Jewish Pirates...

Immigrants we get the job done!

     It has been the worst year to write for the High Holy Days. This year encompasses so much controversy, upheaval and pain for so many throughout the world. I want to say so much and yet find it hard to put it all into words. I’ve looked to the past in hopes of building a better future.

     Ten years ago, a friend gave me an autographed copy of a book her friend wrote. Robert Kurson’s, book, Shadow Divers, describes the adventure of the men who in 1991 discovered a lost World War II, German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey.

     About five years ago, when my son, Sammy, was in the hospital, my friend brought Robert to visit him. Robert sat on Sammy’s bed and told him about his new book. He told Sammy about an infamous pirate, the battle that sank his ship, and the modern-day explorers who searched to find it. He told him of swashbucklers and modern treasure hunters, ancient history and daily victories and defeats in the search for this rare, lost, sunken pirate ship. His story left Sammy with thousands of questions and a look in his eye as if he should buy a parrot, don an eye patch and head for the high seas. When Robert finished talking he gave took Sammy a small bag containing a few of the pirate beads that had been recovered when the ship was found.  We all thought this was amazing and incredibly generous. We put the beads in a safe place and you all know the rest of these last five years.

     This summer, I’m browsing at Barnes and Noble, and I find the book Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson on the shelf. I buy it and read it in a day. The history and search for the lost pirate ship, The Golden Fleece leaves me breathless. I close the book and immediately start scrambling around my room trying to remember the safe place I put Sammy’s pirate beads, safe even from myself apparently.

See, when Sammy received the beads we thought it was just a really cool gift. After reading the book and seeing a photograph of the bowl of beads that Sammy’s beads came from, I fully understood how long the beads had rested at the bottom of the ocean and how rare they were. I now understand that these beads sank to the ocean floor during the golden age of piracy during the1680s, over 337 years ago. These beads, are the oldest artifact in my home and one of the most precious gifts ever given to our family out of love for Sammy.  

I was so hyped on reading about pirates now that I thought “If this book was this great then the book Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean should be even better!” Yes. This book exists. Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean. Look it up. Phyllis gave me this book as a gift years ago, but I never found time to read it, until now.

     I know, I say the word Jewish and Pirates in the same sentence and you all think I’m asking if we want Mizrachi Grill or Latkes at the deli for dinner before we go see the newest Pirates of the Caribbean Disney film. Edward Kritzler wrote Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean about the history of Jewish pirates, their role in discovering the new world, and the founding of the Caribbean. Of course, in the Disney film adaptation of the book I think Woody Allen might play Captain Meshuganah sailing the great ship Oy Vey, And Jerry Seinfeld could be his nemesis, the dread Pirate Matzah Ball Soup.

     As Jews, we don’t even think of ourselves as sailors let alone swashbucklers. The Israelites wandered the wilderness for forty years, crossed into the promised land and have been fighting over the same sand and deserts for over 3000 years. We think of our history as land locked without reading into Jonah and the Whale for references that talk about our sailing history. Jonah departs from Jaffa, one of the oldest ports in continuous use from pre-biblical times through today. Jonah flees God’s job posting. Not the smartest guy who thinks getting on a ship to escape God’s anger is wise.

     The Mediterranean coast of Israel has been a port for trade as long as there has been sailing on the Mediterranean Sea. The Jewish people have been experienced in trade and sailing for as long as we’ve been on the western coast of the promised land. Jews became sailors, traders, and some of the earliest navigators along with every other culture who thrived by sea trade.

            So, this leads you to ask, how is there enough history to write an entire book on the Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean? How did Jews become Pirates? Why did Jews become Pirates? What does this have to do with Rosh Hashanah and the New Year? All great questions.

     You all already know one of the important dates by memory, we just don’t always think of what the date meant in Jewish history. If I start the phrase “In 1492…” what do you finish it with? “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” In 1492 Queen Isabella also exiled all the Jews from Spain. Spanish Jews had three choices. Convert to Catholicism, flee, or face imprisonment, torture and death.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 with operations throughout their Spanish colonies and territories. Its intentions were to identify heretics among those who had converted from Judaism and Islam to Catholicism but weren’t really practicing Catholics. So often, neighbors or business competitors, accused people of being heretics and secret Jews. Whole families would be whisked off by the Inquisition most likely never to be seen again. The Inquisition was not abolished until 1834, during the reign of Queen Isabella II. That’s 356 years of persecution of former Jews who even in their Catholicism weren’t trusted or accepted by their Catholic monarchs, neighbors or the evil Inquisitors.

