On the first day of “The History of the Jews in Eastern Europe,” my college professor explained the tension between our family stories—our oral history—and the recorded facts. His example: almost all families from the Pale of Settlement (the Jewish region of Imperial Russia) claim an ancestor who fled Europe to escape conscription in the Czar’s army. History, however, tells us that Jews were rarely, if ever, drafted.
I know very little about my own Eastern European forebears—a big reason why I was taking this class—but one of our only family legends describes my great-grandfather leaving Ukraine to avoid service in the Russian army. I immediately told my grandmother, his daughter, that his story is a common myth. I expected she would share my academic interest: Why would he pass off this story as truth? Why did so many men like him do the same?
Just as my professor warned, my grandmother only became angry. Her father didn’t lie. The historians must be wrong.
I was sorry to have upset her. I agreed it was possible my great-grandfather was one of the few threatened with conscription, or at least believed he was under threat. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but believe my professor, and I was disappointed. I felt like I had lost one of my few family stories from Europe.
But I had to stop thinking like a twenty-first-century American college student, and start thinking like the Jewish ancestors for whom I was searching. I began this journey when that same professor assigned the works of eminent historian Yosef Yerushalmi.
Yerushalmi argued that traditional Jewish history has little to do with facts and dates (or what the Czar’s army said to my great-grandfather). Instead, it’s an exercise in memory and performance that captures our experience. It’s inextricably linked to the calendar; think of how Jews relive their entire history each year, one holiday and weekly Torah portion at a time. From the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, European Jews interpreted current events using the framework of traditional stories. Regional Jewish perils and clashes with authority were understood as Purims, with chroniclers even renaming their enemies Haman; the Napoleonic Wars were interpreted using the Old-Testament terms Gog and Magog.
Storytelling-as-history is a powerful idea—one that I returned to while writing my novel, The Angel of Losses—but it’s not an easy answer. As a Jewish person living after the Holocaust, I’m not persuaded that legend can entirely compensate for lost history. Sometimes, though, the legends are all that’s left, and Jews are particularly ready to find meaning in them. I don’t know if my great-grandfather was nearly drafted into the Russian army, but his tale was, at the least, a kind of truth; a part of his history, and mine.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
I grew up assuming that the Wandering Jew was a Jewish creation, our metaphor for the Diaspora. When I began studying gothic literature in college, however, I learned that he’s actually a Christian legend, a Roman who taunted Jesus and is punished with immortality.
But I loved the Wandering Jew—his mystery, his magic, his mix of danger and tragedy. I couldn’t leave him behind to the more-or-less explicit anti-Semitism of 300-year-old British authors. I didn’t want him to be, as my professors would say, “the Other.”
I decided to write my own gothic novel with a Wandering Jew based on Jewish tradition. I studied Jewish folklore and history and found a wealth of wizards and travelers, some of whom appear in my novel, The Angel of Losses.
Here are a few of my favorite Wandering Jews:
A body of Jewish folklore features the prophet Elijah, back on earth after his ascension to help pious Jews in need. He arrives as an unnamed stranger, and disappears again before anyone can guess his true identity.
2. Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph
The second-century rabbi is a famous mystic and religious scholar—”Head of all the Sages,” according to the Talmud—but he was also a political figure. Akiba traveled through the Middle East encouraging Jewish communities to support the Jewish general Bar Kochba, who led a briefly successful revolt against the Romans. I prize him for his legendary journey to paradise. According to lore, Akiba brought three rabbis with him on this forbidden mission. Upon breaching paradise, one died, another went insane, and the third became an apostate. Akiba, somehow, survived unscathed.
3. Eldad Ha-Dani
In the ninth century, Eldad Ha-Dani traveled through North Africa, the Middle East, and Spain, announcing himself as a member of an independent Jewish kingdom in Africa founded by four of the ten Lost Tribes of Israel. His contemporaries accepted as truth his tales of an extraordinarily wealthy, hidden Jewish nation. Today, scholars consider him to be a fraud, but his mastery of an unusual version of Hebrew suggests that he may have indeed come from some kind of surviving isolated Jewish community in Africa.
4. Benjamin of Tudela
A twelfth-century Spanish Jew, Benjamin of Tudela traveled through Europe, North Africa, and Asia. His narrative, recognized as a precursor of Marco Polo’s, features both meticulous observations of Jewish communities and fantastic tales of Jewish magicians and enigmatic tribes.
5. and 6. Shlomo Molko and David Reubeni
Messianic fever gripped the Jewish population in the wake of the fifteenth-century Spanish expulsion. Molko, the son of conversos, rediscovered his Jewish heritage and traveled through Europe and the Middle East with self-proclaimed Messiah David Ruebeni. Molko and Reubeni’s journey speaks to the desperation and hope of their time, the sense that the reassembly of the diaspora—and the Ten Lost Tribes of legend—was imminent. Molko was burned at the stake in Italy, and his shawl is still on display in Prague.
7. Israel Cohen
Reading him when I did, I came to see Israel Cohen, who published several books about the Jewish communities of Europe, as an early twentieth-century successor to Benjamin of Tudela. I couldn’t shake one of his notes about the Vilna Jewish library, which one of my characters adds to his collection of legends of the Wandering Jew: “Beneath the Library there was a little room, on the door of which in bold letters appeared the sign of a Hebrew scribe. The door opened as I descended, and out came a hungry-looking man, with sunken, stubbly cheeks, and a dirty collar.”
8. The White Rebbe
A medieval Polish legend describes a “White Rebbe” who sends a calf into a cave. When the animal fails to return, the holy man determines he’s discovered a magical path to Jerusalem. The White Rebbe descends into the cave himself and is never seen again.
I borrowed the name “White Rebbe” for my own Wandering Jew, the hero—or anti-hero—of the mysterious fairy tales my protagonist Marjorie Burke discovers among her late grandfather’s belongings. My White Rebbe’s story combines the magic, history, daring, and spiritual longing of the Jewish travelers I discovered in my research, and like the Wandering Jews of gothic literature, he refuses to remain safely in the past.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter