Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of Manischewitz: Historical account of Jewish pirates not exactly a treasure

There are places you would expect to find Jews and places you don’t, and in the second category, the deck of a pirate ship ranks pretty close to the top.

The very title of “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” sounds like the premise of a science-fiction novel — maybe a sequel to Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” about Jews colonizing Alaska. Or maybe a punchline to a joke.

But Edward Kritzler’s recently published book, despite its serious flaws of scholarship and interpretation, has the merit of reminding us that, in fact, Jews and the descendants of Jews played a significant role in the European colonization of the New World as merchants, diplomats, spies, and yes, even pirates.

The reason has to do with simple chronology: 1492, known to all Americans as the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, was also the year Ferdinand and Isabella banished the Jews from Spain. In the ensuing diaspora, many Spanish and Portuguese Jews, including the conversos who continued to practice Judaism in secret, found their way to mercantile centers across Europe and the New World.

Conversos sailed with Columbus — a durable legend has it that Columbus himself was from a Jewish family — and Kritzler finds thriving Sephardic communities in Jamaica, Brazil and New Amsterdam (now New York City). Wherever the Spanish or Dutch planted their flags, at least some Jews were sure to follow.

And at least a few of those Jews were actual pirates. At a time when the boundaries between war, commerce and piracy were highly porous, it was easy for Jewish sailors and ship owners to mingle peaceful trade missions with privateering.

Take Samuel Palache, for example. A descendant of Moroccan rabbis, he tried to enter the service of King Philip III of Spain, even offering to convert to Catholicism. When the offer was declined, he signed up with Philip’s deadly enemies, the Dutch, and began running guns from Holland to North Africa. Palache once led a fleet to attack Spanish shipping, and while “the result of this expedition is not reported,” Kritzler writes, it is enough for the author to grant Palache the dashing nickname “The Pirate Rabbi.”

Kritzler even stakes a Jewish claim on one of the marquee names in pirate history, Jean Lafitte, the patriot buccaneer who ran a smuggling empire from New Orleans in the early 19th century, then redeemed himself by fighting with Andrew Jackson against the British in the War of 1812. Kritzler quotes Lafitte himself on the importance of his Jewish ancestry:

“My grandmother was a Spanish-Israelite … [She] told me repeatedly of the trials and tribulations her ancestors had endured at the time of the Spanish Inquisition … [Her teachings] inspired in me a hatred of the Spanish Crown and all the persecutions for which it was responsible — not only against Jews.”

The oppressed becomes the foe of oppressors, the beaten-down Jew takes up a cutlass. It is an irresistible story line and the central premise of Kritzler’s book.

But if Lafitte’s pronouncement seems too convenient, perhaps it is. Kritzler’s notes said he found the quotation in a book on the history of New Orleans Jews, where it is cited from “The Journal of Jean Lafitte.” Nowhere, however, does Kritzler mention that “The Journal of Jean Lafitte” was the work of a notorious forger named John Laflin, who also invented documents related to Davy Crockett and Abraham Lincoln.

The Lafitte example is a minor one, but it is unfortunately typical of Kritzler’s way with historical evidence. He relies heavily on the work of reputable historians in putting together his picture of Jews in the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. But wherever there is a gap in the evidence, he is more than happy to fill it with wild speculation.

Kritzler’s book is just the latest example of what might be called the “tough Jews” school of history writing, following in the footsteps of the 1998 book title by Rich Cohen. Cohen’s book, subtitled “Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams,” was a paean

to Jews such as Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky — murderers and gangsters, or as Cohen lovingly described them, “Jews acting in ways other than Jews are supposed to act, Jews leaving the world of their heads to thrive in a physical world, a world of sense, of smell, of grit, of strength, of courage, of pain.”

By flattening out the immensely complex story of the conversos and turning them into Spain-hating Jewish buccaneers, Kritzler is catering to the same American Jewish thirst for examples of Jewish toughness.

“Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” concludes with Kritzler’s claim to have discovered the location of a secret gold mine belonging to Columbus on the island of Jamaica, where Kritzler lives. He even reproduces a 17th-century code allegedly pointing to the exact location of the mine and invites “the first reader” who cracks it “to join our quixotic search.”

Kritzler is welcome to his gold mine, and I hope for his sake that X does the mark the spot.

“Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” by Edward Kritzler (336 pages, Doubleday, $26)

Adam Kirsch is the author of “Benjamin Disraeli,” a new biography in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series. This article was reprinted from Nextbook.org.