Caveats in Researching Jewish History
By Norman J. Finkelshteyn
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A Criticism of Khazar Studies
The quotes below, with related images are taken from a site about the Khazars run by Kevin Alan Brook.
The reverse color paragraphs are direct quotes from that site, the normal text is my commentary.
8/2005 - Subsequent to the original update (see reasons at "NOTE" below) Mr. Brook contacted me again and indicated his continued offense with the page. Rereading the material a few times and giving it some thought I frankly could not come up with a more conciliatory version without sacrificing valuable issues.
So I offered instead to publish a note from Mr. Brook adressing any issues he wants. He did not take me up on the offer.
Since then, it seems that Mr. Brook has become more and more upset about this page. It seems that every communication we have ends up with a complaint about it. Each time I have replied with a renewed offer to publish a note of reply from him. I am now writing this to more solidly put it out there and in order not to have to repeat the offer every time.
Other updates to this page I have made at this time are identified with the same red date marker as above.
NOTE: The article here was completed and posted on May 5, 2000. On May 21, 2000, I received telephone and E-mail communication from Mr. Brook wherein he expressed offense at being singled out in the article. He stated that the issues I was concerned about were not his original ideas but points made in previous works by other accepted authorities. He also stated that he has made changes on his site which would make the commentary below obsolete.
At first I would like to apologise for any perceived personal attack. I chose Mr. Brook's site precisely because that site is one of very few on the Web that are legitimate resource sites rather than anti-Jewish propaganda.
I must also clarify that I have not read Mr. Brook's book. I am commenting on his statements on the Web Site (though I make the, admittedly unsafe, assumption that the book may suffer from similar shortcomings). Where the book is quoted, the quote was presented as such by Mr. Brook himself.
As for whether the points I object to are new to Mr. Brook or are considered dogma in Khazar studies (or are somewhere in between these two extremes) -- I presented them as they appeared on the site. I think it is clear that he relies on others. But, if that is the case, if these points are already widely accepted in the field, this is all the more troubling because of their impreciseness (at least as presented) in the face of the political uses that "Khazar studies" is put to (as discussed in my main article on Caveats in Researching Jewish History).
Again, the quotes in the article below are based on the site as it appeared prior to May 5, 2000. As Mr. Brook informs me that he has made changes, I advise interested readers to view his site for themselves. www.khazaria.com
Additional writing which was in response to Mr. Brook's reaction is set off by the same background as this note.
Mr. Brook's site is accepted without much question by many individuals and organizations as an authoritative site on the issue (I have seen the site on a list of source links to be used in university courses).
Recently, Mr. Brook published a book on the Khazars and certainly represents himself as an authority.
I did not see an anti-Jewish motivation on his site, nor do I mean to imply that one exists.
I do not, in the least mean to suggest that Mr. Brook has anything but the best intentions and purposes in his work.
But, the examples below are typical of how he approaches his sources. It seems to me that the approach is extremely sloppy and would not (or should not) normally be tolerated in historical research.
Mr. Brook's fascile assumptions easily play into the problems faced by Khazar studies (as discussed in my main article on Caveats in Researching Jewish History).
"A silver ring found in a cemetery in Ellend, near Pécs in southwestern Hungary and not far from the villages of Nagykozár and Kiskozár, is believed to be of Khazar-Kabar origin. The ring, which dates from the second half of the eleventh century, was found next to a woman's skeleton, and has thirteen Hebrew letters engraved on it as ornamentation." - Kevin Alan Brook, The Jews of Khazaria (Jason Aronson, 1999), pages 208-209.
The images at the left are taken from Mr. Brook's site and are there represented by Mr. Brook as being photos of the above described ring.
Now, I am not a Hebrew scholar, but I have seen a large number of different Hebrew lettering styles -- including the ancient Hebrew found in excavations in Israel, modern Hebrew print, modern Hebrew script, "Ashuris" (the style Torah scrolls are written in), "Rashi" (a medieval "quick script" used by many medieval commentators), and the variations of print used by a variety of medieval Hebrew documents (including "The Kievan Letter" -- a letter written by the Kiev Jewish community, which included Khazars, one of whom sighned this letter in Khazar characters).
I frankly do not see how the images on this ring have anything at all to do with Hebrew letters.
