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.
Ellie R. Schainker, “Shtetls, Taverns, and Baptism”, AJS Perspectives (Spring 2017), 22.