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Religion

The Gospel about wandering Jews and wicked stereotypes

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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.”

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1 Comment

  1. susan scott

    Jun 28, 2021 at 11:40 am

    Loved reading this – the other side of tragedy is laughter. Thank heavens – I so look forward to reading this. Thank you.

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