A priest walked into a bar.
There’s a few inquisition guys playing cards and they invited him to join them.
He asks, “What’s the ante?”
“Ten silver pieces,” they say.
Priest says, “I’m gonna get burned at those stakes.”
That’s one of the many jokes in Gary Barwin’s novel Yiddish for Pirates, winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and the Canadian Jewish Literary Award. Narrated by Aaron, a wisecracking 500-year-old African Gray parrot with a penchant for Yiddish puns, the book follows Moishe, a 14-year-old who yearns for adventure after discovering his father’s book of maps. In the years leading up to 1492, Moishe leaves his small village for a ship’s crew, where he meets and joins forces with Aaron the parrot, and the two soon become inseparable.
Shipwrecked after narrowly escaping being sold into slavery, Aaron and his “shoulder,” as he affectionately dubs Moishe, happen upon Christopher Columbus, who sends them on a quest that leads them to the middle of the Spanish Iinquisition. Through a series of events, Moishe ends up helping a group of clandestine Jews who are trying to save some forbidden books. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with a girl named Sarah, whose image he clings to long after they are separated.
Moishe helps his new friends escape when all Jews are expelled from Spain and soon finds himself on the sea again, reconnected with Columbus to sail the ocean blue. Traveling the Caribbean, he eventually becomes a true pirate, on a quest to discover the Fountain of Youth.
Some of the characters were one-dimensional, especially the females. Sarah, in particular, seems to exist only to bring about Moishe’s sexual awakening, with readers having no concrete sense of her own feelings or personality. Moishe’s consistent pining for her over the years also felt like a set-up for a long-last lovers’ reunion that never came. Though not quite as major of a character, Yahima, a native woman from an island in the Caribbean who joins Moishe’s ship’s crew, is similarly under-developed. She’s described as “fearless and knowledgeable,” but she has almost no dialogue and serves little purpose besides fulfilling Moishe’s needs as a replacement lover for Sarah.
Throughout the novel, Barwin, whose other published works include 21 books of poetry, fiction and children’s books, clearly enjoys Jewish humor and Yiddish jokes, especially those of the “a rabbi walks into a bar” variety, of which there is no shortage. For those unfamiliar with common (and some not-so-common) Yiddish words, Aaron’s near-constant inner Yiddish monologue can become frustrating. Barwin does translate a few words, but for the most part, he expects readers to know Yiddish vocabulary and to have a basic understanding of Jewish and world history. Non-Jews and younger readers might feel more connected to the story if Barwin had included a glossary of translations. However, Aaron’s running commentary may bring a smile to the faces of those who are reminded of the sense of humor of their zeide, or perhaps their rabbi.
Those who are expecting chapters filled with “astounding adventures,” as the full subtitle of the novel promises, may be slightly disappointed, as the major action scenes are few and far between. Less patient readers may be tempted to skip past some of the paragraphs-long monologues and jokes, but it’s in these pages where the strengths of the novel really lie.
Through clever observations and puns, Barwin is able to spin somber historical events into a humorous novel. The pleasure of reading Yiddish for Pirates comes from Barwin’s mastery of wit and language. In the wise words of Aaron, “Feh. Eventually all that’s left is words.”