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Ellie R. SchainkerArthur Blank Family Foundation Associate Professor of Modern European Jewish History

Ellie Schainker, Arthur Blank Family Foundation Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies (Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania, 2010; B.A. University of Pennsylvania, 2000).  East European Jewish History; Modern European Jewish History; Imperial Russian history; religious conversions and confessional politics in Russia’s western borderlands.

I am a historian of modern Jewish history, religion, and empire who focuses on the experience of Jews in the ethnically and religiously diverse Russian empire.

My first book, Confessions of the Shtetl: Converts from Judaism in Imperial Russia, 1817-1906 (Stanford University Press, 2016), won the 2017 National Jewish Book Award for Writing Based on Archival Material (JDC-Herbert Katzki Award).  The book analyzes the experiences of Russian Jews who converted to Christianity and the implications of these sensitive boundary-crossings for understanding larger issues of toleration, interreligious exchange, and gender relations in Russia’s multi-confessional empire.  I argue that baptism did not constitute a total break with Jewishness or the Jewish community and that conversion marked the start of a complicated experiment with new forms of identity and belonging.  The study breaks new ground by moving the story of minority integration in the modern era from urban centers to rural peripheries, and by challenging the myth of Jewish cultural and social separation. The book challenges current thinking on conversion as radical assimilation and offers new perspectives on imperial management of religious difference, the production of tolerance and intolerance, and the relationship between religious identity and modern nationhood.  Research and writing of the book was supported by a Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies Fellowship and Emory University Research Council.  A podcast interview about the book with the New Books Network is available here:

My second book project, Rites of Empire: Jewish Religious Reforms in Imperial Russia, 1850-1917, continues my engagement with the themes of religion and empire and the politics of toleration.  The new book offers a socio-cultural history of secularism in imperial Russia by examining Jewish and state-driven projects for Jewish religious reforms alongside of changing grassroots Jewish religious sensibilities and practices.  I am particularly interested in the ways that secularist critiques of Jewish law and ritual evolved, especially in relation to parallel imperialist discourses on religious fanaticism, both Jewish and Muslim.  I analyze the Russian imperialist agenda in the late nineteenth century to shape minority religion and make Jewish law and life more intelligible to modern conceptions of religion and the sacred.  I use this framing to examine grassroots Jewish projects for religious reforms and changing religious practices at this time.  Rites of Empire charts new territory in Jewish and Russian history by exploring non-traditional forms of Judaism in the Russian empire through the upheavals of WWI and the Russian Revolution.  My second project further engages the method of analyzing Jewish society and culture from the margins, and it further explores how religion in the modern age—rather than in decline or subject to privatization—has been and continues to be mobilized in the political realm.  The project has received support from the Yad Hanadiv/Beracha Foundation Visiting Fellowship in Jewish Studies.

Research Interests:

  • East European Jewish History
  • Imperial Russian History
  • Religion, Toleration, and Empire
  • Conversion Studies
  • Law and Comparative Secularisms

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