"Khazarian tombstones on the Crimean peninsula also depict the shofar, menorah, and staff of Aaron, as well as Turkic tribe symbols... The artifacts from Taman and Crimea are extremely significant since their tamgas show that these Jews were ethnic Turks." - Kevin Alan Brook, in The Jews of Khazaria (Jason Aronson, 1999), page 142
Mr. Brook's conclusion is not in the least supported by his evidence.
All that the evidence is are gravestones which use both Jewish and Turkic symbolism. As one may note from parallel historical and modern situations, this says absolutely nothing about who is actually buried there --
Similarly, Jewish art commonly uses images and technique adopted from the surrounding population. Below are just a couple of well-known examples --
- The most easily verifiable example of this is the stained glass window of the Catholic Center at NYU (Washington Square Park, New York City) -- The central image of the window is a Six Pointed Star (which is, at least in this century, considered a Jewish Symbol) with rays of light radiating from it. There are no specifically Christian images on this window. This building obviously has absolutely NO Jewish connection whatsoever.
- Chagal, one of the more important Jewish artists of the early 20th century, commonly uses crosses and more directly - crucifiction scenes in his art. Chagal had absolutely no Christian origins whatsoever. His family were Hassidic Jews living in a Shtetle (all Jewish village) in Russia and he himself remained a moderately religious Jew throughout his life.
- Synagogues in Israel which date from the time of the Roman occupation do not simply use Roman artistic technique and technology. They commonly contain images directly taken from the Roman religion. Images in these Synagogues often include mosaics of Roman-style Zodiac wheels and even mosaics of men and women directly corelatable to images of Apolo and Minerva.
- Jewish scholars, who lived in Spain during the "Golden Age" of Spanish Islam, took brakes between writing on and disputing Jewish legal issues by writing Arabic-style romantic poetry.
"Engravings of the Jewish Star of David were unearthed at two Khazar sites, one along the Donets River in eastern Ukraine and the other along the Don River in southern Russia. This one is a circular metal disc, interpreted by Professor Bozena Werbart of Umea University as Jewish but seen by others as shamanistic or pagan. The Star of David may have first become a symbol of Jewish nationalism in Khazaria. In fact, some of the Jewish-Turkic graves at Chelarevo in what used to be Hungary contain engravings of the Star of David and are believed to belong to Kabar migrants.
The image to the left, from Mr. Brook's site is the one he discusses in the above paragraph.
Mr. Brook, and those he sites, do not seem to be bothered in the least that the "Jewish Star" was actually, throughout the Middle Ages and until quite recently, used by anyone and everyone as a purely decorative motiff with no Jewish content or implications whatsoever. The "Jewish Star" is to be found extensively in Muslim decoration, as well as Western European (non-Jewish) jewelry, swords, and armour. In contrast, there is no indication I have ever seen (prior to Mr. Brook's unsupported assertion) of its use as a symbol of "Jewish nationalism" at any time in the Middle Ages.
Some Jews from the shtetl Kurilovich, in Moldova, claim "Tartar" ancestry: "In 1923, my father, who was born in the Jewish colonies of Baron Hirsch, visited the small-town of Kurilovich, near Kishinev, between Moldavia and Bessarabia, from where their parents had come to Argentina. Old relatives of the town assured him that the family lived there for 500 years, and added this phrase that fed my fantasies for a long time: 'We are Jewish Tartars'. The 5 centuries would correspond exactly to the time at which the descendants of the Khazars dispersed from Crimea. And the usage of 'Tartars' instead of 'Khazars'? Perhaps a slip of the tongue and of the memory, that the historians will not delay in correcting." - Alicia Dujovne Ortiz, "El fantasma de los jázaros", La Nación (Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 19, 1999).
A relative of a Transylvanian Jew who has been in touch with me once told him "We are white Turks from far to the East, and our homes were destroyed by the Russians." These are the Jews of the town Sfîntu Gheorghe in what is now Romania. Though their community had intermingled with some Hungarians and Romanians, they remained a cohesive community with knowledge of its Turkic origins for centuries. In the 1990s a genealogical expedition hired by my Transylvanian Jewish acquaintance found confirmation of the tradition that these Jews are Turkic. That does not prove that they were Khazars. They could have been Tatars or Kipchaks (Cumans) or Oghuzes. But most likely they were Khazars, as the Khazars converted to standard Judaism in larger numbers than any other Turkic group.
