Wandering Jew

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Anonymous artist (Chartres), The True Image of the Wandering Jew, n.d (circa 1790).

Homeless in spirit

I’ve been feeling lately, like the Wandering Jew of legend, homeless and ostracized by virtue of my religion and my sin. It doesn’t matter that I am guiltless. In fact, I despise and renounce Israel’s scourging of Palestine and U.S. support for genocide, but the majority of Jews in Israel and the diaspora do not, so I bear the burden of their iniquity. The Israeli government, in its arrogance, claims to act on behalf of all Jews, forgetting that every Jew who acts or speaks out against genocide is צדיק בין העמים (righteous among nations) regardless of the nationality of the victims or perpetrators. I curse Netanyahu, his allies, and facilitators. And yet still I wear this stain.

From Matthew Paris to Mel Brooks

The “Wandering Jew” is the original, antisemitic trope. According to medieval chroniclers, a Jew watched as Christ labored to carry the cross on his way to crucifixion. Pausing to rest, Jesus asked the man for a cup of water. Instead of obliging, the Jew refused and told him not to tarry, but hurry faster to his death. In response, Jesus played a trick on him. He granted the Jew immortality, but also cursed him to wander the earth, poor, homeless, and debased until the Second Coming, when he would be judged like all others.

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Matthew Paris, “The Wandering Jew,” Chronica Majora, Corpus Christi College Cambridge 16, fol. 74v.

But the Wandering Jew is not without his uses. Wherever he appears, he serves as a valued relic, or a witness to the passion of Christ. According to Matthew Paris (c. 1200- 1259), author and artist of the Chronica Majora, the Wandering Jew, whom he named Cartaphilis (“dearly loved”) is “one of the wonders of the world and a great proof of the Christian faith.” In his manuscript illumination, the figure is old and stooped and drags a heavy mattock along the ground, sign of the burden he must eternally bear. He is the anti-type or inversion of Christ, who carries the upright cross.

Nevertheless, despite its plangency – or perhaps because of it — the story of the Wandering Jew was always considered apocryphal by church authorities. It gave Jews too much prominence or power in an age when they were supposed to accept the new dispensation and simply disappear. That didn’t prevent the story, however, becoming a staple of art, literature, and social practice for a thousand years. Wikipedia does a good job of summarizing its many, national iterations. I’ll just mention in chronological order four that the online encyclopedia overlooks.

The first is obvious: Charles Dicken’s, A Christmas Carol (1843), whose central character, Ebenezer Scrooge, must be based on the legendary Jew. Scrooge is miserly and works with money, like Jews were supposed to do according to Dickens (see the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist). He is told by the un-named ghost near the beginning of the story that unless he mends his ways and honors Christ’s birth, he will be doomed, like his deceased partner Jacob Marley, to perpetually wander the earth, dragging with him heavy chains and moneyboxes – a version of the mattock in Matthew Paris’s illustration. After three more ghostly visitations, Scrooge of course does repent his sins, and lives a generous and fulfilled, Christian life ever after: “God bless us, everyone!”

The second example comes from the domain of French art. In 1854, the Realist Gustave Courbet painted The Meeting. It depicts the famous artist, meeting his patron, Alfred Bruyas and servant Calas on the road to Montpellier. Artist and patron come together as equals; if anything, Courbet’s upturned chin, endowed with royal, Assyrian beard, suggests a degree of condescension. It’s not surprising: This is the same artist who three years before, notoriously overturned convention by exhibiting a trio of heroically sized paintings of proletarians breaking stones, peasants returning from a market, and bourgeois, peasants and proletarians attending a funeral. Those pictures challenged bourgeois notions of class stability during a period of national (and European-wide) social revolution.

With The Meeting, Courbet was declaring himself the equal of any man – regardless of class — by ironic reference to the Wandering Jew. Notice the composition’s origins in the three-figure group visible at the bottom right of the woodcut illustrated at the top of this column.


Gustave Courbet, The Meeting, 1854, Musee Fabre, Montpellier.

Courbet proposes that bohemians and aesthetes like himself — shunned and abused like the Wandering Jew — are the real elite; they are part of a far-seeing avant-garde (a new concept at the time) that maps the best way forward in art, politics, and society. Courbet was no philo-semite; evidence suggests the opposite. But he embraced the idea that like the Wandering Jew, the modern artist was at home nowhere in the world but was nevertheless an essential seer.

