When I was in high school, I always assumed that I was a Sephardic Jew since my last name was the same as the Spanish word for project (el proyecto). It was only years later that I discovered in a book of Jewish surnames put together by Czarist scribes that is available at the YIVO library in NYC (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, or Yiddish Scientific Institute) that the name was Yiddish for the counting house of a tax farmer, prevalent in the Slutsk district of Byelorussia in the 1860s.
A tax farmer was a court Jew historically, someone authorized to collect taxes for a monarch or other landed gentry for a percentage of the take. When I read Abram Leon’s “The Jewish Question” shortly after joining the SWP, I was persuaded that my ancestors were like those described in the book—people who carried out financial transactions that were banned by the church. When a Christian banking class began to emerge in the late middle ages, the old-line Jewish bankers and tax collectors et al were banished from Spain, England and elsewhere. They headed east to Poland and Russia, where feudalism persisted. From various accounts, I have learned that the most vicious pogroms of the 19th century were carried out against tax collectors on estates owned by the Russian and Polish aristocracy who had little contact with the serfs they exploited.
The only alternative history of the origins of the Ashkenazi Jews is based on Khazaria, a Jewish kingdom that existed from 800 to 1000 AD. The most famous account of the kingdom is found in Arthur Koestler’s “The Thirteenth Tribe” that I read when it came out in 1976. Based on scholarship that the Jewish establishment, particularly those identifying with the Zionist project, dismissed as nonsense, the book argues that a Turkic-speaking nomadic people decided to adopt Judaism as a way of establishing an ethnic/religious identity that would serve as a firewall against Christianity to the West and Islam to the East.
Up until recently, I assumed that Khazaria was in the eastern regions of Turkey that they call Anatolia. But I was quite surprised that the kingdom was north of the Black Sea (Turkey lies to the south of the sea) in a geographical region largely occupied by Ukraine.
This I learned from reading in Paul Magocsi’s fascinating 894-page “A History of Ukraine”. In the chapter titled “The Slavs and the Khazars”, Magocsi describes the Jewish state as a place where the pagan Slavic peoples began to flourish under a regime that provided a stable, peaceful and tolerant environment for different faiths in the same manner that North African Muslim states around the same time provided a haven for Jews. Magocsi writes:
Living within the protective shadow of the Pax Khazaria, the Slavic tribes on Ukrainian lands were spared for a while the worst nomadic invasions from the east, and, as a result, between the seventh and ninth centuries they were able to expand their agricultural and trading activities. But despite such protection, some Slavic princes began to resent their vassal-like relationship to the Khazar rulers. For the longest time, however, the Slavs were not united, and no individual tribe had the strength to confront the Khazar Kaganate. Building up the necessary strength became a possibility only in the mid-ninth century, with a new development in the region of Kiev. This development combined local forces with a group of leaders from Scandinavia — the Varangians — and the result was the eventual consolidation of a new power known as Rus’. How did this new phenomenon arise? Or, to cite the opening passage of the Primary Chronicle, the most famous discussion of the subject, what was “the origin of the land of Rus’, [and of] the first princes of Kiev, and from what source did the land of Rus’ have its beginning?”
It was up to Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, to assemble an army to break the power of the Khazars and begin the process of creating a Christian empire over the territory once ruled by the Jews. Vladimir was a scion of the Viking royalty who had expanded their influence eastward over the nomadic Slavic tribes and the rest is history.
After reading Magocsi’s account, I decided to have a look at Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” that was published by Verso in 2009. As you might glean from the title, Sand rejects the notion that the Jews who came to live in Israel as part of the Zionist colonizing project had little biological ties to those who lived in Palestine in the time of Jesus. In a nutshell, he believes that the Khazar Jews continued to live in the same way as they always had but under Christian rule. You might ask yourself how they ended up speaking Yiddish, a language with obviously close relations to German. He says that this is a result of some German Jewish inflow into the area. Since the educated elites from Germany were socially superior to the native Jewish population, their language and liturgy eventually became hegemonic. I doubt if any of this will ever be resolved short of an exhaustive archaeological project that few Jewish scholars—mostly in sympathy with Zionist ideology—would bother to undertake. It is better to continue with the old time legends and myths about the Red Sea being parted, etc.
