Here, then, we have the cradle of the numerically strongest and culturally dominant part of modern Jewry. The “offshoots” to which Baron refers were indeed branching out long before the destruction of the Khazar state by the Mongols — as the ancient Hebrew nation had started branching into the Diaspora long before the destruction of Jerusalem. Ethnically, the Semitic tribes on the waters of the Jordan and the Turko-Khazar tribes on the Volga were of course “miles apart”, but they had at least two important formative factors in common.
Each lived at a focal junction where the great trade routes connecting east and west, north and south intersect; a circumstance which predisposed them to become nations of traders, of enterprising travellers, or “rootless cosmopolitans” — as hostile propaganda has unaffectionately labelled them. But at the same time their exclusive religion fostered a tendency to keep to themselves and stick together, to establish their own communities with their own places of worship, schools, residential quarters and ghettoes (originally self-imposed) in whatever town or country they settled.
This rare combination of wanderlust and ghetto-mentality, reinforced
by Messianic hopes and chosen-race pride, both ancient Israelites
and mediaeval Khazars shared — even though the latter traced their
descent not to Shem but to Japheth.
Two centuries later John Cinnamus, the Byzantine chronicler, mentions troops observing the Jewish law, fighting with the Hungarian army in Dalmatia, AD 1154. There may have been small numbers of “real Jews” living in Hungary from Roman days, but there can be little doubt that the majority of this important portion of modern Jewry originated in the migratory waves of Kabar-Khazars who play such a dominant part in early Hungarian history.
Not only was the country, as Constantine tells us, bilingual at its beginning, but it also had a form of double kingship, a variation of the Khazar system: the king sharing power with his general in command, who bore the title of Jula or Gyula (still a popular Hungarian first name). The system lasted to the end of the tenth century, when St Stephen embraced the Roman Catholic faith and defeated a rebellious Gyula — who, as one might expect, was a Khazar, “vain in the faith and refusing to become a Christian”. This episode put an end to the double kingship, but not to the influence of the Khazar-Jewish community in Hungary.
A reflection of that influence can be found in the “Golden Bull” — the Hungarian equivalent of Magna Carta — issued AD 1222 by King Endre (Andrew) II, in which Jews were forbidden to act as mintmasters, tax collectors, and controllers of the royal salt monopoly — indicating that before the edict numerous Jews must have held these important posts. But they occupied even more exalted positions. King Endre’s custodian of the Revenues of the Royal Chamber was the Chamberlain Count Teka, a Jew of Khazar origin, a rich landowner, and apparently a financial and diplomatic genius. His signature appears on various peace treaties and financial agreements, among them one guaranteeing the payment of 2000 marks by the Austrian ruler Leopold II to the King of Hungary.
irresistibly reminded of a similar role played by the Spanish Jew Hasdai ibn Shaprut at the court of the Caliph of Cordoba. Comparing
similar episodes from the Palestinian Diaspora in the west and the
Khazar Diaspora in the east of Europe, makes the analogy between
them appear perhaps less tenuous. It is also worth mentioning that
when King Endre was compelled by his rebellious nobles to issue,
reluctantly, the Golden Bull, he kept Teka in office against the
Bull’s express provisions. The Royal Chamberlain held his post
happily for another eleven years, until papal pressure on the King
made it advisable for Teka to resign and betake himself to Austria,
where he was received with open arms. However, King Endre’s son Bela
IV, obtained papal permission to call him back. Teka duly returned,
and perished during the Mongol invasion.
The Khazars were not the only nation which sent offshoots into Hungary. Thus large numbers of the self-same Pechenegs who had chased the Magyars from the Don across the Carpathians, were forced to ask for permission to settle in Hungarian territory when they in turn were chased by the Kumans; and the Kumans shared the same fate when, a century later, they fled from the Mongols, and some 40000 of them “with their slaves” were granted asylum by the Hungarian King Bela. At relatively quiescent times this general westward movement of the Eurasian populations was no more than a drift; at other times it became a stampede; but the consequences of the Mongol invasion must rank on this metaphoric scale as an earthquake followed by a landslide.
