Jits van Straten. The Origin of Ashkenazi Jewry: The Controversy Unraveled. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2011. xii + 234 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-11-023605-7.
Reviewed by Paul Wexler (Tel Aviv University)
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Clues to the Origin of Ashkenazi Jewry
This book appears to be a (enlarged?) translation of van Straten’s 2009 De herkomst van de Asjkenazische joden: de controverse opgelost [The origin of Ashkenazic Jewry: The controversy unraveled] but we are not told that. The paucity of original documentation about the Ashkenazim, the daunting problems of interpretation, as well as the paucity of archeological remains, mean that the best tool for determining their origin (better: origins) is linguistics--specifically the facts of Yiddish, Judeo-Slavic, and written Ashkenazic Hebrew. Ethnographic data can also be of help, and in the future, genetic data should also be able to offer valuable insights. However, the author is a microbiologist--not a demographer, historian, linguist, or ethnographer. His knowledge of relevant, up-to-date literature and his ability to describe and evaluate theories outside his field of expertise are unfortunately limited.
Since elucidating the origins of any ethnic-religious-national group requires a multidisciplinary approach, it is disappointing to find that the author’s sole original contribution is to show that the Jews in medieval Germany were not sufficiently numerous to be the basis for the eventually substantial population of Eastern European Ashkenazic Jewry. I fully concur with him, but the accompanying non-demographic narrative is fragmentary, based on secondary sources, largely inaccurate and undocumented, and presented chaotically. Sadly, much of the scholarship on which the author relies is remarkably outdated.
The author claims that the Ashkenazic Jews are mainly the descendants of people “who lived in areas now called Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland and to a lesser extent ... Byzantium [a contemporary term?] and the Middle East” (p. 194; by “Poland” he actually means ethnically Ukrainian and Belarusian territories for centuries under Polish control). But he does not make clear whether these people were Palestinian Jews, Khazar converts to Judaism, and/or ethnic Slavs. Despite his lack of clarity on this issue, van Straten challenges my published theory that the Ashkenazim are basically a Slavo-Turko-Iranian people, whose languages, Yiddish and written Hebrew, are Slavic (p. 125).
And how did Yiddish get to Eastern Europe? Van Straten writes: “Due to the lack of massive migrations from [sic] Jews from [Germany] to Eastern Europe, the language must have been disseminated among the Eastern European Jews by teachers and/or rabbis” (p. 188). The idea that the Yiddish language moved from West to East in the mouths of rabbis at the same time that the speakers of Yiddish were moving from East to West is a novel but unconvincing claim.
In addition, the book is marred by many errors of formulation and fact; a sample is presented below. The author calls the descendants of the Portuguese Marranos who fled to Holland in the seventeenth century “Sephardic.” The Portuguese and Spanish Jews and Marranos historically spoke totally distinct languages (Judeo- or Marrano-Portuguese--as was the case with Baruch Spinoza--vs. the Judeo-Spanish/Catalan/Aragonese, etc., of the Sephardim) and had different Hebrew pronunciation norms and different variants of Ladino, the Castilian calque translation of the Hebrew-Aramaic Bible (which means that Ladino is essentially a bizarre variant of biblical Hebrew/Aramaic and not at all Ibero-Romance); moreover, the Dutch Portuguese Jews call themselves “the Portuguese and Spanish Jewish nation”--not “Sephardim” (pp. 1, 198).
According to the author, Judaism allegedly reached the Khazars from either the Crimea or the Caucasus (pp. 9, 14); there is no mention made (yet) of the well-attested Byzantine or Iranian migrations (though many Byzantine Jews reached Khazaria via Iran). But, immediately on p. 10, he offers other possible origins: Central Asia, eastern Iran. Then, as an afterthought, he reports (p. 67) that it was the Armenian Jews who taught Judaism to the Khazars. Judaism was allegedly practiced only by certain “tribes” in the Khazar empire (no other ethnic group is called a “tribe”) (p. 15) and there are supposedly no traces of Judaism in modern-day Daghestan (what about the local Juhuri-speaking “mountain Jews” and their Lezgian neighbors, who call them “Eshkenezi”--i.e., Iranian-speaking Jews?).
Van Straten legitimately cites the existence of Ossete marriage and funeral customs that resemble those of the Jews (p. 77), but as a source he cites the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1902 (sic) without identifying the article. It would have served him better to use the more recent and authoritative work of Vasilij I. Abaev.
