Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Thematic: Hope Itself

The Eternal Hope of the Wandering Jew

Which came first: the wandering or the Jew?

David Stromberg

The Wandering Jew (detail), 1983, by Michael Sgan-Cohen (1944–1999); © estate of the artist, Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Missing persons cases are seldom about finding someone. Too often, people who have disappeared are not missing at all. They are either hiding or long dead, possibly victims of murders waiting to be solved. Such cases, in short, are best to avoid. But when I heard that there had been recent sightings of the long-lost Wandering Jew, I knew I had to investigate.

The challenge was that no one could actually say where the Wandering Jew had been sighted. Since allegedly taunting Jesus in Jerusalem on his way to being crucified, resurfacing in thirteenth-century Christian folklore in England as an immortal penitent, making regular appearances throughout Europe in booklets published during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and finally being mentioned in reports published in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News in 1868, the Wandering Jew had left no visible trail. Forced to take a different tack, I decided to focus less on the question of the wandering and more on the question of the Jew. If I could find some answers to the Jewish question, I thought, I might also discover where the Jew might have gone. But first I had to see what the Jewish question was all about. What, in fact, was the question?

So I went straight to the source: the German Protestant theologian Bruno Bauer and his 1843 essay “Die Judenfrage,” translated in turn as “The Jewish Question” and “The Jewish Problem.” Obviously, much had happened with and to the Jews since Bauer tried to address the question, but since he was the first to put it so directly, his essay seemed like a good start.

Spending time with “Die Judenfrage,” I soon saw that it was actually less about Jews than about Germans. It was really a veiled criticism of what Bauer saw as the betrayal of the Enlightenment. If Germans are supposed to let go of their old prejudices, he argues, why are Jews not expected to do the same? How could Germany modernize its society, including the granting of full civil and political rights to Jews, without Jews modernizing too? Why should Jews be exempt from the very demands Germans are making of themselves? Isn’t there a double standard, Bauer asks, at the core of the Jewish struggle for emancipation? Doesn’t it ultimately put the burden of progress on the German people alone? That, it appears, is Bauer’s version of the Jewish question.

At its core, I noticed, Bauer’s argument rests on the tension between “old” and “new.” Jews are part of the “old” world, whereas Christians have built a world that is “new”—just as Jews have been relegated to following what Christians call the “Old Testament,” while Christians follow a testament they claim is “new.” None of this reflects the Jewish point of view, of course, since the Torah, which contains the five books of Moses, is the only text around which Jews have developed their entire tradition. That doesn’t matter to Bauer. For him, the Jews living in the Germany of the mid-1800s are living in a Christian land and have to be held to its Christian standards.

Here Bauer’s argument turns most clearly to the question of German society. He believes that the idea of human rights, as a value, exists in the Christian world only as a modern development. His formulation of the Jewish question ultimately rests on an assumption that Jews are as backward as his own cultural adversaries, traditionalist German Christians. This obviously does not stop Bauer from unloading his contempt on Jews instead. “As long as Jews are Jews,” he writes, “their Jewishness must be stronger in them than their humanity.” It seems that, to him, being Jewish is incompatible with being human. Jews lack humanity, as far as he is concerned, because they are part of the old world—living a life of tradition and opposed, in his view, to the new Christian world of progress and human rights. And since, according to his standards of the new world, Jews are opposed to human rights, they are undeserving of being treated like humans.

As a philosopher, Bauer was a rationalist. His suppositions, though, were patently Protestant. He talked about the “pains of criticism” as well as the “flames of criticism” that he said were indispensable in order to “enter the new world which will soon come.” The new world? Yes, Bauer lived in a fantasy in which the Second Coming was imminent in the form of enlightenment and social progress—and where Jews in Germany had a first-class ticket to oblivion.

Bauer’s insistence that pains and flames were prerequisites to gains sounds like just another way to maintain the same old oppressions and abuses. As I suspected he would, he takes his own crooked argument to its logical end: Society, he suggests, should have given “the Jews the honor that they were to blame for their oppression.” For Bauer, the Jewish question is indeed the Jewish problem: the idea that Jews are ultimately responsible for their own suffering.

That was my first sighting of the Wandering Jew, the figure who was said to have cursed and struck Jesus on his way to being crucified—and who, as a result, was doomed to roam the earth until his Second Coming. Bauer’s Jews were the descendants of this same wanderer, their suffering caused by their own obstinate behavior—which, in his own words, consisted in the “stubbornness” with which “they have clung to their nationality and resisted the movements and changes of history.” An avowed Hegelian, Bauer linked his idea of history to progress. Since Jews had placed themselves, as he put it, “against the wheels of history,” any oppression they consequently suffered was their own damn fault.

