The wandering Jew

This was the topic of Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson’s second talk. I hope she doesn’t mind my sending this to you, but I found it very interesting and informative.
The concept of “the wandering Jew” has nothing directly to do with the fact that Jews were and are found dispersed around the world and have from time to time been expelled from various locations and territories. The myth derives from a specific Christian origin: in the Gospel of John it is recorded that as Jesus Christ was carrying the cross along the via dolorosa a Jewish shop keeper, a shoemaker, called out to him and said something nasty, “get on your way, where you are going there will be endless suffering.” Christ turned to him, and unlike the forgiving man-God that he was supposed to have been, cursed him back and told him that he would wander around the world forever. According to legend the man’s name was Cartofulos, and he immediately left his shop and has been wandering the earth ever since, “the wandering Jew” or the “eternal Jew,” since he can never die or cease his wanderings.
From around the 13th century stories began to appear in Christian literature about him, although his name took various forms, very often Ahasueras, who as you all know, was the Persian King in the Purim shpiel, and was not even Jewish. It shows how partial truths are picked up and make their way into myths. The story was told in Armenia, Italy and Britain. In these stories variations appeared, such as that the shoe maker actually struck Christ. The story appeared in Roger of Wendover’s Chronicles in Britain in 1228, a form of popular entertainment then (at least now we have TV).
As time went on the wandering Jew generally became an evil figure, and where he was spotted bad things were sure to happen. He was of course old, bearded, with red unkempt hair and worn clothes. During the 16th and 17th centuries he was spotted often throughout central Europe, especially Germany, and was a popular figure in various passion plays based on Church teachings. Sometimes when he was seen a crowd gathered and a pogrom occurred, an excuse to kill Jews, steal from them and burn houses, once again a popular form of entertainment.
In the 18th century a man named Anderson collected 100 folk tales from around Europe on this theme. Interestingly, wherever he appeared the wandering Jew knew how to speak the local language. During the 19th century many well-known authors used this theme in their works, including Goethe, Mark Twain, Shelley, Hawthorne and Kipling. By this time the wandering Jew in literature had turned into a more metaphoric rather than a literal figure.
However, the myth was resurrected by the Nazis, and movies such as “Jew Suss” in the 1930s helped to popularize the myth. Livia remembered being told by a Christian friend when they were about 9 years old that someone had seen the wandering Jew and that they mustn’t go near him in case he snatched them. Later the girl told her that her father said she mustn’t play with her because she was Jewish and she killed Christ. When she denied this the girl said that it must be her father who did it, and when she denied this the girl didn’t believe her. It is in this way that myths and legends lead to cultural stereotypes and end up with Auschwitz (the basis of an article that Livia wrote for a German newspaper commemorating the 60th liberation of Auschwitz).
It is impossible to stamp out anti-Semitism when such myths have deep cultural roots, and become transmuted with time into other forms, such as the irrational hatred of the Jewish State. Note that Muslims have taken up various forms of anti-Semitic Christian mythology and used it in their own context.

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