Gary Barwin speaks about Yiddish language and dark humour

books literacy
A stack of books

On Oct. 31, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course presented writer Gary Barwin reading from his award-winning novel, Yiddish for Pirates. York U teaching assistant Dana Patrascu-Kingsley sent the following report to YFile.

Gary Barwin
Gary Barwin

Writer Gary Barwin visited York University to talk about his new novel, Yiddish for Pirates, as part of the Canadian Writers in Person series. His visit took place Nov. 14.

Barwin started the reading with a saxophone performance of an Yiddish folk song that transported the audience into the cultural framework of the story.

Barwin is a writer, composer, and multidisciplinary artist and the author of twenty-one books of poetry, fiction and books for children. Yiddish for Pirates (published with Random House Canada) won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour as well as the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Fiction. It was also a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Set in the late 15th century, Yiddish for Pirates tells the story of Moishe, a young boy who leaves home and joins a ship crew, helps a group of hidden Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, falls in love, and travels to the New World with Christopher Columbus, before becoming a revenge-seeking pirate and adventurer. The story is told by Aaron, a 500-year-old polyglot gay parrot who travels with Moishe.

Asked about his use of Yiddish in this novel, the author said that he thought about adding a glossary, but decided against it because that would have taken readers out of the story. “Language reflects a culture and creates an outsider/insider divide… a language is a way of seeing the world,” Garwin said. Through his use of Yiddish in this book, he invites the reader to experience the Jewish view of the world.

The writer pointed out that “humour has been an important historical element of Jewish culture and life… Yiddish is a great language for a particular kind of humour that has a bitter joy.”

In a review for Quill & Quire, Steven W. Beattie writes: “[R]arely does one encounter a work of Canadian literature this exuberant, impassioned, and enthralled with the very nature and essence of storytelling. Yiddish for Pirates is many things: a postmodern pastiche, an episodic picaresque, a compendium of tales competing to see which can stand tallest, and a virtual catalogue of Jewish humour through the ages.”

This book is a “postcolonial satire investigating colonialism,” Garwin said. “I was thinking a lot about what it means to be an ‘other’.” This novel examines the ways in which people can be othered by language, religion, and culture. When having to confront persecution, Garwin’s characters turn to their language, reframing their experiences through humour, because “if you frame it your way, you have control of it.”

Readings are free and open to any member of the public. All readings are held Tuesdays from 7 to 9pm in 206 Accolade West Building, Keele campus.

For more information, contact Professor Leslie Sanders at or Professor Gail Vanstone at