Shadow Giller: Yiddish For Pirates by Gary Barwin


Gary Barwin’s imagination knocked my socks off. History and adventure come together in this remarkable tale full of word play and wit, all told by a 500-year-old Yiddish-speaking parrot.

So, you ask, how did this shell-less cheder-bocher – schoolboy – drawn from the waters of Ashkenaz find himself on the Spanish Main, the blade of his sword pressed against the quivering kishkas of Spanish captains? How did Columbus, the Inquisition, and the search for some books cause us to seek for life everlasting?

And, come to think of it, how did I, an African Grey, become his mishpocheh, his family, and he my perch, my shoulder in the world?

And so begins the tale of Moishe and Aaron, his parrot.

A bookmark without a book doesn’t know where it is. Moishe was my slim volume, my scrawny story. My shoulder.

Together they take on the Inquisition,

“Since the beginning, they have tried to kill us Jews, but ha-Shem – God – gives the story a little, what you would call, a drey, a twist, and then somehow, we aren’t destroyed. Until the next time.”

Christopher Columbus the pompous,

The ship’s master unfurled the flag of the Spanish Kingdoms and planted it in the sand. For we shall have dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the earth and have a fancy brocaded flag to prove it.

and the Ocean Sea.

To be at sea is to know vastness, to understand the flight of clouds, the reach of the stars and of invention. He was riding the expanding ripples of God’s great cannonball. Moishe felt as if he were travelling in every direction at once, each direction away from home, toward story.

They seek “revenge and retribution from Spanish ships and their gold”,

Was I surprised my hopeful pink boychik Moishe had turned pirate? Feh.

God Hisself would have turned pirate if, on bumping into the New World, He had seen that the othershtupping Spanish had discovered only a larger canvas on which to paint their murderous scenes. The same hateful fire burned inside their poxy hearts as fueled Inquisition flames. They had persecuted Jews. Now they persecuted Los Indios.

and they search for the Fountain of Eternal Life.

“Ach, who needs immortal life?” I answered. “It’s but a larger sack to fill with misery.”

“But it works the other way, too,” Moishe said. “Trouble would scatter like ashes in the wind over a life-without-end. And anyway, it’s the Fountain of Youth, so you’re made young again. Younger than your memories, younger than your pain.”

“Eternal relief.”

“An everlasting finger to those who tried to erase us: here we are, a permanent stain on the pages of history.”

They suffer great sorrow but maintain hope for the future.

I wish that we, too, could leave this meiskeit-ugly bloodletting. That we, too, could silently row out of this story and find another one, a story where more blood stayed in the body. Sha. I’m only looking for this treasure, these books, this poxy fountain, because, like a shlemiel, I still believe – keneynehoreh – in life instead of death. But, takeh, it’d be easier to be dead.

And through it all, Aaron can’t help but crack his jokes.

I smiled sheepishly. If a parrot could be said to be sheepish. Or to smile.


This book comes with a warning: despite the jolly feel of the novel, there are some very graphic scenes of violence. You’re thinking it be the pirates. But, sadly, the worst of it comes from the “good guys”; the Catholics in Spain ridding the country of heretics, and the great explorers of the New World who think the Native Islanders are soul-less.

Yiddish For Pirates is not a quick read, but every word is enjoyable. I giggled and smirked, felt anger and awe, and at the end of it all I shed a tear. I was sad to see Aaron go.

In the Acknowledgements, Barwin says that he dedicates this book to his family: “I have tried to infuse it with wonder, thoughtfulness, wit, intelligence, culture, love and compassion. If I have succeeded in this in any way, it is because I have learned these things from them.”

He has succeeded.


With Yiddish For Pirates, Gary Barwin has earned every last ‘blurb’ about his book. Here are a couple that I especially like:

“All my life I have been waiting for the romantic tale of a Kabbalistic Jewish pirate as filtered through a uniquely Canadian perspective. Today, my prayers have been answered and then some.” Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure

“What an accomplishment! What an imagination! The wit, the wordplay, and the subversive humour make this a thoroughly original and delightful novel.” Lauren B. Davis, Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated author of Our Daily Bread and Against a Darkening Sky

For someone so accomplished, I’m embarrassed to say that I had never heard of him until his book made the Giller longlist. Happily, that has been rectified, and I hope the treasure that is Yiddish For Pirates will bring him much well-deserved recognition.