The only solution to the Jewish problem, Bauer argued, was for Jews “to sacrifice…their belief in their own nationality.” The Jews had, in a way, become a scapegoat for the social ills of his time. But Bauer mixed up his metaphors. In the ancient Jewish ritual, the scapegoat was set free—or, in the political lexicon of Bauer's time, granted political and social emancipation—while the pure goat, or the enlightened German people, was the one to be sacrificed. Yet Bauer wanted to see impurity sacrificed instead. He thought that the best way for Jews to be set free was by their simply ceasing to be Jews.

It was a clean solution to a dirty problem. You could almost imagine it working. But Bauer was confronted by an unpleasant reality: Jews kept being the people they believed themselves to be—which is why, in his view, they would wander the world as an alien nation for all eternity.


* * *


I wanted to jump further in time, hoping to get a clearer sighting of the Wandering Jew, but I saw that I had to stay where I was, at least long enough to examine what is considered the most biting critique of Bauer’s essay: Karl Marx’s “Zur Judenfrage” (“On the Jewish Question”) published in 1844, the year after Bauer’s work appeared.

As a thinker, Bauer possesses none of the longevity of Marx, but to read what Marx actually wrote in his critique is to be struck not just by the crassness of his argument but by its tedious repetitiveness. If Bauer had couched his contempt for Jews in an argument for progress and human rights, Marx turned the whole issue into a question of money. “What is the worldly culture of the Jew?” he asks. “Commerce. What is his worldly God?” he then asks. “Money.” And later, in slightly different words: “Money is the jealous God of Israel before whom no other God may endure.” He ends with a zinger: “The real God of the Jews,” he says, “is money.”

Marx would know, some might say, since his father and mother were both born Jewish but converted to Christianity—not out of conviction but in response to laws that made it illegal for Jews to practice law. Since Marx’s father was a lawyer, and since he did not seem to care about religion anyway, he changed his name from Herschel to Heinrich and switched creeds. His father’s family responded by cutting off all contact—they were of rabbinical lineage and still lived in the same town as Herschel-Heinrich. But Marx’s mother, who seemed to have converted mostly for her husband, remained in touch with the family she had left behind in Holland. They even continued to support her financially.

So one might see how, from Marx’s viewpoint, the real God of the Jews was money—at least the God of the Jews he knew best: his parents. Yet this is not the whole story. Since his father had been poorer than his mother, it was his mother’s family who represented the commercial Jews whose God, according to Marx, was money. This did not seem to bother the prodigal Marx, who, as a young student, neglected his studies and spent his time drinking and pontificating—as long as his father propped him up financially. Once his father passed away and his mother refused his constant requests for more money, Marx’s relationship to his parents’ God appears to have shifted. His need for money, it seems, gave rise to his hatred of its social role. Yet he did not believe in earning money, because his “bourgeois” family already had so much. When his needs were not met, he turned his anger into ideology, and made both Jewishness and money into social ills.

One of Marx’s most noxious pronouncements—“We therefore recognize in Judaism a generally present anti-social element”—suddenly seemed less like a critique of Bauer than a reformulation of his accusations against the Jews, including a wholly personal aspect. When he referred to an “anti-social element,” he used society as a proxy for himself, and “Judaism” as a proxy for his mother. Poor Karl felt unloved by his mother because she never gave him enough money.

In this light, the terms of Marx’s argument take on a totally different hue. “What is the real basis of the Jewish religion?” he asks. “Practical need,” he answers, “egoism.” He then adds, “Practical need, egoism, is the principle of civil society.” And things might have indeed remained civil had his mother given him some money. His loathing of capital, the principle around which he built his entire ideology, was ultimately rooted in his relationship with his mother, and, by association, with Jewishness.

Now the motive behind Marx’s desire to rid society of money becomes clear: “An organization of society which would make commerce impossible by abolishing its presuppositions would have made the existence of the Jew impossible.” In a society with no money, Marx’s mother would have no power over him, and he would no longer be dependent on her to meet his needs. This sentence, which appears in the middle of “Zur Judenfrage,” later reappears, almost word for word, at the end: “As soon as society will succeed in abolishing the empirical nature of Judaism, commerce and its presuppositions, the existence of the Jew will be impossible.” Translated from Marxspeak, the idea is that in a society that abolishes the so-called empirical nature of Judaism—the financial egoism of his mother’s innate Jewishness, which existed regardless of her conversion to Christianity—her very existence would become an impossibility. In one fell ideological swoop, Marx had symbolically annihilated his despised mother.

