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
I also never intended to write for The New York Times. When I was 17, I was accepted to medical school. And my parents are still trying to figure out what went wrong.
After being a medical student, I was briefly a rabbinical student. I have also been a presidential campaign coordinator, an entertainment news show producer, an information technology consultant, a computer graphics artist, a book editor, a bookkeeper, a playwright, and an advertising copywriter along the way. In short, my career trajectory resembles the path of a drunken sailor—or perhaps a wandering Jew.
So it’s appropriate that my second novel, The Scenic Route, is about people taking the long way around. And I would argue that taking the long way is a Jewish tradition. After all, we spent forty years in the desert.
Traveling is a key part of the biblical narrative, central to canonical stories from Noah to Jonah to Joseph. However, travel is also unpredictable, and the patriarchs (and matriarchs) often end up in destinations far from where they had intended to be. (Joseph never planned to go to Egypt, and Jonah was dragged to Nineveh kicking and screaming.)
In The Scenic Route, life is what happens on the way to where you’re going. And I believe one could argue that’s also a message of the bible, as story after story illustrates people tackling unexpected challenges and changing the course of human history in the process.
Nowhere is this more true than in the momentous but little known verses about “the woman of Gibeah,” who wasn’t even from Gibeah, a town in ancient Israel inhabited by the tribe of Benjamin. The woman is the wife or concubine (the bible is unclear) of a Levite priest who is traveling from Bethlehem to a northern city.
The Levite and the woman stop for the night in Gibeah and are offered food and shelter in the home of an elderly man. But the home is besieged by townsmen angered by the presence of the foreigner in their midst, and demand he be handed over to them. His host refuses, but instead offers the woman.
The next morning the Levite finds the ravaged woman on the doorstep and (for reasons that must have made more sense in biblical times), he carves her into 12 pieces, sending one piece to each tribe—as evidence of the wrong done to him.
The result is a war between the tribes, which ends with the near-decimation of the tribe of Benjamin. And it is largely because of that devastating civil war that the twelve tribes decide they need a king, which leads to the anointment of the first king of Israel, King Saul, who, for the sake of reconciliation, was chosen from the tribe of Benjamin.
Everything that follows: the kingdom of David and Solomon, the rise and fall of the two temples, and all of Judeo-Christian history. It is all the aftermath of a war, a rape, and a travel story that goes terribly wrong.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.