Forgotten for Decades, Unlikely Board Game Tracing Jewish Expulsion From Spain Makes a Comeback

Lead Photo: Photo by Moment / Getty
Photo by Moment / Getty
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The long and tragic history of Jews in Spain could fill volumes – or become the premise of a never-ending board game. For centuries, the Sephardic – a term meaning Spain in Hebrew – Jew community lived in the European country under Christian and Muslim rule. Many made Toledo in Central Spain their home. As a matter of fact, historian Santiago Palomera describes Toledo as “the most important Jewish enclave – like New York and Silicon Valley combined, in terms of contributions to medieval Spain’s culture and economy.” However, on March 31, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree, which accused the Jewish population – an estimated 300,000 people by some accounts – of trying to turn Christians “to their own wicked belief and conviction.” The monarchy gave Jews an ultimatum: convert to Christianity or leave.

That year the Spanish Army defeated Muslims, returning the country to Christianity. And though Ferdinand and Isabella had previously rejected Father Tomas de Torquemada’s requests for the expulsion of Jews, they got on board in 1492. As a result, many Sephardic Jews had no choice but to disperse throughout the world, leading to sizable populations in Argentina and Brazil. The government killed those who stayed behind and refused to let go of their culture and religion. And the many who fled to neighboring Portugal were once again faced with the same cruel fate when the leader of the country, King Manuel, married Isabella, the daughter of Spain’s monarchs. Isabella’s parents insisted that Manuel exile Portugal’s Jewish population.

This dark period in Spanish history is the subject of a late 1970s board game titled Expulsion: Jewish Life in Spain From the Golden Age to 1492. Created by Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox for a class at Brandeis University, the game uses real-life historical figures to inform players about the decline of Sephardic Jews in Spain. “It’s not really a game, game,” Koller-Fox said, according to Tablet Magazine. “It’s not the best game I’ve ever played, and it never ends.”

The game – which consists of players going around the board as they’re forced to assimilate or go through martyrdom – generated attention in late November when the team at Full Frontal With Samantha Bee played it. Right after the election of President Donald Trump, Jo Miller – a show runner for Full Frontal – couldn’t think of a better way to symbolize the incoming administration’s xenophobia and religious intolerance.

Just like in Monopoly, players pick up cards along the way that decide whether they lose a turn, advance, or earn points. These cards reflect the lengths to which Spain went to ostracize and harm the Jewish population. “You have a fight with your mother. You want to put a gold braid on your new dress, but your mother says no, ‘No,’ because that is a sign of pride and Jews are supposed to dress modestly. But you understand. So go ahead one space to the dressmaker and get a modest, black dress,” one card reads.

But the cards also represent the pain and suffering they experienced after if they chose to leave Spain. “You choose to leave Spain and not convert! Get two Emunah tokens. You are turned away at several ports and narrowly escape capture by pirates,” another card reads. “Finally, you arrive in Turkey where Jews are welcomed. The Ottoman Empire needs Jewish doctors and businessmen and does not demand that they convert.”

Koller-Fox created a total of 1,000 games – selling them little by little. A chunk of them remained in her basement – save for the renewed interest in 1992 during the 500th anniversary of the expulsion from Spain. But she still had games left as of late 2016 when Koller-Fox sent the team at Full Frontal a copy. Koller-Fox’s daughter pushed her to create an Etsy account, where the rest of the games sold out.

But even if the game’s not readily available now, there’s one lesson we can all learn, especially at a time when Jewish populations and other groups are vilified: these behaviors are bigoted, malicious, and unfounded, and they place governments on the wrong side of history. Just in 2015, Spain gave Sephardic Jews who could trace their heritage back to the country the right to apply for Spanish nationality. The government said with the move, it attempted to make amends for its “historic mistake.”

As Passover – a holiday known for celebrating the perseverance of the Jewish population – kicks off, this game feels especially pertinent. Watch the Full Frontal staff play it below: