number 208


Kevin Alan Brooks, The Jews of Khazaria (Rowman and Littlefield £26)

Following the disintegration of the Western Turkish Empire around 630-640 CE and the consequent migration of peoples who had once formed part of that empire, the Turkic Khazar state was established. By the second half of the Eighth Century this state controlled a vast swathe of territory between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea that extended east as far as the steppes of Khwarizm and west to Kiev. The Khazars were originally Shamanists, worshippers of Tengri, the god of the sky. Archaeologists note the disappearance of amulets bearing his image from Khazarian settlements and cemeteries some time after the 830s, when coins were minted to commemorate the Khazarian people’s conversion to Judaism. Tradition, as recounted in several medieval sources, has it that a certain King Bulan called a dispute between the three major monotheistic faiths. On finding it to be the foundation of all three, he converted to Judaism.Thus a powerful Jewish state emerged, which was to act as a buffer between the Christian Byzantine Kingdom to the north and the Muslim Caliphate to the south. While the Franks of Charles Martel were turning back the Arab armies at Poitiers and saving western Christendom, the Khazars were holding back those who threatened to engulf the Caucasus, and thus, arguably, preserving eastern Christianity.

‘I feel the urge to know the truth, whether there really is a place on this earth where harassed Israel can rule itself.’ So wrote Hasdai Ibn Shaprut Hasdai, the great tenth-century Spanish Jewish scholar in a letter to the Khazar King Joseph, requesting information about the extraordinary Eastern Jewish empire that lay to the north of the Caucasus mountains. King Joseph’s reply appears along with a host of other fascinating documents in Kevin Alan Brooks’ scholarly account. The truth about this historical phenomenon has too often been distorted to suit a variety of religious and political agendas.

‘After the Mongol upheaval the Khazars sent many offshoots into the unsubdued Slavonic lands, helping ultimately to build up the great Jewish centres of Eastern Europe. Here, then, we have the cradle of the numerically strongest and culturally dominant part of modern Jewry.’ Arthur Koestler's notorious book, The Thirteenth Tribe, brought Khazar Jewry to the attention of a wider public. It was seized upon by anti-Semites and anti-Zionists who have used it as an argument against the Jewish claim to Palestine.

‘Since Israel’s support among millions of American Christians is founded on a concept that God had bequeathed territory to a biblical “tribe” of Oriental Middle Eastern Jews,’ writes a certain Grace Halsell, ‘it becomes ironic to learn that most Jews today are not descended from natives of the “holy land,” or even of the Middle East.’

Unfortunately, the refutation of such views has led to the Khazar Jewish baby being thrown out together with its mikveh water, and a remarkable episode in medieval history obfuscated to the point of being concealed altogether. The Judaism practised by the Khazars has also become a focus of controversy. They were understood to have practised a conventional, orthodox Judaism that held the Talmud and the Mishna in equal regard with the Torah. But, according to Brooks, in Czarist Russia, the Karaites, who reject the Oral Law, claimed to descend from the Turkic Khazars rather than Middle Eastern Jews. By separating themselves from other Jews, the Karaites enjoyed advantages from the Czarist government and were spared anti-semitic discrimination.

In recent years, examination of surviving Khazar documents has been problematic. The Russian thrust has been to excise all memory of her Asiatic past whilst emphasising the contribution of the Nordic Viking Rus’ who founded the original, ultimately Christian state of Russia, destroying the Khazar kingdom along with its vibrant Jewish culture. In his documentary, Kingdom of the Khazars, film maker Ehud Yaari stops people in a Russian street and asks whether they can quote the first lines of Pushkin’s Ode to Prince Oleg. All readily oblige:

Prince Oleg sought vengeance against the frivolous Khazars.
Prince Oleg the seer rose against the boorish Khazars

Elsewhere, museum curators of the former Soviet Union deny the existence of Khazar Jewish artefacts he later manages to locate.

Much of the source material for the Khazar kingdom that does survive was discovered in the Cairo Genizah. This includes the Schechter letter, so called after its discovery by Solomon Schechter in 1896. It is likely to have been written in 949, after Yitzhak bar Nathan, a messenger of Hasdai, asked a Constantinople Jew to write an essay describing how the Khazars and the Armenian Jews had intermarried and became one people. It also includes an account of the formal disputation which led to the adoption of Judaism by the royal household. All of the historical events described in the Schechter letter have been verified.

A more detailed account of the origins and development of Khazar Judaism appears in what has become known as the Khazar Correspondence, which took place between Hasdai and King Joseph. In his detailed response to Hasdai’s request for further information about the Jewish Kingdom, King Joseph describes the legendary conversion of King Bulan and how he drove out the sorcerers and idolaters after being circumcised and converting to Judaism. He goes on to recount how Bulan’s successor, King Obadiah, instituted Rabbinic Judaism by fortifying the Law, building synagogues and schools, and making his sages interpret the twenty-four sacred books, the Mishnah and the Talmud.

For an insight into the daily life of this people we are fortunate to have the extraordinary Kievan letter, again discovered in the Cairo Genizah, in 1962. Written on parchment and believed to date from around 930 when Kiev was under Khazar rule, it is the oldest Khazarian document ever found. It takes the form of a letter of recommendation written by Khazar Jews on behalf of one Jacob ben Hanukkah after his brother had borrowed a large sum of money and afterwards been robbed and killed. The purpose of the letter was to raise the remaining forty coins from among other Jewish communities. It was written in square Hebrew letters and in Hebrew, but with a Turkic runiform word hoqurum (‘I have read it’) added in brushstroke at the bottom corner, indicating knowledge of both languages on the part of the Khazar official. The eleven signatories display a mixture of Turkic and Hebrew names. The existence of such a letter suggests that Judaism was widespread amongst the Khazars, not just the province of royalty as has been suggested, and extended as far west as Kiev.

Are most Ashkenazi Jews descended from a people with Turkic origins rather than from the Middle East, as Koestler and others have suggested? Brooks concludes his book with an overview of DNA testing among Jewish communities.  Our knowledge of Khazar ancestry would appear to remain unenhanced by this information, but there is one interesting twist. 52% of Askenazi Levites carry haplogroup R1a1, a type associated with Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Brooks, taking his lead from Norman Golb’s Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Twentieth Century, suggests that an important Khazar Jewish priestly family may have adopted the Levite title, which would have been inherited entirely from the original Israelite Levites. Otherwise Brooks, ever sober and even-handed in his approach, concludes, ‘It is very probable that there is a small Turkic Khazarian element among Eastern European Jews.’

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