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If this is published, then my wife has given birth to our triplet and one of my other children has pressed the publish button. Why we kept the pregnancy private in regards to the internet is explained in this blog post.
With special thanks to Elazar Uriel Bynet Avraham, Lietuvos Karaimų Kultūros Bendrija (Society of Lithuanian Karaim Culture), Związek Karaimów Polskich (Association of Polish Karaims), Public Organization “Regional national and cultural autonomy of the Crimean Karaites in the Republic of Crimea”, Fundacja Karaimskie Dziedzictwo (Karaim Heritage Foundation), the Subbotniks who were kind enough to provide insight into their culture, heritage and history, the fellow Karaites who helped me with writing this blog post as correctly as possible without being regarded as offensive (at least to them), and my friends and family that were kind enough to keep most of my private details private.
What is a Karaite?
Let’s start with an explanation of that term you might not even know what it is, which is Karaite. Or better said, Eastern European Karaite / Crimean Karaite.
The most basic explanation of what Karaites are is that we are an ethnoreligious group of people. This means that we are a group that spreads by ethnic line and generally holds the same religion. Based on our traditional values and beliefs, our ethnicity spreads only when a child is born to a Karaite father and a Karaite mother. If you’re born to just a Karaite mother or just a Karaite father, you’re officially speaking not a Karaite. However, in more recent years, some who are born this way have started calling themselves “Half-Karaites”, which has some acceptance among the Karaite communities due to the fact that our people face extinction. We’ll come back to this later.
Beyond our ethnicity, there’s also our religion, which is commonly known as Karaism. In the most basic way of explaining Karaism, it is Judaism without the Talmud and Midrash, the so-called Oral Law. Karaism is generally a difficult subject due to the lack of remaining information about where Karaites factually come from. Even more so while noting that the Karaites in Eastern Europe aren’t the only group of Karaites.
The controversial origin of Karaites
The most notable group of other Karaites would be the Egyptian Karaites that primarily live in the United States of America and the State of Israel. According to their most accepted beliefs, their people originate from the ʿĀnāniyya (Ananites), who were the followers of Anan “ben David” ibn Habibi. Anan was a Persian Jew believed to have started a religion that closely resembles what people believe the Karaite beliefs are.
However, this isn’t the believed origin among most Eastern European Karaites, and there’s also quite some historical evidence that would deny this origin for both groups of Karaites. For one, there’s evidence of Karaite’s presence in the Levant years before Anan was even born. However, more importantly, there is at least 1 group of people that according to their traditions and another people’s traditions would trace back to the ʿĀnāniyya and previously had the exact same beliefs, with their current beliefs being mostly kept behind locked doors, at times even literally.
The reality is that we don’t know the origins of Karaites exactly, beyond the DNA connection Kevin Alan Brook found between Eastern European Karaites and other groups of Jewish people. I would sincerely advise reading his website of Khazaria.com if you’re interested in learning more in this regard.
Karaimites and the Khazar
When it comes to Karaites, there has long been the myth that our ancestors originate from the Khazar. This theory has been disproven, although still at times believed among some groups of people, including among parts of the Karaite communities in Eastern Europe. However, it’s kind of sad that this myth even existed in the first place, as the reality of this story isn’t even hard to find.
If you’re interested in our people, you might have heard the term “Karaimite”. This term is an invention by the Israeli “Central Spiritual Board for Russian Karaims Abroad” to classify Subbotnik Karaites. The Subbotniks are a Russian group of people that are known for their mixture of Christian and Judaic beliefs. The name itself refers to Saturday, the day of religious observance among Jewish people, unlike Sunday for Christian people. Due to Subbotniks long being seen as Christians, not Jews, they were long facing problems while attempting to make Aliyah (move to) the State of Israel.
It’s important to note that the Subbotniks, while being Russian, also still live in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Belarus and Ukraine.
Subbotnik Karaites (“Karaimites”) are adherents to a religion that is very close to Karaism, with some slight differences depending on the community and even at times family. It’s like some do and some don’t practice circumcision. It does have to be said, this is the same among the regular Karaite communities. However, there’s a major difference, Subbotnik Karaites are not ethnic Jews, they are converts, which happened a very long time ago…
According to Subbotnik tradition, the faith of the Subbotnik Karaites originates from the Subbotniks that settled among the Jews on the shores of the Khazar Sea (Caspian Sea). These Jews were different from other Jews for their rejection of the Talmud. These Jews originated from Persia and are very likely the actual descendants of the ʿĀnāniyya stated previously. These Jews would be the Mountain Jews, as they are the only Jews that are known to have settled in this region in all of history. The Subbotniks were converted to their beliefs, which today we would call Karaism or Karaite Judaism.
