On the surface, Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates is a swash-buckling story about the yearning for adventure, the thirst for discovery, and the pursuit of ever-lasting life; and Barwin succeeds in telling a fun, enthralling adventure story full of memorable characters. But Yiddish for Pirates has more depth than one might initially suspect, as it depicts the plight of Jewish people living in Spain in the 15th century during the Spanish Inquisition.
The Spanish Inquisition was a time of intolerance and oppression for Jewish people living in Spain in the 1400s. The story’s main character, a Jewish boy named Moishe, finds himself in this precarious climate as he embarks on a quest to explore the world and live a life of adventure. He gets his wish early on when, in a whirlwind 25 pages, he becomes a servant on a ship, gets caught stealing, his ship is destroyed, and he is then marooned on a beach where he meets Christopher Columbus. This is a typical 25 pages for Moishe, as his narrative takes him from unassuming boy, to a bold and adventurous pirate. Indeed there are very few moments where the narrative stands still in Yiddish for Pirates, as Barwin maintains suspense throughout the novel.
Moishe’s faithful, yet sardonic, anthropomorphized parrot Aaron narrates his exploits – and he is fantastic in this role. Aaron continuously provides hilarious commentary on the significant events of Moishe’s life. Like a narrator of a Christopher Moore novel (à la Biff from Lamb), Aaron’s sarcastic, irreverent wit breathes humour into any dire situation he and Moishe encounter. He is a wonderfully entertaining narrator, as he deftly turns bleak moments into light-hearted ones with his comedic charm – through Aaron, Barwin shows off his clever word play and comedic flare. No matter what transpires in the story, Aaron always manages to put a smile on your face.
Aaron’s witty narration is welcome in the story, especially when he and Moishe come face-to-face with the imperialistic and oppressive modus operandi of the Inquisition. Early in the story, our heroes encounter Jewish people struggling to preserve their faith and culture under a regime that seeks to erase their culture from the world. As Moishe and Aaron attempt to help this Jewish diaspora find a safe haven, they cultivate strong relationships with some quirky and lovable characters. It is here where the heart of Yiddish for Pirates emerges from under the flotsam and jetsam of its action-packed moments.
Yiddish for Pirates is a fun action-adventure story about a boy who wants to see the world. But it is also a story about a group of displaced, persecuted people trying to find a place where they can embrace their culture in the harsh face of intolerance. It has everything you’d want in a book: action, humour, romance, and adventures into the unknown. This wonderfully written novel takes you through a nautical journey with lots of heart, while providing hilarious commentary on the ideologies that fuelled the Spanish Inquisition, courtesy of a wise-cracking parrot. This book is definitely worth checking it out.
Great for Students
This book is a great for students looking for a fun adventure story. Yiddish for Pirates is an addictive page-turner, and an easy book to get lost in for a couple hours. Moishe is a great protagonist whose sense of adventure is something many young people will find relatable.
Students will also enjoy Aaron’s narration. His wise-cracks will keep young readers laughing.
Yiddish for Pirates is a work of historiographic metafiction, as Barwin uses real people and events from history and includes them in the fictional, often self aware, narrative. In this respect, the novel provides information about historical events while serving as a springboard for a discussion about those events.
Students can find parallels between things that happened hundreds of years ago, and things that are happening today. Barwin shines a light on intolerance and xenophobia in the 15th century that eerily mirror rampant intolerance and xenophobia in the 21st century.
There are many great discussion topics that can be pulled from Yiddish for Pirates that should generate many spirited discussions about human nature — the lessons we’ve learned, or have not learned, from our collective past.
Teachers can simultaneously explore the novel on a textual level, examining fiction as fiction, narrative devices and the act of story telling, while also engaging students in a historical and thematic exploration.
Yiddish for Pirates is also a good teaching tool, because it immerses the reader into a fun, suspenseful, adventure story — as learning should always be fun.