[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Judaic]: Hickey on Schainker, 'Confessions of the Shtetl: Converts from Judaism in Imperial Russia, 1817-1906'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Tue Oct 23 19:25:55 MDT 2018

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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Tue, Oct 23, 2018 at 9:12 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Judaic]: Hickey on Schainker, 'Confessions of the
Shtetl: Converts from Judaism in Imperial Russia, 1817-1906'
To: <H-REVIEW at lists.h-net.org>

Ellie R. Schainker.  Confessions of the Shtetl: Converts from Judaism
in Imperial Russia, 1817-1906.  Stanford Studies in Jewish History
and Culture Series. Stanford  Stanford University Press, 2017.  360
pp.  $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-9828-0.

Reviewed by Michael C. Hickey (Bloomsburg University)
Published on H-Judaic (October, 2018)
Commissioned by Katja Vehlow

Ellie R. Schainker's _Confessions of the Shtetl _is a welcome
addition to the already remarkable body of recent literature on Jews
in late imperial Russia.[1] In examining the lived experience of
Jewish converts to Orthodox Christianity, Schainker expands our
understanding of shtetl life and culture, engages fruitfully with
recent historiography on the Russian state's imperial confessional
politics, and places Jewish apostasy in the wider European context.

Schainker concentrates on the experience of and discourses about
Jewish converts to Orthodox Christianity in imperial Russia from the
early 1800s to the establishment of legal freedom of conscience in
1905-6. She has mined material from sixteen different archives, more
than two dozen newspapers, and an impressive number of other
publications. She uses this evidence to challenge long-held
assumptions about the eigthy-five-thousand-plus Jews in imperial
Russia who converted to Christianity, the milieus in which they
lived, and the complexities of Jewish identity (as lived and as
imagined). Following recent historiography, Schainker situates Jewish
apostasy within the context of the tsarist state's confessional
politics.[2] The state privileged Orthodox Christianity but tolerated
and supported other officially recognized confessions as a strategy
of imperial rule. Schainker notes that toleration granted authority
as well as responsibility to officially recognized confessional
communities--for example, responsibility for metrical records that
helped make Jews "legible" to the state--and stresses the importance
of these practices in structuring the experience of conversion.

Typically, Jewish apostasy in imperial Russia has been portrayed as
the result of state coercion (for example, the "recruitment" of
Jewish boys into cantonist military units between 1827 and 1856); as
an insincere act motivated by the desire for social and economic
mobility (for example, to escape the Pale of Settlement and gain
residence rights in Russia's interior provinces); or as a consequence
of spatial distance from the Jewish social milieu, in urban (and
secularizing) settings. Schainker recognizes the partial validity of
these tropes but offers a very different interpretation of Jewish
conversion grounded in the fine details of lived experience.

Schainker argues that conversion often was a voluntary act. Jews in
provincial towns and shtetls--primarily Jewish women--were motivated
to convert by their everyday interactions and relationships with
Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians, and did so "under
the gaze of communities" (p. 7). When converts crossed confessional
boundaries, their Jewish families and communities did not simply
treat them as "dead" or as "pariahs." Rather, families often sought
to return converts to Judaism or accepted the Jewish identity of
converts who continued to live as Jews. Like the Jewish Christian
sects that Schainker explores in the book's penultimate chapter,
converts blurred confessional distinctions in ways that provoked
anxieties about identities (Jewish, Orthodox Christian, Russian, and
imperial). Schainker examines public discourse concerning conversion
as it related to a range of issues, from debates over legal freedom
of conscience (which in 1905-6 "detach[ed] Orthodoxy from
Russianness" [p. 10]), to the emergence of an ethnicized Jewish

The book's body is divided into three parts--"The Confessional State
and the Jews," "Conversion and the Shtetl," and "Converts on the
Move." Part 1 begins with "The Genesis of Confessional Choice," a
chapter that considers the politics of conversion in the first half
of the nineteenth century. Because confessional status was
intertwined with other aspects of corporate status, conversion
signified a change in one's "legal and social standing in the empire"
(p. 19). Schainker argues that state confessional politics allowed
space for confessional choice. While the state tolerated sanctioned
confessions and supported approved confessional institutions (such as
state or crown rabbis, entrusted with state functionary powers) as a
tool in governance of a multi-confessional empire, it also promoted
programs for the assimilation of Jews into the Orthodox faith
(including missionary activities, provision of aid and shelter to
neophytes, and schemes to create convert agricultural colonies).
Schainker draws our attention to the paradoxes of this politics,
which provided incentives for conversion while feeding doubts about
the sincerity of such conversions, and which, by opening the
possibility of confessional boundary crossings, provided Jewish
families opportunities to subvert the state's managerial aims.