While most Ashkenazy Jews like Golda Meier or David Ben-Gurion would likely not make such a claim, it was doubtful that any of them would acknowledge being descendants of the Khazars who were Turkic converts to a faith that had one foot in traditional Jewish liturgy and the other in an alien culture that persists to this day, if you look carefully for it. Rejecting implicitly Abram Leon’s thesis that the Jews of Eastern Europe had fled from France, Germany and England, Sand writes:
At the center of the Jewish townlet stood the synagogue, with a double dome reminiscent of the Eastern pagoda. Jewish dress in Eastern Europe did not resemble that of the Jews of France or Germany. The yarmulke—also derived from a Turkic word—and the fur hat worn over it were more reminiscent of the people of the Caucasus and the horsemen of the steppes than of Talmudic scholars from Mainz or merchants from Worms. These garments, like the long silk caftan worn chiefly on the Sabbath, differed from clothing worn by the Belorussian or Ukrainian peasants. But any mention these features and others—from food to humor, from clothing to chants, connected to the specific cultural morphology of their daily life and their tory—scarcely interested the scholars who were occupied in inventing the eternal history of the “people of Israel.” They could not come to terms with the troublesome fact that there had never been a Jewish people’s culture, but only popular Yiddish culture that resembled the cultures of their neighbors much more than it did those of the Jewish communities of Western Europe or North Africa.
I was intrigued by the reference to yarmulke being derived from the Turkish. Wikipedia states that the word probably from the Turkish yağmurluk (“rainwear”), though it could also be from Medieval Latin almutia (“hood, cowl”).
In terms of the fur hat, that is probably a reference to the shtreimel worn by Satmar Hasidim. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is of Crimean Tatar origin, which is consistent with Sand’s account of how many Khazaris ended up in Crimea.
A Jew in a shtreimel
One of the more interesting discussions of the Khazarites can be found in “A History of the Jews”, written by Ilan Halevi who was a high-ranking Jewish member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. His discussion of the linguistic affinities between the long-gone Jewish state and other ethnicities is intriguing:
Some of these groups, however, took control, for considerable lengths of time, major communication centres, establishing around them short-quasi-states which entered into contact with the neighbouring empires in complex relationships of clientage and suzerainty, essentially on the imperial need for human barriers against the main body of the wave. For both Byzantium and Persia, the Ghassanid and Lakhmid Arab tribes had played this role of frontier guards against the tribes of the desert. It was against this background that there appeared, in the 6th century, on the west bank of the Caspian Sea, the kingdom of the Khazars. Originally the term “Khazar” did not describe a particular ethnic group: it was a sort generic name for all the Turco-Mongol peoples on the move in this region. It seems that the word itself derives from a Turkish root meaning “nomad” in which case it would be a Turkish equivalent of the Arabic bedu (Bedouin) describing, within a multi-tribal language, not an ethno-linguistic group, but a sociological category, the occupation and way of life of whole populations and even, at the extreme, a value system based on the specifity of this mode of organization. Thus, the Khazars were called Kaissak in the Urals, and Kazakh on the borders of China and Afghanistan where the Russian revolution would establish Kazakhstan; from their name would come the name of the Cossacks and the English word “Hussar”. But the Turcoman peoples of the Volga and the Caspian or the Crimea, whose own ethnic names were the Kalmyks and the Khirghiz, the Uzbeks and the Bashkirs, the Tatars called Tartars and many others, were, at the time of which we are speaking, Khazars on every criterion.
The only other linguistic item worth mentioning is that the king of the Khazars was called the Kagan. That’s the same name of the Supreme Court justice as well as many other Jews living in Brooklyn and elsewhere. If there was any justice in the world, the Zionists should have stayed out of the Middle East and come to Brooklyn instead—the real homeland of the Jews.