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By David M. Gitlitz
University of Rhode Island
(edited from an interview by David Rabinovitch)

Spain had an enormous Jewish community in the middle ages and toward the end of the 14th century large numbers of them were converted to Catholicism. A "converso" is literally someone who was formerly Jewish and is now Catholic. They converted for all kinds of reasons. Some of them were forced; some of them went willingly into Catholicism. The term converso was applied not only to the generation that converted but also to their children and their grandchildren and on down through the generations.

In 1391 there were terrible riots sweeping across southern Spain. People were offered the choice of converting or being killed. Some 20,000 converted under those circumstances. They had no intention of becoming Catholic. They were not educated in Catholicism and they went on living their Jewish lives as they wanted. Twenty years later there were a series of preaching campaigns run by the Dominicans, which converted many tens of thousands of Jews, largely by persuasion. These people were interested in becoming Catholic, of joining the mainstream Catholic society, and they were given open access to jobs and to possibilities that they'd never had before. By the time the Inquisition was founded, a couple of generations later, there were the children and grandchildren of people who had been converted with no intention of becoming Catholics and others who had, who were the grandchildren of people who were trying very hard to put their Jewish past behind them all of them in extended families with people who were still Jewish. They attended Bar Mitzvahs, they attended circumcisions, they attended Easter holiday processions and these different groups co-mingled in ways that were very complex in Spain...

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