It seems that in their excitement, neither Mr. Brook nor Ms. Ortiz (whose article, quoted at the first paragraph here, he uses as a source) bothered to find out, or consider, the special use of ethnic terminology made by Jews when refering to themselves or to other Jewish communities.
The fact of the matter is, when a Jew says that he is of "x-ethnicity", he does not mean that he is descended from converts of that ethnicity -- all he means is just a very broad reference to where his family came from immediately before his present place of residence.
Some parallel examles follow, which I hope will make clear that Mr. Brook and Ms. Ortiz make far more of their quoted material than is waranted.
The below are terms that Jews use for themselves and others and what is normally meant when Jews use those terms.
The above are just a few examples of how Jews use "ethnic" terminology with reference to themselves and other Jews. Following this pattern, it is clear that when Mr. Brook's and Ms. Ortiz' sources called themselves "Turks" or "Tartars" (more likely "Tatars" as "Tartar" is a Western European term with very different meaning than a "Tatar" would use to refer to himself see explanation here) they did not mean that they descended from converts from any particular ethnic group. Far more likely (as shown by the above examples), what they meant was simply that prior to living in Rumania and Moldavia they came from Turk or Tatar regions.
Ashkenazi - "Ashkenaz" is (or was in the Middle Ages) a place in Germany. However the term "Ashkenazi Jew" does not mean a person descended from German converts of that area. It does not even mean a descendant of German converts. It is actually a very broad term, meaning that the referenced person comes from almost any community in Europe or follows the rabinical decisions and customs promulgated by European rabbis.
Sephardi - The word itself is Hebrew for "Spaniard". Again, the use of the term does not refer to a descendant of Spanish converts.
In its most careful, most specific use, it means that the person comes from one of a small number of French or Italian Jewish communities, or a community founded by Jewish refugees from Spain or Portugal.
More commonly, this term is used to refer to any Jew who can not be called Ashkenazi. Sometimes it is even used to refer to an Ashkenazi Synagogue which uses the format of prayers developed by Jewish mystics in late-medieval Israel.
Litvak - Literally, the word means "Lithuanian". As above, this does not refer to a Lithuanian convert to Judaism. Most commonly, the word actually refers to a broad group of Jewish communities in Russia, Ukraine, and Byelorus. Sometimes, the term is used even more broadly to refer to any Eastern European or Central European Jew who does not come from a Hassidic community.
Galicianer - Galicia is a region in Rumania. Again, this does not refer to a Galician convert, nor to a Rumanian convert. It either refers to the broad group of Jewish communities in Hungary, Rumania, and other parts of Central Europe, or to any Eastern European or Central European Jew who comes from a Hassidic community.
Saxon - Again, this has nothing to do with Saxon converts to Judaism. This is a moden Israeli term which refers to any Jew who came to Israel from an English speaking country.
Magyar - Not a Magyar convert to Judaism but any Jew from Hungary.
Russian - In America, this is any Jew from the former Soviet Union.
(Just as when a Jew in America calls himself "a Russian", he simply means that his family came from the former Soviet Union)
This drawing shows a Rus warrior-prince chasing after a Khazar warrior with braided hair. It was designed on a drinking horn from Chernigov.
The drawing on the left is the one refered to (taken from Mr. Brook's site). Below is a photo of the actual artifact (the photo was taken from a link at Mr. Brook's site).
Aproximately a year ago, at least a few months prior to his book's release, Mr. Brook was nice enough to provide me with the article documenting the horn, which he used as his source.
Unfortunately, while Mr. Brook seems to have many wonderfull contacts and source materials, upon reading the article, I came to the conclusion that Mr. Brook has not fully analyzed these source materials.
"...as the writer of the article you sent states, cutting hair short was a symbol of defeat among the Khazars and their neighbors (he mentions that the Khazars forced the Bulgars to wear their hair short as a sign of submission).
I will be providing direct quotes from the article presently. For now, the following quotes are from my letter to Mr. Brook upon reading the article -- advising him that he had mislabeled the image on his site.
...you must have misread his description of the horn, if read as the struggle between Russ and Khazar, it is the braided man that is the newly victorious Russ..."