University of Helsinki
In the title of this paper, I have promised to tell of new life in Karaim communities. However, before speaking about new life and the signs of it, it seems necessary to say some words about the Karaim communities. The Karaites and the Karaims, in particular, have remained a borderland indeed. Since the space is limited, we must resort to a number of sweping generalizations which unfortunately do not do full justice to the views of the Karaite movement itself. 
The Karaite reformation movement arose among the Jews in Mesopotamia in the 8th century A.D. Beside other derogatory stories, it has been claimed that 'Anan ben David, a son of the exilarch of the Jews and a descendant of King David, founded the Karaite sect, since his younger brother was set up in his place as the exilarch of the Jews in Mesopotamia. In fact, we do not know the reasons which led 'Anan ben David to preach about a return to the written word of the Hebrew Bible, i.e. the Old Testament, and about the renunciation of the Oral Law which was highly esteemed by the Rabbanite Jews. As a consequence, the Mishna, the Talmudic literature and the whole traditional hermeneutics, the halakha, should be replaced solely by the Bible and its literal commandements, sola scriptura, as Protestants were wont to say to Catholics eight hundred years later.
The Karaite specialists of the Hebrew Bible played an important rôle in the crystallization of biblical, Masoretic Hebrew and its reading traditions. Although the Karaite reformation never became a mass movement among the Jews in the Near East, a number of Turkic tribes on the shores of the Black Sea also converted to Karaism not later than the 12th century.  This conversion of Turkic tribes should not be confused with the story of the Judaism of the Khazars in the same areas a couple of centuries earlier. 
From present-day Ukraine and the Crimea, the Karaite "sectarians" in quotation marks also settled in the borderland between Lithuania-Poland and Russia. In these communities they retained their reformed Jewish faith, Hebrew as the language of their religion, and their native Turkic language called Karaim as their mother-tongue.  Among these Karaites and their neighbours, the name Karaim a Hebrew plural meaning 'readers' and 'experts in the Holy Scripture (Bible)' has been adopted as an ethnic designation. 
In this survey I shall concentrate on the Karaim community in Lithuania, where the revival trends have been most conspicuous. According to statistics issued in the Republic of Lithuania in 1989, 289 persons identified themselves as Karaims by nationality; of these 72.6 per cent, i.e. 210 persons, considered the Karaim language to be their native language. Approximately 130 Karaims live in Vilnius (Vilna), one hundred in Trakai (Troki, Troch; the original home town of Karaims 27 km. to the west of Vilnius), and thirty in Panevezys (150 km. north of Vilnius).  The majority of the one hundred and fifty Karaims in Poland are relatives of the Lithuanian Karaims. From these centres, messages of cultural and religious revival have been propagated among the approximately 2,000 Karaims in the metropolises of the former Soviet Union and in the Crimea. 
The communist regime strongly oppressed all the national and religious activities of the minorities in the Soviet Union. When the red ideology gradually lost its power at the end of the 1980s, a large number of cultural revival organizations were established among various nationalities. Their objectives were parallel to a great extent: (1) the awakening of a national consciousness, (2) the cultivation of the national language and (3) the reorganization of religious life. These slogans were heard all over the Soviet Union and, later, in the former Soviet Union.
However, the obstacles to the revival were very parallel, too. When the gates were totally open, there nevertheless remained one crucial question: by what means can a renaissance be effected among a people which has almost completely forgotten its cultural patrimony?
In this respect the Karaim revival movement can also represent a larger framework viz. a case study of the ex-Soviet nationalities in general.
Among the Karaims as well as other ex-Soviet nationalities, a knowledge of one's nationality has been kept alive by the internal passports in which the nacionalnost' of each Soviet citizen was indicated. Thus the awakening implies giving intellectual and educational substance to the appellation of Karaim or Tatar, Karelian or a member of another national group.
In this field, various meetings, celebrations, academic conferences, exhibitions  and performing and study-groups have contributed to create a bridge between the traditional manners, feasts, customs and beliefs of the past and the new opportunities provided by the restored cultural freedom. However, irrespective of nationalities, participation in various renewed activities seems to be concentrated among a quite small nucleus of enthusiastic persons.
Several conferences of Karaims have been arranged in Trakai and Vilnius, first in August 1989 and most recently in Simferopol in the Crimea in April 1995.  One of the central purposes has been also to invite the Karaims from other parts of the former Soviet Union in order to activate their national and religious life also. However, results in this field have been quite meagre. Obviously assimilation and secularization have proceeded to such an extent that the idealistic calls for awakening do not affect the materialistic way of thinking of the majority.
