Religious Conversion In 19th Century Moldavia

The baptized JewIn the late 1990s I had planned to include at the end of my book The Imaginary Jew in Romanian Culture a chapter entitled The Baptized Jew. As I worked on this subject I realized that it had been extensively discussed by the historian Mihai-Răzvan Ungureanu in a series of scholarly studies published in several cultural magazines or academic periodicals. I finally gave up the idea of writing the respective chapter. I only sent my readers to the studies signed by Mihai-Răzvan Ungureanu, specifying that the subject had been practically covered by him. The above mentioned studies were in fact parts of his doctoral thesis that he was working on at that time, and that was recently published under the title Religious conversion and integration in Moldavia at the beginning of modern age (Iaşi, "Al. I. Cuza" University Publishing House, 2004). It is an exceptional book, which has not, unfortunately, stirred the interest it should have. The excellence of the research consists in its novelty. The approach is original in the choice of the subject and of the documents used as a source. Documents regarding the daily life of the Moldavians in the first half of the 19th century are analyzed. The author deliberately abandons the study of "high" history, the one concerning the exploits of the kings (a solemn one, somehow deprived of vitality) and focuses on the "low" history, the history of the common people. It is a type of approach – of private life – which has recently developed in Romania to in an attempt at catching up with similar research in Western Europe (where such studies have been being published for many decades now). In such cases, an approach from a strictly historical perspective runs the risk of just "skimming" the phenomena it studies and of lacking any depth unless it is accompanied by a complementary approach from a sociological, anthropological or history of mentalities perspective. The European context We must say from the very beginning that the phenomenon that Mr. Ungureanu analyzes in the context of the Romanian Principalities between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries is somehow synchronous with the one of the then Central Europe. In full agreement with the precepts of European Enlightenment, but also with those of the Jewish one (Haskala), the Jews in Central Europe gradually abandoned their traditional garments (clothes and headgear) and learned the language of the majority in an attempt at integrating in (some of them even at being assimilated by) the social, professional and even aristocratic structures of the "host nation". They literally followed the advice of their co-religionist Moses Mendelsohn: "You must be Germans on the street and Jews at home." Many Jews (ironically, almost all of them members of the Mendelsohn family) went to the end of the road, deciding to take the baptism. Heinrich Heine, the poet, was convinced that that was the only way in which he could climb the social ladder to the top. He called his baptism certificate "my entrance ticket to European culture". Maybe that one of the few shortcomings of the book is the fact that it doesn't sufficiently place the information about Moldavia in a wider European context. The historian Mihai-Răzvan Ungureanu is not concerned only with the Jews that converted to Christianity, but with all the people of various faiths that chose to embrace Orthodox Christianity, in most cases in order to be more quickly integrated or to reach high social position more easily or to get the right to practice professions that were exclusively reserved for the majority Christian population. "Baptism out of conviction is relatively rare", concludes the author. However, the main characters of the book are baptized Jews. They change their names after becoming Christians. Once obtained, the new status of a Christian had to be overtly displayed. Thus, most of them call themselves Botezatu (the Baptized) and more rarely Neumann (in the sense of new man). The situation in Spain had been the same in the 14th-15th centuries. Many of the Jews that had been converted to Christianity willy-nilly, the so-called conversos, often took names having a symbolic meaning such as Christian or Pablo, since Saint Paul/Saul the apostle was the "patron" of Christianized Jews.  The diachronic perspective I'll open a short parenthesis here. It is obvious that the history of the conversion of the Jews to Christianity on the Romanian territories does not begin in the modern age. In 1591, the Prince of Moldavia, Petru Şchiopul (Peter the Lame) secretly married his mistress Irina Botezata ("the mother of Prince Ştefan"). In the Code of Law of Vasile Lupu (Iaşi, 1646) important legal benefits were listed for the "Jew that will come to the Christian faith and will take the baptism". Similar legislation, encouraging religious proselytism was also enacted at that time in Wallachia. Compiled during the reign of Prince Matei Basarab, The Precepts of Law (1652) stipulated that "a baptized Jew will be cleansed of all his sins through the gift of baptism and he will remain pure as a newborn child". Case of forced conversions existed, undoubtedly, but they were exceptional, as those performed in Iaşi by the savage Cossacks led by Timush Hmelnitski: "The Jews were put in chains – writes Paul of Aleppo in 1653 – and tortured all night long in order to accept baptism, but also to declare their fortunes." Generally, conversions were voluntary. An interesting example is mentioned by Paul of