The warriors of Chief Tejumin, called “Jinghiz Khan”, Lord of the Earth, massacred the population of whole cities as a warning to others not to resist; used prisoners as living screens in front of their advancing lines; destroyed the irrigation network of the Volga delta which had provided the Khazar lands with rice and other staple foods; and transformed the fertile steppes into the “wild fields” — dikoyeh pole — as the Russians were later to call them: an unlimited space without farmers or shepherds, through which only mercenary horsemen pass in the service of this or that rival ruler — or people escaping from such rule”. The Black Death of 1347-8 accelerated the progressive depopulation of the former Khazar heartland between Caucasus, Don and Volga, where the steppe-culture had reached its highest level — and the relapse into barbarism was, by contrast, more drastic than in adjoining regions.
As Baron wrote:
The migration toward safer pastures was a protracted, intermittent process which went on for several centuries. The Khazar exodus was part of the general picture. It had been preceded, as already mentioned, by the founding of Khazar colonies and settlements in various places in the Ukraine and southern Russia. There was a flourishing Jewish community in Kiev long before and after the Rus took the town from the Khazars.
Similar colonies existed in Perislavel and Chernigov. A Rabbi Mosheh of Kiev studied in France around 1160, and a Rabbi Abraham of Chernigov studied in 1181 in the Talmud School of London. The “Lay of Igor’s Host” mentions a famous contemporary Russian poet called Kogan — possibly a combination of Cohen (priest) and Kagan. Some time after Sarkel, which the Russians called Biela Veza, was destroyed the Khazars built a town of the same name near Chernigov.
There is an abundance of ancient place names in the Ukraine and Poland, which derive from “Khazar” or “Zhid” (Jew): Zydowo, Kozarzewek, Kozara, Kozarzow, Zhydowska Vola, Zydaticze, and so on. They may have once been villages, or just temporary encampments of Khazar-Jewish communities on their long trek to the west. Similar place-names can also be found in the Carpathian and Tatra mountains, and in the eastern provinces of Austria.
Even the ancient Jewish cemeteries of Cracow and Sandomierz, both called “Kaviory”, are assumed to be of Khazar-Kabar origin. While the main route of the Khazar exodus led to the west, some groups of people were left behind, mainly in the Crimea and the Caucasus, where they formed Jewish enclaves surviving into modern times. In the ancient Khazar stronghold of Tamatarkha (Taman), facing the Crimea across the straits of Kerch, we hear of a dynasty of Jewish princes who ruled in the fifteenth century under the tutelage of the Genovese Republic, and later of the Crimean Tartars.
The last of them, Prince Zakharia, conducted negotiations with the Prince of Muscovi, who invited Zakharia to come to Russia and let himself be baptized in exchange for receiving the privileges of a Russian nobleman. Zakharia refused, but Poliak has suggested that in other cases “the introduction of Khazar-Jewish elements into exalted positions in the Muscovite state may have been one of the factors which led to the appearance of the ‘Jewish heresy’ (Zhidovst-buyushtchik) among Russian priests and noblemen in the sixteenth century, and of the sect of Sabbath-observers (Subbotniki) which is still widespread among Cossacks and peasants”.
Another vestige of the Khazar nation
are the “Mountain Jews” in the north-eastern Caucasus, who
apparently stayed behind in their original habitat when the others
left. They are supposed to number around eight thousand and live in
the vicinity of other tribal remnants of the olden days: Kipchaks
and Oghuz. They call themselves Dagh Chufuty (Highland Jews) in the
Tat language which they have adopted from another Caucasian tribe;
but little else is known about them. Other Khazar enclaves have
survived in the Crimea, and no doubt elsewhere too in localities
which once belonged to their empire. But these are now no more than
historic curios compared to the mainstream of the Khazar migration
into the Polish-Lithuanian regions — and the formidable problems it
poses to historians and anthropologists.
We are told that when the allied tribes decided to elect a king to rule them all, they chose a Jew, named Abraham Prokownik. He may have been a rich and educated Khazar merchant, from whose experience the Slav backwoodsmen hoped to benefit — or just a legendary figure; but, if so, the legend indicates that Jews of his type were held in high esteem. At any rate, so the story goes on, Abraham, with unwonted modesty, resigned the crown in favour of a native peasant named Piast, who thus became the founder of the historic Piast dynasty which ruled Poland from circa 962 to 1370. Whether Abraham Prochownik existed or not, there are plenty of indications that the Jewish immigrants from Khazaria were welcomed as a valuable asset to the country’s economy and government administration.
The Poles under the Piast dynasty, and their Baltic neighbours, the Lithuanians, had rapidly expanded their frontiers, and were in dire need of immigrants to colonize their territories, and to create an urban civilization. They encouraged, first, the immigration of German peasants, burghers and craftsmen, and later of migrants from the territories occupied by the Golden Horde, including Armenians, southern Slavs and Khazars. Not all these migrations were voluntary. They included large numbers of prisoners of war, such as Crimean Tartars, who were put to cultivate the estates of Lithuanian and Polish landlords in the conquered southern provinces (at the close of the fourteenth century the Lithuanian principality stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea).
But in the fifteenth century the Ottoman Turks, conquerors of Byzantium, advanced northward, and the landlords transferred the people from their estates in the border areas further inland. Among the populations thus forcibly transferred was a strong contingent of Karaites — the fundamentalist Jewish sect which rejected rabbinical learning. According to a tradition which has survived among Karaites into modern times, their ancestors were brought to Poland by the great Lithuanian warrior-prince Vytautas (Vitold) at the end of the fourteenth century as prisoners of war from Sulkhat in the Crimea.
In favour of this tradition speaks the fact that Vitold in 1388 granted a charter of rights to the Jews of Troki, and the French traveller, de Lanoi, found there “a great number of Jews” speaking a different language from the Germans and natives. That language was — and still is — a Turkish dialect, in fact the nearest among living languages to the lingua cumanica, which was spoken in the former Khazar territories at the time of the Golden Horde. According to Zajaczkowski, this language is still used in speech and prayer in the surviving Karaite communities in Troki, Vilna, Ponyeviez, Lutzk and Halitch. The Karaites also claim that before the Great Plague of 1710 they had some thirty-two or thirty-seven communities in Poland and Lithuania. They call their ancient dialect “the language of Kedar” — just as Rabbi Petachia in the twelfth century called their habitat north of the Black Sea “the land of Kedar”; and what he has to say about them — sitting in the dark through the Sabbath, ignorance of rabbinical learning — fits their sectarian attitude.
Accordingly, Zajaczkowski, the eminent contemporary Turcologist,
considers the Karaites from the linguistic point of view as the
purest present-day representatives of the ancient Khazars. About the
reasons why this sect preserved its language for about half a
millennium, while the main body of Khazar Jews shed it in favour of
the Yiddish lingua franca, more will have to be said later.
In the Charter issued by Boleslav the Pious in 1264, and confirmed by Casimir the Great in 1334, Jews were granted the right to maintain their own synagogues, schools and courts; to hold landed property, and engage in any trade or occupation they chose. Under the rule of King Stephen Báthory (1575-86) Jews were granted a Parliament of their own which met twice a year and had the power to levy taxes on their co-religionists. After the destruction of their country, Khazar Jewry had entered on a new chapter in its history. A striking illustration for their privileged condition is given in a papal breve, issued in the second half of the thirteenth century, probably by Pope Clement IV, and addressed to an unnamed Polish prince.
In this document the Pope lets it be known that the Roman authorities are well aware of the existence of a considerable number of synagogues in several Polish cities — indeed no less than five synagogues in one city alone. He deplores the fact that these synagogues are reported to be taller than the churches, more stately and ornamental, and roofed with colourfully painted leaden plates, making the adjacent Catholic churches look poor in comparison. (One is reminded of Masudi’s gleeful remark that the minaret of the main mosque was the tallest building in Itil.)
The complaints in the breve are further authenticated by a decision of the Papal legate, Cardinal Guido, dated 1267, stipulating that Jews should not be allowed more than one synagogue to a town. We gather from these documents, which are roughly contemporaneous with the Mongol conquest of Khazaria, that already at that time there must have been considerable numbers of Khazars present in Poland if they had in several towns more than one synagogue; and that they must have been fairly prosperous to build them so “stately and ornamental”.
