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Reviewed by:
  • The Jews of Khazaria
  • James Howard-Johnston
The Jews of Khazaria, by Kevin Alan Brook. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. 317 pp. $44.00.

The Khazar khagan was the Prester John of the Jewish diaspora towards the end of the first millennium, above all for the Jewish intelligentsia of Umayyad Spain, one of whom managed to make contact with him. The Khazars were reckoned (quite rightly) to be a great steppe power, capable of combatting the Muslim caliphate on equal terms. Well-read rabbis remembered them in later centuries. Then, in 1976, the arcane interest of a small scholarly coterie was suddenly drawn to the attention of a wider public by Arthur Koestler, with the publication of his The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage. Kevin Alan Brook, thirty years on, strives, with considerable success, to satisfy the appetite for information about the Khazars which Koestler generated. The Jews of Khazaria is, in essence, a compendium of information gathered from every available source, with the help of an army of scholars with Khazar interests and of translators from German, Swedish, Polish, Russian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Hebrew.

The information is extracted from primary sources—Arabic, Armenian, Byzantine, Latin, Slavonic, and Hebrew—and from a large array of intermediary scholarly works. Between them the chapters hoover up all the information which lies scattered in the public domain. They are arranged as follows: (1) origins, (2) urban settlements, (3) institutional development, (4) material and immaterial culture, (5) economy, (6) conversion to Judaism (the most important and most useful of the chapters), (7) foreign relations (principally with Arabs, Byzantines, and Hungarians), (8) Russian destruction of the khaganate, (9) evidence of Khazar survivals in eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine, the Caucasus (north and south) and elsewhere, and (10) the Khazar contribution to Ashkenazi Jewry (judged to be small but significant in the last and longest chapter).

The general line can be characterized as positive. Brook is a vicarious Khazar patriot. He follows the general thrust of the specialist literature, which still bears a strong imprint from the Soviet era. So, for him, the Khazar khaganate was economically advanced and well developed institutionally, its territory dotted with towns and villages. The Khazars proper are portrayed as ruling over a multi-ethnic empire, comprising Caucasian Alans, Hungarians, Pechenegs, Volga Bulgars, Crimea Goths, and a number of Slav tribes. Their conversion to Judaism is placed in a context of long-established neighboring Jewish communities (notably in the Crimean and the Taman peninsula). The critical stage, namely the conversion of the beg, in effect the chief operating officer who reported to the khagan, is dated to the 830s. Although there are [End Page 148] conflicting testimonies about the degree of Jewish penetration, Brook comes down firmly on the side of the maximalists. For him a majority of the Khazars were Jews by the middle of the tenth century, when the Russians attacked and the Khazars’ world collapsed.

In no sense can The Jews of Khazaria be classified as a work of haute vulgarisation. For it is information which Brook seeks to gather and to convey, and he is not concerned with the manner in which he does so. Evidence is presented as it might be in court, item by item, rather than being articulated in argumentative flows. Clarity is the aim, not elegance of expression. It is in effect a printed version of a website. But there are problems in trying to produce an authoritative and comprehensive website in print. First it is fixed. It can no longer be updated as new information becomes available, save by a new edition after a considerable delay. It was singularly unfortunate, then, that Brook published the second edition of his book during the long hiatus between the holding of a first international colloquium of Khazar Studies in Jerusalem in 1999, and the publication of some of the papers (P. B. Golden, H. Ben-Shammai & A. Róna-Tas, ed., The World of the Khazars [Leiden-Boston, 2007]). It was an extraordinarily exciting meeting, at which, for the first time, there was a concerted effort by specialists to exchange ideas, debate issues, and formulate new theories, or...


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