The Cantonist Struggle and the Birth of the New Jew
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In 1827, Tsar Nicholas I instituted the Cantonist Decree, which led to the impressment of thousands of Jewish children into the Russian army. While officially, Jewish religious freedom was to be protected, the unofficial goal of the Cantonist system was to assimilate Russia’s Jewish minority. By encouraging the new institution of the Chapper or Kidnapper, the new legislation was successful in undermining the religious authority of the Kahal. Furthermore, many Cantonist children were coerced to convert to Russian Orthodoxy through abusive means. However, although the Cantonist system succeeded in converting over one third of Jewish recruits1 and led to the dissolution of the Kahal, the non-standard treatment of the Jewish minority contributed to a feeling of otherness that culminated in the strengthening of Jewish identity in spite of institutionalized anti-Semitism.