Yiddish for Pirates
By Gary Barwin
Random House Canada
Hamilton-based author Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates is a novel that combines epic adventure, mystery and survival, drawing on the history of the Jewish people, particularly of Sephardim, at the end of the 15th century when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
While the book’s language and rhetoric is laced with vulgar Yiddishms, typical of naughty yeshiva bokhers, Barwin also draws on structures from English and other literatures, including a direct lift of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s story of “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov (which Barwin acknowledges at the end of the book). There are references to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Macbeth, as well as the retelling of modern Jewish jokes and a few citations of Talmudic passages, all with the purpose of revealing a “Yiddish take” on them that is self-deprecating, ironic and sardonic.
Yiddish for Pirates is the picaresque adventure of Moishe, a Yiddish-speaking 14-year-old from Lithuania. Moishe is enchanted by his father’s mysterious book of maps and sets out to see the world. What he finds, though, is the reality of Jews in the 15th century: oppression, exploitation, torture, the Inquisition and expulsion from Spain in 1492. His story follows a constant pattern of opportunity, betrayal and danger, hope for redemption and episodes in which he barely survives, having lost his possessions, his love and his connection to the past, only to find new adventures and new connections where the pattern is repeated.
After his first ship is attacked by Genoese privateers, Moishe meets Columbus who believes in his own importance. The two, along with an African grey parrot, are survivors when their ships collide and sink during the encounter. The parrot, of course, acquires the name of Aaron as he is multilingual. His Yiddish, Spanish and Portuguese help the boy find his way in the world.
In Portugal and Spain, the parrot and the Yiddish bokher get involved in failed plots to save the books of the Jewish community and to bring Sephardic Jews, including Sara, the girl who is supposedly the boy’s true love, to safety.
Eventually, Columbus brings the young man and his parrot to the New World aboard the Santa Maria where they discover some of the Jews they had saved in Spain and begin to understand the Spaniards’ cruelty to “Los Indios” whom they do not even consider to be human.
Our two heroes soon find themselves in charge of a pirate ship full of conversos, Indios and former “Ethiope” slaves raiding Spanish ships with more reversals of fortune and surprise twists. In one of those adventures, they become aware of the real meaning
of Moishe’s father’s book and other such books and maps they had come across: the location and directions to the Fountain of Youth.
Here’s the rub. The narrator of all this is the parrot, who introduces himself at the beginning as living in the Shalom Home for the Aged, a Jewish old folks home in Florida, a “farkakteh” environment filled with “alter kakers”. He invites his listener to “bench your fat little oysgepasheter Cape Horn tuches down on that chair and listen to my beaking.” Given that Barwin is the son of South African-born parents, I must assume that the author is the one being addressed by the parrot in the introduction.
Yiddish for Pirates is “a masseh vos dertsaylt unz a papugeh, fil mit rohsh un vilde mishigas, un vos maynt (a tale told by a parrot, full of sound and fury and signifying).”
The structure resembles “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Moby Dick,” amazing and awful sea adventures told in the voice of a lone survivor. The parrot is the lone survivor who, while escaping the collapsing cave of the Fountain of Youth, was splashed by its water and has now lived for more than 500 years.
That Barwin is aiming for something grand can be seen in the book’s section names, which are the five elements of Greek tradition (in keeping with “Rabbi” Plato), giving a mystic structure to the events of the world. The final section, “Quintessence,” goes beyond the world into the purely mythical. The parrot is, as he says, “all words,” the repository of an oral tradition, which he has now given to us through Barwin. It is a compendium of Yiddish story, suffering, survival, jokes, mystery and awe – with attitude.
Yiddish for Pirates will be launched in Ottawa on Thursday, May 19, 7 pm, at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington Street.