Monday, April 13, 2015

Jean Laffite's Grandmother and Objections to the Journal

One of the reasons that it is difficult for some people to accept the Journal of Jean Laffite as genuine has to do with Jean's grandmother, who is identified in the Journal as a Spanish woman of Israelite descent.

According to the dedication to one of the Laffite family Bibles, she is identified as a Spanish Jew -- Juive Espagnole -- which might be another way of saying that she was Sephardic.

The idea that Jean Laffite could have had a "Jewish" grandmother seems distasteful and also perhaps unlikely to many admirers of the privateer. By the same token, people who identify themselves as Jewish may have trouble claiming the privateer as related, because his actions in life do not fit a Jewish stereotype.

But part of the problem with all this is that public relations have painted all people descended from those banished from  ancient Israel as Ashkenazi, Yiddish speaking ultra-conservative, religious fanatics or modern progressives with left-wing leanings. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are Jewish populations all over the world, including in Ethiopia and Yemen.

There is and was prejudice against non-Ashkenazi Jews in various Jewish subcommunities. Whether they are Sephardic, Yemenite or Beta Israel, they tend to be looked down on by Ashkenazi populations, for being too eastern, too dark or downright barbarians.

When I watched the video embedded below, about a young man named Yehye Nehari, born in Yemen to a mother of Israelite descent and kidnapped at age seven by ultra-orthodox Jews to live in New York where he was tortured for four years by being told he needed to speak Yiddish, because that is the language the Messiah speaks,  I wondered about his mother. Nehari arrived in Israel at age eleven, alone, without family, and in the video we meet him at the end of his Israeli  military service. His mother and sisters were flown in to see him. They had not seen each other for twelve years.

לא לפספס
Posted by ‎שוקי שיינפלד‎ on Monday, March 2, 2015

The mother is that rather young woman who is dressed colorfully in Yemenite clothing and is seen speaking into a cell phone in Arabic. She seems much less troubled or inhibited than her son. Notice how she doesn't let the Israeli men help her out of the van? See how confident and sure of herself she looks?

We think of women wearing eastern garb as being downtrodden or enslaved, but there is more than one side to that story.

The culture clash between the Ashkenazi progressive Zionists and the polygamous Yemenites they are trying to convert to Western ways is played to comic good effect in the movie Sallah Shabati.

In this movie, Topol plays the Oriental equivalent of the Ashkenazi character Tevye that he played in Fiddler on the Roof.

The Yemenite Jewish population still practiced polygamy when European Jewry had given it up in an attempt to fit in among their neighbors. While a European Jew had to give a dowry for a husband to provide for his daughter upon marriage, a Yemenite father expected to receive a bride price.

 Communism, popular in Europe at the time of the return to Israel, was unheard of among the Yemenites. The problems of the liberated, progressive woman who is an adult, yet unmarried and works without pay in the dairy barn of her kibbutz seemed strange in comparison.

The diasporatic population of ancient Israel went in many different directions. Wherever they went, they ended up looking very similar to the local population and speaking the language of the land in which they lived. There are even some who emigrated to China and still can be identified there today.

In all probability, Zora Nadrimal did not resemble the stereotype of the Jewish grandmother that we tend to have today in America. She was not from the German speaking  Ashkenazi populations. She did not know Yiddish. She was not part of a pacifist community that depended on an urban, industrialized society to exist. She did not teach Jean Laffite to turn the other cheek, and she was tough as nails when it came to seeing her grandchildren go off to war. Seafaring ran in her family.

But because of the current stereotypes, the stigma of the Jewish grandmother is one issue that prevents  admirers of Jean Laffite from considering the authenticity of the Journal, whereas the non-Yiddish values of the grandmother turn off most American Jews, because they cannot identify.


  1. It was interesting to learn a bit more about Jean Laffite's grandmother. I never suspected I had any German ancestry, but then I found one person on my maternal grandmother's who came from Germany in the 1830's. His last name was Reichman, and some online searches have told me this is a Jewish surname. I cannot verify that, and perhaps it is just a German name.

    1. Hi, Julia. It could be just a German name. Many German Jews simply adopted well known German names, so some people bearing the name could be of Jewish ancestry and others not.

    2. It is probably just a German name I guess. I really know nothing about it. It simply said Reichman was a German Jewish name, so I was interested if that could have been true or not in the case of my ancestor. It was so far back, and there was not much more info on him than that. What is kind of interesting though is my grandpa used to always get mail for Jews for Jesus, and he said oh maybe Hanna is a last name among Jewish people. I have never heard of that either. From what I have gathered Hanna was a surname among Christians in Syria. I think someone with the name Hanna just got into their mailing list, and he was being invited to their events. However, people over the years have come up to me and asked me point blank if I am Jewish. I never really understood why people would ask me this or assume this, especially since I never have did anything that would indicate I practice this faith.

    3. The problem with the label "Jewish" is that people use it for both a religion and an ethnicity, so they get confused. People of European ancestry can't tell a Syrian from a Lebanese from an ancient Israelite, because all of those are of Semitic ancestry and are in fact so closely related we sometimes can't tell the difference ourselves. There is lots of DNA in common, and also lots of linguistic relatedness between cultures. But looking at someone and detecting Semitic ancestry really tells you nothing about their religion.

      There are some Hannas in the group I joined on FB that wants to revive Carthaginian culture in Lebanon. The root in Hanna has to do with grace and it is common to the beginning of the name Hannibal, as well as to the Hebrew names Hannah or Yohannan -- which in English is now "John".

    4. That is very true, Aya. Like the example awhile back oh how Jerry Seinfeld is a Jew of Syrian ancestry, and people were confused about this. Most people in the Levant and Israel have so much common DNA ancestry.