Shiver Me Timbers, Oy Vey!

Among my favorite Jewish haiku is this gem:

Seven-foot Jews in
the NBA slam-dunking!
My alarm clock rings.

That verse came to mind as I compiled this list of books about the importance of my tribe. OK, so the Irish saved civilization! That's practically bupkes. According to this (mostly new) crop of books, Jews discovered America, became the scourge of the high seas, propped up the confederacy, created California and turned football into the exciting game it is today.

SAILS OF HOPE: The Secret Mission of Columbus, by Simon Wiesenthal (1973). Taking a break from hunting Nazis, Wiesenthal argued that Columbus hid his Jewish origins and that the secret purpose of his voyage to America was to find a new land of freedom for the exiled Jews of Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese writer Jose Rodrigues dos Santos made this controversial claim the premise of a novel published in English this year, Codex 632: The Secret Identity of Christopher Columbus, which you might call a kind of Jewish Da Vinci Code. According to a recent article in Reform Judaism magazine by Aron and Judy Hirt-Manheimer, some people think that "Columbus encoded his elaborate Christian signature with kabalistic messages concealing a Jewish prayer." Others think he was just doodling.

JEWISH PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom -- and Revenge, by Edward Kritzler. (2008) Shiver me timbers, oy vey! This new book (by a New Yorker transplanted to Jamaica) weaves together every scrap of information about Jews in the great age of piracy. My favorite character is Samuel Palache, a "pirate rabbi" who, according to Kritzler, commanded pirate ships in the early 17th century with a Jewish chef aboard to prepare kosher meals. But avast there, Moshe! On close reading, it appears that Palache was neither much of a rabbi nor much of a pirate. He was a wealthy merchant, born in Morocco, who helped to found the Jewish community in Amsterdam. Rather than an outlaw pirate, he was a legal "privateer" who carried a safe-conduct pass from England and was backed by the Dutch and the Moroccans against their Spanish and Portuguese foes.

THE JEWISH CONFEDERATES, by Robert N. Rosen. (2000)
The author, a lawyer in Charleston, describes the difficult choices that faced the approximately 25,000 Jews living in the South at the outbreak of the Civil War and explains the reasoning of those who sided with the Confederacy. Of course, a far larger number of Jews lived in the North and backed the Union.

TOWERS OF GOLD: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, by Frances Dinkelspiel (2008).
The author tells the story of her great-great grandfather, an immigrant from Bavaria who rose from a store clerk to a powerful California banker. She expounds on his role in building the University of Southern California, the state's oil industry, the Los Angeles Times and that city's transportation system.

PASSING GAME: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football, by Murray Greenberg (2008).
The son of working-class immigrants from Russia, Benny Friedman became a football star in high school in Cleveland and at the University of Michigan, where he pioneered a new offensive weapon: the forward pass. He went on to play for the Cleveland Bulldogs and the New York Giants in the fledgling NFL. Football was never the same.

Can you top that?

-- Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  December 4, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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