     I believe 1492 was the beginning of the end of the Golden age of Spain as the monarchs caused their greatest brain drain in history by exiling all of their Jewish businessmen, scientists, bankers, teachers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, advisers, navigators and sailors while torturing any converts they deemed heretics. On the sea, all Jewish sailors with any skill were more than willing to be part of any ship that set out to attack Spain’s fleets and steal her wealth.

     The New World offered potential safe havens as a means of escaping violence and certain death in Spain or any of her closer territories. “Outlawed in the civilized world and vulnerable in the Diaspora, Jews became skilled in ways to find and explore new lands. They were the eras foremost mapmakers, and also perfected the nautical instruments and astronomical tables the early explorers sailed with.” (Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, Kritzler pg 30.) This is why there were so many Jews sailing with Columbus and helping navigate the seas, on so many ships around the world.

            Many of the Muslim rulers welcomed the fleeing Jews into their territories in Northern Africa. Holland was the most tolerant country who welcomed many Jewish immigrants. They established the largest Jewish community in Amsterdam beginning in 1593. My suggestion is that you go read about Gaspar the Jewish pilot and Samuel Palache the Pirate Rabbi. The book isn’t as easy to read as Pirate Hunters, but the history is fascinating. The Spanish Jewish names do get confusing, but glean the importance Jews played in settling and establishing the Caribbean, South America and Mexico.

            As a people, Jews come from a long line of explorers dreaming of a homeland, sanctuary, safe space and protection since Abraham dreamed of a life where he wasn’t persecuted or ridiculed for his beliefs in one God. Since the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 587 B.C.E. Jews have explored the greater world and dreamt of safe havens and of being free from the threat of violence. We’ve been expelled from England in 1290, outlawed from living in France in 1394, exiled from Spain in 1492, from Brandenburg, Germany in 1510, from Italy and Bavaria in 1593, massacred and driven from our European homelands during the Holocaust, and forced to flee Arab and Muslim countries from the moment the State of Israel was founded through the 1970s until almost no Jews remain in any of those countries.

     This past year Jewish Lesbians were expelled from a Gay pride parade because their Jewish Pride made the parade organizers feel uncomfortable with their display of their Jewish stars, symbols of an oppressive regime.
When the oppressed become the oppressors because they have swallowed some other oppressor’s propaganda opposing the historically oppressed you have to question where our world is headed.

     As the historically oppressed, our Jewish history has forced us to explore the world and work hard to make our dreams come true. Time and time again we have found ourselves as strangers in strange lands, with our never-ending history of expulsion from one country after another forcing us to continually work to make this a better world, a safer world, a world where not just Jews, but everyone, can live without fear of persecution of any kind, for any reason. As Lyn-Manuel Miranda wrote so beautifully “Immigrants, we get the job done.”

     On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the birth of the universe as we know it and celebrate all of creation, not just the creation of the Jewish people. We celebrate the creation of our galaxy, our universe, our world, home to so many individuals of so many colors, faiths and creeds. We celebrate the natural food resources that sustain us and the connectedness of all things that fit together so well to keep everything going. One planet, created for one humanity, meant for all to share while learning to dream together in our oneness.

     As Jews, most of us have stories of when members of our family were immigrants who came to America to flee persecution and pogroms. We have photographs, old passports, copies of foreign birth certificates. Some can count all the relatives who didn’t make it out of Europe alive during the Holocaust because no safe country would let them in. We remember the Steam Ship St. Louis. One-third of her passengers perished, refused a safe haven by the United States, Canada and Cuba, turned away from port after port, a political pawn forced to return to Europe.

     Jews are the scapegoats throughout history. Other religions, other world leaders have blamed the Jews for their hardships or persecuted them since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 c.e. Many in our country have a history of blaming the immigrant for the woes of this country and paint these individuals seeking a better life for themselves and their families in dark and dangerous terms. While former immigrants ignore their own immigrant heritage, they demonize today’s immigrants just as their ancestors demonized our own Jewish immigrant ancestors, in an attempt to prevent anyone new from calling the United States their home and seeking citizenship.

