Little-known Khazar kingdom comes alive in new novel

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Although Marek Halter, the internationally acclaimed author of “The Book of Abraham,” is a major world writer, his “The Wind of the Khazars” is not a major novel. It is, however, in its exploration of the Jewish kingdom of the Khazars, a good novel of great importance.

For almost 300 years, from 740 to 1016, long after the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem and long before the founding of modern Israel, there existed in the vast area north of the Caucasus and including the entire Volga region — an independent Jewish kingdom.

As in much of Jewish history, the truth of the Khazars is stranger than the most creative fiction.

According to respected Jewish historian Nathan Ausubel, the Khazar king (called Khagan) Bulan converted to Judaism in 740, after hearing a debate between Muslim, Christian and Jewish clerics. Khagan Bulan was convinced of the truth of Judaism and, with the other Khazar tribes, invited rabbis and Jewish scholars into the kingdom to found synagogues and to teach Torah to the new converts.

Tellingly, the Khazars did not persecute Muslims or Christians within the kingdom.

The Khazars were powerful. As Ausubel would write of the warrior nation: “Its geographic position, strategically poised between Persia and Byzantium, gave it great commercial and military importance …”

In “The Wind of the Khazars,” Halter has taken this basic history and constructed an imaginative novel dealing with the last years of the Khazar kingdom. He has also created a parallel story dealing with present-day “Mountain Jews” of the former Soviet Union, who, Halter believes, are in some cases direct descendants of the Jews of the Khazar kingdom. He calls them “the New Khazars,” who’ve been denied their true history.

In Halter’s story, Khagan Joseph, the last Khazar king, betrays Judaism by offering his sister, Attex, in a loveless marriage to the Byzantine ambassador, in hopes of forging an alliance with the Christians and protecting the kingdom from an invasion from Russia. Joseph offers his sister and rejects moral arguments from both his rabbi and his grandfather, the former Khagan. It is clear that Halter sees Joseph’s selling of his sister as a betrayal of God.

Isaac, an emissary from the Sephardic Jews who loves the Princess Attex, thinks: “How could it be possible?

“How could Khagan Joseph accept this humiliation of his sister, even collude in it? Could he not anticipate the reaction from the Almighty?”

In the parallel novel, set in the year 2000, Jewish author Marc Sofer is drawn through his love of a “New Khazar” named Sonja, toward a modern scene of terrorism and death. Sonja’s hope of the Khazar’s history being publicized and acknowledged only ends in more tragedy and her own murder.

Despite its fascinating material, “The Wind of the Khazars” has not the complexity or character development of a great novel. Halter’s characters are too obviously symbols of the author’s intentions.

That said, Halter’s intentions are profound. He writes to honor fellow Jews and their independent kingdom that once was, and to argue that present-day Jews must never place political expediency and needs of power above God’s law.

The Wind of the Khazars,” by Marek Halter (316 pages, The Toby Press, $19.95).