I could reasonably have opened this review of Yiddish for Pirates by either a) discussing how much I like it despite usually hating fantastical elements in fiction, or b) describing it as the funniest and most engaging book about a genocide I have ever read. Although both are true, neither encapsulates the story well enough. And yet, if this book were a screenplay, it would never get made, because the tried-and-true movie-making formula of describing a project as being somehow the illegitimate offspring of several other successful movies would never hold. It's simply not like anything else. I write this aware that, as a reader of reviews, the above paragraph would concretize my resolve to never read this book. But the truth is, it's absolutely marvellous and will woo you, should you let it.
Yiddish for Pirates is the story of a 500-year old polyglot parrot, Aaron, that hitches its star to that of a young Jewish adventurer named Moishe, who has a yearning for the sea. In plot terms, Yiddish for Pirates is a seafaring adventure par excellence, containing all manner of disasters, reversals of fortune, disguises, plot twists and last-minute saving throws. Author Gary Barwin, whom I can scarcely believe still has this many tricks up his sleeve after already writing 19 other books, has created out of the Spanish Inquisition a novel that feels both appropriately complex and yet vigorously adventuresome.
Imagining Moishe, later renamed Miguel, as a shipwrecked seaman who encounters the young Christopher Columbus and through a series of events is thrown into the teeth of the Inquisition, Barwin personalizes the brutal unfolding of that particular pogrom. Our hero, not having set out to be especially heroic at all, finds himself drawn into a time and place that require a lot of him as his faraway father's son. When push comes to shove, as it does repeatedly, Moishe chooses to honour his heritage (and his beloved Sarah) while he quests not only for riches – as he set out for – but also for his people.
The real star of this book is the language – or, more properly, the languages. With a command of Yiddish that would leave even Michael Wex with little to complain about, and some of the freshest and most whimsical English ever contained between covers, Yiddish for Pirates is a language-lover's dream come true. The mordant observations offered by the talking parrot, the descriptions of historical scenes rendered intimate through the characters, and even the atmospheric settings are affecting precisely because they never seem careful or lapidary in their construction. Instead, the breezy and improvisational feel of the words as organized make the book sing like a jazz solo in the hands of a great artist. More than once I laughed aloud and required whomever was nearby to sit for a dramatic reading of an especially well-made turn of phrase, an affecting sentence or a paragraph that bubbled with artistry.
Few books manage to treat the subjects of identity, conflict, home and honour so fully and so movingly. Without veering into the didactic, Yiddish for Pirates illuminates an interior life shaped by alarming and extraordinary circumstances but still, essentially, guided by love and a rigorous moral code. In this way in particular, the book feels very Jewish to me. It is true to the many narratives of diaspora my people have created (and participated in) over the years: In conflict, in crisis, people use whatever is at their disposal to make a way and to take as many other people as possible with them, beginning with Joseph and carrying forward. In this way, too, Barwin strikes a moving, masterful note.
Yiddish for Pirates has an unmatched spryness in both thought and language. It doesn't conform well to any category or trope of literature, but instead makes a place as a fresh, new thing that draws from sea shanties and Talmud, history and fantasy, romance, adventure, linguistics, fashion, and the adventure serial of the early days of movies. This book is as irrepressible as my enthusiasm for it. You'll never read anything else like it, and that's a shonde.
S. Bear Bergman is the author of six books and founder of the children's book publisher Flamingo Rampant.