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  • On Faith and FanaticismConverts from Judaism and the Limits of Toleration in Late Imperial Russia
  • Ellie R. Schainker (bio)

She was a convert from Judaism in the imperial Russian provinces assailed by her family and friends for communal betrayal. Brought to life in the Ukrainian artist Nikolai Kornilovich Pimonenko’s painting Zhertva fanatizma (Victim of Fanaticism; 1899), this converted Jewess was inspired by an actual female convert in a shtetl (Yiddish: small town) in the Pale of Jewish Settlement in late imperial Russia who converted to marry her Christian lover and was then tormented by her former coreligionists. Although contemporary Jews decried Pimonenko’s art as antisemitic for casting the former Jewess as an innocent victim of Jewish wrath and aggression, they also appropriated the sketch and another like it for circulation on postcards with the accompanying Hebrew words ha-meshumedet (the Apostate) and ha-bogedet (the Traitoress), thus renarrating the events to cast moral blame on the neophyte and legitimize the collective ire of the Jewish community.1 More than a controversial episode in the artistic representation of Jews, Pimonenko’s illustration is the product of a long history of storytelling about conversion as a conflictual boundary crossing. It gives figural rendering to a wide-ranging conversation over the course of the 19th century about Jewish violence in the face of conversion. The popular press and jurists alike mediated this conversation in the late imperial period to mark Jews as both religious and social “fanatics,” whose violent intolerance toward apostate kin rendered them undeserving of imperial toleration. In particular, conservative voices in the late imperial press linked stories of conversion-inspired violence to the medieval ritual murder accusation to generate a new blood libel myth in which Jews ritually sacrificed their converted family members. [End Page 753]

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Postcard of Nikolai Kornilovich Pimonenko’s 1899 painting Victim of Fanaticism, printed by a Jewish publisher active in Berlin and retitled in Hebrew ha-meshumedet (The Apostate). Similarly, the German title reads Baptized Jewess in Native Village.

Credit: Collection of Prof. Shalom Sabar, Jerusalem.

Violence as a concept long framed the relation of the state and imperial subjects to conversion as a boundary crossing during the long 19th century. Many Jews narrated conversion as Christian violence against vulnerable Jewish children; and conversions for many converts and their clerical and administrative allies were often understood as endangered by the violence of Jewish families and communities who sought to physically repress deviant behavior. Violence in these stories not only consisted in the infliction of physical pain but also inhered in the language of dispute over the violation of confessional and communal boundaries. Claims of physical harm referred either to direct or to structural violence—at times religious coercion and at times perceived assaults on religious truth, thus causing despair and humiliation.2 The stories of aggression told about Jews expanded the scope of violence in the Russian Empire to everyday forms of conflict, suggesting that minority groups like the Jews were usurping the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.

Beginning in the mid-1860s and the era of reform, conservative voices in the Russian press, in line with some jurists, harnessed these stories of violence to create a narrative of gendered violence in which Jews were designated as [End Page 754] inherently fanatical. This discrediting discourse came on the heels of the 1863 Polish insurrection and ensuing Russification campaigns in the northwestern region. In addition, the 1864 judicial reforms provided public, civil channels for cantonist converts from Judaism to challenge their coerced baptisms in the pre-reform army and for prosecutors to indict relapsed converts and their alleged Jewish enablers on charges of leading neophytes astray or of “seduction” (sovrashchenie).3 In this late imperial discourse of Jewish violence, the female convert as victim was used to construct an ethnoconfessional political order that set “fanatical” minorities apart from the rational, tolerant, and civilized imperial order. The female victim symbolized the vulnerability of religious truth to heterodoxy, especially because women were identified as vessels of religion across faith communities. In addition, exclusion and humiliation often breed intimate and domestic violence. Thus gendered violence served...


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pp. 753-780
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