Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Todd M. Endelman's "Leaving the Jewish Fold"

Todd Endelman is Professor Emeritus of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. His books include The Jews of Georgian England, 1714-1830; Radical Assimilation in English Jewish History, 1656-1945; The Jews of Britain, 1656-2000; and Broadening Jewish History: Towards a Social History of Ordinary Jews. He is currently writing a biography of Redcliffe N. Salaman, communal notable, race scientist, country gentleman, and historian of the potato.

He applied “Page 99 Test” to his new book Leaving the Jewish Fold: Conversion and Radical Assimilation in Modern Jewish History and reported the following:
Leaving the Jewish Fold records the paths by which hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe and America detached themselves from the communities into which they were born from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. It argues that religious conviction was rarely a motive for Jews who converted to Christianity and that those who left the fold were driven above all by pragmatic concerns – especially the desire to escape the stigma of Jewishness and its social, occupational, and emotional burdens. The book analyzes the social settings, national contexts, and historical circumstances that encouraged Jews to abandon Judaism and those that worked to the opposite effect, strengthening communal ties. It concludes that over time liberal societies, like Great Britain and the United States, were as likely to promote radical assimilation and the dissolution of Jewish ties as more hostile, illiberal societies, like Germany and Russia.

On page 99, I take up the fascinating case of the conversion of Moshe (ca. 1774-ca. 1853), the youngest son of the founder of the Lubavich Hasidic dynasty (the Habad sect), Shneur Zalman of Lyady, in 1820. Moshe was at odds with his brothers over the succession to their father’s position. He was also emotionally unstable. The combination of family discord and mental illness in all likelihood drove him to convert to Christianity, for which he was rewarded by the tsarist regime with a government position in St. Petersburg. He later was committed to an insane asylum, where he died. His conversion has proven to be an embarrassment to the leadership of the contemporary Habad movement, which vigorously contests the facts.

I use the example of Moshe to illustrate how conversion functioned more broadly as an escape from desperation and destitution for thousands of Jews in nineteenth-century Russia. Convicted Jewish criminals, for example, were allowed, until 1862, to escape punishment or to lighten their punishment if they chose baptism. Sons and daughters who were estranged from their families and women who were trapped in abusive marriages also could escape their plights by becoming Christians. I also note that in the case of nineteenth-century Russia prior acculturation, incomplete integration, and extensive identification with another national group were not factors in encouraging these conversions, since most converts there were unfamiliar with Russian culture and ignorant of Christian doctrine before being baptized.
Learn more about Leaving the Jewish Fold at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue