Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Fourth Century Crimean Origin of the Ashkenazim

As is argued in other essays, on this blog, the Germanic component of Yiddish goes back to an East Germanic, probably Gothic, root. This raises the question of how Gothic material came to be found in a language, Yiddish, which is first attested in medieval Germany.

One school of historians (e. g. Simon Schwarzfuchs "L'opposition Tsarfat-Provence" in "Hommage a Georges Vajda" edited by Gerard Nahon and Charles Touati, Louvain, Peeter, 1980 and Israel M. Ta-Shma "Creativity and Diversity" Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 2006 ) maintains that Ashkenazic Jews migrated to Germany largely from northern Italy between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Historical records of Jews in northern Italy are sparse for the eighth and ninth centuries when northern Italy was under the domination of the Lombard but Jewish communities are mentioned in Lucca and Pavia. Jews were well-treated under Lombard rule.

This Lombard Jewish community can perhaps be derived from a significant Jewish community that lived in Ravenna in the sixth century (see Thomas Hodgkin "Theodoric the Goth" New York, G. P. Putnam, 1891 and Bernard S. Bachrach "Early medieval Jewish policy in western Europe", Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1977) This community lived under the Ostrogothic conquerors of Italy and enjoyed very close relations with them.

It is not known from whence the Jewish community of sixth century Ravenna came from but their closeness to the Ostrogothic elite suggests that they migrated with the Ostrogoths from their previous settlement around the mouth of the Danube on the Black Sea. It is not known if the Danubian homeland of the Ostrogoths had a significant Jewish population but another Gothic settlement further east on the Black Sea, the Crimean Bosporus, had an old Jewish community which came under Gothic rule in about 362. (see Gibson, E. Leigh "The Jewish Manumission Inscriptions of the Bosporus Kingdom" Tubingen, Germany, Mohr Siebeck, 1999 for Jews on the Crimean Bosporus and Alexander Alexanderovich Vasiliev "The Goths in Crimea" Cambridge, Mass., Medieval Academy of America, 1936) for Goths in Crimea).

The Crimean Gothic community was separated from the Ostrogothic community from the late fourth century until the mid-fifth century by the Huns who dominated the intermediate area along the Black Sea. But the Huns lost control of this region after the death of Attila in 454 and Goths and Jews from Crimea were free to join the increasingly powerful and prosperous Danubian Ostrogoths on their march to the west.

To flesh out this hypothetical reconstruction; the Ashkenazim began as Jews of the Crimean Bosporus who allied themselves with the Goths who got control of the Bosporus in about 262 CE. These Gothicized Jews joined the Ostrogoths of the lower Danube on their migration to Italy under the leadership of Theodoric the Great in 493. They settled in northern Italy, particularly in Ravenna and remained in northern Italy after the Lombards, a West Germanic people, conquered Italy in 568.

Jewish life in northern Italy is sparsely documented but by about 800 Jews are reported at least as traders to the north of the Alps in Regensburg under the rule of Charlemagne. After the death of Charlemagne in 841, the German lands did not thrive. An economic revival began under the Saxon Empire between 919 and 1024 associated with the rise of eastern German cities like Erfurt, Merseburg, Halle and Magdeburg, all of which are thought to have had significant Jewish populations. This period was followed by that of the Salian Empire from 1024-1125 when Jews, some of whom moved from northern France, settled in Speyer, Worms and Mainz (SHUM).

The first written products of Ashkenaz come from the central Rhineland communities of SHUM in the eleventh century. From these earliest surviving writings, scholars like Abraham Grossman and Israel M. Ta-Shma have been able to build up a picture of medieval Ashkenazic culture. From this one gets the sense of a proud culture with a sense of great antiquity. It is a culture that adheres strongly to local customs which are seen as variants of a tradition directly passed from ancient Israel. Naturally, this culture puts a very high value on Hebrew literacy.