Wexler's Conversions - Part 3 (Forward, June 18, 1993)

Following his monograph published two years ago, “Yiddish: The Fifteenth Slavic Language,” Tel Aviv University linguist Paul Wexler is now, as we have mentioned, about to come out with a new book: “The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People In Search of a Jewish Identity.” In it he proposes that the great bulk of Yiddish-speaking Eastern-European Jewry had no genetic relation to the Jews of the Middle East and southern Europe and descended from Slavic and to a lesser extent Turkish) proselytes who converted to Judaism some time before the 12th century. As in his earlier book, Mr. Wexler does not base his argument on any single or central proof; rather, he seeks to build a circumstantial chain of evidence, the sheer weight of which he hopes will be convincing.

The first part of this chain is again linguistic and consists of several phenomena. One has to do with the fact that in East-European Yiddish a number of basic Jewish ritual    practices were referred to by originally Slavic words, such as the Yiddish verb treibern, to kosher meat by removing forbidden fat and veins--which derives, Mr. Wexler believes, from the Old Slavic trebiti, “to cleanse” or “to purge.” Since such rituals were old ones, it stands to reason that Jews migrating to Eastern Europe from elsewhere would already have had a term for them, most probably in Hebrew, that they would have continued to use; only Slavic converts Mr. Wexler reasons, would have had to resort to new Slavic words  to express old Jewish concepts.

Elsewhere, Mr. Wexler thinks, Yiddish has ostensible Hebrew words that conceal    pagan origins traceable to the German-Slavic lands in which East-European Jewry first arose. One example is “challah,” the often characteristically braided bread that Jews eat on Sabbaths and holidays. Although hallah is a good biblical word and has always had the meaning in Hebrew of some kind of bread or cake, there is no evidence that before medieval times it referred to a braided Sabbath bread--a usage which, Mr. Wexler claims, derives from the name of the pagan witch-goddess Holle, “one of whose tasks was to inspect the braids of girls.” To this day a braided bread in parts of eastern Germany is called a Hollenzopf, a “Holle’s braid,” and “relexifying” it by means of the Hebrew hallah, it is argued, was the post-facto attempt of later generations to give it a Jewish pedigree.

Mr. Wexler calls this “Judaization,” a process which, so he thinks, took place on a large scale from the 12th century on, when the eastward spread of Christianity, growing anti-Semitism and the increasing segregation of Jews in Europe society led to a sharp drop in pagan conversion to Judaism and turning inward of the Jewish community. Many customs that we think of as pre-eminently Jewish, he believes, were in fact pagan rites introduced to Judaism by Slavic proselytes and only later given a Jewish justification. Among them he mentions the ceremony of tashlich, casting one's sins into the water on Rosh Hashanah, which he connects with a Slavic ritual symbolically declaring a new start at the end of the old year by throwing a doll or other object into a river; the custom of breaking a glass at weddings, widely practiced among Slavs too; the practice of observing and lighting a candle on the yortsayt, the anniversary of a death, winch goes back to pagan Germany; the rite of kapparot, slaughtering a .chicken on the eve of Yom Kippur to atone for one's sins, a reflection of the common practice of sacrificing roosters among various Slavic peoples, etc

In fact, Mr. Wexler hypothesizes, contrary to prevalent assumptions about Christian and Jewish attitudes toward paganism, many pagans were attracted to Judaism in Eastern Europe because it was more tolerant of their practices than was Christianity. Another reason given by him for widespread conversion to Judaism is political: Since Christianization, he argues, involved subordination to either the Catholic or the Greek Orthodox Church, there were Slavs who thought they had a better chance of retaining their independence by becoming Jewish. Finally, Mr. Wexler thinks, one has to take into account Jewish involvement in the European slave trade, which dealt mainly in captured Slavs. (Indeed, the words “slave” and “Slav” are etymologically connected in many languages). Many Slave slaves, he believes, were converted by their Jewish owners and contributed to the growth of the Jewish population of Eastern Europe.

One interesting observation that Mr. Wexler makes is that the words “Ahkenaz” (first found in the Bible) and “Ashkenazi” have themselves shifted their meaning in Jewish history, originally designating Scythians, later Slavs, later Germans, and only last of all Eastern-European Jews. Might this not, he asks, a reliable arrow pointing to the direction which the Jews of Eastern Europe came?