“I have been visiting Lord Derby,” the aristocrat-prone Lewis Namier once told Isaiah Berlin. “He said to me: ‘Namier, you are a Jew. Why do you write our English history, why do you not write Jewish history?’ I replied, ‘Derby! There is no Jewish history, only a Jewish martyrology, and that is not amusing enough for me.”’ Namier was a Jew cruelly at odds with his own East European origins; there is a certain and not untypical pathos to his scorn for his ancestors’ trials. But like all such generalizations, his is not without its exceptions. The dark annals of Jewish history are punctuated by occasional periods of respite, by flushes of Jewish autonomy in a climate of unwavering hostility. The most extended, intriguing, and unclear of these occurred in medieval Russia, among the marauding shamanistic hosts that swept across the Eurasian frontiers in the period between Attila and Genghis Khan. In AD 740 one of these nomadic tribes, the Khazars, took the unlikely step of converting to Judaism. And for at least two centuries following there flourished along the lower Volga a Jewish kingdom—Zemlya Zhidovskaya, says the Russian Chronicle—ruled by a Jewish king according to a version of rabbinic law.
In its day this enigmatic Jewish empire fired the imaginations of many Jews languishing elsewhere in exile—even in exiles at times less than completely harsh. In some instances Khazaria seems to have done for Jewish self-esteem in the Diaspora what Israel does for that same fluctuating quality today. In the tenth century Hisdai ibn Shaprut, a figure of great political consequence at the court of the Caliphate in Cordoba and a luminary of the Jewish “Golden Age” of Spain, addressed a famous epistle to Joseph, King of the Khazars, asking anxiously for more information, and concluding thus:
I feel the urge to know the truth, whether there is really a place on this earth where harassed Israel can rule itself, where it is subject to nobody. If I were to know that this is indeed the case, I would not hesitate to forsake all honours, to resign my high office, to abandon my family, and to travel over mountains and plains, over land and water, until I arrived at the place where my Lord, the King rules….
Several generations later Judah Halevi, the most accomplished poet and philosopher of Spanish Jewry, wrote his apologetic treatise Kitov al-Khazari, in which he drew upon—and embellished—the story of the Khazar conversion for a searching philosophical exposition of the Jewish idea itself. In later centuries tales of Jewish dominion in the Caucasus continued to lift sagging Jewish spirits. In 1577 one Isaac ibn Aqrish published in Constantinople a popular pamphlet entitled Qol Mevasser (Voice of the Bringer of Good Tidings), in which he placed Hisdai’s correspondence with the Khazar king among sanguine reports of the Ten Lost Tribes and other such encouraging apocrypha.
In our own time the Khazar saga has interested some historians who thirsted, like …