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ZHastern European Jewry was a relatively late Diaspora. Its communities evolved after the Jewish societies in other Diasporas such as Spain, the countries of Islam, and Western Europe had had their periods of glory and turbulence. Theories and legends abound, but evidence is slim about the origins and early days of eastern European Jewry. Even when documentation is available, its validity and interpretations are subject to challenge and scholarly controversy.
Two major groups of hypotheses have been formulated about the arrival of Jews to Eastern Europe: The first proposes that their route was across the northern Black Sea and into southern Russia; the second suggests a eastern migration from Central Europe.
By and large, the theories in the first group assign earlier dates to the Jewish migration into Eastern Europe, suggesting that Jews arrived in southeast Europe from the Land of Israel as early as biblical times, either during the exile of the Ten Tribes (722 B.C.E.), or after the destruction of the First Temple (586 B.C.E.). Some scholars propose that the migration took place in the early medieval period, during the time of the Byzantine Empire (seventh to tenth centuries c.E.). Still others suggest that the remnants of the Khazar tribes that converted to Judaism formed the beginning of eastern European Jewry.1
The western route theories are less romantic, suggesting that Jews arrived in Eastern Europe either through the opening of east-west trade routes across the continent or as a result of the persecution of Jews in Western Europe. These theories date the arrival of Jews in Eastern Europe to the Middle Ages, based on documentary evidence that attests to a Jewish presence in the region from the thirteenth century.2 Each of these theories has some tangential and some more solid evidence, and it is quite likely that Jewish communities existed in Poland and Ukraine before the thirteenth century, a period for which available evidence leaves no doubt about the Jewish presence in Eastern Europe.