A Question of Identity: Iberian Conversos in Historical Perspective

A Question of Identity: Iberian Conversos in Historical Perspective

A Question of Identity: Iberian Conversos in Historical Perspective

A Question of Identity: Iberian Conversos in Historical Perspective

Synopsis

In 1391 many of the Jews of Spain were forced to convert to Christianity, creating a new group whose members would be continually seeking a niche for themselves in society. The question of identity was to play a central role in the lives of these and later converts whether of Spanish or Portuguese heritage, for they could not return to Judaism as long as they remained on the Peninsula, and their place in the Christian world would never be secure. This book considers the history of the Iberian conversos-both those who remained in Spain and Portugal and those who emigrated. Wherever they resided the question of identity was inescapable. The exile who chose France or England, where Jews could not legally reside, was faced with different considerations and options than the converso who chose Holland, a newly formed Protestant country where Jews had not previously resided. Choosing Italy entailed a completely different set of options and dilemmas. Renée Levine Melammed compares and contrasts the lives of the New Christians of the Iberian Peninsula with those of these countries and the development of their identity and sense of ethnic solidarity with "those of the Nation." Exploring the knotty problem of identity she examines a great variety of individual choices and behaviors. Some conversos tried to be sincere Catholics and were not allowed to do so. Others tried but failed either theologically or culturally. While many eventually opted to form Jewish communities outside the Peninsula, others were unable to make a total commitment to Judaism and became "cultural commuters" who could and did move back and forth between two worlds whereas others had "fuzzy" or attenuated Jewish identities. In addition, the encounter with modernity by the descendants of conversos is examined in three communities, Majorca, Belmonte (Portugal) and the Southwestern United States, revealing that even today the question of identity is still a pressing issue. Offering the only broad historical survey of this fascinating and complex group of migrants, this book will appeal to a wide range of academic and general readers.

Excerpt

This book is the product of preparing and teaching courses on the subject of the conversos and studying their movements from locale to locale and from century to century. in no way do I presume to be presenting a comprehensive history of the conversos, but rather to be exposing the reader to a historical perspective. There are many communities that are not included here, such as the conversos of the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, and the New World. in the first two destinations, one witnesses the union of most of the conversos with their Sephardi brethren who left Spain in 1492; thus, it is more difficult to trace the newcomers who were absorbed into established communities. This is not to say that they did not have noteworthy experiences or, for that matter, crises; on the contrary, rabbinic responsa (queries to and replies from legal experts) attest to the legal dilemmas faced by many of the conversos who joined these Jewish communities. Needless to say, the New World also presents a set of problems unique to the colonial experience.

At the same time, I ventured a chronological leap. After dealing with the Western European communities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I did not follow their progress. Some of them simply disappeared though assimilation, while others became bona fide Sephardi Jews. Most did not continue to deal with the question of identity, which is the concern of this book and the reason why I leaped into the twentieth century. There I chose three groups who faced the dilemma of maintaining and/or forming their identities under completely different conditions. Yet the fact that in the twenti-

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