Yiddish for Pirates is also a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

The review in the Globe & Mail claims that Yiddish For Pirates is “unlike anything else you’ll read this year”.

The review in The Star reveals some of what Barwin was thinking as he wrote his book.

“Pirates were these word-invention machines. These insults and swashbuckling threats are such a juicy joy to speak,” he says. “That’s a component of that in Yiddish as well. People who speak Yiddish love to revel in the Yiddishisms and clever charismatic ways of saying things. It’s so fun to riff off of those.”

Gary Barwin’s interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.

*Thank you to Random House of Canada for sending me a copy of this book for review!


48 thoughts on “Shadow Giller: Yiddish For Pirates by Gary Barwin

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    This sounds every bit as bizarre as the blurb made it out to be. But also like great fun! I would have been interested to read it just from the title, so I’m glad it lives up to it. Do you think it has a chance of winning?

    • Naomi says:

      It definitely deserves to be on the shortlist. I worry that it might be a little too bizarre to be the winner, but I guess that depends on the jury. I certainly wouldn’t be upset to see it win (although, just for the record, I could say that about a couple of the other books I’ve read from the list, as well). 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I can’t wait to hear what you think of this one, Brian!
      And, thanks – as I was writing it, I realized that the passages I had made note of pretty much told the story themselves, so I decided to just let them. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      No, it’s not YA – it’s fully adult. Not to say that some teens might not appreciate it. I haven’t seen it around, either, except on the lists and professional reviews.

  2. BuntyMcC says:

    After I forwarded your Giller long list post to my book club (I wasn’t able to make their Sept. meeting) they chose only books from the list for the next seven meetings, YfP being the one for January. Loved this review and thanks for the The Next Chapter link. (We’re doing The Wonder in October.)

    • Naomi says:

      What a fun idea for your book club! You’re in for some good reading over the next seven months. 🙂 A variety of subjects and styles, and most of them lend themselves well for discussion.
      The Wonder is good, too – just haven’t written about it yet.
      Enjoy! And keep me posted about which ones your club likes best, and which generates the most discussion – I’d love to hear about it!

  3. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    Yet another book I want to read that is not easy for me to get yet. I might have to bite the bullet and order from Canada again. I am so happy for you (and a bit jealous, too) that you get to read all of these wonderful books as part of reading the shortlist. What a great success! (And now I am trying desperately to remember where I just recently heard or read about the Catholics in Spain during the Inquisition.)

  4. susan says:

    This definitely sounds like a different kind of novel. I’m still trying to get the gist of it : but it seems like a seafaring adventure set during the Spanish Inquisition? For some reason I think of Life of Pi because of the animals I guess — but that’s not it. Interesting.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, it’s part sea-faring adventure (explorers and pirates), part historical fiction, and part search for a place to call home. (Not at all like Life of Pi.) It’s a little different and very good!

  5. buriedinprint says:

    This one took me by surprise; I was expecting a pirate romp but it was more of a parrot romp and there was more non-pirate action overall and my reading pace slowed to a crawl so I could catch every word and delight in his playfulness. Who knew that a parrot narrator would be so entertaining and bookish too!?

    • Naomi says:

      He’s a smart parrot, that’s for sure!
      And, you’re right – the pirating was only one part of the book. I loved the language and I loved the bond between parrot and human. 🙂

  6. Don Royster says:

    In response to this part: “But, sadly, the worst of it comes from the “good guys”; the Catholics in Spain ridding the country of heretics…” I have an observation. You can’t have an inquisition without and Inquisition. Just ask Trotsky.

  7. Read Diverse Books says:

    Another great book on the Giller longlist! If you hadn’t heart of the author, I certainly haven’t either. But this book sounds delightful. So glad you enjoyed it.
    I commend you for writing such a cohesive review with many valuable quotes. It’s such a refreshing way to review a book. I may try it one day when I feel an itch to shake up my review style.

    • Naomi says:

      I find that noting passages I like help me write the review later on. It’s especially helpful when it’s been a few weeks since reading the book (as sometimes happens)!

  8. Sarah Emsley says:

    I haven’t had a chance to read any of the shortlisted books yet, and I really appreciate hearing from you about all of them, Naomi! Are you planning to go to the Giller Light Bash in Halifax?

Leave a Reply to Read Diverse Books Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s