Book Review

The Jews of Khazaria

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Brooks, Kevin Alan, The Jews of Khazaria, Jason Aronson Inc. (New Jersey: 1999)

The book aims to capture the history of Khazaria, a Jewish state near the Caspian sea that reigned between the 7th to 11th centuries, starting as a small tribe and growing in size and in power. The book is primarily based on archival and linguistic discoveries. The author starts in 650 AD when migration patterns westward and wars with the Muslim forces from the south brought to the fore of history the Khazar empire. Khazaria was located roughly between of present day Hungary from its east and Persia in its west. The Khazars, originally nomads known for their fierce fighting tradition, defended their region and became a loose state about mid 6thcentury.

The Khazar state was unique in its dual sovereign system: a Kagan, a king, with ceremonial power and not much contact with the citizens, and a bek, a general or executive director that managed the day to day business of the country. Supposedly, this form of government originated in the Khazar state and was then emulated by the two dozen subordinated states that "paid tributes" to the Khazar Kagan.

The Khazar state saw its first influx of Jewish "immigrants" in 723 in a wave that continued to the early 10th century (944 AD). In 860, the Khazar Kagan adopted monotheism instead of shamanism, and was hospitable to Muslim and Jewish scholars. In 861 king Bulan converted to Judaism and by extension, his entire kaganite became Jewish. It is important to know, however, that Khazaria was a multi-cultural state and tolerated Islam and Christianity to a great degree. Itil (Atil) was known to have a Muslim quarter that boasted mosques and many wealthy Muslim families resided there.

King Obadia, successor to king Bulan became a promoter of the Jewish state circa 870. Although the accounts about his pro-Jewish activities are not clear, some tribes branched off the Khazar empire and migrated west and north, most notably the Kabar tribes.

For about a century, Khazaria grew powerful in the region, expanding east to present day Hungary, west to present day Russia and north to present day Bulgaria. Khazaria kept peaceful ties with the Byzantine Empire to the South. In that period there was some correspondence between Khazaria's Kagan and Jewish scholars worldwide. Most known are the correspondence between Ibn Hasdai of Spain and king Joseph in 954. In his letter, king Joseph recalls much of the Khazar relationship to the Jewish people, including a mythological genealogy to Gog and Magog, descendants of Japheth.

The 11th century marks the decline of the Khazar empire, mostly by conquers from the west by Rus states and wars in the east with tribes occupying Hungary. Some Khazar subordinated states and even Khazar cities such as Kiev are Slavicized and accept Christendom. However, many Khazar jews fled to present day Lithuania in the south-east (of Khazaria) and to Poland, Rumania and Hungry. In 966, Rabbi Nisim describes the Khazar Jews disbursed to the "Wilderness of the Nations", allegedly referring to Poland and perhaps to Rumania.

Although in 1120-1140 Yehuda HaLevi writes his the most commonly known reference to the Khazar state HaKuzari, the statehood is mostly lost by that time. HaLevi wrote his essay, an imaginary dialog between a Khazar king and himself concluding with the prospects of a "Jewish State" the Khazar empire is mostly vanished by then.

The controversy about Khazar Jews and their intermingle with Jews in Lithuania, Poland and Rumania is discussed at the conclusion of the book. First, the author describes other incidents when non-Jewish tribes converted and became "children of Moses". Examples are brought from the Avars and Cumans in Europe, Edmoites in the middle east, and the "Children of Moses" in Ethopia, sometimes known as the Falshas.) Then author then contends that it is quite possible that Khazar Jews, now disbursed amongst several nations, intermarried with "local" or "genuine" jews, most notably in Lithuania as well as in Poland.

The book is somewhat 'academic' in its discussion, but very readable. The book boasts in using "archeological" finds in its discussion; in fact, it mentions only a few such finds. It further fails to include maps, documents and other images that would have made it more interesting and 'real'. Nonetheless, the writing is not 'heavy' and the organization is intuitive. Each chapter can be read separately and the footnotes are worth gleaning over. Although some maps appear at the end of chapter 2, and some tables appear at the ends of chapters 3, 4 and 7, they hardly help illustrate the rich history narrated within the chapters.

For genealogists who are interested in the controversial around the origins of dark-hair or red-hair jews in Lithuania and Poland, I recommend reading a couple of introductory chapters and then skimming through to the end. For history buffs, I recommend reading the whole book and perhaps use a map to aid in the reading as there are numerous references to battles, invasions and travel routes that would be much easier to understand with a map at hand.

This is not an intro-to-genealogy or a how-to-start-genealogy book. I found the subject of Khazaria and the Jewish diaspora, and the narrative in The Jews of Khazaria enriching and expanding my 15 years of family history work. Therefor, I mostly recommend this book for genealogists with at least 5 years experience, with some idea about the origins of the families that arrived from the Pale of Settlement; Of course, independently, the subject of the empire of Khazraia is a rich with history and glamour. I find that the narrative of Khazaria and its place in Jewish history well narrated by Brook.

Yigal Rechtman
Brooklyn, N.Y.

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