Embracing the Jewish Pirate

Joshua Runyan

Joshua Runyan

I’ve been to several Purim parties where more than one guest, capitalizing off of the black beard that is common to many an Orthodox man, has worn colonial getup and an eye patch to attend as the dreaded pirate Schwartzbord. The premise is tacitly hilarious, for who, excepting maybe Mel Brooks, would think of a Jewish pirate?

But this week’s cover story is no Purim shpiel. Indeed, Jewish pirates — historically speaking, at least — are more fact than fantasy, and local historian Harry Ezratty is more than happy to share their stories, as well as those of other famous seafaring Jews.

Fleeing Spain, and later Portugal, many Sephardic Jews ended up in the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries, says Ezratty. Privateering was a way to both make money and get back at the colonial powers whose Inquisitions killed, tortured and subjugated the Jewish people.

“If you wanted to make money in the early Caribbean, there were two ways to do it,” he tells JT reporter Daniel Nozick. “You did it in the shipping business or you did it with sugar because sugar was like petroleum at the time — Jews made fantastic fortunes in sugar in Jamaica and Barbados and Antigua.”

I don’t want to give away the story, but Baltimore itself has a unique part in the history of Jewish seafaring. There’s even several locals who trace their lineages to Jewish Caribbean ship owners.

It would be easy to read these tales solely for their pure entertainment and educational value, but there’s also a message for each of us in the lengths that our coreligionists went to in the quest to survive during the transition from the Old World to the New World. The history of Urijah P. Levy or Isaac Rodriguez Marques or Zacuto are inspiring in and of themselves; but they also provide evidence to the notion that no matter what the challenge, we have an innate ability to turn circumstances to our advantage.

Those among us who feel despondent with the current state of things, be it the failure of the peace process, the location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel, the one-party rule in Washington, D.C., the anger being shown the new presidential administration, would do well to remember that ultimately, whatever challenges we perceive are merely opportunities to be seized and overcome. That’s true whether you’re on the right or the left, are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist, are a peacenik or are of the settler camp.

Aside from the Jewish people’s history of near-constant persecution — it is, after all, the driving force that took some of us seaward — the other unique element in our story is our survival. That was true for the Jews of Curaçao and for the passengers of the Exodus, and it will be true for us.


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