One of the great paradoxes of the Jewish people is that rather than just ‘people’, they became a myth in western culture throughout history.
Characters in myths are for the most part supernatural or possess supernatural powers. In this, I obviously don’t wish to attribute supernatural powers to Jews (although, how cool would it be if that was the case?). Still, Jews became key figures in the founding myths of nations east and west, and as such, they were assigned with supernatural qualities. The most apparent quality is the immortality (so far, at least) of the Jewish people. While most myths are based on dead or fictional characters, the Jewish people live on, generation after generation, overcoming the rise and the fall of persecuting nations and hostile empires. Malice and murderous in either human or demonic forms, the character of the Jewish people lives on in myths and folk tales. The most fascinating myth of them all I believe, is the one of The Wandering Jew. It is as ancient as the Jews, weaved like a scarlet thread through history of nations and is still, very much relevant.
In this piece, I wish to follow the thread of the myth of The Wandering Jew, and point out its paradoxical nature, for it seems like the immortality and wanderings of The Wandering Jew, are the source of both his suffering and his strength simultaneously.
Wanderings and exile are only too familiar to the nation of Israel since the dawn of its existence. Adam and Eve were exiled from The Garden of Eden. Cain’s punishment for murdering his brother Abel is restless wanderings “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12 NIV). Many of us possess the idea that the Bible is the story of the Israelite and the land of Israel, but there is another way, just as inspiring, to look at it. I honestly think the story of the Israelites, later on the Jewish people, does not revolve the land as much as it revolves the journey. The story of the nation begins with Abram (Abraham to be), when God demands him to leave his Father’s house and wander to a new and unknown land –
The Lord had said to Abram, Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you
(Genesis 12:1 NIV).
The father of the nation is starting with wandering from the known and familiar to a place that is new. Just like that, the story of the Jews is consistent with wanderings and exiles, always on the move. The Israelites are exiling in Egypt, then wander in the desert for 40 years to get to the promised land. Even when they get to it – it isn’t waiting for them empty and ready to settle. They have to fight their way into it and fight throughout history to keep it.
Wanderings and exiles are a consistent punishment for those who disobey God. This is why the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, away from the promised land, this is why the generation of slaves who wanted to go back to Egypt died wandering in the desert and never made it to the promised land and this is why the Jews were exiled first to Babylon, then to Persia and later scattered all over the world.
Christianity adopted the punishment of wanderings, granted the myth eternal existence and coined it into history, but not before it narrowed it from a nation to a man, The Wandering Jew, who carries with him the sins and demonic characteristics of an entire nation.
The Wandering Jew starts his journey between the pages of the New Testament, assigned with the sin of the crucifixion and punished with eternal existence, denied the sweet redemption of death. This Jew is nameless, appearing in the literature in various forms. At times as a Jewish priest abusing Jesus before the trial (Mathew 26) at other times he is a man of the mob abusing Jesus on the Via Dolorosa. The references in the literature are many and not consistent. Jesus’s response to this abuse is to punish this Jew to wait for him alive, until his next return as the Messiah.
This myth of The Wandering Jew is based back in early Christianity. Aurelius Prudentius Clemens writes in his Apotheosis:
From place to place the homeless Jew wanders in ever-shifting exile, since the time when he was torn from the abode of his fathers and has been suffering the penalty for murder, and having stained his hands with the blood of Christ whom he denied, paying the price of sin.
(Clemens, c. 400).
The myth kept on rolling, from folk stories to Christians doctrines who reached every Christian country throughout history, until modern times. In 1869, Mark Twain is publishing his book “The Innocents Abroad”, telling of his journey to the Holy Land. In the book, he describes his visit to the house of The Wandering Jew in Jerusalem:
And so we came at last to another wonder, of deep and abiding interest—the veritable house where the unhappy wretch once lived who has been celebrated in song and story for more than eighteen hundred years as the Wandering Jew. On the memorable day of the Crucifixion he stood in this old doorway with his arms akimbo, looking out upon the struggling mob that was approaching, and when the weary Saviour would have sat down and rested him a moment, pushed him rudely away and said, “Move on!” The Lord said, “Move on, thou, likewise,” and the command has never been revoked from that day to this. All men know how that the miscreant upon whose head that just curse fell has roamed up and down the wide world, for ages and ages, seeking rest and never finding it—courting death but always in vain—longing to stop, in city, in wilderness, in desert solitudes, yet hearing always that relentless warning to march—march on!
(Mark Twain 1869).