Marx had projected the mentality of a suffering victim—though he was, in effect, nothing more than a spoiled brat. Yet like the Wandering Jew, Marx too became a legend, taking on the burden of his own curse and wandering the world for most of his life. He lived in Paris, in Brussels, in Cologne, and finally in London. In Brussels alone, where he cowrote The Manifesto of the Communist Party with Friedrich Engels, he lived with his wife and three children in no less than five different locations. And as a wanderer par excellence, he also became a Jew by association, even if he had been born after his parents converted to Christianity. He was both the Jew who wronged Christ and the Christ who was wronged by the Jew—who also happened to be, in this case, his very own mother.


* * *


I did not yet know where I was going with my investigation, but I knew where I had landed: in the realm of psychoanalysis. Because you cannot really talk about people’s symbolic annihilation of their own parents without taking a look at where this idea first originated.

Sigmund Freud did not invent psychoanalysis ex nihilo, but he was undoubtedly the person most directly responsible for pioneering and standardizing many of its basic concepts and premises. In no other work did he deal more directly with the question of Jewishness than in Moses and Monotheism, the last work he published before—suffering from inoperable cancer at the age of eighty-three after fleeing the Continent just months before the outbreak of yet another world war—he asked to have a lethal dose of morphine injected into him in September 1939.

One of the main ideas in Moses and Monotheism is that the Jews actually killed Moses, who was not Jewish but Egyptian. Freud always liked a good murder mystery, and what could be more intriguing than the idea that the Jews killed their own spiritual leader, who had never been one of them anyway. It was a little like the idea that the Jews killed Jesus, except that it projected the murder of Moses back on his own religious tradition, rather than on the tradition of the Europeans among whom Freud had lived all his life.

Freud was perceptive enough to have understood this himself. So he connected the two ideas directly, suggesting that the myth of Jesus as the sacrificed son was the result of Jewish guilt over the murder of their religious leader in ancient times. “It had to be a Son,” Freud states, “for the sin had been murder of the Father.” Jesus, who in a sense is Moses both resurrected and murdered again, was symbolically killed for the sin of parricide—an idea Freud had explored, using a different context, in “Dostoevsky and Parricide” nearly a decade earlier. There was obviously something about killing the father and then suffering for it for generations that kept Freud up at night. Perhaps it was his wandering mind—the wandering mind of a Jew—trying to find the sources of his own intangible identity, as well as the suffering he experienced on its behalf in his own time with the rise of the Third Reich.

So much for the father. What about the mother? Here Freud is a little more ambivalent. According to him, the father God, too, had been guilty of murder—in this case, the mass murder of mother goddesses such as Pallas Athena, who, Freud writes, “was no doubt the local form of the mother deity.” Due to religious revolutions, he adds, Athena was “reduced to a daughter, robbed of her own mother, and eternally debarred from motherhood by the taboo of virginity.” In essence, by bringing all gods under the monotheistic banner of a single God, Moses had buried every goddess that had ever existed—for good. Even Christianity, which brought back the “great mother-deities” in the form of the Virgin Mary, was only one small part of a drama dominated by a trinity of male figures: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Taking Freud’s idea to its logical end, one might conclude that Moses’s murder was actually little more than a revenge killing. Somehow, after everything was over, it was still the mother who had been symbolically annihilated.

It is possible that, in his study of Moses, Freud was actually projecting a version of himself. As the father of psychoanalysis, and with his own life coming to an end, he was likely concerned about being murdered by the people he considered his own—not only in a symbolic sense, by followers who might change the meaning of his ideas, but also in a literal sense, since the Austrians among whom he had grown up were now trying actually to kill both him and other members of the race to which he belonged. It is even possible that, with his mind clouded by the confounding times in which he lived, he confused his Nazi enemies with his psychoanalytic cronies, preempting them all by asking his own doctor just to kill him.


* * *


Freud checked out of life before the Nazis unleashed their full savagery on the Jews of Europe. But Ernest Jones, one of his most loyal disciples and the first biographer of this modern Moses, lived to witness most of World War II, and even wrote an essay in early 1945 that he called—yes—“The Psychology of the Jewish Question.”

