From the Academy: The Wandering Jew

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In this installment of From the Academy Dr. Galit Hasan Rokem, Max and Margarethe Grunwald Chair of Folklore at the Hebrew University, tells us about some of her recent research and academic work.

Hasan_Rokem.jpg In the last years, since the publication of my last monograph Tales of the Neighborhood: Jewish Narrative Dialogues in Late Antiquity, one of my ongoing projects has focused on the Wandering Jew in European culture.

The Wandering Jew is a major figure of thought and speech that has informed Europeans about Jews since the Middle Ages — in legends, chapbooks, illustrations, and later in novels, dramas, and epic poems.

The Wandering Jew, often known by the name “Ahasver,” also became a popular hero among the Romantics. In addition the figure has inspired, for instance, James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses.

My research addresses the creative cooperation of Jews and Christians in shaping the contents and functions of the figure — inspired by such Jewish characters as Elijah the undying prophet and famous travelers such as Petahya of Regensburg and Benjamin of Tudela — whereby the double character of mobility as blessing and as curse is constructed and distributed, defining much of the concrete, as well as intellectual, interface between the two groups in the context of European culture.

This topic illuminates the thinking on nomadic and instable minorities in various other contexts who are sometimes, with varying success, compared with Jews. The Wandering Jew also influences our thinking about contemporary Jewish culture especially in Israel with the complex attitudes of its various populations with regard to mobility and stability.

Thus, unlike the prediction of some Zionist writers that the Wandering Jew will finally settle down in it national homeland, the Israelis travel and emigrate frequently, a famous example being the “grand tour” of Israeli youngsters after their long compulsory army service often extending to a number of years.

Posted on May 1, 2008

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