Based on historical evidence, the date of the Subbotniks settling among the Mountain Jews and the date of the disappearance of the Khazar is the same. Therefore, it’s not hard to figure out who would likely originate from the Khazar… However, the Mountain Jews have understandably chosen to be primarily solitary among the Jewish communities, due to the persecution and violence they’ve experienced. And the Subbotniks in Eastern Europe and Western Asia have a problem when it comes to trusting those who they should be able to trust.
Here we could take a step back again at how the term “Karaimite” came into existence. The Israeli organization behind this term has turned increasingly political over time, as proven by traces that can still be found online. They would start attacking regular Karaites over the history of left-wing beliefs, including the pacifism that is historically there among Karaites. And while I don’t know what they really expected to happen, the Israeli organization would increasingly have Subbotniks, the people they should have been representing, standing with Karaites against the organization. There are some Subbotnik families that privately confirmed to be unwilling to move to the State of Israel due to the discrimination they saw from the Central Spiritual Board for Russian Karaims Abroad. With the number of Subbotniks attempting to make Aliyah decreasing and even being nearly non-existent these days, the organization has seemingly ceased to exist.
Religious beliefs, conversion and being a Karaite
In 2007, the Karaite Jews of America would reach headlines in the State of Israel when 10 adults and 4 children would be converted to Karaism. The main reason for it reaching headlines was because it would be the first conversion in 500 years. Or were they?
Let’s take a step back at what I said before, Karaites are an ethnoreligious group of people that spread by ethnicity. In terms of Karaism as a religion, you could explain it simply by saying that it is Judaism without the Talmud and Midrash, the so-called Oral Law. And as any Jew should know, as we are supposed to read the scriptures completely and at least Karaites do, there are no conversion methods mentioned in the Tanakh. So, from a Karaite perspective, how would you even convert?
The reality of today’s accepted way of Karaite conversion is that it fits the laws of primarily the State of Israel, but in no way, form or shape does it have anything to do with our own beliefs. This is why the 500-year no-conversion statement is dubious at best. As the reality is that there were hardly any conversions, but not none. And when they were there, it was not through any official conversion process. Believe our beliefs and you’re adherent to Karaism.
This is where you will notice me saying something important, you are adherent to Karaism, and you wouldn’t be a Karaite. Just like other ethnoreligious people, with the most similar comparison being the Yazidis; you are born as one of our own, you can’t become one of our own. In this regard it’s actually important to mention that the claim of certain Karaites mixing religions isn’t actually even weird to make, as we are factually able to believe anything, we will remain a Karaite regardless of our beliefs. A Christian Karaite, Hindu Karaite, or Muslim Karaite, they are possible by our beliefs. In some ways, it might therefore also be better to call Karaism a culture, instead of a religion. Furthermore, those rare Karaites that grow up orphaned outside of the communities, like me, will still (generally) be regarded as Karaites no matter their upbringing.
And all of this can’t be stated without noting that this all causes problems between Eastern European Karaites and the other groups of Karaites. The reality is, our beliefs in this regard are very much different. And being a Karaite in Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania and Turkey, you will be aware of the critique and misinformation we get targeted with constantly. This is all due to 1 thing, the attempts to make us seem less like Karaites. This is interesting while noting that we both state to hold to our original beliefs. However, the other Karaites are known for parts that originate from the Oral Law. As said, conversion is the most obvious example. However, there’s also the difference in how we study our religious scriptures. Here in Eastern Europe, you’re supposed to be responsible for studying them yourself, and it’s fully up to you how you would interpret them. However, as I have seen with every Karaite that’s not from our region, they still stick to a system of fixed beliefs and teachers. This is weird as it doesn’t even fit the meaning of Karaism at all.
It’s therefore hardly surprising that most Eastern European Karaites disconnect themselves from the other groups of Karaites, as well as Jews in general. While this is at times because of the Khazar myth, it’s also still there due to the fact that our beliefs are simply different. A Karaite is a Karaite, united by faith and ethnicity. At least, that’s how it is for Karaites in Eastern Europe.
Facing extinction and keeping our lives private
A part I promised to tell more about is half-Karaites. As I said, half-Karaites are people born to only 1 Karaite parent. Although, it does have to be said that those who do accept half-Karaites, almost always only accept them if they’re born to a Karaite father, not a Karaite mother. In general, the whole half-Karaite idea goes against our beliefs, though.
The acceptance of half-Karaites has mostly to do with the lack of Karaites being born. Karaites face extinction. It is why in recent years there has come to be acceptance of adherents of Karaism that aren’t Karaites. Even if people are not Karaites, they would keep our faith alive. However, when an actual Karaite is born, it’s the cause for celebration.
