New Books Series: Q & A with Ellie R. Schainker about ‘Confessions of the Shtetl’

Ellie R. Schainker, Arthur Blank Family Foundation Assistant Professor of Modern European Jewish History, published Confessions of the Shtetl: Converts from Judaism in Imperial Russia, 1817-1906 with Stanford University Press in 2016. The book won the 2017 National Jewish Book Award for Writing Based on Archival Material (JDC-Herbert Katzki Award). Below, she offers a glimpse into the making of the monograph as a part of the History Department’s series on recent faculty publications.

Books are produced over years if not decades. Give us a sense for the lifespan of this book, from initial idea to final edits. 

Confessions of the Shtetl was born during my course work in grad school from the footnotes of two articles I stumbled across.  I was part of a second-wave of scholars trained in the post-1991 era when former Soviet archives were newly open to western researchers.  I was interested in Russian Jewish history and these articles indicated that there were treasure troves of archival material—should researchers ever gain access–documenting conversions from Judaism in the imperial Russian borderlands, or the famed “shtetls” (Yiddish, small towns) of Eastern Europe that had been idealized by nostalgic modernists and post-Holocaust mourners as the last outpost of authentic Jewish culture and solidarity in the modern period.  These footnotes suggested that there was a larger untold story of interfaith encounter and border-crossing in the demographic heartland of European Jewry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  I hoped that these stories might help us reconceptualize the religious and ethnic diversity of the empire’s western borderlands, the fluidity and permeability of boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, and the relationship between ethno-religious groups and the state which tolerated and even sponsored religious diversity.

What was the research process like?

It was long and exciting.  It took me to Russia, Ukraine, Israel, and New York City during my dissertation years and my early assistant professor years at Emory.  Two aspects of the research stand out: 1) I thought I was fluent in Russian till I had to decipher hand-written nineteenth-century Cyrillic in the archives, and I briefly considered switching careers.  2)  I came to appreciate the Russian archival system which has researchers sign a slip of paper in each archival folio listing every person who ever ordered and read that file.  It looped me into a group of scholars whose footsteps I was following in and whose interests I shared.  It became a kind of game for me in the archives to see if I could discover new files and be the first to sign my name, and it made me feel as part of a virtual research cohort during the sometimes long, lonely days in the archives.

Do you have a favorite chapter or section?

 My favorite section is Part II, which I consider the heart of the book.  This section features many microhistories of converts, their Christian neighbors and romantic partners, and their often irate family and community members.  I love it because it brings to life the human drama of faith and apostasy, and gets at the pathos of historical phenomena that often get overlooked in social-scientific analyses of minority integration and assimilation.

How does this project align with your broad research agenda?

This project is a first step in studying toleration, imperialist critiques of native religion, and how these and other modern developments have allowed people to articulate and experience faith in new ways.