There are some things that I'll have to leave out of the following account. The place, the names I swore to keep them secret. "You're a dead man if you tell anyone," said my informant. "So am I."
I met him at a garden party given by friends. He was an upstairs neighbor and had drifted down to have a drink. An elderly, pale-skinned man, short, with blue, Tatar-lidded eyes and a brimmed cap. A foreign, unplaceable accent to his Hebrew. He spoke, he said, many languages: English, Russian, Turkish, Uzbeki, Kazakh. I asked him where he was originally from.
"Guess," he said. The Tatar eyes looked amused.
"I give up."
He leaned forward a bit as if to keep the other guests none was nearby from overhearing.
"You've heard of the Kuzarim?"
"I'm one of them."
"You're a Kuzari?"
He couldn't be. The Kuzarim the Khazars, as they're called in English disappeared nearly a thousand years ago. In their mysterious kingdom straddling the Volga above the point where it flows into the Caspian Sea, its rulers and part of its population converted to Judaism in the eighth century CE. They were dealt a mortal blow by Christian Russia and Byzantium in the 11th century, and were totally wiped out by the 13th at the latest.
Most Jews have heard of them only because of Yehuda Halevi's The Book of the Kuzari, an imaginary dialogue between a Jewish scholar and the first Khazar king to convert. Although it has been speculated by historians that the Khazar Jews dispersed after the fall of their kingdom to various places Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Eastern Europe no clear trace of them has ever been found.
The man smiled. "Not just a Kuzari. The last descendant of the Kuzari royal house."
"But the Kuzari royal house disappeared with the kingdom!"
"That's what people like you think. That's what everyone thinks. That's what we want you to think."
He leaned forward again. "Don't talk so loudly. We. We're still here. I can't tell you anything more about it."
"The Council would kill me. It would kill you, too."
Yes, the man said. The Kuzari Council. It persisted from generation to generation. When one of its members died, someone else was tapped to replace him. The Council made sure no one revealed the Kuzaris' secrets. It could be ruthless about that. "It knows everything," the man said. "By tomorrow it will know exactly what we've spoken about tonight. There's not a word of our conversation that won't get back to it."
A madman! The last descendant of the Kuzari royal house was a paranoid psychotic.
"But who," I asked, "is persecuting you? From whom are you keeping secrets?"
He looked around him. The guests were chatting, sipping wine, playing with their children on the lawn.
"Come upstairs with me to my apartment," he said. "I'll show you something."
I followed him upstairs, not without a heartthrob of excitement. A madman! Yet suppose he wasn't?
He opened his front door with a key. We stepped into a large living room. Amateur oil paintings hung on the walls. One whole wall was covered by a large mural. "Do you see that?" he asked.
I looked at it. It was a depiction of a pastoral scene. People and horses stood in a meadow running to the banks of a broad river that vanished in the background among cliffs. The men wore turbans and the baggy pants and blouses of Central Asia. A few were girded with swords. A child stood near one of them.
The man pointed to the child. "That's me. This is my family. I grew up by this river. This spot was just as I've painted it."
"It's the Volga?"
"Don't expect me to answer that. The royal tombs of the Khazar kings are in those cliffs. They're there to this day. No one knows where they are but the Council."
"That's the secret?"
"There are many secrets. I've shown you one of them. And now don't ask me any more questions."
We returned to the garden party. A madman! Was I sure? Of course I was. He was crazy as a loon. Yet my heart throbbed again when I read the next day in Kevin Alan Brook's The Jews of Khazaria: "It seems that in the thirteenth century the Turkic Khazars in Kazakhstan assimilated with other Turkic groups as well as with the Mongols, and consequently lost their ethnic identity. However, there still remain distinctive groups of Kazakhs who may be their progeny. For example, there are some modern-day Kazakhs who are called Sary-Kazak ("Yellow Kazakh" or Kok-koz ("Blue Eyes") because they have red hair, blue eyes, and white skin the Sary-Kazaks are presumably descendants of the Khazars ."
But a secret council that would kill me for telling you where he lived? A madman!
The fact is that I've always been a sucker for this kind of stuff. Ever since I was a kid growing up in Manhattan, I've lapped it up: stories about the lost tribes, descendants of the Marranos, shadowy Jewish kingdoms in the Middle Ages, Jews turning up in far places the mountains of Mexico, the jungles of Peru, Kaifeng, the Malabar Coast, Timbuktu . The Jews of Manhattan were boring. Jews spotted by Marco Polo on the China coast or surviving centuries of the Inquisition in the hills of Portugal gave me goose pimples.
Call it the romance of Jewish history. The idea that we were a profoundly more adventurous, infinitely more varied, more far-ranging, more interesting people than the Jews I knew.
A Jewish kingdom in Khazaria! Jews ruling gentiles, Jews warring against gentiles, marching out against them in great armies! Jewish royal tombs, undiscovered on the Volga to this day!
"Listen," I said. "Maybe I can come back some time to visit you. I'd love to hear more about all this."
"They'd cut our throats," he said.