The third telling is much more disturbing. The German rendering of the Wandering Jew is called Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). Well-known from 19th C. German literature and folklore, with versions by August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Heinrich Heine, and Richard Wagner, the legend became for the Nazis an instrument of state propaganda. The 1940 film, Der Ewige Jude, directed by Fritz Hippler, depicted Jews as a threat to the health and safety of Aryan Germans. Fiction disguised as documentary, it included clips shot in the Jewish ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz, Lublin, and Krakow, suggesting that the terrible living conditions there were the preferred way of life of a debased race, instead of being the result of Nazi displacement, concentration and confiscation. Der Ewige Jude was a major initiative of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and veritably announced to the world the planned “final solution” to “the Jewish question.” The film concluded with a clip of Hitler’s now infamous speech to the Reichstag, delivered on January, 30, 1939:

“If international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will not be Bolshevization of the earth and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”

Nazis of the Third Reich first sought to cast Jews into the wilderness – to make them all wanderers. By the time of Der Ewige Jude, they were determined to eliminate them.

The last example is comic. The routine called “The 2,000-Year-Old Man,” created by Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks in the mid 1950s, is also a version of the story of the Wandering Jew. It started out as an improvised party gag, with Reiner playing the straight man and Brooks the clown. Years later, they re-enacted their first schtick:

Reiner: “Ladies and gentlemen, here is a man who was on the scene of the crucifixion, 2,000 years ago! Isn’t that true sir…”

Brooks [with Yiddish accent]: “Uh boy….it was terrible.”

Reiner: “So you knew Jesus?!”

Brooks: “He came in the store! He had with 12 guys him. They all wore sandals — never bought anything. They asked for water, so I gave ‘em water. Nice boys.”

Mel Brooks was the Wandering Jew, witness to Christ’s passion, and a living relic. Only this time, the Jew offered succor.

Nevertheless, Brooks’ 2,000-year-old man was homeless. He wandered the earth:

Reiner: “You met Genghis Khan?!”

Brooks: “Yes, but when I knew him, he was Genghis Cohen – changed his name. Business reasons”

Reiner: “I understand that you were a polygamist way back when. What was the most wives you had, and what was it like?”

Brooks: “I had seven, and it was terrible!”

Reiner: “Terrible? What was so bad?”

Brooks: “I’d come home for dinner,” and hear: ‘You’re late, late, late, late, late, late, late!’ ‘And you never called, called, called, called, called, called, called.’”

For the Jewish writer, director, and comedian, the 2,000-year-old man/Wandering Jew was a thorn in the side of oppressors from Genghis Khan to Hitler. Brooks even created in 1967 his own comic alternative to Der Ewige Jude, the movie The Producers about the effort of two hapless Jewish producers, played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, to mount a sure-fire Broadway flop in order to pocket their investors’ money. The play was called “Springtime for Hitler” and included the eponymous song with a lyric that mocked Nazi claims of racial superiority:

Springtime for Hitler and Germany
Deutschland is happy and gay
We’re marching to a faster pace
Look out, here comes the master race

The Wandering Jew in The Producers was a scoundrel, but he mocked and outwitted his oppressors.

At home with Rembrandt

A few weeks ago, I was determined to cease wandering and feel more at home. I wanted to experience something “Jew-positive”, but without Zionism or chauvinism. So, I resolved to make a pilgrimage to Amsterdam to look at Rembrandt. The Dutch artist is famous in part, for depicting subjects from the Hebrew bible, painting and drawing renowned Jews like the great rabbi and publisher, Menasseh Ben Israel, using Jewish models, and even living in the Jewish quarter of the city. Probably his best painting – among the greatest oil paintings ever made – is The Jewish Bride, aka The Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca (1663). At once formally complex and emotionally compelling, it’s a work so convincing is its evocation of vulnerability, tenderness, and love, that almost nobody who sees fails to be moved. The former director of the Amsterdam Historical Museum, Bob Haak once told me that museum staff had to “learn not to look at it” if they wanted to avoid being caught in its spell.


Rembrandt van Rijn, The Jewish Bride, aka Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, c. 1666, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

I’ve seen the picture many times, but never in the company of my wife Harriet. To ensure we had the best possible experience, I decided to reach out an old acquaintance, the great Rembrandt scholar, Gary Schwartz who lives in Utrecht. Though we only met once or twice, decades ago, I keep up with his excellent blog; plus, he’s a landsman and former New Yorker like me, so I was hopeful he’d agree to meet in Amsterdam. He kindly accepted the invitation, and we all got together – me, Harriet, Garry, and his clever and attractive wife of 55 years, Loekie Hendriks — on a Sunday afternoon in January at the Café Krom on the Utrechtstraat. I was determined to expound upon Rembrandt, and test my theories about the artist’s intellectual and artistic independence, his unusual-for-the-time, sympathy for the Jews, and the subject matter (or iconography) of The Jewish Bride. Here’s the conclusion of my peroration:

“It seems to me Rembrandt opposed any stylistic ideal that projected the identity of artistic genius and authoritarian power. That enabled him to identify with and portray the Jews. In addition, classical form for him lacked the immediacy and authenticity needed to convey his subjective, individualist and psychologically charged subjects. His claim to greatness as an artist therefore rests on the rejection of facile doctrine, open questioning of authority, and toleration.”

