Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jewish Pirates

Yes, Jewish Pirates.

For practicing Jews and for those of Jewish heritage, the existence of the country of Israel is important. People of Jewish heritage have been without a homeland and this is what Israel represents. This book gives me a better understanding of why. They have been driven out of every homeland they have established. People of Norwegian ancestry can proudly point to the map to show where their ancestors came from. Japanese can point out their island nation. If you are of Jewish heritage, your homeland may be a steamer trunk and forged papers.

I am reading “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” by Edward Kritzler. Unlike the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean”, this book is about real pirates, real Jewish pirates in the 1500 and 1600’s. The storyteller weaves a colorful tale. It is another chapter in the history of the Jewish people, but also a great story of maritime history. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate this history, with struggles between England and Spain for control of the New World set on the blue seas of the Caribbean.

In the book about Jewish pirates, on the day that Christopher Columbus set sail for on his epic voyage, ethnic cleansing was the order of the day. The Royal Edict of Expulsion of the Jews mandated that 100,000 be expelled. The adventurous went on to the New World, those that remained hid or went to Portugal and became Catholics.

Jews were in Spain before there was a Spain. They settled in King Solomon’s trading post (1000 B.C.) and that became Sephard, an outpost of the Roman Empire. The story told is that Emperor Titus conquered Israel, burned the Temple, and expelled the Jews. But, the Jews of Sephard remained and flourished, as tenants. The Visgoths, then the Vandals, Moors, and Catholics, made it illegal for Jews to own land. However, the Jews were well educated, in feudal Spain they were a merchant class and had respected physicians and financiers.

In Spain, the Jews, unwelcome in other parts of Europe, prospered. Then there was the Massacre of 1391 fueled by a Friar who blamed them for atrocities from the Black Plague to killing Christian children and drinking their blood. Of the 500,000 Jews in Sephard, 100,000 died, 100,000 converted to Catholicism, and 300,000 hid until peace was restored a year later. The converted Jews were called New Christians and rose to positions of power. However, for the church, this created heretics, allowing another sore to fester until it burst. Even dead New Christians weren’t safe in the New World. Many times they were declared heretics after they died, their bodies dug up, burned, and their wealth taken away and distributed to others.

What has the world lost with this continual persecution? When my merchant grandparents came to this country, they changed their names, and my mother became Lutheran. Even in the safe harbors of New York, my grandmother turned her back on who she was and became someone, I am sure, that she didn’t recognize. The Bohemian town that they abandoned on the Czech-German border, Edger-Cheb, had been home to Jews since at least the 1300’s. Given recorded history, I am beginning to understand the paranoia that ruled the rest of her life.

Talking about life before living in the United States for my grandparents never happened. Admitting to Jewish heritage meant the possible risk of persecution. However, Rabbi Shira, who came to celebrate Shabbat with my mother, explained some of the nuances of being Jewish. She says that education is important to the Jewish people. She revealed that in the United States, over forty percent of our doctors are of Jewish heritage, as are forty percent of our college professors. I wonder where the world would have been without the persecution of the Jewish people.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. I'll let Nana know and we'll read this together. :)