What is Hidden is Never Lost: Rapa-Dreidels, Portugal and the Marranos

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Communal memories do not vanish.  They may become tenuous, fragile as wisps, as fragments, as shards of dreams.  But they remain.  Though the atrocities of the Inquisition sought to banish our memories, our faith, and our identity with cruelties unthinkable even in our own modern era of unspeakable cruelty we continued to remember.  And the evidence of that remembering appears in the strangest places and sometimes in the most curious of ways, like a flower breaking through the asphalt of a dreary and oft-driven roadway.

Legend speaks of Jews arriving on the Iberian peninsula during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign in the 6th century BCE, or perhaps even during King Solomon’s reign three hundred years earlier.  What is not legend is the active social and commercial roles Jews played on the peninsula during the Visigoth and Muslim periods a millennial later.

During those many years, Jews became the intellectual and economic elite of the country, intimately involved in all aspects of Portugal’s famous navigation and exploration, financing sailing fleets as well as making scientific discoveries in the fields of mathematics, medicine and cartography. Jews were often given preferential treatment by kings, treated with respect and carrying their stature proudly.

All that changed on Tisha B’Av, 1492.

Schoolchildren know the year because it was the year a famous explorer set sail to discover the New World.  We Jews know the date as the date all Jews were expelled from Spain.  Soon after, King Manuel of Portugal issued the same order to the Jews of Portugal but then abruptly changed his mind and ordered all Jews to remain instead; to remain and to be forcibly baptized.  At the time, he promised the Jews that they could continue their private religious practices for twenty years with no inquiry.

Scholars suggest that King Manuel’s second edict created a distinct group – outwardly Catholic but inwardly Jewish.  These citizens came to be known as “New Christians” or Marranos.  And, while his edict granted a twenty year “grace period” for these New Christians, the following three centuries saw them experience the full horror of the Inquisition, terrorized, imprisoned, tortured.

In his essay, “Finding Portugal’s Anusim” Mark A. Merlis writes in Ami Magazine, “The Jewish areas were, for the most part abandoned once the Inquisition took hold, those who did not manage to leave the country became “New Christians” who outwardly professed Christianity but secretly kept up Jewish practices.”  This does not mean that they remained observant and adhered to mitzvot as we understand it.  What it does mean is that these New Christians maintained some connection to Judaism, however tenuous.  As time went on, those connections took on a Jewish “look and feel” but became further and further from the “real thing”.  After all, they could not be real Jews.  Doing so would put their lives at risk.

A Rabbi Litvak who came to serve as a rabbi in Porto, in responding to a question about the B’nei Anusim went so far as to say that, “it would be difficult to find many Portuguese that don’t have some Jewish blood.”   Between the great Jewish community that existed prior to the Inquisition and all the subsequent generations of New Christians, Jewish blood is flowing everywhere in Portugal, to one extent or another…  Throughout the years of persecution and hidden rituals, they maintained their Jewish traditions and Jewish family matrilineal line from generation to generation through limiting marriage within the crypto-Jewish community and through oral transmission preserved and handed down by their women.

But many of the rituals and observances as we know them fell by the wayside. The Anusim did not practice brit milah and shechita since the 16th century – such rituals were too obvious and therefore dangerous. Syncretism with Catholic ritual was inevitable. Marriages took place in Church, but privately the officiating elder intoned, “In the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob I unite you; receive your blessing.”  The Hebrew language was lost except for the term Ad-nai. Pesach survived as Santa Festa and matzah pao azumo (bread of the poor) was baked secretly. Yom Kippur was celebrated on the 11th of Tishrei, presumably to throw off the Christian neighbors. Although they seemed to know of Queen Esther, Purim and other Jewish holidays were lost in the mists of time.  Certainly, Chanukah was too open a festival to have been able to survive.

Hundreds of years of secrecy have made the “Jewish” residents very hesitant to talk to outsiders. It became second nature to be Jewish in secret.

There was simply no other way.  These Jews, driven ever inward to deeper and deeper places of secret Jewish identity and expression, might have been lost to history if not for the meticulous record keeping of the Apostolic Catholic Church – and the determination of memory.

While the records of the Church might have accurately documented the lives – and cruel deaths – of the poor souls terrorized and tortured by the Church, there were other ways that Jewish life and identity continued and could be marked, ways that continued despite deep oppression, ways in which Jewish identity identified its beauty and grace just as surely as the flower rises through a crack in the hard asphalt.

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What are we to make of these Jews, these hidden Jews who “abandoned” their faith and identity?  Maimonides suggests we should be forgiving.  The New Christians who continued secretly to observe the precepts of Judaism as much as possible after their conversion were not regarded as voluntary apostates. Although Judaism teaches that one should allow oneself to be put to death rather than abandon one’s faith in times of persecution, Maimonides taught that, “nevertheless, if he transgressed and did not choose the death of a martyr, even though he has annulled the positive precept of sanctifying the Name and transgressed the injunction not to desecrate the Name, since he transgressed under duress and could not escape, he is exempted from punishment.”

