The Gospel about wandering Jews and wicked stereotypes
The Jews may have wandered through the desert for 40 years after escaping slavery, but that’s not where the term “wandering Jew” originates. In fact, it’s an antisemitic trope that’s been used throughout history to justify the persecution of the Jewish people.
Now advertising guru-cum-author Lynn Joffe has used her novel, The Gospel According to Wanda B. Lazarus to collapse the myth of the wandering Jew. While she has spent most of her life in South Africa, Joffe grew up in Scotland.
“There weren’t enough Jews even for a minyan where we lived,” she says. “It was a very secular upbringing, and I wasn’t sure what being a Jew was.” So, when a classmate asked her, “Are you a Jew?” little Lynn had to go home and ask her mother.
Just seven years old at the time, Joffe was traumatised when the same classmate told her, “You killed our Lord.” A confused Joffe replied, “I wasn’t anywhere near your Lord!”
The myth of the wandering Jew, in fact, goes back to this – the crucifixion of Christ. On his way to the crucifixion, legend has it that Christ was taunted by a Jew who was then cursed to walk the earth until the second coming. And so, this mythical immortal man, the wandering Jew was conceived. It soon became an integral part of medieval folklore.
In later years, the figure of this solitary wandering Jew began to be associated with the fate of the entire Jewish people as they sought freedom and fought to live in the promised land. Yet while the myth has undergone various iterations over the centuries, at its core it’s a damaging depiction of the Jewish people. It’s been used to garner support for some of the greatest atrocities our people have ever faced, even becoming a part of Nazi propaganda.
“This myth of a smelly, hook-nosed outcast who was eternal and wandered around infecting the crops, poisoning the wells, and killing babies was like a horror story,” says Joffe. “It’s been re-engineered, going backwards and forwards in time to blame the Jews for every ill in the world, including the crucifixion itself.”
The antisemitism underpinning this legend bothered Joffe, who decided to tackle it when she began her Masters in Creative Writing at the University of the Witwatersrand. “I’ve always been sensitive to the antisemitic jibes that happened throughout my childhood,” she says. “When I did the Masters, I wanted to tackle a big theme, and I thought that this idea – what if the wandering Jew was a woman – would have changed the whole picture.”
And so, the foundation of what would eventually become The Gospel According to Wanda B. Lazarus was conceived. Spanning almost 2 000 years, the book tells the story of a foul-mouthed, free-spirited outcast, Wanda. Cursed with immortality, Wanda travels through seminal moments of history in pursuit of her goal of becoming the tenth muse – a reference to the nine muses of Greek mythology.
“I wanted to take a very serious theme and deal with it in a very light way,” says Joffe. “In a sense, the wandering Jew is a universal antisemitic symbol. As a Jewish person I wanted to satirise this to reveal its utter ridiculousness.”
Sprinkled with laugh-out-loud humour and a large dose of Yiddish, the book has resonated with readers, Jewish and non-Jewish. “Ironically, my first chapter is set during Pesach,” says Joffe. “The whole idea of the original sin, of having singled out the Jews for killing Jesus, came in the story of Pesach because that was when he was crucified.” Here she writes of Rov Yossi (aka Jesus) and “his chevras” who were “invited over for that last supper”.
Joffe aims to make people laugh, think, and feel while reading what’s essentially a disintegration of dangerous stereotypes. In presenting a feminist take on the wandering Jew, Joffe also reflects on the way that women have been blocked from fulfilling their destinies and blamed when things go wrong, from thousands of years ago to today.
She may shock and at times upset sensitive readers, but it’s all in pursuit of a greater goal. “Laughter is a form of recognition,” says Joffe. “I’m telling a fictional female character’s story of the most dreadful scapegoating in history,” she says. “I’m using fiction to expose a fiction.”
Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?
The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.
Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.
This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.
In the brave steps of Abraham
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.
The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.
While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.
Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.
At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.
My kind of hero
The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.
That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.
Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.
Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!
Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.
There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.
Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.
His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.
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