Sunday, August 20, 2006


My dear, very few readers: Two more days to go, before I'm unplugged from the great network. I'm sitting here amid the boxes and wish I were either somewhere else, or two weeks from now.

Here's another installment about the times of my favourite converso. My dream is, after I finish my PhD, to get a grant and go to Salamanca, Spain, where I will research Luis's life directly from his writings, follow his travels and maybe find out where he was in the 18 months that are missing from the records of his life.

Conversion – the ultimate assimilation?

Can conversion be defined as the ultimate form of assimilation? It strives for a fundamental change in identity, so that the new religious self replaces and supersedes the old, discarded one. In his book on Luis de Leon’s life and work, Colin P. Thompson maintains that “We know well enough from twentieth century experience how within three or four generations from emigration, resettlement or conversion the characteristics of the former culture can be all but effaced and people lose their awareness of having one belonged to an alien race.”[1]

But identity is a complex mental configuration, in which many, interdependent variables play important roles. Converts find that even as external identity markers, such as distinctive clothing and religious practices are quickly cast off or gradually disappear, there will still remain elements of their old selves tenaciously preserved much longer and even never completely cast off. One such element is the moral compass, an ethos at the core of the being, which was constructed by one’s unique heritage through the circumstances, teachings and examples of family and friends. It is a “habitus” which is naturally and unconsciously transmitted from one generation to the next. These elements are so enduring that they stymie the strategies of re-classification and integration into Gentile society by adoption of non-Jewish markers.

Thompson’s opinion may hold true for resettlement and cultural assimilation – these are relatively easy to arrive at. It does not, however, account for the tenacity of Jewish awareness in later generations[2]. Religious assimilation is thus rendered virtually an endless process, and conversion does not mean the termination of Jewish identity. When all Jewish markers have been lost, interred and forgotten, core identity can survive objectively and subjectively. The status of being “Converted” is fully compatible with often consciously accepted or affirmed feeling of belonging to the Jewish people. This fact implies that the state of convertedness can hardly be accepted in its accomplished form, it is also reversible[3].

I find the conversos of later generations an enigmatic phenomenon. One would assume that the term itself “converso” would be applicable to the person who underwent conversion, either by his/her own choice or by the wish of their parents. Some of the loudest voices raised against the policies of the inquisition and the “Limpieza de Sangre” guiding principle came from first and second-generation conversos. Very often, even third and fourth generation conversos expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Of those, many had no personal recollection of Judaism; some might have been ignorant of their Jewish roots. However, the intellectual environment in which they were raised encouraged curiosity, moral self-assurance and adherence to idealistic goals[4].

[1] [1] Thompson, Colin P., “The Strife of Tongues” Cambridge University Press, 1988 pp.146
[2] The resistance of the adoptive society to the new comers is also an undeniable factor in the convert’s inability to arrive at a complete closure of past identity.
[3] Karady, Victor, and Don, Yehuda, ed., “A Social and Economic History of Central European Jewry” pp.98-100
[4] Gitlitz, p. 85


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