Photo Credit: Ocean Institute
The Pilgrim may serve as a movie pirate ship

The word Jewish is not a common adjective for pirate. But there was a time when Jewish pirates roamed parts of the world. What those Jewish pirates were seeking was not riches, but retribution, revenge for the displacement and murder of so many Jews by the Spaniards during the Inquisition.

The story is a fascinating one and the Israeli Californian Arnon Shorr wants to share it with the world.

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Shorr’s enthusiasm for “The Pirate Captain Toledano” is contagious. He speaks and writes in full, descriptive paragraphs about Hollywood, pirates, the Inquisition, and what makes a good movie. He also speaks eloquently about why the script he’s written is not just a pirate movie and not just a Jewish movie, but a rich, exciting tale that brings history alive and happens to be about Jews who were pirates.

Shorr first became fascinated with moviemaking when he was ten years old. He was dumbstruck when, while watching “Jurassic Park” and seeing the credits at the end, he realized that some people have a job as moviemakers! This realization ignited a lifelong fascination with cinematic story telling.

The recipient of many awards for the films he has made, this latest one, “The Pirate Captain Toledo,” holds a special place in Shorr’s heart. Pirate movies had not been especially intriguing to him, he recently told the JewishPress.com, until a friend gave him the book “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean.” Shorr loved the history revealed in that book for several reasons.

One, rather than greed as the incentive for thrills on the high seas, this historically accurate book provided a fascinating motivation for the piracy. These were not just pirates who happened to be Jews, these Jews were pirates precisely because they were Jewish: a people, dispossessed and cast from their homes because of maniacal Jew-hatred. This made the pirates more interesting and the Jews more interesting. The fact that the Jews were sephardic was especially appealing to Shorr, whose mother’s family is from Libya. That these Jews were brave swashbucklers was also a lure. Enough with the Woody Allen neurotic types!

The book proved an inspiration for a film script that Shorr says came to him about a year after reading the book. The entire script struck him as a complete thought:”literally, whole-cloth.”

Shorr never planned to be a movie maker of Jewish films, but he explained why many of his films have had a Jewish narrative – sometimes subtle, sometimes not.

“I grew up in such a multiplicity of Jewish lives and stories, I find that Jewish identities and narratives often find their way into my work. I’ve written screenplays that re-interpret the Golem legend in a contemporary American setting, and that re-tell the Exodus as a post-Apocalyptic action adventure,” Shorr explained. “I even have an outline for a Jewish/Christian Romeo and Juliet story set in rural Iowa.”

But making a pirate film isn’t as easy as making many other kinds of movies. Large ships are expensive, for example. And Shorr couldn’t rely on the usual suspects to have his film made.

Shorr explained why this Jewish-themed story was unlikely to be financed by Hollywood. He doesn’t hold a grudge and he’s not claiming anti-Semitism. It’s just that “Hollywood tends to follow trends, rather than creating them, so until there’s enough market precedent for Jewish narratives working in the mainstream, it’s an uphill battle to convince Hollywood executives to consider such projects.”

So, kind of like his Jewish pirates taking matters into their own hands, Shorr is tackling this project himself. This approach gives him the free hand to develop the storyline without reliance on Jewish shtick – you won’t find a caricature of a charedi Jew or a Judaism-rejecting one in Shorr’s film. His Jewish pirate retains a connection to Judaism while on his quest for revenge.

For funding, Shorr turned to Jewcer.com, a crowdfunding source for Jewish projects. You can see him there in a video describing the project and seeking support.

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Shorr believes that if the story is good, audiences will love it. This is so whether or not traditional producers might have shied away from a “Jewish story” that doesn’t feature typical Jewish characters.

“It’s not that there needs to be a Jewish pirate movie because the fact of piracy makes Jews more interesting. There needs to be a Jewish pirate movie because Jewish pirates make more interesting pirates,” the filmmaker continues.

“That this movie gives us an opportunity to refresh a Jewish narrative is an important ancillary benefit, but if a story really is amazing, it can be as ‘Jewish’ as it needs to be – it’ll never be ‘too Jewish,'” says Shorr. And what’s just as fascinating is, just as Shorr described, the story gives far greater texture to the traditional cliched pirate persona.

The Jewcer campaign ends on Nov. 20. The Ocean Institute at Dana Point, an enthusiastic supporter of the project and one on whose ships “The Pirate Captain Toledano” will be made, if all comes to fruition, is also offering special treats for the higher donors to the project. Those goodies include private tours of the ships and even a private catered dinner for 20 (kosher food is a possibility) on one of the tall ships.

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