Jones, a native of Wales, formulates the Jewish question as an attempt to resolve “the problem of what measures are feasible to render possible a more satisfactory life, and perhaps status, for Jews.” He starts at the end, in terms of quality of life rather than religious or national freedom. It is a genial way of putting the question—or problem—of being a Jew. The pleasantness lasts only until the next sentence, when Jones observes that the question-problem “turns, more than anything, on a study of the nature of racial prejudice in general, and of anti-Semitism in particular.” The Jewish desire to live a satisfactory life, he suggests, is inextricable from the phenomenon of anti-Semitism. The two are forever intertwined. To answer the Jewish question—or solve the Jewish problem—you have to figure out what drives anti-Semitism in the first place.

Jones begins sensibly enough, recalling that “racial prejudice…always contains important elements of an irrational kind” and that “the emotional logic of phantasy…holds almost unchallenged sway.” But then, like everyone else who addresses the issue, he goes back to the same old tropes about how the Jews were responsible for their own mistreatment.

Jews, he notes, are “an emigrating people who, having no national home, nevertheless refuse to acquire one by assimilating themselves to the people among whom they dwell.” Nothing too offensive, except perhaps the ambivalent undertones of the word “refuse.” Then he reveals his real belief about this refusal: “The factors in Jews themselves resisting assimilation,” he claims, “are as important from the point of view of prejudice as the numerous extrinsic ones impeding that process.” Jewish resistance to assimilation, it appears, is at the root of anti-Semitism no less than hatred toward difference.

You would think that Jones’s close association with a Jew as prominent as Freud would have made his language, if not his opinions, a bit less offensive. Still, though his essay was written in the final months of World War II, he resorts to frightening oversimplification. Whereas religious Jews have an intrinsic faith in the notion that their people were chosen to maintain a difficult yet rewarding covenant with God, “the more emancipated Jews” exhibit, in Jones’s words, “a curious ‘superiority complex’ in respect of brain power.” A dig at Freud? It is hard to read it another way.

Jones, who had the chutzpah to call himself a political psychologist, comes up with a two-pronged explanation for the modern Jewish mind. First, he calls the ancient Hebrews “a pretty savage Herrenvolk”—the same German phrase for “master race” that the Nazis embraced to rationalize their superiority to Jews and everyone else—claiming that their defeat at the hands of the Romans, and their subsequent exile, led them to seek nonviolent ways of developing themselves as a nation. He pays lip service to the idea that this “may be the hall-mark of a higher type of civilization which we shall all one day reach,” but he adds that this is not the case at present—the understatement of 1945—and notes that nonviolence is often “despised as a sign of unmanliness.” So his ostensible defense of the Jewish right to a satisfactory life manages to depict Jews both as savages in ancient times and as cowards in modernity. And he is just getting started. Jones then turns to the physical facets of Jewish culture and appearance, singling out for criticism both the circumcision ritual and the “Hittite nose, so suggestive of deformity, which the Jews unfortunately picked up in their wanderings, and which, by an unlucky chance, is associated with a dominant gene.”

Unfortunate! Unlucky! Indeed! If only those Jews had not acquired those pesky genes in their wanderings, which gave them those big noses that made them such clear targets for anti-Semitism! Blame their wanderings—which are their fault, too, since they failed to maintain their own kingdom through brutal Herrenvolk rule. This further sighting of the Wandering Jew, which identifies the state of itinerancy as part of the problem of being Jewish, turns the entire missing persons case into a question of what came first: the wandering or the Jew?

Jones pays a little more lip service to the problem of anti-Semitism—calling it, quaintly, “irrational and unfair”—then adding that “the cases of anti-Semitism are not due solely to Gentile depravity, but reside in a vicious circle contributed to by both sides.” Almost a hundred years after Bauer argued that Jews were to blame for how they were treated, Jones finds a new way to say that Jews are ultimately responsible for the racial prejudice that is at that very time killing them by the millions.


* * *


Leaving Jones, I thought how lucky it was for him that he was not a Jew. I doubt he would have lasted a day. I thought, too, of his teacher, Sigmund Freud, who moved from Moravia to Austria and finally to England, trying to live a satisfactory life and to survive as a Jew. I thought too of Freud’s early followers—Alfred Adler, Max Eitingon, Karl Abraham, Sandor Ferenczi, Otto Rank, Wilhelm Stekel—all of them Jewish. Also, all men. Which made me think about the women, especially those from the early days of psychoanalysis, and whether they had anything to say about the Jewish question that might lead my investigation in a new direction.