Which happens to be the exact reason why my wife and I decided to keep our pregnancy private. We’re both Karaites, our biological children will be Karaites. My wife’s parents were quick to be aware of what this would mean. For us, our biological children are not our first children. We have 5 amazing children through adoption. All of them are equal to us, which would quickly change if we choose to connect to any of the Karaite communities. It’s why we are one of the several Karaite families in Poland and Ukraine that do not choose to be connected to, let alone be part of, any of the Karaite communities.
One of the other Karaite families living in seclusion is my own biological family. I don’t really talk about them, regardless of having one of my biological aunts responding to me constantly in plain sight on Facebook. A lot of this has to do with my true family for me being my adoptive family. However, this doesn’t mean I don’t have contact with my biological family. For example, I have a younger biological brother living here in Poland, a Karaite by both ethnicity and religious beliefs. We talk daily. And as I know he will read this, he deserves me to say that he’s a really amazing little brother with great aspirations of becoming a doctor. I know he will be able to do so, as well as so much more.
Anyhow, if I need to give my personal opinion about half-Karaites, I won’t deny that I am not positive about the idea. I personally think it would be better for the ethnic Karaite line to eventually come to an end. The idea of half-Karaites has too much to do with pride. It moves Karaites from an ethnic group towards a group of status. You don’t need an ethnicity or religion to show your worth as an individual. It’s your potential and deeds that matter. Even if others don’t see this, it doesn’t change they are there. But I believe I speak to deaf man’s ears here, as I know status is exactly the reason why half-Karaites keep proclaiming that they are half-Karaites. It’s just the same as how letting go of the Khazar myth would lose certain people’s status, especially certain notable Karaite Turkologists…
If Anna Sulimowicz ever reads this: you’re wrong with the belief that the amount of Polish Karaites is overestimated, it’s simply that many of us choose seclusion from the communities. If needed, I have the permission of 3 ethnic Karaite families I could bring you in contact with that could confirm this, if you promise to keep to their wish to remain secluded from the Karaite communities. You are able to contact me through the contact page or any of my social media profiles.
The past and the future
Anyone who reads this and already knows about Karaites will know that I have skipped over something important, which is the history of Karaites, beyond just the origin. Admittingly, I know that the moment I would write about this, I would make this blog post highly controversial. I would instantly take away the reason why I wrote this.
However, I won’t deny the fact that I am someone who doesn’t believe in the Khazar myth, as has been abundantly noted in this post. As well that a part of why my family (as well as several other secluded Karaite families) disconnected from the Karaite communities, has to do with how our history and culture have been distorted during the times of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
You could look up the proclaimed origin of Lithuanian Karaites and afterwards the origin of the Lipka Tatars, only to become aware that they are identical. Add to this the fact that Karaites were traditionally not allowed to bear arms and you will know that the origin story is factual of the Lipka Tatars, not the Lithuanian Karaites.
You could look up how several American Karaite sources proclaim that there were no Karaites in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. However, as has been confirmed by our own communities, there were and most of the lies originate from failing translations. During Soviet oppression, religious communities were forbidden, which included Karaite communities. Therefore, there were no Karaite communities, causing Karaites to mostly practice their beliefs in seclusion. And prominent Karaites with the support of Rabbinic Jews did do the controversial things during the Second World War you will see written about, it is the reason why most of our already very small ethnic group were able to survive the Second World War.
That’s the often-forgotten problem of the history of Karaites, the fact that we faced religious oppression for far longer than many are aware. As even before the oppression of the Soviets, there was the oppression of the Russian Empire, and before that, there was the oppression of the Ottoman Empire. Most Karaites didn’t live in the Polish-Lithuanian safe haven for Jews. We have kept adapting to survive. It’s the whole reason behind the pacifist tendencies that are shown through historic evidence and our general culture. We lived peacefully on the lands of tyrants, mostly as merchants as historical evidence confirms. It’s why it’s so very sad that those behind the historic distortion have mostly tried to make it seem like we are fighters. The strength of our people, of Karaites, is in our peaceful nature and attempts to never participate in wrongful wars.
It’s that which I try to bring forth in my children, towards the future, that peace is the way forward, regardless of what happens around us. It was the way of Karaites and, even if our communities don’t put this forward today, I will stick to it. A true Karaite doesn’t need war, just as much as any human doesn’t need war either. Peace is a choice.
And, of course, let’s not forget to stick to our unity with Jews and those of other religions and ethnicities. As beyond peace, we would all agree upon what matters to us all most, no matter our beliefs: our children.