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 ẓedek, 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 Ḥaredi 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 ẓedek 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.
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