The Lithuanian Karaims have restored connections with the Karaites in Israel, the U.S.A. and Istanbul.  However, the question of the Jewishness of Karaites divides the originally Arabic-speaking Karaites in Israel and San Francisco into another camp: these designate themselves as Karaite Jews, while the Karaims in Eastern Europe stress the independent national character of their community.
Besides being a national minority, the Karaims represent an independent religion; they prefer to designate their faith as "a religion based on Judaism in the same way as Christianity is an independent religion with a Jewish background."
During the Soviet period the kenesa in Trakai, Lithuania, was the only Karaim "synagogue"that was open in the Soviet Union, instruction in religious topics was forbidden, and religious literature was represented by a number of old books published in pre-Bolshevik times. This implies that funerals have been the most prominent religious ceremony in Lithuania for a period of 50 years and in the Crimea and Soviet metropolises for 75 years. A large number of the complicated code of positive and negative precepts which formerly constituted the centre of an orthopractic religion fell into oblivion during this period.
Thus the most central question of the renaissance is: "What does it mean that I am a Karaim; what do I have to do and what do I have to believe?"Of course, every human being encounters a similar question. As a rule, however, various answers are available in both oral and printed form in larger communities. Among the Karaims this is not the case. Very few of them can teach anything of the content of Karaim theology. Furthermore, traditional literature is composed in Arabic and Hebrew, languages which Karaims cannot read. 
One important factor has contributed to the preservation of the Karaim religion. In a peculiar way, the Karaims have adapted one more Protestant principle: the kenesa service is in the national language, Karaim, instead of the traditional holy tongue, Hebrew.  The change has taken place gradually over the last one hundred years. As a final phenomenon illustrating this development, I wish to refer to the two Tablets of the Law which in accordance with Jewish tradition embellish the altars of the kenesa synagogues: in Trakai and the re-established kenesa in Vilnius, these Tablets are written in the Karaim language.
Several times I have mentioned the kenesa in Trakai; at present the kenesa in Vilnius has been returned to the Karaim community, which has taken great pains to reconstruct the sanctuary.  Since 1993, religious ceremonies have been held in both of them. To the best of my knowledge, no other Karaim temple, besides these ones, has been reopened in the lands of the former Soviet Union.
Now the content of the Karaim religion should also be replanted among the younger members of the community who for 50 or 75 years have been without religious education. Two methods have been employed to carry out this task: (1) various courses and (2) literature.
As a rule the courses have been connected with studies of the Karaim language. The number of participants has varied from time to time. The study also poses other difficulties.
First, who is able to determine which is the correct type of Karaim to be taught? Indo-European languages (Polish, Russian, Lithuanian) have left deep vestiges in the vernacular Karaim spoken by the multilingual Karaims especially during the Soviet period, when no instruction in the native language was available. The traditional literary Karaim language, on the other hand, has been heavily influenced by the structure of the Semitic holy tongue, Hebrew. Thus it is no easy task to decide which would be a error-free form of Karaim to be learned by the younger generation and used in literature.
Another special difficulty is the problem of orthography.  Originally Karaim was written in Hebrew characters. The idea of replacing Hebrew letters by Latin characters in accordance with the Polish custom of orthography was devised at the end of the 19th century in Poland. The old version of the "Prayers of the Karaim"(number 7, Koltchalar - Krótkie modlitwy karaimskie published by ullu hazzan Szymon Firkowicz in Vilnius in 1935) represents the Polish orthography. On the other hand, Latin characters with diacritical signs added were employed for a scientific transcription;  this type of orthography can be seen in the reprint of the poems by M. Tinfovic Irlar (number 3). The scholarly orthography is very precise; the ordinary readers, however, considered it to be too intricate and deviating from the "normal"spelling habits of the local languages.
In Russia the first Karaim publications in Cyrillic characters appeared in the first years of this century, while the Karaim writers in Panevezys, in Lithuania proper, adapted the principles of Lithuanian Latin orthography for their native language. The dictionary Karaimskorusskopol'skij slovar' (Moscow 1974)  which has enjoyed normative status among Karaims employs Cyrillic characters. In principle, the spelling adopted in the dictionary was very satisfactory, and it did not require many exceptional characters which were unavailable on typewriters and printing-presses. In the list you can see a collection of Karaim poems (Karaj jyrlary) and a Karaim calendar printed in Cyrillic script in 1989 and 1991 (numbers 2 and 5).
