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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jewish Pirates

A number of different projects have put me, recently, into the world of the Jews who lived through the Spanish Inquisition.

I've been writing some material about the era, and also, came across a book, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean" which recreates the era in which any decision that the Jews made could result in horrible torture and death. The "safest" move was to convert and become Christians -- though that brought its own dangers. Yet so many of the Jews of that era tried to escape, or live as hidden Jews, because they couldn't abandon their heritage.

The Jewish pirates, by the way, were Jews who escaped to the New World and, when the Inquisition followed them, were forced to again set sail and find new places to live. Some were able to settle in Jamaica, which they helped the British capture in return for the British promise to allow them to live as Jews. The new Jewish "pirates" then used Jamaica as a port from which they could attack the Spanish fleet -- to strengthen the British, to whom they owed a great debt, for money (of course) and, purely and simply, for revenge against Spain.

Growing up, we read about the Spanish Inquisition as "history" but didn't really internalize it. It was a historical episode, and, the narrative read, Jews who didn't want to convert simply left.

But it wasn't that simple, and, as I often do, the more that I learned about the period, the more i internalized the fear, the despair, the hopelessness of the people who were caught in the web of the era. Just "leaving" meant boarding rickety ships, relying on wicked captains, and heading off, penniless, to the unknown.

Staying meant living under constant scrutiny and knowing that, at any moment, an "Old Christian" could accuse you of "Judaizing" and your next step would be the auto-de-fe...burn to death at the stake. It was no coincidence, by the way, that Jews who were put to death had their property confiscated -- there was a lot of economic incentive to accuse someone of Judaizing.

Last night I had a dream about boarding such a ship and heading out into the waters to the unknown. Maybe that has something to do with other things going on in my life....I'm not enough of a dream interpreter to say. But what I do know is that I felt, even for a few, unconscious minutes, the utter terror of what my ancestors must have felt as they sailed off to the unknown. For no other reason than to ensure that their descendents -- me -- would be able to hold onto their Jewish heritage.

Humbling, to say the least.



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