The list of early women psychoanalysts is not overly long: Margarete Hilferding, Sabina Spielrein, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, Melanie Klein. It appeared that none of them published anything related to being Jewish. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I should be looking at writing that hadn’t been published. Sure enough, exploring the further reaches of the Melanie Klein Archive, I found a draft autobiography in which Klein addressed her Jewishness:

My father came from a very orthodox Jewish family…. He went out one day without the knowledge of his parents and gained his matriculation at a gymnasium, as these schools were called. When he returned, his parents, particularly his mother, were horrified. He then declared that he was going to study medicine and I know from him that when he went in for his first examination, his mother was praying at home that he would fail. However, he passed and after some years he became a doctor. By that time he had completely broken with the whole orthodox attitude and had become independent of his family, though he never quite broke with them….

Now I want to speak of my mother’s family.… Her father was a rabbi in Deutsch-Kreutz. My grandfather was a very outstanding man: he was known all over the district for his knowledge and tolerance, being very liberal-minded, quite different from the orthodoxy that characterized my father’s family. He had all the German philosophers on his shelves, unlike the attitude of the bigoted rabbis....

I have kept a strong feeling for the Jewish race, though I am fully aware of their faults and shortcomings. This never led me to be zionistic, even in my young days I had no desire to be segregate, but I feel a certain sympathy with the people who struggle to establish Israel and have some admiration for their endurance and the strength of their principles. I should have hated, though, to live in Israel. I have come, in my later life, to adopt England as my second motherland, but have strong ties of an international nature, which has some similarity with what I have been saying about my relations to Jewishness. Another thing I have always hated was that some Jews, quite irrespective of their religious principles, were ashamed of their Jewish origin, and, whenever the question arose, I was glad to confirm my own Jewish origin, though I am afraid I have no religious beliefs whatever.

Klein had no religious beliefs but was unashamed of her Jewish origins. In her own life, she was a true wanderer, living in cities that are today in Austria, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Germany, and England. I had been on the trail of the father of psychoanalysis, but now I realized I should have followed the mother all along. It was she, not he, who had something clear to say about being Jewish. It was also she who had done the most wandering.

It now occurred to me that the Wandering Jew was, in some sense, not this or that Jew, not this or that symbol, but any and all Jews ever to have lived—any and all Jews ever to have wandered the earth in order to survive. Affirming that she both admired and sympathized with the Jews who were struggling to establish a national home, Klein owned that she did not seek such a home, considering herself international in nature. She could relate to both conditions. She had made England her second motherland, but this did not change the fact that she was still a cosmopolitan for whom England was both home and not home. The idea that the place where you lived was both home and not home did not necessarily comport with the idea of living in Israel. In their national home, Jews had to feel at home, and there was no room to feel cosmopolitan. Was that really the case?

Reading Klein’s autobiography, I recalled what Jones wrote in the postscript to his article on the Jewish question, which he republished in 1951, years after the Nazis were defeated and the State of Israel was established. “The historical tenacity of the Jewish people,” he said, “made it easy to predict that they would unhesitatingly decide for the nationalist solution.” Using the word “solution” in relation to Jewish national ambitions when the ink was not yet dry on the Nazi’s “Final Solution to the Jewish question” seemed, at best, tone deaf. Still, Jones would not be deterred. Having retroactively validated his own essay, he doubted, yet again, whether this “historical tenacity” would in any way “diminish anti-Semitism,” insisting, despite everything, that “it should be supplemented by all other methods of combatting the scandal of anti-Semitism”—the most efficient, of course, being his own proposed method of assimilation.

Where was Jones, and where was Klein? She outlined all the complexity of being Jewish in both modern and ancient times, acknowledging her own strong Jewish feelings without blinding herself to the shortcomings that made her people human. Her approving nod to Jews striving for a national home was penned not at the outset of World War II but in 1959, eleven years after Israel was established as a state. She could say, at the same time, that she admired the people who lived there and that she did not herself want to live there. There was no conflict for her between the two. Jews could wander, or they could find homes. They could root themselves in a particular place, or they could stay rootless. They were all Jews nonetheless, and this, in itself, made them a singular people. Whether in a state of motion or stasis, the Wandering Jew, I realized, was always a wanderer.

Pondering all these possibilities and what they might mean in terms of my missing persons case, I suddenly saw the one possibility I had never taken into account: that the Wandering Jew had stopped wandering altogether and simply gone back home to Zion.


* * *


I had a new lead, but I still did not know who—or what—I was looking for. A particular Jew? All Jews? What was Zion, anyway? A place? An idea? A political force? A spiritual center? Where exactly was I supposed to begin my search? And with which Jew?