However, in free Lithuania the Cyrillic characters were liable to evoke negative memories of the communist period and russification. Thus a new step was taken in 1993, when the Cyrillic characters were replaced by the "European", in fact, Lithuanian ones (numbers 7 and 9).
We know that in too many cases a controversy over linguistic norms and orthography has led to a cessation of literary activity among small nationalities. Obviously this disaster has been avoided among the Karaims. The Lithuanian-based orthography is not too complicated to be typed, in principle it is familiar for the readers because of the strong position held by the Lithuanian language among them, and the Latin script enjoys the status of a modern, Western orientation.
Finally, two more facts concerning the list. It is amazing that a bibliography of a dozen items with hundreds of pages represents the literary output of a minority of less than three hundred members during six economically very difficult years.
And as a notable example of individual initiative and a belief in the more enlightened future of a small nationality we can take note of the name of Mykolas (Michael) Firkovicius, the religious leader of the community and the editor and writer of the majority of modern publications among the Karaims. Together with Professor Alexandr Dubikhski from Warsaw he has also taken care of the said orthographic reform. It is to be hoped that his work will receive enthusiastic followers who keep the Karaim community alive and active according to the best traditions of bene Miqra' qara'im, the specialists in the literary patrimony.
2. Rabbi Petahya of Regensburg visited the "Land of Kedar", i.e. present-day Ukraine, in 1175; in his report he offers evidence for the existence of the Karaite Judaism among the inhabitants of those regions:
3. In fact, we have no information concerning the nature of the Jewish faith among the Khazars; similarly, the continuation of their religious traditions after the destruction of their political power is a moot question. [*]
4. According to the census of 1897, there were 12,894 Karaims in Czarist Russia. With the exception of two hundred Austrian Karaims in Halicz (Galic), the entire Karaim population lived at that time within the boundaries of the Empire, in the Crimea, Lithuania, the city of Luck (Luck) in the Ukraine as well as in the chief cities of the country (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Odessa). In addition, there were almost thirty smaller communities of Karaims in the Russian Empire at the beginning of this century; the communities had seventeen sanctuaries at their disposal. See the list in Szyszman 1989, p. 59, note 159. Obviously this is the highest figure of the East European Karaims through the ages. According to a letter of Abraham Firkovich (No. 1051, 2r, in the Personal Archive of Firkovich kept in the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg F. 946, Lichnyj arhiv A.S. Firkovicha) to Hamadan in 1851, there were 1,062 Karaite patres familias in the Crimea, 200 in Poland and 220 in Constantinople, Egypt and Jerusalem which makes a total of 1482 households. [*]
5. Karaims, however, call themselves karajlar, a Turkic plural of the Hebrew word qaray 'reader'. [*]
6. Halina Kobeckaite, "The status and treatment of national minorities in the Republic of Lithuania"(A report presented to The CSCE Meeting of Experts on Minorities, Geneva, July 1-19, 1991, tables 1.1. and 1.2.). In her paper Kobeckaite mentions that the Karaim nationality consists "today"of 280 persons. In 1989, Lithuanian was the native language of 15.6 per cent of the Karaims (i.e. 45 persons) and Russian that of 10.4 per cent (30 persons). [*]
7. As for the total number of Karaims in Eastern Europe, the figures issued in the Soviet Union (in 1979 3,341 persons of whom 1,151 in the Crimea and 352 in Lithuania) seem unreliable. Obviously the main reason is the radical assimilation of Karaims in the areas under the Soviet régime since 1918: in the 1979 census only 16 per cent of Karaims, i.e. 535 persons, claimed the Karaim language as their mother tongue in the whole of the U.S.S.R; 265 of them lived in Lithuania. Sources: Naselenie SSSR (Politizdat, M. 1983), s. 130; Chislennost' i sostav naselenija SSSR po dannym Vsesojuznoj perepisi naselenija 1979 g. (M. 1984), c. 78 & 104; Romualdas Firkovicius, entries "Karaimai"and "Karaimu kalba"in Tarybu Lietuvos