As I spoke, I noticed Gary becoming increasingly uneasy. After I finished, a few pregnant moments passed before Gary began his reply.

“To begin with…” (always a fraught start):

“the idea that Rembrandt’s depictions of Jews and subjects from the Old Testament are expressions of sympathy simply does not stand up to scrutiny. None of the documents pertaining to Rembrandt’s life or the reception of his art indicate a friendlier attitude toward the Jewish religion or its practitioners than that of his contemporaries. Indeed, had Rembrandt been unusually sympathetic to Jews and Judaism, he would have been a conspicuous exception to the rule in the Christian Europe of his age, even in the famously tolerant Dutch Republic. His depictions of these subjects in fact conform to Calvinist doctrine that Jews were the original recipients of divine grace, but, because the Jews persisted in rejecting Christ, this translated not into approval but into deep antipathy toward their religion. Oh, and the identification of the figure in the celebrated etching as Menasseh Ben Israel is now known to be mistaken.

As Mel Brooks might have said, “Uh boy.”

I was down but not yet defeated.

Stephen: “But what about The Jewish Bride?” Surely that reveals great sympathy toward the couple?”

Gary: “Yes, certainly. There is a marvelous concern for their with interiority and mutuality. But there’s no evidence they are a Jewish couple! That was simply a 19th C. invention. And even the recent suggestion that the picture represents the biblical figures of Isaac and Rebecca is conjectural, based upon the existence of a similar, small sketch of the subject by Rembrandt. But even if that is the iconography, the picture tells us nothing about actual Jews, only biblical ones. Sorry.”

A few minutes later, Gary mercifully changed the subject, and we discussed other matters: travel, gardens, mutual friends, children, grandchildren (his and Loeki’s) and the lack thereof (mine and Harriet’s). We said our goodbyes with warmth. I hope we’ll see them again soon.

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Romeyne de Hooghe, The bima in the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, ca. 1695.

I wobbled out of the café, as if I had been drinking cups of Bols instead of coffee. It was a lovely, sunny day and we wandered the lovely streets without paying much attention to where we were going. After about 20 minutes, we found ourselves in front of the famous Portuguese Synagogue, which we naturally entered. Opened in 1675, the Esnoga is almost perfectly intact from that time, as is apparent by comparisons with contemporary images, such as the etching by Romeyne de Hooghe. The wooden columns, benches, bima, ark, and brass chandeliers are all oversized, but rather than making visitors feel puny, they make them feel like colossi. After taking the audio tour, we left and continued to walk back toward our hotel. As we strolled along Twede Jan van der Heijdenstraat, I happened to look down and saw some shiny cobbles. These were brass Stoplersteine, “stumbling stones,” like I had seen some years ago in Berlin, embedded in pavements to mark the homes of Jews and others killed in the Holocaust. There are about 8,500 such markers in the Netherlands, the majority in Amsterdam. The stones we

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Saw belonged to the Sluijter family, Hijman and his wife Sippora, born in 1901, and their two girls Hanna and Rebecca. The parents were both 41 y.o, and their children 14 and 7 when they were arrested and transported to Westerbork, where they were processed before being sent off to Auschwitz to be murdered.

We don’t know much about the Sluijters, except that Sippora (nee Nunes Nabarro) was of Portuguese (Sephardic) decent. Did the family attend Shabbat services at the Portuguese Synagogue? Did Hijman or Sippora notice like me, at the scale of the temple and the miracle of its survival? Did the children marvel at the lights produced by the flicker of a thousand candles in brass chandeliers during sunset services?

As I walked away, that feeling of homelessness again came over me, though Harriet and I would soon be in our snug hotel room, planning where to have our supper. Will there be Stoplersteine for the 30,000 (and counting) Palestinians killed in the Israeli invasion of Gaza? What will visitors to the place have to say about the Israelis who bombed, shot, and displaced thousands of Palestinian families? What will they think about the Americans who supplied the weapons?

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu