Would it surprise you if I were to tell you that Israel was not the first Jewish state to exist since the time of Christ? That in the deepest, darkest days of the dark ages when European Jews were as welcome most places as the Plague that was blamed on them, for one brief moment a spark of hope was kindled that there was a haven for them in the area we would now know as Georgia by the Black Sea.
One of the tartar races, the Khazars, around 800 AD converted to Judaism and established a Jewish state on the borders of both the Eastern Christian empire of Byzantium and the new Islamic empire. While legends talk of visitations by angels convincing the King of the Khazars to convert, in all likelihood it was more real politic than religion that brought about the change.
With his kingdom pressured by both sides to convert, he shocked them both by choosing the third option, which appeased both sides temporarily. At least he hadn't become a Christian/Muslim the hated enemy of either one of his neighbours, and he could deal with them from a place of neutrality.
But according to the history provided in Marek Halter's novel The Wind Of The Khazars the conversion, at least among the rulers and the nobility was in the end sincere. They became strict adherents of the teachings of the Torah and received instruction from rabbinical scholars of the Eastern world. Monsieur Halter has used as the basis for his novel correspondence that has survived down the ages between a Rabbi from Cordoba, in Muslim occupied Spain, and Joseph King of the Khazars.
His main character is a contemporary novelist, Marc Sofer, who becomes captivated by a mysterious beauty at a discussion/lecture on his work. She throws down a gauntlet of challenge to him – find a cause worth writing about. She leaves before the end of the lecture so he is unable to pursue the matter further with her.
But it makes no difference, because she has ensured that he will be hooked like a fish and reeled in. All it takes is a mysterious stranger to accost him after the session and present him with a silver coin stamped with the symbols of the Khazar Empire for him to be snared. The same man also spins him a tale of mysterious caverns in the Caucasus Mountains on the border of Georgia and Chechnya containing a synagogue hundreds if not thousands of years old.
Sofer the novelist and the romantic is hooked. First he investigates and tracks down the copies of the correspondence between the Rabbi and Joseph of the Khazars. At that point both he and our author, Marek Halter, recreate the story of Isaac the young man entrusted to carry the original letter from Spain to the Khazars. As Isaac struggles to cross a hostile Europe, Marc Sofer is making his own parallel journey to the Khazars' legendary redoubt in the Caucasus.
While in the present are the familiar obstacles of multinational corporations and terrorist groups, the past is filled with deceptive Greeks and duplicitous Russians both looking to conquer and subdue the Khazars. When Isaac falls in love with Joseph's beautiful green eyed and red haired sister, Sofer finally catches up to his own mysterious green eyed and red haired beauty from the conference.
It turns out that the synagogue in the mountain caverns does exist and she is part of a group of scholars trying to preserve them from the oil companies looking to suck the oil out of the ground in the same area. But it's not just a synagogue that is preserved under the mountains, but absolute proof of the Khazars' existence and that the myth of their conversion was not just an idle tale.
A library with thousands of books, a mikvah (the traditional cleansing bath for Jewish women before marriage) with ancient statuary, and countless other relics including chest upon chest of the mysterious silver coin he had been given. But to the oil companies it is nothing, and they will destroy the final remnants of the Khazars Empire without a qualm.
It all sounds fascinating and to an extent it is. The history and Monsieur Halter's imagining of the events of the past are interesting enough, as is the modern part of the story. But for something that had the potential to be so stunning, a kingdom of Jews that existed in 900ad by the Caspian and Black Seas, the parts just didn't seem to be equal to the idea.
While everything is well written, the characters are interesting enough, if a little too stereotyped romantic figures and lacking slightly in depth, and the story is well paced and interesting. The problem for me is that it doesn't reflect any of the excitement I felt when I heard about the kingdom of the Khazars.
Perhaps that's unfair, but I expected more about the Khazars and less about a love story between a princess and a messenger in the 10th century and their equivalent in the 21st century. I wanted to walk the streets of the fortress towns and smell the markets and meet the people who had become Jews in the middle of a world that was still trying to rid itself of them. Who were these mysterious warriors that had fought supposedly with the Khans of the Mongol hoards, or might have been descended from the Sythians?
I would have liked the author to have stretched his imagination in that direction, instead of just giving us brief glimpses. I guess I was looking for a different wind to have blown through this book than the one chosen by Marek Halter and I was disappointed by his direction. It's a good book, just not the one I was hoping for.
(Originally posted January 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.