She frames the second chapter, "The Missionizing Marketplace," with
reference to major shifts in imperial policy in the era of the Great
Reforms. These included abandonment of conversion efforts (for
example, the dissolution of the cantonist battalions) and a turn
toward Russification (initiated by the 1863 Polish uprising). This
chapter examines the missionary function of philanthropic efforts to
aid Jewish converts, who often found themselves isolated from both
the Jewish and Christian communities, and the legacy of the Russian
state and Orthodox Church response to efforts by foreign missionaries
(and particularly British evangelicals) to proselytize among Jews.
Schainker also analyzes projects proposed and undertaken by converted
Jews whom she describes as "entrepreneurial converts," such as the
publication of Yiddish-language New Testaments and Russian-language
religious and ethnographic texts. These "entrepreneurs" (including
Yakov Brafman, who went on to write sensationalist Judeophobic texts
warning of an international conspiracy of Jewish elites) aimed at
fostering conversions, but also hoped to shape Russian public opinion
regarding Jews and converts. As the state retreated from the
"conversion business," Schainker argues, entrepreneurial converts
sought to sell the Orthodox Church on the need for Yiddish missionary
work. The church, however, remained ambivalent about the prospects of
these (or any) conversion efforts.

Part 2 concentrates on the experience of converts in the provincial
shtetl environment, and begins with a chapter titled "Shtetls,
Taverns, and Baptisms." Here, Schainker most fully develops her
argument that "civilian conversions from Judaism in the Pale of
Settlement were facilitated by everyday Jewish-Christian encounters
and relationships forged before baptism" (p. 85). She presents
detailed evidence regarding taverns as sights of interethnic,
interconfessional social interactions that led to conversions,
particularly of women. She also examines other spaces that
facilitated interconfessional social networks--again, with a primary
focus on women and gender relations--and the participation of
confessional communities (Jewish and Christian) in the conversion
process. One of the great strengths of this chapter, and of the book
as a whole, is Schainker's use of individual conversion stories and
her analysis of conversion narratives to illustrate the diversity of
the Pale as a social and cultural milieu and the importance of
emotional attachments and emotional needs in shaping converts'
actions. Intimate daily interactions between Jews and their Christian
neighbors fostered the sorts of personal relationships--love affairs,
friendships, and the sharing of beliefs and hopes--that often
motivated acts of voluntary conversion.

In the fourth chapter, "From Vodka to Violence," Schainker argues
that "conversion as a form of boundary crossing raised anxieties
about close interfaith living and became a flashpoint for negotiating
the local politics of confessional and religious toleration" (p.
122). She examines violent tactics some Jews used to "recover" or
discipline converts and the way the Russian conservative press
between the 1870s and the 1890s exploited stories of violence to
portray Jews as religiously intolerant fanatics. Schainker argues
that state policies gave Jewish families and communal authorities
tools to obstruct conversions, for example, by manipulating
ambiguities in metrical records, and explains how shtetl social
networks facilitated intimidation and violence to prevent voluntary
conversion, most often of women. Women appeared not only as victims
but also as agents asserting power over their own identity. This
gendered aspect of apostasy underscored its power to unsettle the
patriarchal order within Jewish society and the imperial state. In
compounding anxieties over Russian and imperial identity, conversion
became a focus of conservative critiques of "Jewish fanaticism" and
of religious toleration.

Part 3 begins with "Relapsed Converts and Tales of Marranism."
Tsarist law allowed conversion to Christianity but made apostasy from
Christianity "a criminal offense ... punishable by exile and hard
labor" (p. 159). The law defied "relapsed" Jews as criminals and
placed criminal responsibility on those who had "seduced" them away
from Orthodoxy.[3] Until the institution of legal freedom of
conscience in 1905, the Russian state judged one's religiosity on
one's behavior. Hence "living as a Jew" was evidence of relapse.
Schainker uses this issue to examine the relationship between
state-defined confessional categories and individual religious
identity. The re-crossing of confessional boundaries by cantonist
"mutineers" who sought to return to Judaism and other relapsed
converts exposed the limits of using state-ascribed confessional
identity as a tool for social ordering. Schainker shows that converts
in provincial shtetls often continued to live in a Jewish social
milieu and were accepted as Jews by the Jewish community, and she
focuses on responses to the perceived threat posed by the fluidity of
Jewish identities. Both Russian officials and Jewish commentators
compared converts to the early modern Spanish Marranos. While
officials suspected converts as insincere and thus in need of
surveillance and subject to discrimination, Jewish intellectuals like
Simon Dubnov saw them as victims coerced into conversion by a hostile
state. Schainker sees state policies, under which conversion did not
free neophytes from the legal disabilities imposed on Jews, as tied
to the emergence of the racialized concept of Jewishness. Similarly,
Russian nationalist rhetoric concerning converts and the conservative
press's fixation on Jews' "inherent" violent fanaticism (which found
its most outrageous expression in blood libel accusations) introduced
a racialized discourse about Jews and served the cause of
discrediting the imperial policy of religious toleration.

