Con­fes­sions of the Shtetl: Con­verts from Judaism in Impe­r­i­al Rus­sia, 1817 – 1906

Ellie R. Schainker
  • From the Publisher
December 21, 2017

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.

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