Shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and nominated for the Governor-General's Award for Literature, a hilarious, swashbuckling yet powerful tale of pirates, buried treasure and a search for the Fountain of Youth, told in the ribald, philosophical voice of a 500-year-old Jewish parrot.
Set in the years around 1492, Yiddish for Pirates recounts the compelling story of Moishe, a Bar Mitzvah boy who leaves home to join a ship's crew, where he meets Aaron, the polyglot parrot who becomes his near-constant companion.
From a present-day Florida nursing home, this wisecracking yet poetic bird guides us through a world of pirate ships, Yiddish jokes and treasure maps. But Inquisition Spain is a dangerous time to be Jewish and Moishe joins a band of hidden Jews trying to preserve some forbidden books. He falls in love with a young woman, Sarah; though they are separated by circumstance, Moishe's wanderings are motivated as much by their connection as by his quest for loot and freedom. When all Jews are expelled from Spain, Moishe travels to the Caribbean with the ambitious Christopher Columbus, a self-made man who loves his creator. Moishe eventually becomes a pirate and seeks revenge on the Spanish while seeking the ultimate booty: the Fountain of Youth.
This outstanding New Face of Fiction is filled with Jewish takes on classic pirate tales--fights, prison escapes, and exploits on the high seas--but it's also a tender love story, between Moishe and Sarah, and between Aaron and his "shoulder," Moishe. Rich with puns, colourful language, post-colonial satire and Kabbalistic hijinks, Yiddish for Pirates is also a compelling examination of mortality, memory, identity and persecution from one of this country's most talented writers.
Moishe as a child. He told me stories. Some were true.
At fourteen, he left the shtetl near Vilnius for the sea. How? First one leg out the window then the other. Like anyone else. Before first light. Before the wailing of his mother.
A boychik with big ideas, his kop—his head—bigger than his body. He would travel beyond the scrawny map of himself, and beyond the shtetl. He’d travel the ocean. There were Jews—he’d heard stories—that were something. Not rag-and-bones shmatte-men like his father, Chaim, always following the dreck of their nag around the same small world. Doctors. Court astronomers. Spanish lords. Tax farmers. Learned men of the world. The mapmakers of Majorca. They were Jews. Rich and powerful, they were respected by everyone. They could read the sky. They knew what was on the horizon and what was over the horizon. Jews had trickled through the cracks of the world and had rained upon the lands.
He’d travel the globe. He’d travel to the unknown edges of the maps, to where the lost tribes had built their golden cities, where they knew the secrets of the waters and of the sky.
And nu, perhaps along the way there might be a zaftik maideleh or two, or his true love, who knew secrets also.
So this Moishe put the cartographer before the horse and left.
Luftmensch, they say. Someone who lives on air, someone whose head floats in the clouds of a sky whose only use is to make the sea blue.
The world is wide because the ocean is wide. So, nu, he’d had his Bar Mitzvah, why shouldn’t the boychik sail west on a merchant ship, some kind of cabin boy, learning not to be sick with the waves? A one-way Odyssey away from home, his mother weaving only tears.
And where had he heard the stories? On the shmatte cart, making the rounds with his father. The sun rising, they travelled from home. They didn’t fall off the edge of their world, they circled around it, until by nightfall they were home again. Moishe’s old father, the bent and childless man who had taken in the drownedling, spoke to him of the great world that they shared. Moishe’s father, grey beard, wide black hat, stooped back. The world, he said, was a book. A great scroll. Like the Torah, when it ended, it began again.
Everything began again. Each week with its Shabbos of silver candlesticks and braided challah. Each year with its seasons, festivals, Torah readings. Child, father, child. It was a Moebius strip. At the end of the story, the story begins again and so we live forever, his father said. His father was a mensch. His mother also. Good people. But though they spoke of it, they never tried to find out "and then what happened?" They knew. Second verse same as the first, a little bit more oysgemutshet worn out, a little bit worse.
Before he climbed out the window, Moishe left a letter for his parents.
If the world is a book, I must read it all.
He had packed only his few clothes, some food, a knife, a book he had often examined when alone, and two silver coins that he took from where his mother had hidden them behind a stone of the hearth. He sewed these into the waist of his pants.
He had come across the book by accident, this book that had a beginning and an end. Playing at a game of catch-and-wrestle with his friend Pinchas, Moishe had slid under his parents’ bed and pushed himself against the wall where he hoped he would be invisible behind the curtain of the embroidered bedspread. Breathing hard, attempting to remain quiet and undetected, Moishe felt its shape beneath his hip. When he was eventually discovered—after he’d deliberately released a prodigious and satisfying greps, a gaseous shofar-call alerting his friend to his location—he left whatever-it-was beneath the bed to be disinterred and examined later. He knew it was somehow important and secret, so better to wait until he was alone and his mother out at the mikveh.
When he unwrapped the old tallis—a prayer shawl—that surrounded it, Moishe was surprised to discover a book. An ancient book. Grainy brown leather with faded gold lettering and pages the colour of an old man’s hands. The script looked like Hebrew but it was the language of some parallel world, gibberish or the writing of a sorcerer.
Most intriguing were the strange drawings. Charts that seemed to diagram the architecture of heavenly palaces or the dance steps of ten-footed angels. Mysterious arrays of letters, the unspeakable and obsidian incantations of demons. And, most captivating of all, what appeared to be maps of the parallel world itself, filled with ring upon ring of concentric circles, rippling out from the beginning of creation and the centre of everything, as if one fine morning God had cannonballed down from everywhere and nowhere and into the exact middle of the primordial sea.
But perhaps, Moishe wondered, these maps represented the actual earth, the alef-beys of cryptic markings, boats floating upon the waves of a vast ocean, searching for the edges of hidden knowledge.
It was as if Adam and his wife, Eve, had found a map instead of an apple, there in the centre of the garden. Instead of good and evil, they had discovered a map of Eden, the geography, the secrets, the true limits of Paradise and the Paradise that lies beyond.
Maybe that is why his father kept this book hidden where no one—not the rabbis or the shammes or the other men—could find it.
So Moishe took the book and left.