Confessions of the Shtetl

Converts from Judaism in Imperial Russia, 1817-1906

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Ellie R. Schainker
Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
  • Stanford, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , November
     356 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ellie R. Schainker’s study of conversion from Judaism over nearly a century of Russian history applies new approaches drawn from recent work on Imperial Russian history and on conversion in Western European countries, such as France and Germany, to produce a notably original picture of provincial Jewish life. Emphasizing that the Russian Empire’s pretension to religious tolerance was not “a dead letter to be ignored out of hand” (6), Schainker argues that the recognition of Judaism and other “foreign” (inostrannye) faiths as legitimate was a major contribution to the specific character of Russian imperial rule, to the relations between government institutions and believers, and to the practices and experiences of believers themselves. On the one hand, conversion to Orthodoxy was encouraged, and actively managed, by the legal regulation of religious “confessions” (veroispovedaniia). On the other, there was no systematic effort to convert Jews to Christianity, and family members of those who wished to convert were able to use petitionary and other legal mechanisms as a means for contesting apostasy. The reasons for confession went far beyond those traditionally adduced (e.g., access to education), and the community of converts was diverse and fluid, both at any one time and over the decades.

In her first chapter, “The Genesis of Confessional Choice,” Schainker uses materials from case histories in order to tease out the complexities of life choices. As she argues, the paths of conversion were very different: by no means all apostate Jews converted to Orthodoxy, and in some cases parents selected conversion as a route for their children, but eschewed it themselves. In circumstances where a husband committed to strict orthodox practice opposed his wife’s aspirations to higher education, conversion, followed by divorce, could offer a route into a different life. There were cases where converts later returned to Judaism (as Schainker discusses in detail in chapter 5, “Relapsed Converts and Tales of Marranism”). However, a significant role was played by conviction. In some cases, missionary work was actively propounded and directed by “christened Jews” (vykresttsy) themselves, the subject of detailed discussion in the third chapter of the book. 

By the late 19th century, the Russian Empire also had a variety of what Schainker terms “Jewish Christian sects,” such as the Spiritual-Biblical Brotherhood, New Israel, and the New Testament Israelites. In chapter 6, Schainker traces the activities and resonance of these, which she, following Nicholas Breyfogle, places on a “spectrum of religiosity” defying easy categorization. Jewish journalists of the period reacted with irritation to these initiatives, which seemed at once disloyal in terms of heritage and, from a secular perspective, benighted. Yet they were symptomatic of changing attitudes and blurring boundaries at a period when the Governor-General of Poltava could enquire whether Reform Jews were entitled to the incentives offered by the state to converts, and when the term “of Jewish origins” (iz evreev) increasingly imposed ethnic (in Russian parlance, “national”) classifications, rather than confessional distinctions, on the empire’s population.

Schainker’s book is an important contribution to the understanding of how Jews who adhered to the traditional faith, or who on the other hand did not, or indeed on the third hand vacillated between these different positions, reflected the altering sensibilities and categories of the Russian Empire and the country’s shifting political realities. As Schainker emphasizes, this is a study of community rather than individual belief, a portrait of “a society trying to manage the rise of religious choice.” The evocation of religious affinity in Bergeresque terms (chapter 2 is entitled “The Missionary Marketplace”) goes with emphasis on choice and mobility. Rather than a crucible of exclusively Jewish experience, the shtetl, as portrayed in chapters 3 and 4 of the book, offered regular interconfessional contact. Indeed, one of its major social centers, the tavern (traktir) was often managed by members of “the Judaic faith,” as Tsarist official parlance put it. 

Schainker underlines that religious conversion was not always a question of instrumentalizing opportunity or the end result of coercion. While paying due attention to the ways in which underage recruits (“cantonists”) were bullied by the military into accepting Christianization, a policy first condoned and then actively encouraged under Nicholas I, she also suggests that many conversions were voluntary. Above all, the book represents conversion in terms of an often confusing web of everyday practices, in which a young woman who converted in order to marry a Russian Orthodox neighbor might petition for a reversal when she broke off the engagement, or a former soldier, accused of secret reconversion to Judaism, might be cleared by the Tsarist courts. The book draws on an impressive range of primary and secondary (particularly English-language) material, is elegantly structured, fluently argued, and (a sprinkling of typos in Russian words aside) impeccably presented. It is a major achievement. 

One possible caveat does occur. While Schainker insists that she wishes to avoid drawing conclusions about people’s internal spiritual convictions, the espousal of the terminology of choice (which is never analytically unpicked) implies a whole range of assumptions about self-perception and agency that could have been treated more self-consciously. This unexamined rationalism extends to another dimension too. Schainker is sensitive to the resonance of literary representations and the role of conversion in the imaginary, but the bulk of her discussion draws on materials processed in the institutions of Russian imperial governance and reflects the presuppositions of the rational bureaucracy that created them. Petitions are, obviously, not just records of ways in which people negotiate with the institutions of state, but ways in which they frame their actions to particular ends, and the ways in which such texts are recorded and processed by government departments also has a shaping role. In practice, the hiatus between behavior and the records of it here may have been wider, and the efforts to harmonize them more fraught, than Schainker’s discussion would suggest. But, in setting her face against “lachrymose” accounts of sunderance and finality such as the burial service for Teyge in Fiddler on the Roof, Schainker has created an unexpected picture of late Imperial Russian Jewish society that deserves wide and scrupulous attention.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Catriona Kelly is Professor of History at Oxford University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ellie R. Schainker is the Arthur Blank Family Foundation Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Emory University.



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