Aleppo again in the diary of the travel of Patriarch Makarios of Antioch in the Romanian Principalities. In 1657, in Târgovişte, the two meet a converted Jew (a former kosher butcher), baptized by Prince Matei Basarab himself. After his conversion, the prince gave him a low rank in the nobility (second doorman) and put him in possession of a small estate. As it often happens, this baptized Jew became "one of the staunchest Christians", actively involved in the conversion of other of his former co-religionists. The archives of the Metropolitan See Mihai-Răzvan Ungureanu tries to establish the amplitude of the phenomenon of religious conversions in 19th century Iaşi by inventorying all the people registered under the names of Botezatu (or Botez) in the fiscal censuses (catagrafii). His endeavor does not stand many chances to succeed as it is strictly empirical. The account is more accurate as far as the dynamics of conversions is concerned when the author analyzes a not so well known document that can be found in the State Archives of Iaşi, namely The Register for the people that were baptized, coming from other religions to the true faith. The document was compiled between 1819-1832 by the members of the Metropolitan See Offices. We can thus establish more accurately an average of religious conversions: about 34 per year (approximately 3 every month!). The overall figure of conversions in that period is 433, which means roughly 1% of a population of about 40,000 of the Moldavian capital. Although apparently insignificant the figure is, however, significant, from a sociological point of view. According to the criterion of their former religion, most of the converts to Orthodoxy are Greek Catholics from Transylvania, then Catholics proper (Poles as a rule), Jews, Protestants (Hungarians, Germans), Armenians and even Muslims. Another documentary source successfully used by the author was the archives of the Office of The Metropolitan See of Iaşi, which contains the records of divorces for the respective area and period. A similar research, focused on Wallachia in the 18th century, was carried out by Constanţa Ghiţulescu: In Shalwars and Turkish Hats. Church, Sexuality, Marriage and Divorce in 18th century Wallachia (Humanitas Publishing House, 2004). She fruitfully analyzed the marriage and divorce registers in the archives of the offices of the Bucharest Metropolitan See.  "A Christian only in name, but still a Jew in deed" In the case of couples where both partners are converts or only one of them is, the grounds for separation are the usual ones in the case of a divorce: "unhappiness in the married life", "addiction to drinking", "fornication", "ill treatment" or, simply, "tyrannical behaviour that is not fit for me to put on paper" as Prince Grigorie Suţu, the heir apparent, writes in his complaint of 1843. The complaints filed for obtaining a divorce and the particular reasons mentioned in them are particularly interesting. The convert is complained about by his partner that he or she is still faithful to his former religion. In 14th-15th century Spain, such false conversos, or crypto-Jews (suspected or genuine marrani) were dealt with by the Inquisition itself. In 18th-19th century Moldavia there was no specialized institution for religious "deviations", but in such circumstances the divorce was immediately ruled by the ecclesiastical court. In order to get a divorce, it was enough for the partner to declare, and for the witnesses to confirm, that the apostate had offended the rites of the Orthodox Church, that he or she had desecrated – by his words or deeds – the sacred texts or liturgical objects. Thus, around 1800, the plaintiff Safta of Chişinău complains to metropolitan bishop Iacov Stamate that her husband, Andrei Botezatu, a converted Jew, beats her and swears at her, "using smutty words that offend the law and the Holy Cross and even the Holy Mother of Jesus". Even more, Safta complains, "he threatens me with the pistol and with the sword and keeps no holiday of those that we, the Christians celebrate over the year, and he will not go to confession, nor will he take the Holy Communion, and thus he pulls me down with him into the precipice of the eternal damnation of the soul". In 1829, a certain "Maria botezata" addresses metropolitan bishop Veniamin Costache with a complaint about her husband "Ilie, a former Jew that became a Christian". She complains that he "does not go to the church any more", "does not follow our law" and urges her "to go to the Polish land where he came from, meaning to come back to his original aberration". Maria asks to be "untied" from the bond with "such a man who only bears the name of Christian but has remained in deed a Jew", because she "will not renounce my faith and will not live any more with a perjurer and an apostate, a criminal that offends our law." The new converts knew they were suspected of practicing occult rites and of not being loyal to Christianity. Costache Botezatu of Iaşi, for instance, is accused by his wife in 1835 of "swearing with different filthy words that offend the sacredness of our faith." He promises to accomplish all the Christian rites "lest I should be suspected, like a newly baptized convert, that I do not follow the precepts of the Christian faith as required by the law". If he fails to keep his promise, "by doing otherwise", Costache accepts to be "punished" and "severed from the Christian law and the Church, our mother". By means of all these complaints, M.