     So why, back then, did so many Jews become Pirates? For the same reason that we became freedom fighters and partisans during World War II, to stand against our oppressors and those who attempted to destroy our lives and our livelihood. Jews became pirates to prove their value to their new protectors in Amsterdam and to exact revenge upon Spain. Jewish Pirates sailed fleets against Spanish trade ships and returned possessing not only dozens of Spanish ships but all the gold, silver and precious cargo they were carrying back from South America. One year the rewards of these attacks filled the bank of Amsterdam and helped avert a national fiscal crisis. Piracy allowed Jews to attack the powers that had forced them to flee for their lives, while enabling them to search for a new promised land. Jewish Pirate attacks combined with all the other attacks upon the Spanish fleet changed the development of the New World as we know it and Spain’s dominance of the oceans for all time.

     In this modern age when some would paint immigrants as a scourge on society we all know that we came from somewhere else at some point. As Jews, we have a long memory of what it feels like to be banned from countries, driven out, persecuted with nowhere to go. 

     Why pirates though? Because pirates made up their own rules, typically treated their crews fairly, voted on their course of action and attack in the most democratic manner of one person one vote. Some pirate captains were known to offer some of the best treatment of their crews and when capturing a ship would always ask the captured crews how their own captain behaved toward them. Any violent treatment an enemy captain bestowed upon his crew was bestowed upon him by his pirate captors.

     Why is any of this relevant today? Because once again we are being described as the “Other.” In the current political climate once more the tropes of anti-Semitism and hatred towards Jews ring out in the streets and can be seen in graffiti on the walls of our Temples and Synagogues, on the internet, nightly news and in so many forms of media.

     We’ve been part of creating this great country since the beginning and yet somehow, we are still seen as outsiders, the other, to be hated and feared. The cries of “Jews will not replace us!” rang out in Charlottesville only a few weeks ago. Does this really mean that they think there is some Jewish plot against their existence in this great nation of ours?

     Throughout our history as a nation, Jews have stood as integral parts in any movement seeking the freedoms and equal rights of individuals in our society being discriminated against based on skin color, religion, country of origin, sexual preference or gender identity. And yet somehow a small fraction of white men and women fill themselves with hate and believe all the lies they’ve ever been told about our people and our heritage.

     A percentage of the people who call themselves American citizens have a vision of a country filled with only white, formerly European people like themselves. They whitewash history ignoring the thousands of years Native Americans called this land home before the Puritans ever arrived. They ignore the fact that the majority of the world has never been white. They fight for something that will never be, holding onto dark dreams which in the past have been the foundation for Jewish nightmares.

    As Jews, we cannot stop exploring and dreaming for the whole world, a peaceful world for a time where there is no fear of the immigrant, the stranger, the orphan or the widow. We dream of a world where violence ceases to exist between neighbors, religions, nations or states. We became pirates to fight against the tyrants of the world just like we became lawyers, judges, senators presidential and vice presidential candidates to fight tyranny, speak truth to power and create a just system that provides justice for all those who come after us.

     We did not help build this country from the very beginning or fight World War II to defeat Nazi Germany and National Socialism so that neo-nazis and racists can march in our streets saying no one belongs in America but them.

            A year like we have experienced makes me wish I was a Pirate Rabbi bringing fear to tyrants and righting all the wrongs in our world. I’ve looked into the cost of a good parrot these last several weeks. They are not cheap.

It hurts to read about all the pain and suffering still caused by religious intolerance and anti-Semitism, but it was heartening to read about some of the successes of the past Kritzler wrote about, incredible histories of Jews who in fleeing persecution helped establish the world as we know it. I loved reading about a portion of Jewish history I knew nothing about.

            So, this year, as so many in this country try to help our leaders envision and enact DACA and a DREAM Act we can all support, we should always remember when our parents, grandparents or great grandparents dreamed of a better life for us here and came to America from foreign lands.

     May we all do what we can to remember what the American Dream represents and what it stands for. Looking back to our past should always remind us how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. Today we remain free to pray together and share our Jewish heritage in relative peace. We must continue to pray for a time when all the Jewish world may pray in peace without ever fearing persecution or senseless violence again. We pray as a community knowing many cannot. We pray with our families knowing many cannot. We live in freedom and comfort knowing many do not.


     May this Rosh Hashanah usher in a time where we cleanse the ancient memory of so many who still hold onto hatred of our people. May we find our year 5778, filled with blessings, family, health and peace. May our freedom, comfort and safety remind us of what we have and why we work to pave the way, for those who wish to share in our dreams and in our future, towards building a better world for all to live in in peace.

Kayn yehi ratzon – May this be God’s will - L’shanah Tovah 5778