Schainker's sixth chapter, "Jewish Christian Sects in Southern
Russia," considers the importance of another form of confessional
border-blurring that underscored "the tension between tolerated
confessions and personal faith" (p. 202). Three major Jewish
Christian sects emerged in the Pale's southern "frontier" provinces
in the 1880s and offered a synthesis of Christian and Jewish
religious expression: Joseph Rabinovich's New Testament Israelites,
Jacob Gordon's Spiritual-Biblical Brotherhood, and Jacob Priluker's
New Israel sect. Schainker views these as part of the larger wave of
sectarianism described by historian Sergei Zhuk (_Russia's Lost
Reformation: Peasants, Millennialism, and Radical Sects in Southern
Russia and Ukraine, 1830-1917 _[2004]). From the state's perspective,
such sects were schismatic threats to the stability and clarity
offered by officially sanctioned confessions. The new sects also
aroused the same anxieties about blurred confessional boundaries as
did conversion. For Russian conservatives and state policymakers, the
sects were "morally and politically subversive" (p. 228); for Jewish
commentators, the sects pointed to the possibility that Jewish
national identity might be divorced from religious identity.

In her epilogue, "Converts on the Cultural Map," Schainker contrasts
her findings to Todd Endelman's typologies of modern Jewish apostasy
(_Leaving The Jewish Fold: Conversion and Radical Assimilation in
Modern Jewish History _[2015]). She also considers anxiety among
prerevolutionary Jewish intellectuals, such as Ahad Ha'am, who held
that conversion and intermarriage might lead to Jewish "national
suicide." And she suggests that Jewish conversion in the late
imperial period, by pushing us to consider how people were rethinking
the meanings of Jewishness, can help us understand the emergence of
an ethnicized Jewish identity in the Soviet period.

Schainker skillfully links stories of intimate personal decisions to
complex matters of political, intellectual, cultural, demographic,
and intellectual history. She analyzes conversion narratives as acts
of "self-fashioning subject to generic constraints" that employed
"particular rhetoric to effect desired outcomes" (p. 7). She might
have allowed readers more often to directly "hear" the voices taken
on by converts in unpublished conversion narratives. But that is a
minor criticism of a book that should be standard reading for
students and scholars interested in modern eastern European Jewish


[1]. See, for example, Brian Horowitz, _Empire Jews: Jewish
Nationalism and Acculturation in 19th- and Early 20th-Century Russia_
(Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2009); Olga Litvak, _Conscription and the
Search for Modern Russian Jewry_ (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 2006); Natan M. Meir, _Kiev, Jewish Metropolis: A History,
1859-1914_ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Benjamin
Nathans, _Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial
Russia _(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Yohan
Petrovsky-Shtern, _The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish
Life in East Europe _(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
2014); Jeffery Veidlinger, _Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian
Empire _(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009); and Robert
Weinberg, _Blood Libel in Late Imperial Russia: The Ritual Murder
Trial of Mendel Beilis _(Bloomington: Indiana University Press,

[2]. Evgenii M. Avrutin, _Jews and the Imperial State: Identification
Politics in Tsarist Russia _(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
2010); Nicholas B. Breyfogle, _Heretics and Colonizers: Forging
Russia's Empire in the South Caucasus _(Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 2005); ChaeRan Y. Freeze, _Jewish Marriage and
Divorce in Imperial Russia _(Hanover, NH: University Press of New
England, 2002); John Doyle Klier, _Imperial Russia's Jewish Question,
1855-1881 _(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and Paul W.
Werth, _The Tsar's Foreign Faiths: Toleration and the Fate of
Religious Freedom in Imperial Russia _(Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2014).

[3]. Russian Orthodox Christianity was in no sense unique in
attributing apostasy to acts of "seduction," "temptation," or

Citation: Michael C. Hickey. Review of Schainker, Ellie R.,
_Confessions of the Shtetl: Converts from Judaism in Imperial Russia,
1817-1906_. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52719

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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