Shtetls, Taverns, and Baptism

Ellie R. Schainker

Issachar ber Ryback. My Village, 1917. Lithograph on paper. Courtesy of Minotaure Gallery Tel Aviv.
As a narrative device in Hebrew, Yiddish, and other vernacular literatures, the tavern has served as a metonym for the rural Jewish encounter with the local Christian population—it is economically generated and culturally conflicted, but socially facilitates quotidian exchanges between Jew and non-Jew. Hasidic rebbes may have feared interfaith intimacy in the remote, unsupervised villages of eastern Europe, but historians and Jewish and Russian contemporaries more often mapped the phenomenon of modern Jewish conversion onto the city, where institutions of higher education, socioeconomic mobility, and a culture of leisure and consumerism facilitated interfaith mixing and sociocultural integration. Moreover, unlike the remote but family-oriented village, the city was thought to offer choice and anonymity, freeing individual Jews from the controlling gaze of organized Jewish communities. In addition to its urban narrative of modern Jewish conversion, imperial Russian history has tended to focus on the army and university as the twin centers of radical Jewish assimilation, serving as bookends to the reform period and its failed project of Jewish integration. Yet, the urban and impersonal institutional backdrop of modern conversion does not tell the full story of conversions from Judaism. As seen in the historical-cultural space of the tavern, conversions were a product of face-to-face encounters rather than an impersonal, instrumental border crossing. Moreover, by locating conversions from Judaism in the villages and small towns of the Pale of Settlement, we get a picture of voluntary conversions undertaken in the thick of Jewish life, laying bare the myths of Jewish separatism and the social death of the convert following baptism. Commercial coexistence undergirded social interactions between Jews and their neighbors, and it is these interactions, usually "within heavily prescribed roles," that frame the cultural and confessional border crossings analyzed here.

Archival and published stories about female converts and taverns in the late imperial period juxtaposed with conversion stories from the pre-reform period suggest that there were many continuities in the social threads of conversion from the early nineteenth century to the turn of the twentieth century, wherein individual conversions were facilitated by social relationships and cultural fluencies forged before baptism. In this way, the tavern complements such urban meeting grounds as the eighteenth-century salon or twentiethcentury coffee house, suggesting that Jewish-Christian sociocultural encounters in the modern age did not only occur in the cosmopolitan centers of Europe.

E. Iakovlev. Zhidovskaia karchma [Jewish Tavern], 1868. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.
In July 1871, an eighteen-year-old Jewess, Malka Mendeliovna Lin, with a baby son in tow, was asked to give a deposition before the Grodno police as to why and how she came to the provincial city of Grodno to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. She explained that she had lived with her parents, who were tavern keepers in the town of Bel'sk (Grodno Province), and in 1870 she decided to convert after a soldier in the 102nd Viatka Infantry Regiment who had impregnated her promised to marry her if she converted. Fearful that her parents would discover her pregnancy, she received assistance from the infantry unit to go to Grodno, where she gave birth to a son. As a single mother wary of her family's wrath, Lin asked the unit to petition a local convent in Grodno to give her shelter and prepare her for baptism. Before the convent was able to complete a background check on Lin, she became ill and received an emergency baptism in the care of the army. Lin's shot-gun baptism was approved by the Lithuanian Orthodox Consistory, which then allowed the Grodno provincial administration to follow the usual protocol governing Jewish conversions: a onetime monetary handout (twenty-five rubles in this case), deregistration from the neophyte's Jewish community, and a nine-month window of time in which to choose a new legal social status (rod zhizni), namely, a new tax-paying community (obshchestvo) and estate (soslovie).

The archival evidence of Malka Lin's conversion illustrates how growing up in a tavern with frequent access to, and intimate encounters with, Christians educated Jews about Christianity and facilitated sociability with non-Jews. Although Malka Lin does not explicitly say that she met her lover at the tavern, one can guess that the tavern was the meeting ground for Lin and Private Erokhin. Russian soldiers from the interior stationed in the Pale were often the conduits of informal, unscripted Russian Orthodox proselytizing. Though ethnic Russians were present in the western borderlands, and the Russification campaigns of the 1860s following the Polish insurrection attempted to assert Russian Orthodox hegemony, the lands in the northwest of the empire were historically part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and continued to be heterogeneously ethnoconfessional—Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Catholic, Uniate, Lutheran. The tavern was not just a space of interaction between people of different religions, but also a space where Russians from the empire's interior could meet and interact with the local population. This is conveyed in the memoirs of Russian writer F. V. Bulgarin (1846–1847), where he recounts his journey in the Pale of Jewish Settlement with a Russian captain who came to a Jewish inn near Kovno and fell in love with the tavern keeper's beautiful young wife, Rivka. The Jewess ended up converting to marry the Russian captain.

In thinking about the tavern and the provincial spaces where Lin and other Jews converted, Bel'sk was by no means a remote village or place with a small Jewish population. Unlike Hirsz Abramowicz and Hasidic rebbes, who mapped interfaith intimacies onto village spaces lacking a Jewish communal infrastructure (such as a synagogue and minyan), the women profiled here crossed confessional boundaries in provincial towns that had Jewish communal institutions and a significant Jewish population. Although Jews made up only 12 percent of the population of the Pale of Jewish Settlement, they often made up from a third to a half of the inhabitants of its small towns. While acknowledging the nuances of interfaith relations in remote, small village settings, close confessional contacts buoyed conversions in small town settings as well. Although contemporary Jews like Hasidic rebbes and even modern Jewish writers and imperial officials, as we will see, were intent on demarcating Jewish and Christian space along town and village lines, the reality was that physical and cultural boundaries were fluid.