Pirates Schmirates

By Daniel Chejfec

I recently read a book entitled "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean". When I first downloaded it into my book reader, I expected to read about cutthroat characters pillaging the Caribbean who happened to be Jewish. I couldn't have been more wrong. I learned instead a lost chapter of Jewish history.

Did you ever wonder what happened to the "Marranos" (crypto Jews, secret Jews, conversos, etc)? History books tell us that they were forcibly converted, and the next we hear, Holland opened its doors to Jews and they came back to the fold. Among those coming back were figures like Spinoza and Uriel Da Costa, as well as Menashe Ben Israel. But how come Holland opened its doors? Was it just a spontaneous outpouring of love for the Jewish people?

The book tells the story that was missing. How some Jews, like Rabbi Palache, took to the seas to avenge the wrong done to the Jews of Spain. Palache in particular inspired a whole generation of Jews to fight for their rights, a fight that would eventually come to the American shores when New York was still known as New Amsterdam. There is a continuity to this story that amazed me. Probably two of the most remarkable individuals in this saga are the Cohen Henriques brothers, Abraham and Moses, who convinced England to invade Jamaica and thus engineered a haven for Jews in the New World to replace the lost Dutch colony in Northern Brazil.

The book shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the very active role played by Jews, open as well as hidden, in the development of commerce and colonization in the New World. It is an epic story that in its latter days included some famous buccaneers who joined the revolutionary army in fighting the British in the Battle of New Orleans, and none of the Jews who participated became more famous than Jean Lafitte, a descendant of conversos, a practicing Jew who kept kosher and married a Jewish woman from Belgium.

What I learned the most, however, was about who the Buccaneers, Jewish and non Jewish, really were. Not the dirty outlawed thieves history paint them to be, but people seeking redress from the wrongs done to them by a tyrannical Spanish regime. Today, we would call them freedom fighters.

And the book made me proud of the role played by Jews in shaping an environment of tolerance and freedom in these shores that would eventually lead to the creation of the United States and the development of modern Democracy. It is a well researched and amazing story. They had Chutzpah, they demanded equality and never gave up the fight. Kol HaKavod, may we have the chutzpah to continue the fight and defend our rights.


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