On p. 14 van Straten argues that the Khazar aristocracy converted to Judaism in order to maintain neutrality between the Christian Byzantine Empire and Islamic Baghdadi Caliphate. He does not mention whatsoever that the major motive for conversion (beside the acquisition of a religion respected by both Christianity and Islam) was participation in the highly lucrative long-distance East-West trade between the Holy Roman Empire and China (with links beyond to North and West Africa, Japan, and Java), a monopoly of Iranians, and in particular Jewish Iranians (known as the Radhanite merchants in the ninth and tenth centuries--discussed elsewhere in the book). His discussion of the Radhanites provides a good example of his reliance on second-hand data which is not appropriately evaluated. He rejects as “rather unlikely” the hypothesis that the name of the peripatetic Jewish travelers comes from the Rhône River, and cites the view of Moshe Gil that the name comes from a region in southern Iraq (he has no opinion about Gil, whom, I suspect, is right), but he appears not to know that Gil did not address the fact that there are three Radhans, in Arabia, Iraq, and Iran! On p. 18 he defines Galicia as “southern Poland” but what about the western Ukrainian Galicia? Van Straten’s claim that the garb of ultra-orthodox Jews in Poland and Lithuania is hardly likely to have derived from the dress of Polish noblemen (p. 19) shows ignorance of Polish dress fashions in the 1400s, and there is no mention of the fact that most of the names of Orthodox attire in Yiddish are of Turkic origin.
Orthographic errors and bibliographical omissions abound. For example, Van Straten cites the very incomplete English translation of Max Weinreich’s 1973 Gešixte fun der jidišer šprax (A history of the Yiddish language, 1980), but not the complete two-volume translation of 2008. The author claims that Arthur Koestler’s book The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage (1976) was very negatively reviewed by “American-Jewish” reviewers (no sources cited: p. 20); is that an argument that Koestler was wrong? (Koestler was right; his evidence was wrong.) But why cite the non-Turkologist, non-linguist and non-historian Arthur Koestler at all? Why not mention genuine experts, such as Peter Golden (see The World of the Khazars, 2007)? The most recent Khazar expert cited is from 1910.
Additonally, it is true that the Champagne scholar Rashi (c. 1040-1105) used the Hebrew lešon kena‘an to mean “Slavic language” (p. 74), but he also used the term lešon aškenaz (Ashkenazic language) in this meaning as well, which is extremely revealing. Van Straten cites the popular view that Slavs were called Canaanites in Medieval Hebrew because both groups tended to be reduced to slavery (largely by Jewish slavers, we might add: p. 121). However, Canaanites in the Bible were also known as merchants, a profession practiced for some time by eastern Slavs in the early Middle Ages, alongside the Radhanites.
To his credit, the author does show clearly the impossibility of deriving the Eastern European Jews from Germany and he explains genetic data in a clear manner. He is also one of the few non-Eastern European writers to mention the existence of Hebrew inscriptions and symbols in the Avar (Turkic and Iranian) cemetery from the eighth century at Čelarevo, Serbian Vojevodina--a very relevant but neglected clue to Ashkenazic origins (has it previously been deliberately overlooked for political reasons?), although he neglects to mention the writings of the attending archeologist, Radovan Bunardžić.
Although the volume collects much useful material, it should be read with extreme caution.
. He cites only a now-antiquated version of my theory, “Yiddish--The Fifteenth Slavic Language,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 91(1991), a monograph volume of the journal, but not my more recent and greatly expanded Two-Tiered Relexification in Yiddish: Jews, Sorbs, Khazars and the Kiev-Polessian Dialect (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2002).
. V. I. Abaev, “Drevneevrejskie èlementy v osetinskom [On Hebrew elements in Ossete],” in Osetinskij jazyk i fol’klor [Ossete language and folklore] (Moscow: Akademija Nauk SSSR, 1949); or Elena Besolova, Jazyk i obrjad. Poxoronno-pominal’naja obrjadnost’ osetin v aspekte ee tekstual’no-verbal’nogo vyraženija [Language and custom: Funereal and burial practice of the Ossetes through textual-verbal expression] (Vladikavkaz: IPO SOIGSI, 2008). (Ossete may well be a source of some of the Iranianisms in the Yiddish lexicon and morphology; see my “A Covert Irano-Turko-Slavic Population and Its Two Covert Slavic Languages: The Jewish Ashkenazim [Scythians], Yiddish and ‘Hebrew,’” Zbornik Matice srpske za slavistiku 80 : 7-46.)
. Moshe Gil, “The Radhanite Merchants and the Land of Radhan,” Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient 17, no. 3 (1974): 299-328.
. See Franciszek Kupfer and Tadeusz Lewicki, Źródła hebrajskie do dziejów Słowian i niektórych innych ludów środkowej i wschodniej Europy [Hebrew sources for the history of the Slavs and several other peoples of Central and Eastern Europe] (Warsaw: Zakład im. Ossolinskich, 1956), 91.
. See, for example, his Izložba menore iz Čelareva [Exhibition of the menora from Čelarevo] (Belgrade: Federation of Jewish Communities, 1980), and Čelarevo. Risultati delle ricerche nelle necropoli dell’alto medioevo [Čelarevo. Results of research on the cemeteries of the Middle Ages] (Novi Sad: Forum, 1985).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Paul Wexler. Review of Straten, Jits van, The Origin of Ashkenazi Jewry: The Controversy Unraveled.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.