This leads us to the question of the approximate size and composition of the Khazar immigration into Poland. Regarding the numbers involved, we have no reliable information to guide us. We remember that the Arab sources speak of Khazar armies numbering three hundred thousand men involved in the Muslim-Khazar wars (Chapter I, 7); and even if allowance is made for quite wild exaggerations, this would indicate a total Khazar population of at least half a million souls.
Ibn Fadlan gave the number of tents of the Volga Bulgars as 50000, which would mean a population of 300000-400000, i.e., roughly the same order of magnitude as the Khazars’. On the other hand, the number of Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian kingdorn in the seventeenth century is also estimated by modern historians at 500000 (5 per cent of the total population). These figures do not fit in too badly with the known facts about a protracted Khazar migration via the Ukraine to Poland-Lithuania, starting with the destruction of Sarkel and the rise of the Piast dynasty toward the end of the first millennium, accelerating during the Mongol conquest, and being more or less completed in the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries — by which time the steppe had been emptied and the Khazars had apparently been wiped off the face of the earth.
Altogether this population transfer was spread out over five or six centuries of trickle and flow. If we take into account the considerable influx of Jewish refugees from Byzantium and the Muslim world into Khazaria, and a small population increase among the Khazars themselves, it appears plausible that the tentative figures for the Khazar population at its peak in the eighth century should be comparable to that of the Jews in Poland in the seventeenth century, at least by order of magnitude — give or take a few hundred thousand as a token of our ignorance.
There is irony hidden in these numbers. According to the article “statistics” in the Jewish Encyclopaedia, in the sixteenth century the total Jewish population of the world amounted to about one million. This seems to indicate, as Poliak, Kutschera and others have pointed out, that during the Middle Ages the majority of those who professed the Judaic faith were Khazars. A substantial part of this majority went to Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and the Balkans, where they founded that Eastern Jewish community which in its turn became the dominant majority of world Jewry. Even if the original core of that community was diluted and augmented by immigrants from other regions (see below), its predominantly Khazar-Turkish derivation appears to be supported by strong evidence, and should at least be regarded as a theory worth serious discussion.
Additional reasons for attributing
the leading role in the growth and development of the Jewish
community in Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe mainly to the Khazar element, and not to immigrants from the West, will be
discussed in the chapters that follow. But it may be appropriate at
this point to quote the Polish historian, Adam Vetulani (my
This parallel suggests a common origin of those two immigrant communities; and as we can trace the origins of the bulk of Hungarian Jewry to the Magyar-Khazar nexus, the conclusion seems self-evident. The early records reflect the part played by immigrant Jews in the two countries’ budding economic life. That it was an important part is not surprising, since foreign trade and the levying of customs duties had been the Khazars’ principal source of income in the past. They had the experience which their new hosts were lacking, and it was only logical that they were called in to advise and participate in the management of the finances of court and nobility. The coins minted in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with Polish inscriptions in Hebrew lettering (see Chapter II, 1) are somewhat bizarre relics of these activities.
The exact purpose they served is still something of a mystery. Some bear the name of a king (e.g., Leszek, Mieszko), others are inscribed “From the House of Abraham ben Joseph the Prince” (possibly the minter-banker himself), or show just a word of benediction: “Luck” or “Blessing”. Significantly, contemporary Hungarian sources also speak of the practice of minting coins from silver provided by Jewish owners. However — in constrast to Western Europe — finance and commerce were far from being the only fields of Jewish activity. Some rich emigrants became landowners in Poland as Count Teka was in Hungary; Jewish land-holdings comprising a whole village of Jewish farmers are recorded, for instance, in the vicinity of Breslau before 1203; and in the early days there must have been Khazar peasants in considerable numbers, as the ancient Khazar place-names seem to indicate.
A tantalizing glimpse of how some of these villages may have come into being is provided by the Karaite records mentioned before; they relate how Prince Vitold settled a group of Karaite prisoners-of-war in “Krasna”, providing them with houses, orchards and land to a distance of one and a half miles. (“Krasna” has been tentatively identified with the Jewish small town Krasnoia in Podolia.) But farming did not hold out a future for the Jewish community. There were several reasons for this. The rise of feudalism in the fourteenth century gradually transformed the peasants of Poland into serfs, forbidden to leave their villages, deprived of freedom of movement.