-R. Ungureanu offers us not only a documentary on the old Romanian mentalities, but also exceptional samples of old Romanian. And, above all, a mirror of the interpersonal and institutional relations in Moldavia at the beginning of the modern age. Success stories among the apostates Some of the converts managed to work their way up in the then Moldavian society. M.-R. Ungureanu has chosen some representative examples. Constantin Botezatu came from the family of a baptized Jew, a tailor, mentioned in the Records of Iaşi in 1775, and had a remarkable career, becoming a nobleman. He and his descendants became part of the upper classes as shown by Cellarer Sion in his List of the Noble Families of Moldavia: "From a baptized Jew was cavalry commander Constantin Botezatu raised to nobility and he had three sons: sword bearer Răducanu, tax collector Ilie and seneschal Costache". Another example is the famous engineer Joseph Anton Baiardi, an Italian catholic who drew an exact topographic plan of Iaşi in 1819. Some of his sons were raised to various ranks in the nobility by Prince Mihai Sturdza. Costache became a purveyor, Alecu a High Steward, then a tax collector and a ban (high official). All his children "embraced the true faith". The destiny of Samoil Botezatu is also interesting. He was the first Romanian teacher of German, the headmaster of the first school for girls in Moldavia under the Russian occupation of the 1830s, and a translator of German plays. In 1830, his father complained to the Orthodox bishop of Bucovina that his son was persecuted and was required to convert to Catholicism if he wanted to follow a teaching career in Cernăuţi: "those who don't embrace the Popish faith cannot be appointed teachers". Censorship, corruption and intellectual police However, the most spectacular case of apostasy is that of Mihail Vitlimescu. His name as a Christian comes from a series of corrupted forms of the name of Bethlehem: Bethlehem – Viflaim – Vicleim – Viclimescu – Vitlimescu. Cellarer Sion briefly presents him in his List of the Noble Families of Moldavia: "A baptized Jew, a teacher of the Jewish language, a servant (librarian) in the house of Prince Mihai Sturdza who ennobled him." Vitlimescu knows – according to his own statements – "four essential languages: French, German, Moldavian and Jewish." In 1844 he is made a noble by the prince (the man who had baptized him, his godfather) and raised to the dignity of steward. He was also appointed censor in Jewish. From this position, Mihail Vitlimescu does the work of an "intellectual policeman" (in M.-R. Ungureanu's words), authorizing or not the import of Jewish books in Moldavia and the printing of Hebrew or Yiddish manuscripts. As a member of the Commission for Censorship of Books for Reading it was his "duty" to prevent the spreading of materials that were "offensive to the official religion of the country", to the "government, the laws or the institutions of the country", or to the "morality of our people as they urge us to commit sinful and filthy deeds". Rightly or wrongly hated by the Jewish community, Vitlimescu was accused of corruption, namely that he had asked money for his authorizations. He was sacked from his position of censor, then re-employed, and he remained a very influential man in Moldavia for three decades. Protestant missionaries in Moldavia The last section of the book is a historical sketch of several British Protestant missions to Moldavia in the 19th century meant to Christianize the Jews. The mission of preaching the Gospel to the Jews in the Near East and in Eastern Europe (including the Romanian Principalities) was undertaken by the Church of Scotland. The most important delegation sent to the Romanian territories is the one of 1839, led by two Scottish missionaries, Andrew Bonar and Robert McCheyne, members of The Edinburgh Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. After completing their mission, they published a report entitled Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews in which they express their optimism regarding the possibility of converting the Jews of Wallachia and Moldavia to Protestantism. On the basis of this report, the Church of Scotland decided in 1841 to establish a permanent embassy in Iaşi, led by Reverend Daniel Edward. The results of this effort to convert the Moldavian Jews were not spectacular, but the Jewish community periodically manifested its irritation at this overt, and active, attempt at making proselytes among them. The Moldavian memoirs of the reverend's wife, Catherine, as well as her letters, were published in 1867. The book represents a major documentary source on the Moldavian society in the first half of the 19th century. The fact that M.-R. Ungureanu publishes for the first time in Romanian in a Documentary Annex of his book the main chapters of Missionary Life Among the Jews in Moldavia, Galicia and Silesia, signed by Catherine Edward, is praiseworthy. This last section of Mr. Ungureanu's book happily complements another recent research by Carmen Andraş, a study on imagology entitled România şi imaginile ei în literatura de călătorie britanică (Romania and its images in the British travel literature, Dacia Publishing House, Cluj, 2003). The book authored by Mihai-Răzvan Ungureanu is a model of historical and archive research. It practically exhausts a subject that is not only original (the author started almost from nothing, entering a virtually virgin territory), but also an extremely complex and sensitive one, through its racial, confessional, cultural and ritual implications.

by Andrei Oişteanu