In this episode our couple washes ashore and finds themselves amidst one of the lost tribes of Israel.
The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Fourteenth Era, Part 18 of 18, ~1170 C.E., to Khazaria
Sh’monah Esray, We give thanks
Lost in a foreign and fecund land, the summer sun bronzin’ our faces; let go of future, let go of past, beguiled by our eyes, and the fat of the land. How well we know, as we’ve been warned, not to be *seduced by heart and eye*. And here we are, well seduced.
*-* Bemidbar/Numbers 15:39
Such a beauteous land, orchard and field, stone and stick, plank and brick, conical roofs on cathedral and hut. In any a one I’d make my home. It seems suspicion and hate have no grip. Men and women smileful, robust. And their books! Ha! I love how they write, circles loopin’ across the page like children dancin’, playful and gay.
Like quartz crystals extrudin’ from the fields, little monasteries, clean of face. And there in the cliffs, all excavated in the ocher clay and sandstone rock, whole villages burrow themselves; house and workshop, lookout and church. What troubles must have rolled through this place?
One late afternoon, late in the year — we’re guessin’ it’s well after Tisha b’Av* — we come to a town where rivers join. Prosperous streets and well built homes, many a church and burgher’s house. We drag our tub up on the muddy bank and heft our sacks onto our backs to find some bread and a shed to sleep.
* fast day in mid to late summer, not long before Rosh Hashana, commemoratin’
tragedies in Jewish history, especially the destruction of our Temples
Strange how, walkin’ foreign streets I always think I’m hearin’ my name bein’ called. This time, Batkol stops, looks around. We walk on. She stops again.
“You think you hear someone callin’ your name?”
I ask, so smug.
“Nope. Not my name. I’m hearin’ Hebrew. Your ears plugged up?”
“Ain’t no Jews within a month’s trek from here,”
I declare without much doubt. And then I hears it, a chorus on high chantin’ Ashrei* in an exotic trope. And I gasp, “Khazaria. Our prayers were heard! The Lor’s been our guide, and we didn’t know!”
* Psalm 145 plus 2 additional lines; early part of afternoon prayers in the East
Its a synagogue standin’ plain on the street, not hid in some alley, not underground. Its Hebrew name proudly displayed, ‘Shaarei HaEsray’, Gates of the Ten. And I wonder, what kind of name be that?
We quietly slips in our separate doors. Shmonah Esray*. I stays in the rear. After the recitation they chant Kaddish** and Aleinu*** with many an odd phrase. (How many times has that happened to me?) Then the prayer leader points to me,
“*Attah! Ken, attah. Bo henay.*”
* the 18 blessings, not to be interrupted; said silently, and then aloud.
** a prayer used to divide sections of the service, and also to remember the dead
*** prayer at the end of service; *-* You! Yes, you. Come here.
Memorable snippets from that interview…
“We be descendants of the ten lost tribes; broke away from Assyria, now spread from here to Khorasan…
“No, this ain’t Khazaria, that doomed nation, not of the Seed of Aberham; just grafted on, and faint their faith and gone their soul…
“We who have never lost our faith are strong as lion, leopard fast. Here they call us Mountain Jews, a title proudly conveyed on us…
“Warriors we have always been, fearless and terrible in the fray. The Greek Alexander knew us well and feared us well. Wise he were and built his wall to border us…
“Descended from the mountains, here our fathers learned the noble skills to work in gold and cut gems, weave rugs and blow glass. Our brothers take our precious goods by caravan from town to town. Bound by blood and marriage, our families span all empires, and trade all the way to Kaifeng…
“Many a sage from Persian lands, as well as from Sura and Pumbedit, came to us to flee oppression …
“The Sogdians descend from us…
“Face to face and hand to hand we stand with Muslim, Christian, Turk, with Zoroast and Mongol, too, proud and equal in this land. Hatred of Jews we never knew…
“In our treasuries we hold a horn, a shofar* that the Maccabees** blew in war and on holy days. Not until Judea is restored may it be blown again. And then the king of all the world will hear its sound and know the world is now prepared for God to unravel the knot of hate that is tangled into the human cloth…
* ram’s horn trumpet;
** who led the successful rebellion against Hellenization in 2nd century, BCE
“This, Mtskheta, has a few Jews but up in the hills, north and east, whole towns there are that are only Jews and they cling to rites most ancient of all, rites they took to Assyria; sacrifices for the holy days; prayers and melodies no one else knows; of Hebrew merged with Parsi talk that no one but them can understand. And, oh, their weavings and garments are so fine the shahs from India make pilgrimage to buy their embroidered turbans and cloths…”
Well, we never heard such things before dribbling off of people’s tongues. Yet the men that are tellin’ us all this puff seem right honest and upright Jews. Well, many a fable is known as fact, and much of belief has the substance of dream and for all that fiction colorin’ their thinkin’ these people still be moral and kind.
So I’m full of “oh yes,” and “who’d have thunk,” and “I always wondered about them tribes” but I’ll keep it in mind to see and to judge.
And so we says in wonder and awe,
“*Modeem unnukhnu lukh sh’uttah…”*
the penultimate blessing on our route, Sh’monah Esray that is livin’ us.
*-* first words of 18th blessing of Sh’monah Esray, ‘We thank You, that You…’
And right we were about the time of year. We’re well on our way through the month of Elul. A week and a half til the *Head of the Year.* And all these people makin’ such a fuss over us two Jews from the Holy Land, sofers*, gilders, and binders of books with many a story of this curly world, its tzaddiks** and cutthroats, peasants and kings, and sometime you can’t tell which is which.
*-* literal translation of ‘Rosh HaShanah’; * Hebrew calligraphers; ** righteous sages
So here we are, like fish in a net of a dozen fishermen who claim us as theirs. As ever it’s the brawniest one of the lot who gets the fish. We land in the home of a merchant with clansmen from here to beyond and plenty of caravans plyin’ between. Her name is Tamar. Her man, she has none.
In the next episode, life in a house engaged in world trade.