The news this week is chock-full of outrage over the Israeli naval action that Turkey and others are calling an act of naked piracy on the high seas. And in the week’s other top story, by incredible coincidence, the oil slick oozing across the Gulf of Mexico made its first major landfall Thursday at, of all places, Grand Isle in Barataria Bay at the mouth of the Mississippi, 15 miles south of New Orleans. Barataria and its three islets are probably best known as the place where a private kingdom was established around 1800 by the greatest Jewish pirate of them all, Jean Lafitte.
Lafitte, as alert readers recall, was born around 1776 and won fame as a pirate and sometime privateer who specialized in attacking Spanish merchant ships. He played a critical, well-documented role in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, bringing his men and arms through the swamps to help Andrew Jackson stop the British.
It’s widely believed that Lafitte was born in France or the French Caribbean (various theories as to which island) and was raised by his maternal grandmother, Zora Nadrimal, a secret Jew who fled Spain as a little girl, one step ahead of the Inquisition. As commonly told, Bubbe Zora raised Lafitte and his three brothers, Pierre, Rene and Dominique You (who was portrayed by Charles Boyer in the 1958 Yul Brynner swashbuckler about Lafitte, “The Buccaneer”) to hate Spain for what it did to their people and to take to the sea for revenge.
Lafitte’s hatred of Spain is well-documented; he was close to Simon Bolivar and may have helped finance the Bolivar and San Martin revolutions that kicked Spain out of South America. His Jewishness, on the other hand, is a matter of furious debate among historians. Debunkers say the evidence of Lafitte’s Jewishness is thin and suspect, though they don’t offer much evidence to the contrary and they often sound like those grumpy old men who get all huffy when you talk about Jewish athletes and other ruffians, like it lowers their standards. (It turns out that some don’t like being associated with ruffians and others don’t like being associated with Jews.) I would have thought the debate would end four years ago when this article appeared in the Jerusalem Post, in which a scholarly writer relates his recent encounter with Melvyn Lafitte, a direct descendant who lives in Switzerland and is a practicing Orthodox Jew. But no.
It’s also said, with shakier documentation , that Lafitte’s death off Galveston in 1823 was faked and that he lived off his wealth into the 1850s, probably in St. Louis. In some accounts he got involved in labor organizing, met Marx in London and tried to introduce him to Abraham Lincoln. Here’s a vitriolic online back-and-forth about this theory. Here’s the Amazon page for The Journal of Jean Lafitte, purportedly written in the 1840s, describing his youth with his grandmother and much more, widely seen as phony but a fun read anyway. And here is Marx’s actual letter to Lincoln.
Where were we? Oh yes — the Big Spill meets the Flotilla…
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).