At the same time, under the joint pressure of the ecclesiastic hierarchy and the feudal landlords, the Polish Parliament in 1496 forbade the acquisition of agricultural land by Jews. But the process of alienation from the soil must have started long before that. Apart from the specific causes just mentioned — religious discrimination, combined with the degradation of the free peasants into serfs — the transformation of the predominantly agricultural nation of Khazars into a predominantly urban community reflected a common phenomenon in the history of migrations.
Faced with different climatic conditions and farming methods on the one hand, and on the other with unexpected opportunities for an easier living offered by urban civilization, immigrant populations are apt to change their occupational structure within a few generations. The offspring of Abruzzi peasants in the New World became waiters and restaurateurs, the grandsons of Polish farmers may become engineers or psychoanalysts. However, the transformation of Khazar Jewry into Polish Jewry did not entail any brutal break with the past, or loss of identity. It was a gradual, organic process of change, which — as Poliak has convincingly shown — preserved some vital traditions of Khazar communal life in their new country.
This was mainly achieved through the emergence of a social structure, or way of life, found nowhere else in the world Diaspora: the Jewish small town, in Hebrew ayarah, in Yiddish shtetl, in Polish miastecko. All three designations are diminutives, which, however, do not necessarily refer to smallness in size (some were quite big small-towns) but to the limited rights of municipal selfgovernment they enjoyed. The shtetl should not be confused with the ghetto. The latter consisted of a street or quarter in which Jews were compelled to live within the confines of a Gentile town.
It was, from the second half of the sixteenth century onward, the universal habitat of Jews everywhere in the Christian, and most of the Muslim, world. The ghetto was surrounded by walls, with gates that were locked at night. It gave rise to claustrophobia and mental inbreeding, but also to a sense of relative security in times of trouble. As it could not expand in size, the houses were tall and narrow-chested, and permanent overcrowding created deplorable sanitary conditions.
It took great spiritual strength for people living in such circumstances to keep their self-respect. Not all of them did. The shtetl, on the other hand, was a quite different proposition — a type of settlement which, as already said, existed only in Poland-Lithuania and nowhere else in the world. It was a self-contained country town with an exclusively or predominantly Jewish population.
The shtetl’s origins probably date back to the thirteenth century, and may represent the missing link, as it were, between the market towns of Khazaria and the Jewish settlements in Poland. The economic and social function of these semi-rural, semiurban agglomerations seems to have been similar in both countries. In Khazaria, as later in Poland, they provided a network of trading posts or market towns which mediated between the needs of the big towns and the countryside.
They had regular fairs at which sheep and cattle, alongside the goods manufactured in the towns and the products of the rural cottage industries were sold or bartered; at the same time they were the centres where artisans plied their crafts, from wheelwrights to blacksmiths, silversmiths, tailors, Kosher butchers, millers, bakers and candlestick-makers. There were also letter-writers for the illiterate, synagogues for the faithful, inns for travellers, and a heder — Hebrew for “room”, which served as a school. There were itinerant story-tellers and folk bards (some of their names, such as Velvel Zbarzher, have been preserved) travelling from shtetl to shtetl in Poland — and no doubt earlier on in Khazaria, if one is to judge by the survival of story-tellers among Oriental people to our day.
Some particular trades became virtually a Jewish monopoly in Poland. One was dealing in timber — which reminds one that timber was the chief building material and an important export in Khazaria; another was transport. “The dense net of shtetls,” writes Poliak, “made it possible to distribute manufactured goods over the whole country by means of the superbly built Jewish type of horse cart. The preponderance of this kind of transport, especially in the east of the country, was so marked amounting to a virtual monopoly — that the Hebrew word for carter, ba‘al agalah was incorporated into the Russian language as balagula.
Only the development of the railway in the second half of the nineteenth century led to a decline in this trade.” Now this specialization in coach-building and cartering could certainly not have developed in the closed ghettoes of Western Jewry; it unmistakably points to a Khazar origin. The people of the ghettoes were sedentary; while the Khazars, like other semi-nomadic people, used horse- or ox-drawn carts to transport their tents, goods and chattel — including royal tents the size of a circus, fit to accommodate several hundred people. They certainly had the know-how to negotiate the roughest tracks in their new country. Other specifically Jewish occupations were inn-keeping, the running of flour mills and trading in furs — none of them found in the ghettoes of Western Europe.