Having hit on something with the father-mother thing, I figured I would start by looking at the parents of Zionism, of whom there was none more iconic than Theodor Herzl. Yet Herzl’s 1896 essay “A Solution to the Jewish Question,” in which he outlines the main ideas he published later that same year in The Jewish State, turns out to be fairly confusing. There is no mention of Zion. Herzl talks only about going back to Palestine. “Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home,” he says, adding that “the very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of extraordinary potency.” If he had been so bent on Palestine, I wondered why he had not simply called the movement Palestinisim. Then I discovered that he had not even coined the term Zionism. That was the work of another Jewish activist, Nathan Birnbaum, the forgotten father of Zionism. As it turns out, he had been altogether suppressed by the Zionist movement because he later rejected all national ambitions. By the time Birnbaum died, in 1937, he was writing polemics in Yiddish against political Zionism, arguing that there was no identity for Jews outside of religion.

So much for the so-called father—or really fathers—of Zionism. What about the mother?

A little surprised, I found her further in the past. It was Emma Lazarus, who was well known as a poet and champion of refugee rights, and whose famous words—“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Yet few people had known her as an ardent advocate of Zion. While Herzl talked endlessly about a political solution to the Jewish question, Lazarus saw it, first and foremost, as a humanistic issue, one that needed a solution that would take the actual humans in question into account, including the spiritual ideas that made them who they were.

Lazarus had a lot to say about the situation of the Jews in the world by the time she wrote “The Jewish Problem” in 1883. The massacres of Jews that were taking place in the Russian Empire, along with the resulting swelling of Jewish immigration to America, were enough to shake her out of privileged complacency and to make her realize that she and the hordes of people crowding into the Lower East Side of Manhattan belonged, in her words, to a single race. She recognized, more than sixty years before Ernest Jones tried in his obtuse way to defend Jewish integrity, that the Jewish problem was, in reality, a racial problem.

The main thing Lazarus saw, I noticed, and which no one else put quite so directly, was that the question of the Jews was an existential question, one that determined not just the abstract survival of the race but the real survival of real people. “The Jewish problem,” she says, “is as old as history, and…the life or death of millions of human beings hangs upon its solution.” She saw how this problem was distinct from others plaguing the world at the time: “The unique phenomenon of a landless, denationalized people, dispersed over every country of the globe, and yet bound together by a spiritual tie—an idea—in the most enduring, subtly woven, and indissoluble union that the world has ever seen.” You had a people spread across the planet, enjoying various degrees of freedom, yet all living distinctly as their own race. And their long history had shown that a period of freedom can, at a moment’s notice, transform into oppression with implications for generations to come.

Lazarus—the daughter of Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition, first to Brazil and then to New Amsterdam—knew the score. It had been more than two hundred years since her ancestors had arrived in what became New York City. But she knew that, as a Jew, her situation in America could turn on a dime:

Even in America, presumably the refuge of the oppressed, public opinion has not yet reached the point where it absolves the race from the sin of every individual.… Within recent years, Jews have been “boycotted” at not a few places of public resort; in our schools and colleges, even in our scientific universities, Jewish scholars are frequently subjected to annoyances on account of their race.… The word “Jew” is…employed as a verb, to denote the meanest trick.

Lazarus was a Jew and an American. She was disconcerted by behavior she believed was un-American—prejudice against Jews—especially as she saw not just hundreds or thousands but millions of Jews who needed to escape the brutality of the countries where they had lived for centuries. She writes that “blind intolerance and ignorance are now forcibly driving them into that position which they have long hesitated to assume. They must establish an independent nationality.” Relating to the attention commanded by the issue in her day, she for the first time calls it by its name. “There is something absolutely startling,” she exclaims, “in the world’s sudden awakening to the probable destiny of Israel.”

