Category Archives: Extraordinary Individuals

Unique Jews In a Category of Their Own

Jew of the Week: Moses Cohen Henriques

The Jewish Pirate Who Conquered Brazil

Moses Cohen Henriques (b. 1595) was born to a family of Sephardic Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity. The family eventually made their way to Amsterdam and returned to their Jewish faith. Henriques joined the Dutch navy, and rose up through the ranks to be the right-hand man of famed Dutch admiral Piet Hein. Together, they defeated the Spanish fleet off the coast of Cuba in 1628. Following this, Henriques went to scout the Portuguese colony of Pernambuco, Brazil as a spy, to prepare for a Dutch invasion. He was part of that invasion in 1630, leading a contingent of 3000 men to successfully capture the colony. Henriques helped to turn the area into a Jewish refuge, bringing in America’s first rabbi, and establishing the first synagogue, mikveh, and yeshiva in the New World. When the Portuguese recaptured the colony in 1654 and restarted persecution of Jews, Henriques fled along with the rest of the Jewish community. To survive harsh times, he was forced to become a pirate, soon joining the infamous Henry Morgan. He became Sir Morgan’s trusted advisor. Henriques later ventured on his own, establishing a pirate island off the Brazilian coast. The Inquisition sought to capture him for years, unsuccessfully, and Henriques saw it as his mission to avenge the evil that the Spanish and Portuguese had done to the Jews. After the English conquered Jamaica, Henriques settled there and lived out the rest of his life on the island, helping to establish its Jewish community. When his old friend Henry Morgan became Jamaica’s governor, he gave Henriques a full pardon for piracy in 1681.

Illustration depicting the burning of Jews at the stake, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

Words of the Week

The Jews are our chief supplyers in Barbadoes, and would sell very cheap, and give one not seldom two years to pay, by which credit the poorer sort of planter did wonderfully improve their condition.
Sir Thomas Modyford (d. 1679), English governor of Barbados and Jamaica


*The biography above is adapted from Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, by Ed Kritzler.

Jews of the Week: Babatha and Yadin

The War Hero Archaeologist Who Made a Revolutionary Discovery

(Credit: PBS/Nova)

Babatha bat Shimon (c. 104-132 CE) was born in the town of Mahoza by the Dead Sea to a wealthy Jewish family originally from Ein Gedi. It was in this area that Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin discovered a leather pouch with her belongings in 1960. The documents inside included her legal, financial, and marriage contracts, presenting an eye-opening picture of the life of an upper-class Jewish woman two millennia ago. An only child, Babatha inherited all of her father’s date palm orchards when he passed away. She married her first husband, a man named Yeshu, while still a teenager. He died several years later, after which she married another date farmer named Yehuda. One of the discovered documents shows that Babatha lent her husband a sizeable loan (interest-free, of course). When he also passed away, Babatha seized all of his property as collateral. The documents reveal a number of legal battles that Babatha had to overcome, as well as her impressive financial and business acumen. She spoke several languages and was well-educated. During the Bar Kochva Revolt, Babatha fled from the Romans and hid in a cave, together with one of Bar Kochva’s generals, named Yonatan. It is believed she was killed in the war shortly after. Archaeologist Richard Freund has said that Babatha “revolutionized the way that we think about Jewish women in antiquity.”

Yigael Sukenik (1917-1984) was born in Israel to Polish-Jewish parents. He joined the Haganah at 15, leaving several years later after a dispute with Yitzhak Sadeh. He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an archaeologist. While studying at the Hebrew University he changed his last name to “Yadin”. When Israel’s Independence War broke out, Yadin returned to the newly-formed IDF and became the head of its operations. The following year, he became Chief of Staff. One of his first duties was going to Switzerland to study their army-reserve organization. He then created a similar reverse system in Israel. After resigning from the IDF to protest defence budget cuts, Yadin returned to academia. His doctoral thesis on a translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls won an Israel Prize. He travelled around the world to find and purchase lost and stolen Dead Sea Scrolls to return them to Israel. Meanwhile, Yadin excavated some of the most important archaeological sites in Israel, including Masada, Hazor, and Ein Gedi. During the Six-Day War, he returned to the military to advise the prime minister, and years later was part of the Agranat Commission that investigated the failure of the Yom Kippur War. As a result of this, he formed a new political party, Dash, which sought to fight corruption and restore confidence in Israel’s government. The party won a whopping 15 seats in its first election, and soon joined the new Likud coalition under Menachem Begin. Yadin became deputy prime minister, and played a critical role in the Camp David Accords. He wrote a number of bestselling books, taught at the Hebrew University for over 30 years, and was a renowned expert on the Qumran Caves, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Bar Kochva Revolt.

Words of the Week

Also I have seen under the sun, that in the place of law there is evil, and in the place of justice there is evil.
King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 3:16)

Jew of the Week: Natan Sharansky

The Refusenik

Anatoly Borisovich Sharansky (b. 1948) was born in Donetsk, Ukraine. He was a child chess prodigy, and won his city’s chess championship as a teenager. He went on to study math in Moscow and later worked in a secret Soviet research lab. In 1973, Sharansky applied for an exit visa to Israel and was refused. Henceforth, he became a vocal activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and became the world’s most famous refusenik. He soon expanded his scope to work for all human rights, and was the spokesperson for the Moscow Helsinki Group, today Russia’s primary human rights organization. In 1977, Sharansky was arrested on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage, and sentenced to 13 years of hard labour. He was tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time. (He would later remark that one of the things that helped him through it was playing chess in his mind.) After ceaseless activism from his wife, mother, and countless international supporters, Sharansky was finally released in 1986. Shortly after, he received a Congressional Gold Medal from the US government. He moved to Israel and started going by his Hebrew name, Natan. A couple of years later, he published a bestselling memoir, Fear No Evil. (This book was passed on by Helen Suzman to Nelson Mandela, then still in prison, and inspired his ongoing struggle.) In 1995, Sharansky co-founded the Yisrael BaAliyah political party to advocate on behalf of hundreds of thousands of new Soviet Jewish immigrants to Israel. They won seven seats in their first election. Sharansky served as Minister of Industry and Trade, then Minister of Internal Affairs, and even Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister. In 2003, as chairman of his party, he merged it with Likud, and became Minister of Jerusalem Affairs. In 2005, Sharansky resigned in protest of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. He is a staunch supporter of Israeli settlements, and co-founded One Jerusalem, an organization that works to keep the Jewish capital from being divided ever again. President Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2006, and he won the Israel Prize in 2018. Last year, he won the prestigious Genesis Prize, and donated all $1 million of it for coronavirus relief. Currently, Sharansky heads the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, and continues to serve on the board of the Jewish Agency.

Sharansky: The Dangerous Rise of the Un-Jews

Understanding the Arab-Israeli Conflict in 5 Easy Points

Words of the Week

Jews came here 3,000 years ago and this is the cradle of Jewish civilization. Jews are the only people in history who kept their loyalty to their identity and their land throughout the 2,000 years of exile, and no doubt that they have the right to have their place among nations—not only historically but also geographically. As to the Palestinians, who are the descendants of those Arabs who migrated in the last 200 years, they have the right, if they want, to have their own state… but not at the expense of the state of Israel.
– Natan Sharansky