Such, in broad outlines, was the structure of the Jewish shtetl in Poland. Some of its features could be found in old market towns in any country; others show a more specific affinity with what we know — little though it is — about the townships of Khazaria, which were probably the prototypes of the Polish shtetl. To these specific features should be added the “pagoda-style” of the oldest surviving wooden shtetl synagogues dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which is totally different from both the native style of architecture and from the building style adopted by Western Jews and replicated later on in the ghettoes of Poland.
The interior decoration of the oldest shtetl synagogues is also quite different from the style of the Western ghetto; the walls of the shtetl synagogue were covered with Moorish arabesques, and with animal figures characteristic of the Persian influence found in Magyar-Khazar artefacts (I, 13) and in the decorative style brought to Poland by Armenian immigrants. The traditional garb of Polish Jewry is also of unmistakably Eastern origin. The typical long silk kaftan may have been an imitation of the coat worn by the Polish nobility, which itself was copied from the outfit of the Mongols in the Golden Horde — fashions travel across political divisions; but we know that kaftans were worn long before that by the nomads of the steppes. The skull-cap (yarmolka) is worn to this day by orthodox Jews — and by the Uzbeks and other Turkish people in the Soviet Union.
On top of the skull-cap men wore the streimel, an elaborate round hat rimmed with fox-fur, which the Khazars copied from the Khasaks — or vice versa. As already mentioned, the trade in fox and sable furs, which had been flourishing in Khazaria, became another virtual Jewish monopoly in Poland. As for the women, they wore, until the middle of the nineteenth century, a tall white turban, which was an exact copy of the Jauluk worn by Khasak and Turkmen women. (Nowadays orthodox Jewesses have to wear instead of a turban a wig made of their own hair, which is shaved off when they get married.) One might also mention in this context — though somewhat dubiously — the Polish Jews’ odd passion for gefillte (stuffed) fisch, a national dish which the Polish Gentiles adopted. “Without fish”, the saying went, “there is no Sabbath.”
Was it derived from distant memories of life on the Caspian, where fish was the staple diet? Life in the shtetl is celebrated with much romantic nostalgia in Jewish literature and folklore. Thus we read in a modern survey of its customs about the joyous way its inhabitants celebrated the Sabbath:
The most vivid evocation of life in the shtetl is the surrealistic amalgam of fact and fantasy in the paintings and lithographs of Marc Chagall, where biblical symbols appear side by side with the bearded carter wielding his whip and wistful rabbis in kaftan and yarmolka. It was a weird community, reflecting its weird origins.
Some of the earliest small-towns were probably founded by prisoners of war — such as the Karaites of Troki — whom Polish and Lithuanian nobles were anxious to settle on their empty lands. But the majority of these settlements were products of the general migration away from the “wild fields” which were turning into deserts. “After the Mongol conquest”, wrote Poliak, “when the Slav villages wandered westward, the Khazar shtetls went with them.”
The pioneers of the new settlements were probably rich Khazar traders who constantly travelled across Poland on the much frequented trade routes into Hungary. “The Magyar and Kabar migration into Hungary blazed the trail for the growing Khazar settlements in Poland: it turned Poland into a transit area between the two countries with Jewish communities.” Thus the travelling merchants were familiar with conditions in the prospective areas of resettlement, and had occasion to make contact with the landowners in search of tenants. “The landlord would enter into an agreement with such rich and respected Jews” (we are reminded of Abraham Prokownik) “as would settle on his estate and bring in other settlers.
They would, as a rule, choose people from the place where they had lived.” These colonists would be an assorted lot of farmers, artisans and craftsmen, forming a more or less self-supporting community. Thus the Khazar shtetl would be transplanted and become a Polish shtetl. Farming would gradually drop out, but by that time the adaptation to changed conditions would have been completed.
The nucleus of modern Jewry thus followed the old recipe: strike out for new horizons but stick together.