Here was someone willing to speak her mind and to use the words everyone else was avoiding. Zionism was just a veil for the real issue at hand: the rebuilding of a national homeland for the People of Israel in the Land of Israel. You could agree or disagree with the idea of the project itself, but at least you had to know the stakes. Lazarus’s expanded views on the issue appeared in a series of more than fifteen essays, published between 1882 and 1883, which she called “An Epistle to the Hebrews.” Immediately apparent in this work is her absolute sense of solidarity with all Jews. “When the life and property of a Jew in the uttermost provinces of the Caucasus are attacked,” she said, “the dignity of a Jew in free America is humiliated.” In case anyone misunderstood her, she brought the point home: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” It is hard to miss her sense of urgency, which takes on a survivalist tone: “Let our first care today be the reestablishment of our physical needs, the reconstruction of our national organism, so that in the future, where the respect due to us cannot be won by entreaty, it may be commanded, and where it cannot be commanded, it may be enforced.” No less impressive is her foresight: “Despite the horrors of the Inquisition, the Middle Ages, the thinly veneered barbarism of certain European countries in our own day, we were not prepared to find ourselves suddenly swept back into the full current of medieval principles.” The Holocaust was still sixty years away, but Lazarus saw the worst coming and thought the Jewish people had to be prepared. “It is our duty,” she insists, “to anticipate this calamity; the possibility, nay probability, of its arrival.” No amount of wandering would protect the Jews, she seems to say, from the worst that human history still has to offer.

What was to be done about the Jewish problem? “Renaturalization, Auto-Emancipation, repatriation—call it by what name you will,” she writes, “the same solution of the problem is suggested by friend and foe.” Everyone, haters and lovers of Jews alike, wants them to go back to where they came from. Zionism, Israelism, Palestinism—the name didn’t matter as long as the Jews stopped wandering and stayed in one place for at least a while.

As Lazarus and others realized, this place could be nowhere else but the center of the Jewish spirit: the city of Jerusalem.

Here Lazarus used someone else’s words to say what she herself could not quite articulate. She devoted an installment of her call to arms to her own translation of Joseph Salvador, who in response to anti-Jewish riots in Germany in 1819 wrote a religious treatise, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem (1860), calling on Jews to return to their spiritual home.

If Jerusalem be annihilated in justice and in truth, why should it not be incumbent upon us to acknowledge it?… If, on the contrary, truth and justice lead us to a different conclusion, how, then, shall we best understand the duty that devolves upon us?

Now this, I thought to myself, was the true father of Zionism. Zion, one of seventy names of Jerusalem, was the place where Jews were supposed to go to rest their weary souls. It was, as Lazarus put it, “a home for the homeless, a goal for the wanderer, an asylum for the persecuted, a nation for the denationalized.” I had finally found my first concrete evidence that the Wandering Jew might have gone back to Zion. The only way for me to stay on the trail was to go to the scene of the alleged crime. I had to go to Jerusalem.


* * *


Oddly enough, as I made my way to the Holy City, I encountered few people who had anything to say about what the city meant to the Jews. Sure, the Zionists had set up many of their organizations in the city, but when you looked at their writings, you saw very little about Jerusalem itself. It was not only the political Zionists. It was also the religious Jews from Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Bukhara, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya, as well as Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Hungary, Romania, and all kinds of other places across Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East—not to mention those who had made their way, as individuals or small families, to the Holy Land over the many centuries of Jewish exile. It was all of these people who, while adding in one way or another to the common enterprise of returning to Zion, said little about the city and what it meant to Jews everywhere.

Only on the other side of the Six-Day War, next to the Wailing Wall, did I notice someone willing to go on record about the singular relationship of the Jews to Zion—the place itself—as the spiritual and national foundation of the Jews. This person, who had fled Poland just months before the Nazis invaded, immigrated to the United States in 1940, and become one of the foremost activists in the American civil rights movement, was also one of the most spiritually inclined thinkers in the modern Jewish tradition: Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Heschel’s book Israel: An Echo of Eternity (1969) was written in 1967, just weeks after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, which restored Jewish access to the Old City of Jerusalem—that walled maze of alleys filled with places of worship where the world’s three largest Abrahamic religions sit atop each other like wrestlers exhausted after centuries of battling over a single hilltop. Here, among the stones of this ancient city, after visiting the Wailing Wall—which had, over two millennia, become the symbol of Jewish yearning—the seasoned writer and philosopher seems to have given way to the inspired voice of a Jewish soul witnessing the prophecies of generations come true before his eyes.

“The great quality of a miracle,” begins his reflection on Jerusalem, “is…its happening to human beings who are profoundly astonished.” He continues: “The martyrs of all ages would rather be without heaven than forget the glory of Jerusalem.” He further exclaims, “God…will not enter heavenly Jerusalem until his people Israel will enter Jerusalem here.” And again: “Let Jerusalem speak again to our people, to all people.… Jerusalem is never at the end of the road.… She is the city where waiting for God was born, where the anticipation of everlasting peace came into being.” But what exactly does the city mean? Heschel offers a literal answer:

What is the meaning of the name Yerushalayim? The city was first called Shalem—peace—then Abraham named it Yireh…vision…. Yerushalayim combines both names: Yireh and Shalem, “vision” and “peace.”

