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Ask Shifra

Something Different... Answering questions and making curious observations (online) since 2005.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Wandering Jews

Here's a question sent in by a reader (remember when my blog was all about sending in your questions instead of me just complaining about my job and stuff? Let's try to get back to that shall we?)

Dear Shifra,
Do you have any idea of where the term "the wandering jew" came from?

Dear ALG,

I had some ideas about where the phrase came from having heard it many times myself.
The fact that the Jews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after being freed from their enslavement in Egypt (as told in the book of Exodus) seemed a likely source.
Or perhaps it was a reference to the fact that Jews have been driven out of the countries in which they have settled many time over the course of history.

According to Answers.com, however, I was way off base:

Wandering Jew, in literary and popular legend, a Jew who mocked or mistreated Jesus while he was on his way to the cross and who was condemned therefore to a life of wandering on earth until Judgment Day. The story of this wanderer was first recorded in the chronicles of Roger of Wendover and Matthew of Paris (13th cent.), but not until the early 17th cent. was he identified as a Jew. The story is common in Western Europe, but it presents marked national variations. ...

So apparently this is a Christian myth or legend which would probably explain why I had not heard it before, and also why I will not be using the expression henceforth now that I know what it means :-)


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At 9:38 PM, Blogger Eliyahu said...

i was pretty sure it was a houseplant! my former wife named hers "Moses."

At 9:41 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

yes there is also a houseplant with that name...

At 4:56 AM, Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

AskShifra: This past sukkot, I heard a question asked, "Why isn't there a 'ma nishtana' (Four Questions, similar to Passover) asked on Sukkot? After all, what could be more blatantly different for children, than going outside to a sukka? One would think that "this night is way different than all other nights."

The answer given was in the name of Rav Chaim Berlin, who said that a Jew leaving their home (being kicked out) was so commonplace, and that a Jew's life was so transient, that it would not have been unusual at all for a child to relocate from his house to a sukka, to a new house.

The Jews of Gush Katif definitly felt that this past sukkot.

At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houseplant or ground cover. I've always thought the name was interesting, as it's a very hardy plant and thrives in conditions (such as lack of sun) that would kill other plants.

At 10:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oy that P'shat is SO true. We went from the bungalow in the summer to a hotel on labor day weekend to our home briefly for the start of the school year then to my in-laws on Rosh Hashanah to my parents on yom Kippur to my cousins on the first days and my other cousins on the second days. for Chanukah we're going to Israel and then Pesach to Florida. and if you think that's bad we HAVe to go up to the mountains, back to the bungalow for Shavuos before we go back to Israel for Lag b'omer. and then, it's back to the country and then it all starts again!!! Its takeh a golus. Wandering indeed!

At 11:20 AM, Blogger Shifra said...

Anon- I HOPE you are kidding.
We are nearly always home.
That's the way I like it.

At 6:51 PM, Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

Askshifra-- I hope you're not home on Sukkos. You should be in the sukko.


At 6:54 PM, Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

PS: For me, Sukkos really is golus. Living in Manhattan (M'naddin, as Steg would say), I don't have my own sukko. Therefore, I can't eat or sleep in, or adjacent to, my apartment. I typically wander from shul sukko to shul sukko over the week. This year, I slept mainly at the Breuer's sukko, but ate in a number of locations. Golus, indeed!

At 7:04 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

Mar G-
If you are in the same situation next year let me know. I'm no Heshy's house but I'm sure we could find a place for you :)

At 3:39 AM, Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Mar Gavriel: But Shifra doesn't NEED to be in the sukka to begin with! She's allowed to be home!

At 8:39 PM, Blogger fleurdelis28 said...

I know a bunch of people who are aware of the origin, but use it in various Jewish capacities anyway. They seem to figure that it's the sort of thing more usefully coopted amusingly than deigning with avoiding. (As opposed to things with a heavier weight of contemporary offense.)

At 8:42 PM, Blogger fleurdelis28 said...

Apparently there's also a version (though maybe this is just in A Canticle for Leibowitz, but it sounds borrowed from tradition), that the wandering Jew is Lazarus, who even after being resurrected was still unconvinced. Which is a rather less disturbing version -- he's Jewish, sure, but he's presented in the New Testament as an individual regardless of context, so if he wanders it's more a statement about faith than about Jews.

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Shifra said...

Fleur- welcome to the blog!
Very insightful comments.

I will have to check into "A canticle of Liebowitz" and see how it brings the two together- I also wonder if there are any earlier associations between the two stories.

At 10:30 PM, Blogger The back of the hill said...

I suspect that the term wandering Jew already existed before that story was attached to it - think of it as an xtian hagada explaining the term.

Now, how many people can I convince that 'the flying Dutchman' is actually a houseplant?

As a Dutchman, I have an interest in seeing that term denatured....

At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...the dotterel, a bird of the plover family. The old man observed that in his youth the old people considered such a happening a bad omen, for the person who heard the "Wandering Jew" (a mournful squawk), as he called the dotterel, would certainly be overtaken by some misfortune. In reference to the name which had been given the birds, he explained that there was a tradition according to which they were the souls of those Jews who had participated in the crucifixion of Christ, and as a consequence had been condemned to fly about forever in the air.
And as a certain bird or species of birds may be associated with the Wandering Jew, so with the flora as well as the fauna. A few plants are known as the "Wandering Jew", particularly zebrina pendula, a fast-growing leafy plant of special hardiness, which will grow in either sun or shade. The name is applied also to a type of spiderwort (tradescentia fluminensis), to the "beefsteak" or strawberry geranium (saxifraga sarmentosa), and to the Kenilworth ivy (linaria cymbalaria). I can find no record of such a name applied to any of the four plants mentioned, however, before the middle of the nineteenth century. The creeping habits of the ivy and the quasi-perennial nature of all four evidently appealed to some imaginative popular naturalists whose fortune it was to give them names which stuck. When it comes to tracing the individual christener of the plants, of course, it is always a case of the oldest inhabitant who remembers his grandfather’s friend having said something once about his own grandfather’s friend who had heard somewhere why this plant or that bird was called a "Wandering Jew"; and so the real facts are never forthcoming. But it is most likely that the "Wandering Jew" was applied to these plants and birds as a product of the romanticism which pervaded the science of the early nineteenth century, when the protagonist of the legend flourished in literally hundreds of European literary creations.
ANDERSON, George Kumler. "Popular Survivals of the Wandering Jew in England" (1947), in: The Wandering Jew: Essays in the Interpretation of a Christian Legend, Galit Hasan-Roken and Alan Dundes (eds.), (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), p. 82.


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