AJS Review




Articles

The Legend of Ger [Zdotu ]edek of Wilno as Polemic and Reassurance


Magda Teter a1
a1 Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut

Some time in the second half of the eighteenth century, there emerged a Jewish legend that glorified a conversion to Judaism and a martyr's death of a Polish noble from a very prominent Polish aristocratic family, sometimes referred to as Walentyn Potocki, or Graf Potocki—the legend of ger [zdotu ]edek, a righteous convert, of Wilno. The story was enthusiastically embraced by Eastern European Jews, and it subsequently became a subject of numerous novels and novellas. Even today its appeal continues. It is currently mentioned on a number of Jewish web sites as “a true story of a Polish Hrabia (count) . . . who descended from a long line of noble Christian rulers and who sacrificed wealth and power to convert from Christianity to Judaism,” and it serves as a basis for school plays in some [Hdotu ]aredi schools for girls. Although converts to Judaism were not unheard of in the premodern era, few stories of this kind emerged. Rabbinic authorities had an ambiguous attitude toward non-Jewish conversions, and few encouraged proselytizing or glorified non-Jewish converts. The legend of ger [zdotu ]edek of Wilno, though said to be a true story, appears to be a carefully crafted tale of conversion, a polemical and apologetic response to a number of challenges that the Polish Jewish community faced from the mid-eighteenth century.