Twain continues to describe The Wandering Jew’s habit to wander around the globe, miserable, baring his sin, desperately longing the redemption of death. This Jew arrives at Jerusalem every Fifty years, collecting rent from the tenant in his home and rushing to the empty tomb in the Church of Holy Sepulcher, hoping to enter and find rest and redemption. Alas, upon his every arrival, the church’s doors slam in his face, the ground in Jerusalem shakes and he is forced to return to his wanderings. Twain’s Jew is the eternal wanderer, cursed with immortality, full of guilt, shame, sin and suffer. He is poor, ragged, ancient, hollow eyed and longing to the return of Jesus, bringing with it redemption and rest.
“He is old, now, and grave, as becomes an age like his; he indulges in no light amusements save that he goes sometimes to executions, and is fond of funerals. There is one thing he can not avoid; go where he will about the world, he must never fail to report in Jerusalem every fiftieth year. Only a year or two ago he was here for the thirty-seventh time since Jesus was crucified on Calvary. They say that many old people, who are here now, saw him then, and had seen him before. He looks always the same—old, and withered, and hollow-eyed, and listless, save that there is about him something which seems to suggest that he is looking for some one, expecting some one—the friends of his youth, perhaps. But the most of them are dead, now. He always pokes about the old streets looking lonesome, making his mark on a wall here and there, and eyeing the oldest buildings with a sort of friendly half interest; and he sheds a few tears at the threshold of his ancient dwelling, and bitter, bitter tears they are. Then he collects his rent and leaves again. He has been seen standing near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on many a starlight night, for he has cherished an idea for many centuries that if he could only enter there, he could rest. But when he approaches, the doors slam to with a crash, the earth trembles, and all the lights in Jerusalem burn a ghastly blue! He does this every fifty years, just the same. It is hopeless, but then it is hard to break habits one has been eighteen hundred years accustomed to.
(Mark Twain, 1869).
Mark Twain perfectly reflects the paradox of The Wandering Jew. This tragic legend is well placed in the pages of history and in the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries constituted a broad base for blood libels, accusations, stereotypes, artworks, exhibitions, books and caricatures. Being a cultural marker of the 19th century, Twain reflects not only the negativity and tragicality in the myth, but also the paradox of survival. Nations and empires around the Jews rise and fall, changing names and territories, but the Jews survive the test of time. This observation fascinated Twain, who referred to it in his essay Concerning the Jews”:
“The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
(Mark Twain, 1869).
There, lays the paradox of The Wandering Jew in the writings of one man. The 19th century is a one of massive immigration and extensive financial and cultural growth amongst Jewish population in the US and Europe. Christian Traditions withholding among the rest the myth of The Wandering Jew, were an inevitable part of Twain’s childhood. However, despite the routed negative image, Jews of the time overcame the challenges of their time and showed non precedential success, disproportionate to their relative percentage in the population. The data is known and keeps on spiking from then to now. Jews are 0.2% of the world’s population, yet they are 22% of the Nobel prize holders, 11% of the world’s billionaires, etc.
Many reasons were tied to Jewish success, and the wanderings is only one of the many, yet it alone presents a complexed paradox. Wanderings are never comfortable, to say the least. In their nature, they force one to uproot from the known and cozy, use only what you carry, strengthen in the face of hardship and trouble the road brings, and head towards the unknown. Jews were regularly expelled from every land and country throughout history, forced to move from one place to the other, adjusting new manners, assimilating among new populations, acquiring new skills and new languages, and constantly facing new troubles, exiles and pogroms. Forbade to hold land in Europe, majority of Jews were forces into urban professions, requiring constant development and adjustment to the changing conditions and needs of the population and the market. It is reasonable enough to claim, that the intensive urban lifestyle of Jews, as well as their constant wanderings, contributed to a highly developed intelligence.
The wanderings of the Jew are perceived as the ultimate punishment for one of the greatest sins in history, however, these same wanderings hold a key to the “Jewish secret” of survival. The persecutions and attempts of extermination almost destroy him every time, and then he gets up and keeps on walking. The curse of eternal life makes him into the wonder he is in the eyes of the rest of the nations, as he overcomes the challenges of every era, revived and renewed.
Clemens, Aurelius Prudentius. (400). Apotheosis.
(Editors). (1998). Wandering Jew. Encyclopedia Britanika. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/wandering-Jew
Katz, E. (2009). Jerome Becomes a Genius. 2009 by Ufuk Press
Lapedus, D. (2017, Apr. 16th). Why Do People Think Jews are so Successful? economy. Retrieved from: https://www.ecnmy.org/engage/people-think-jews-successful/
Manguel, A. (2009). “The Exile Liberary”. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/feb/21/wandering-jew-history
Sander, L. Gilman, (n.d.) Smart Jews. University of Nebraska. Pp.10.
Twain, M. (1869). The Innocent Abroad. American Publishing Company
Twain, M. (1899, Sept. 6th) Concerning the Jews. Harper’s Magazine.