Over the course of the nineteenth century, some 84,500 Jews in imperial Russia converted to Christianity. Confessions of the Shtetl explores the day-to-day world of these people, including the social, geographic, religious, and economic links among converts, Christians, and Jews. The book narrates converts’ tales of love, desperation, and fear, tracing the uneasy contest between religious choice and collective Jewish identity in tsarist Russia. Rather than viewing the shtetl as the foundation myth for modern Jewish nationhood, this work reveals the shtetl’s history of conversions and communal engagement with converts, which ultimately yielded a cultural hybridity that both challenged and fueled visions of Jewish separatism.
Drawing on extensive research with conversion files in imperial Russian archives, in addition to the mass press, novels, and memoirs, Ellie R. Schainker offers a sociocultural history of religious toleration and Jewish life that sees baptism not as the fundamental departure from Jewishness or the Jewish community, but as a conversion that marked the start of a complicated experiment with new forms of identity and belonging. Ultimately, she argues that the Jewish encounter with imperial Russia did not revolve around coercion and ghettoization but was a genuinely religious drama with a diverse, attractive, and aggressive Christianity.