Yiddish for Pirates

by Gary Barwin

Yiddish for Pirates follows Moishe’s journey from being a young boy on the shtetl to captain of a pirate ship in the late fifteenth century. Narrated by Aaron, the African grey parrot who chose Moishe’s shoulder as his perch, the story tells of Moishe’s attempts to help Yids flee persecution during the Spanish Inquisition, his escape to the New World aboard the Santa Maria, and his time prowling the high seas, seeking revenge on the Spanish crown by attacking and looting its navy.

The frequent Yiddish words and phrases Barwin employs in his story inject his narrator with a great deal of personality, and he presents them in such a way that makes them accessible to a wide audience, either by using them so that their general meanings are readily apparent or by immediately translating them. While the translations occasionally occur in a context where a speaker wouldn’t do so––showcased when a character does this to someone they already know understands Yiddish––this is forgivable in the context of the story, because this technique lends Yiddish for Pirates a great deal of its success. For, if the phrases were only delivered in English, so much of the book’s life would be lost.

One of the things that interested me the most in Yiddish for Pirates was Aaron’s relationship with the other characters. Aside from Moishe and a small handful of others, all the humans Aaron interacts with automatically assume he’s just a stupid animal. I mean, I’m sure I’d find it hard to believe a parrot understands me––or what comes out of his own mouth, for that matter––but the majority of the Jewish people he encounters spend their lives misleading for their own safety, exactly what Aaron often does when he’s parroting simple phrases, so you wouldn’t expect it to be such a leap of the imagination that he could possibly be an intelligent creature when he starts engaging them in more intelligent conversation. Of course, even though Aaron makes it clear how much this irritates him, it becomes well-established that he’s guilty of the exact same thing: He’s quick to assume every other animal he encounters is a schlemiel, a fool, which I find especially interesting when he thinks this of other birds who parrot simple phrases.

While neither of these aspects is the main focus of Yiddish for Pirates, both add depth and charm to a story about the evils humans inflict on one another because of superstition and greed. In fact, our dirty-mouthed narrator injects the book with plenty of jokes and curt observations, adding a great deal of humour to a read that tackles such heavy and sad subjects. While I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself the authority on pirate stories, I appreciated the various interesting dimensions the author added to the high seas action.