On the High Seas

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Sunday, December 14, 2008


By Edward Kritzler

Doubleday. 324 pp. $26

What we have here is the obvious inspiration for Mel Brooks's next movie. Forget Capt. Jack Sparrow. How about Capt. Jacob Sparrowitz, swashbuckling around in a tricorn yarmulke, drinking, wenching and never paying retail?

Alas, Edward Kritzler, a writer and tourism promoter in Jamaica, describes no such hi-jinks in this, his first book. Nor does he present much evidence of genuine piracy on the part of Jews in the Caribbean. What he gives us instead is an earnest but rather disjointed retelling of the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and their flight to such refuges as Holland, Brazil and Jamaica, where they played a growing role in trade during the 16th and 17th centuries.

True, some interesting Jewish seafarers crop up in this volume. Moses Cohen Henriques, a Dutch privateer, captured a Spanish silver fleet off Havana in 1628. Sinan "the Great Jewish Pirate" allied with the Barbary pirates in the mid-16th century. As a young man, Samuel Palache attacked Spanish ships and later, as a rabbi, helped found the Jewish community in Amsterdam.

That was apparently enough evidence for Kritzler and his publisher to give the book its catchy title. They would have us believe that masses of Sephardic Jews took to the seas to wave a defiant cutlass at their persecutors. To make this stretch, the author blurs the lines between those accused by the Spanish Inquisition of being secret Jews (or "conversos") and those who actually were, between those who owned buccaneer ships and those who manned them, and between outlaw pirates and privateers who had legal backing from a sovereign state.

Still, Kritzler usefully reminds us of the scholarly heritage that gave birth to Jewish astronomers and cartographers without whom Columbus (and wasn't he at least part Jewish? The debate goes on!) could not have sailed. Mel Brooks's Inquisition ("History of the World --

Part 1") may be more entertaining, but Kritzler should be commended for making us rethink a few historical assumptions.

What's "Aarrgh!" in Yiddish, anyway?

-- Ken Ringle is a retired Post writer and tall ship sailor.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company