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Lynn Jenner

Tengri noodles and sweet things[1]


Saturday morning finds me seated at the kitchen table with the sun at my back, reading a book called ‘The Jews of Khazaria’. I knew there would be something of interest in this book. The sort of things I am looking for are in the newspaper too, but you have to hunt for them. They are hidden in the ways people talk and amongst the objects on their mantelpieces. I discover the things I am looking for thousands and thousands of times, and every time the news is fresh.

This time I found seven, or maybe eight, Yiddish words. These words seem to be important.

  • The Yiddish word ‘kaftan’, meaning ‘long male garment’,
  • The word ‘yarmulke’ meaning ‘skullcap’ (through an intermediary language),
  • The verb ‘davenen’ meaning ‘to pray’,
  • The word ‘loksh’ meaning ‘noodle’ (perhaps through a Slavic intermediary),
  • The verb ‘khapn’ meaning ‘to capture, catch, seize as prey’,
  • The word ‘tatele’ meaning ‘dear/ sweet/ wonderful boy’, and
  • The word ‘keshene’ meaning ‘pocket’, from the Turkic word for ‘quiver’.

There may be reason to think that an eighth Yiddish word, ‘tshutshik’ meaning ‘baby or small child’, is important in the same way, but we are not sure.

Yiddish is the language most people associate with Jewish culture from Eastern Europe, right up to World War Two and continuing in some places today. But a particular past peeks through in the form of certain Yiddish words. When we look through these words, we see Khazaria.

‘Khazaria’ itself is a pretty cool word. It shimmers a bit. Aside from a vague and definitely suspect notion of romance that seemed to emanate from the word, I didn’t know where Khazaria was, or even what it was. It took the author of the book forty puzzling pages before he introduced a map, but I now know that Khazaria was a place or a grouping or a power that was at its height in the ninth and tenth centuries of the Christian era and it included parts of what are now Poland and Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. So what?

This is an interesting part of the world, is what. Right at this actual moment, Russia is taking some of this Ukraine, Georgia is a battle ground between Russia and Islamic nationalists, Azerbaijan is famous for its lack of civil liberties and on the 24th of April this year, Armenia reminded everyone about the killing of 1.5 million people by Ottoman Turks on April 24 1915.

Today, from this book, I have learned that Khazaria invited Jews from the rest of the world to settle there. Khazaria was a refuge for these people and a melting pot of cultures. Khazaria was also an empire and it behaved as empires do. It controlled other peoples. These tributary peoples paid in precious objects to be allowed to live there. A white squirrel-skin, for example, was required from each place or building where there was a fire. Only royal people were allowed to build with bricks, so most people lived in yurts. The people wore long coats and tunics. These full coats were similar to the kaftans some Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe wore, and in some particular places, still wear today.

Not much is known about the daily life and culture of the Khazars from historical documents, but there are clues in the ground. Two boots made of felt and leather and a felt hat have been found. The left boot was decorated with bronze and silver plates that showed flowers, faces and geometrical designs. It had a buckle in the shape of a star. The right boot is not described. Three silver coins have been found too. There are weapons: battle axes, knives, spears, sabres, bows and arrows, helmets, chain armour and a heavy ball with spikes attached to a long handle by a chain or thong. This is called a ‘kisten’.

Add pottery and gold, silver, brass and glass jewellery to the picture. Add millet, wheat, barley, rye, hemp, and garden vegetables like peas. Add melon and cucumbers for pickles. (Pips have been found.) Add a grapevine pruning knife. Add sturgeon, carp, starlet, perch and beluga. Add dogs and cats near the fire and camels for carrying trade goods. Add wild boar, beavers, elk, foxes, birds and rabbits; some for trade and some for the pot. Lots of bread too. Now this is sounding like a world.

I have a friend who says the best way to understand most situations is to ‘follow the money’. Find out who pays what to whom, he says, and in the process, you will find out the most important things. Using this method, he finds out things he already knows, over and over again. I follow white squirrel-skins, a ‘kisten’, a kaftan and the left boot, rather than coins.

Following the trail of words, I learn that the Khazars originally wrote in Turkic runes. Mostly, although apparently not always, these runes were read right to left. Later the Khazars changed to writing in the Hebrew language and alphabet, this change coinciding with Jewish migration to Khazaria. These Jews escaped forced conversion in the Byzantine Empire. Some Khazars also wrote in Greek, but then, as an empire, it changed to a Cyrillic alphabet around the eleventh century, reflecting a stronger Slavic influence. This involved changing from writing right to left to writing left to right. The possibilities for confusion from this situation seem scarily high.

Roll forward to the fifteenth century, and another wave of Jewish people arrived in the Khazar region, this time moving east, expelled from what is now Germany. They brought Yiddish, their language, to the Jews of Eastern Europe and they changed the seasoning of food to suit their sweet taste. Gather seven or eight particular Yiddish words together and not only do you see Khazaria. You see a whole culture, in miniature.


[1] The runes in the title make the name of the Turkic sky-god, Tengri.


Lynn Jenner’s second book Lost and Gone Away, a collection of literary investigations into how and why people search for missing people and objects, was published by Auckland University Press in July 2015. Read more about Lynn Jenner’s work on Lynn’s favourite food is raw grated beetroot with chopped onion and horseradish sauce.


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