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'Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean' explores history of Jewish swashbucklers

PICTURE A grizzly, swashbuckling pirate who sails the high seas in search of ships to plunder. Now, add a yarmulke.

PICTURE A grizzly, swashbuckling pirate who sails the high seas in search of ships to plunder.

Now, add a yarmulke.

Actually, Jewish pirates who ransacked Spanish ships in Caribbean waters during Colonial times wore more intimidating Cavalier-style hats. But make no mistake: There were Jewish pirates of the Caribbean.

"They were pirates through and through," said Sahar Oz, director of programming for the Gershman Y, which hosts a talk about the Sephardic seafarers Thursday, in conjunction with a photo exhibit on Caribbean synagogues. "They were just as scruffy and just as unethical and just as criminal."

See ya, Iberia

The Jewish pirates were part of a Jewish population that fled Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition for the uncharted territory of the West Indies and grew to number thousands of people at its height.

"This was the first and only autonomous Jewish society" prior to Israel, Oz said. "It's pretty amazing when you think about what these people were able to accomplish."

Some were successful merchants, tailors, butchers and shipbuilders. Others held a thirst for adventure, a desire to seize booty - and strong anti-Spanish sentiment.

"They had no love for the countries they were coming from," Oz said. "So, it would be logical that they would not care and want to go and pillage those ships."

Thursday's "Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean" lecture, by Rabbi Lance Sussman, of Keneseth Israel, in Elkins Park, explores the history of these Jewish swashbucklers.

Most of them were men who "ran away to sea," such as Jewish pirate-for-hire Jean Lafitte, who helped inspire the pirate imagery we're familiar with today, Sussman said. Captain Hook from "Peter Pan" bears a striking resemblance to Lafitte - right down to the red jacket.

Beyond the booty

While it's the scalawags that will draw the audience, Sussman said he also hopes to pique attendees' interest more broadly in the Sephardic Jews of the Caribbean, whose Spanish and Portuguese background and culture are different from the bagels-and-lox-eating Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe.

Over the years, Sussman has given close to 100 lectures on Jewish history and art - and this year he has been focusing on the Sephardic experience.

"This business of piracy is an extension of that," he said.

Photographs, memories

The Gershman is also spotlighting the Sephardic Jews of the Caribbean in photographer Wyatt Gallery's exhibit "Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean," showcasing the region's synagogues, on display through Sept. 11.

One of the 36 photos on display is of Sha'are Shalom, in Jamaica, one of five synagogues in the world with a sand floor. It's in pristine shape.

Another photo shows the ruins of Bracha v' Shalom synagogue, in Suriname, a desolate, crumbling concrete structure surrounded by crawling vines and hanging trees.

Oz said that Gallery wanted to document the historic structures before the sands of time took over. "He thought, 'Wow, what if these sites were destroyed? There will be no record.' "

7 p.m. Thursday, $10, "Jewish Treasures of the Caribbean"

June 25-Sept. 11, free, 215-545-4400,