Abstract: In 1884, Sámuel Kohn, rabbi of Budapest’s Great Synagogue, published A History of the Jews in Hungary: From Ancient Times to the Battle of Mohács, in which he propagated a new theory about the ancient origins of Hungarian Jewry. Hungary’s Jews, he argued, were descended from the Khazar tribes who took part in the conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 896 C.E. The Khazar hypothesis gained considerable acceptance in Hungarian scholarly and popular circles and became a key facet of Hungarian-Jewish identity, especially among self-defined “Hungarians of the Mosaic Persuasion.” It is hardly a coincidence that Arthur Koestler, who popularized this theory in the 1970s and even claimed Khazar origins for all of Ashkenazic Jewry, was himself a native of Budapest.
This lecture is not concerned with the veracity of this hypothesis, which has been largely discredited, but rather with its creation, reception and popularization in Hungary during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Kohn’s theory not only captured the imagination of Hungary’s Jews but also informed the research agendas of a whole generation of Hungarian-Jewish historians, folklorists and orientalists who believed (or wanted to believe) that Jews and Magyars shared common eastern origins. Popular publications touted the Khazars as evidence of a thousand-year-old symbiosis between Jews and Magyars, and even noted with some satisfaction that Jewish Khazars had arrived in the Carpathian Basin prior to Hungary’s adoption of Christianity.
Significantly, the Khazar narrative dovetailed with the general Hungarian quest for the origins of the Magyar people, a quest that inspired linguists and orientalists to travel to Tibet, Anatolia and Central Asia in search of kindred peoples. This meant that in Hungary Jewish historians, folklorists, publicists and rabbis could point to the “oriental” and “immigrant” origins of Hungarian Jewry in order to underscore a sense of common, intertwined destiny with the Magyar people. This lecture will explore the Khazar “myth of origin” in an effort to understand its resonance – and remarkable resilience – in the Hungarian-Jewish historical imagination. was published in 2011 by Stanford University Press and will be published in Czech by Lidové noviny in 2015. He is now writing a history of Hungarian Jewry.