Wandering Jew, Woodcut, Doré - 1852It’s an epithet oft given to me, due to my frequently nomadic lifestyle, which always managed to conjure up some vaguely romantic Kerouac-like drifter notion or the last scene of Fiddler on the Roof.

It’s a concept that speaks enough about us that Chaim Potok called his History of the Jews ‘Wanderings.’

And it seems to be so deeply engrained in our collective psyche that I’ve heard it used as an explanation for Israeli’s almost visceral need for travel (as in ‘you can put the Jew back in his homeland, but you can’t take the wanderer out of him’)

In the modern era alone The Wandering Jew was the title and theme for several films in early cinema, including one about Theodore Hertzl. The W.J. was part of the inspiration for James Joyce’s Ulysses a Rudyard Kipling story and is even the name of an invasive weed plant I wrote about a while back.

But who or what is the Wandering Jew, really?

I (perhaps naively) assumed it’s origin lay in our ancestors 40 year Sinai desert vacation and translated to our personal wanderings through our own physical and spiritual wildernesses.

However, the legend first appeared in a German pamphlet (heh, Germany. That figures) in 1602 and quickly became popular reading all over Europe and fodder for anti-semitism. It refers to an event that dates 2,000, not 3,500 years ago

The Wandering Jew, also known as Ahasverus or Buttadaeus, was given the curse of immortality by Jesus Christ. As Christ was carrying his heavy cross from Pilate’s hall and towards his place of crucifixion, Ahasverus, then a porter in Pilate’s service, struck Christ, and mocked him for walking so slowly. Christ, in turn, told the insolent porter to wait for his return, that is, until the Second Coming…The Wandering Jew soon repented of his sins and was baptized Catholic. He grows old in the normal fashion until reaching one hundred whereupon he sheds his skin and rejuvenates to the age of thirty. The Middle Ages abound with sightings of the Wandering Jew, generally telling his story in turn for meager food and lodging.

But wait, doesn’t that actually make him a Wandering Catholic?

About the author

Laya Millman


  • I don’t understand why you, Laya, would perpetuate the “gypsy” Jew nonsense with this posting. Any wanderings, beginning with
    your people’s escape from slavery in Egypt would have been due to persecution and/or lack of acceptance in others land and having no land of your own until 1947.

    To imply the Jews, or any racial or religious sect, have some sort of genetic propensity to wander more, or like watermelon more,
    or any other silly attributes perpetuated by overly religious and/or undereducated majority populace is just ignorance and should be left to die the slow death it deserves.

    Anyway, we here in America love the Jewish people, their hardworking ethic, their self-reliance, their willingness to fit in and not trash others beliefs, their business leadership which creates jobs, etc etc. All the traits mentioned above are cultural traits due to the fact you have had to be better citizens in order not to be discriminated against in another’s land.

    If you perfer ‘personally’ to wander, America is a very big country which allows plenty of space to wander in. If you are a Jew, please come here. If you are French, you need not apply(just kidding of course……I think!).

  • First of all, Jim, I AM a Jew, so thanks for the invite, but I happily left America two years ago to ‘personally’ wander, and live, in Israel. America may be a gazillion times bigger, but there’s hardly anything left to explore. It’s all the same. America lost it’s charm when K-Mart and Taco Bell rolled into town and they roped off anything remotely adventurous for fear of litigation. But I digress.

    I found it interesting, though, that you are inviting me to essentially continue the wandering ‘gypsy-Jew’ tradition you seem to despise.

    Second, in no way am I trying to deny the fact that our wanderings were often (always?) due to persecution. I simply felt it was too obvious to have to mention. Perhaps I was wrong. But also, I do not like to beat the persecuted horse and perpetuate the idea of Jews as eternal victims. I’d rather have the world’s respect than their sympathy.

    Nonetheless, due to whatever causes, a pattern, repeated often enough, tends to engrave itself in the psyche, and Israelis ARE, arguably, the most well traveled people in the world. Call it ‘ignorance’ if you want, but dude, touristy places in India often speak Hebrew.

  • How do you feel about the Wandering Jew’s history as a prevalent motif in art and literature? I’m just encountering this Legend of the WJ, via discovering that he shows up as a quest guide in some early-19th American Arthurian lit…leading the Grail quest of all things?. As a Fantasy illustrator and comics scholar with some Jewish studies background, that weird mix of mythic motifs has me itching to draw something. Would you consider it bad taste, or simply poor political judgment, or both, for a contemporary illustrator to employ in his work an arguably anti-Semitic motif with a rich history in the American and Christian fantasy/romance tradition? If you saw such a work, say a graphic novel adaptation of one of those early American attempts at Arthurian quest romances with the WJ leading the way, what would your response be?

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