enciklopedija (2, Vilnius 1986), p. 213, and "Litva"in Kratkaja enciklopedija (nauchnoredakcionnyj sovet J. Anichach ..., Vilnius 1989), p. 293; Szyszman (1989), p. 70; Roman Freund, Karaites and Dejudaization - A Historical Review of an Endogenous and Exogenous Paradigm (Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis - Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religion, No. 30. Almqvist & Wiksell International, Stockholm 1991), pp. 99-100; Mourad El-Kodsi, The Karaite Communities in Poland, Lithuania, Russia and Crimea (Lyons, N.Y. 1993), pp. 13-15, 17, 19, 76; Lembit Vaba, item "Karaiimid"in the very useful Estonian compendium Margus Kolga, Igor Tõnurist, Lembit Vaba, Juri Viikberg, Vene impeeriumi rahavaste punane raamat ('The Red Book of the nationalities in the Russian Empire', Väljaandja a/s "Nyman&Nyman LNT"), Tallinn 1993, pp. 159-164. [*]
8. In Trakai, there is a small Karaim exhibition in the Insular Castle as well as a Karaim museum in the town (see the prospectus mentioned below). A small wooden house close to the museum includes two rooms which have served as the cultural centre of the Karaims in Lithuania; at present the municipality of Trakai has plans to restore the whole house to the Karaims. [*]
9. The first post-war convention took place in Pieniezno, Poland, in April 1987; the papers of the conference have been published in the book Karaimi (Materialy z sesji naukowej. Pod redakcja: Aleksandra Dubinskiego & Eugeniusza Sliwki. III Pienieznienskie Spotkania z Religiami. Materialy i Studia Ksiezy Werbistów Nr 32. Pieniezno 1987). Programmes and other material of the meeting can be seen in El-Kodsi 1993, pp. 43-45, 58-59, 76-77. In 1989 an exhibition was arranged and a cataloqgue published in the Art Museum in Simferopol to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Karaim artist M.M. Kazaz (the title page of the catalogue in El-Kodsi 1993, p. 75). [*]
10. On Istanbul, see my article "The Karaite Community in Istanbul and their Hebrew", forthcoming in the Proceedings of the Fifth Congress of the European Association for Jewish Studies, Jewish Studies in a New Europe, Copenhagen, 14 - 18 August 1994. [*]
11. As far as I know, the only book published by the Lithuanian Karaims on their own community during the communist period is Karaimika v Litve by Romuald Firkovich (Sekcija karaimovedenija, Trakajskogo otdelenija Obshchestva ohrany pamjatnikov i krcenedenii Litovskoj SSR, Trakaj 1969). [*]
12. On the reading tradition of Hebrew among the Karaims in Lithuania and its ancient Tiberian peculiarities, see Tapani Harviainen, "De Karaitis Lithuaniae: Transcriptions of Recited Biblical Texts, Description of the Pronunciation Tradition, and the Peculiarities of Shewa"(Orientalia Suecana, XXXVIII-XXXIX. Festskrift till Gösta Vitestam. Edited by Tryggve Kronholm. Odense 1991, pp. 36-44), and idem, "The Karaites of Lithuania at the Present Time and the Pronunciation Tradition of Hebrew among them: A Preliminary Survey"(Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of the International Organization for Masoretic Studies 1989. Edited by Aron Dotan. Masoretic Studies, Number 7, Scholars Press 1992, pp. 53-69). The Karaim language has been employed as a vehicle of literature since the 15th century; the first book printed in (Crimean) Karaim was a prayer book published in Venice in 1528, see Ananiasz Zajaczkowski, "Die karaimische Literatur"(Philologiae Turcicae Fundamenta, Bd. II, Wiesbaden 1964, pp. 793-801), and R.M. Kaplanov, "K istorii karaimskogo literaturnogo jazyka"(Malye i dispersnye etnicheskie gruppy v evropejskoj chasti SSSR - Geografija rasselenija kulturnye tradicij, Moskva 1985, pp. 95-106). [*]
13. On the history of the kenesa in Vilnius, see Ina Firkovic, "Vilniaus karaimu kenesa"(Kipciaku tiurku Orientas Lietuvoje: istorija ir tyrimu perspektyva, ed. by Tamara Bairasauskaite and Halina Kobeckaite, Vilnius, "Danielius", 1994, pp. 163-166). [*]
14. Exemplied by handouts at the conference, see titles below. [*]
15. The most important type of scholar orthography is that used by Tadeusz Kowalski in his book Karaimische Texte im Dialekt von Troki (Prace Komisji Orientalistycznej Polskiej Akademji Umiejenosci, Nr. 11. W Krakowie 1929). [*]
16. Pod redakciej N. A. Baskakova, A. Zajonchkovskogo, S.M. Shapshala. Izdatel'stvo "Russkij jazyk", Moscow 1974.[*]
© The author and Nordic Society for Middle Eastern Studies. Archived 9.11.95