Accordingly, other rabbis determined that those New Christians, who remained in their countries because they were unable to escape, if they conducted themselves in accordance with the precepts of Judaism, even if only in private, were full Jews.

Consistent with this view, rather than rendering judgment and condemnation, we praise their determination in clinging to any remnant of our faith and identity; we should recognize their survival as a testament to their strength and determination.  So many of these brave souls wanted to hold on to their Jewish heritage, even in secret.  They wanted to live but not to forget!

They lived and they remembered.  They remembered in ways large and small, desperate and delightful.  The most delightful way that Jewish life and ritual seems to have survived the centuries of oppression happens to coincide with the joy and delight I take in a particular aspect of another miraculous time in our history – Chanukah.

How these things came together – the historical and profound with the delightful and miraculous – is a simple tale.  Last year, Clary and I journeyed to Portugal, a land with a rich and cruel Jewish history.  We made sure to tour the sites of the terrible times, saying Tehilim at the only memorial erected at a public square where Jews were burnt to death.  However, even during the darkest moments I carried within me a prospector’s awareness.  As anyone who knows me knows, that I am a collector of dreidels.  In my home, I am surrounded by dreidels.  From the most elaborate to the simplest, I believe that these twirling “toys” represent the essence of who we are, individually and collectively.  Nes Gadol Haya Po/Sham!  A great miracle happened here/there!

Yes, our history is a story of tragedy and pain.  It is also a testament to miracles and joy, delight and blessing.  We have been oppressed and beaten but always, always a nes gadol happened, always there has been redemption.  Always, a flower has broken through the barrenness of the asphalt as testament to that greatest miracle of all – life!

Dreidels are my talisman, my touchstone.  They reassure me in the most innocent and delightful way that our miracles will continue.  And so, wherever I am, I look for dreidels.  My collection spans the globe and so, finding myself in Portugal I naturally sought out dreidels.  But where might I find one?  There were no Judaica shops in Portugal.

As we continued our tour, I continued my search.  During one conversation, I was told of a store which sold dreidels with English letters.  English letters!  On a dreidel?  In Portugal?  This, I had to see.  Unfortunately, I was not able to get to the shop.  However, upon my return home to New York, I continued my search.  If there was such a thing as a Portuguese dreidel then I had to have one!

As it turned out, I could not locate a dreidel.  The closest I could find was a Rapa-dreidel, a wooden, dreidel-like top with English letters.  I contacted the store proprietor through the Internet.   She informed me that children played with the Rapa during the holiday season and it had something to do with pretend gambling.

Really?  “Which holiday?” I inquired.


Why, I asked, would they use a dreidel at Christmas?

She did not know but she did assure me that, “…Jewish also used to play this game.”

Intrigued, I pressed for more information. But she said that was all she knew.  She could not explain to me why Portuguese children would take this wooden top, where the letters RTDP adorn the sides.  She could not explain why children gambled on buttons, beans or candy or why the “R” (rapa – take all), or the “T” (take one) or the “D” (leave everything in) or the “P” or why the “rules” of Rapa were so much like the rules of the dreidel.


The more I pressed her, the more she “did not know” but the more I did!  I came to learn that there were a lot of “Jewish” going on in Portuguese culture.  Women light candles on Friday nights without knowing exactly why, just that “that is how it had always been done”!  Mother lit candles.  Grandmother lit candles.  Her mother before her lit candles.

I came to learn that rapa-dreidel had been adopted by a number of cultures which allowed its origins to become lost in the mists of time.  A similar game in Germany was known as “totem” while in France it was called “toton”.  A famous 1735 painting by Chardin, “l’enfant au toton” (the child with the dreidel) is testament to its popularity.

So it is with memory and our tradition during the long Galus we continue to make our way through.  There are many stops – some darker and more tragic than others, some demanding greater sacrifice than others, some more bloody than others – but all speak to a memory and identity that will not be, cannot be denied.

We do not forget.  We cannot forget.  Perhaps we cannot name the names of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were swallowed up alive by the horrors, the fires and edicts of Portugal’s Inquisition.  Likewise, we cannot know the names of very many who were spared gruesome torture and death because they “gave it up” to stay alive.  And yet, they did not, they could not, truly “give it up”.  They clung to memories, to bits and pieces, to small rituals that were handed down generation by generation,  until they have reached us today and we are able to recognize in the fragments the wholeness of Jewish identity and its power to remain through the ages.

You can be sure that I bought more than a couple of rapas from that woman and you can be equally sure they occupy a place of honor in my growing collection, attesting to the miracle that is Jewish life and experience; the miracle that proclaims that no matter how far down the Jew is driven, he remains determined to hang on.

He may hide, but he will not forget.

Read more about Rabbi Safran’s Dreidel Collection.