This was quickly turning into a confusing and oddly disorienting investigation. I had wanted only to get my hands on someone who had gone missing. Now I was chasing some vision of God in a city of peace that, in reality, had been the site of violence for more than three thousand years.

I went back to Heschel and felt almost as if he were mocking my confusion. “What is the mystery of Jerusalem?” he asked. “A promise: peace and God’s presence.” What was that supposed to mean, and how did any of this relate to Zionism? “What should come out of Zion?” he went on. “Renunciation of lies, compassion, disgust with violence, helping to overcome the infirmity of the spirit.” None of this sounded, at least to my jaded ears, as though it reflected the real place. There were endless wars, constant terror attacks, oppressive policies, an entire litany of injustices connected to this very city—to the very hilltop that proclaimed itself Mount Zion. Where was the peace?

“Jerusalem is a prelude,” Heschel explained. “All of Jerusalem is a gate, but the key is lost in the darkness of God’s silence.”

So there was a gateway to peace in this city, but only God knew how to find the key, and he was no longer talking in any manner that could be considered clear. Was this a clue, a possible opening in my search for the Wandering Jew? Heschel repeated himself: “God…will not enter heavenly Jerusalem until his people Israel will enter Jerusalem here.” There was no chance of finding the key to peace—or the Wandering Jew—until Jews themselves ended their wandering and returned to Zion. After he saw that I understood this point, Heschel spoke more plainly:

Zion is not a symbol, but a home, and the land is not an allegory but a possession, a commitment of destiny.… Jerusalem is called the mother of Israel, and she is also used as a synonym for Israel.… Spiritually I am a native of Jerusalem. I have prayed here all my life. My hopes have their home in these hills.… You will never understand what Jerusalem means in terms of generalizations or comparative history.… Intimate attachment to the land, waiting for the renewal of Jewish life in the land of Israel, is part of our integrity, an existential fact.… Three thousand years of faithfulness cannot be wiped off.… Israel reborn represents a breakthrough into whole new areas of experience and understanding. It defies conventional conceptions, ordinary expectations.

His message was slowly coming into focus—and with it, the flaws in my initial approach. I had looked at the Jewish problem from a historical perspective in which the main issue was political, social, and cultural autonomy—as had both the Zionists and their detractors. I should have looked at the return to Zion as a spiritual commitment, a pledge to be carried out, passed on from generation to generation, until there was no choice but for the vision to become a reality, and for the people Israel to populate Jerusalem once more.

Once I finally understood what Heschel was saying, he expressed his ideas more explicitly:

The restoration of Zion began on the day of its destruction. The land was rebuilt in time long before it was restored in space. We have been building it daily for nearly two thousand years.… The land was taken from the Jewish people by violence and we have never abandoned hope of regaining it.… Throughout the ages we said No to the conquerors of Palestine.… We objected to their occupations, we rejected their claims, we deepened our attachment, knowing that the occupation by conquerors was a passing adventure, while our attachment to the land was an eternal link.

As he articulated these last words, I began to see how his answers connected with my investigation. If I took his words to heart, I would have to admit that the Wandering Jew had never really gone anywhere as far as the soul was concerned. Previous sightings related only to the figure of a passing Jew whose heart was consumed by yearning and sorrow—who could physically settle nowhere for the simple reason that home was far away and overtaken by strangers. There was nothing to do but wander, not out of aimlessness or as a result of a curse, but simply because there was no way to get back home. Only God had the key, and he was not in the habit of revealing where it was hidden.

Apparently, it was left to the Jews themselves to find their way back home. Heschel insisted this had been the case for as long as the exile itself. European legend had it that the Wandering Jew had been cursed to roam the earth until the Second Coming of Christ, but in truth the earth was filled with countless wandering Jews doing nothing more than waiting for the time when they could make their way back to Zion.

My initial hunch that following the Jewish question might bring me to the Wandering Jew had been misguided. Not that there was no connection. There were simply more powerful links than I could have foreseen. After consulting Lazarus and Heschel, I saw that the question itself betrayed a view lacking a deeper understanding of the Jewish spirit. Heschel offered an invaluable clarification: “The Jewish question,” he noted, “is a question addressed to us by God. Our existence is the history of a responsibility, and the prehistory of an answer.” The Jewish question—the so-called the Jewish problem—was not the dominion of social and political theorizers alone, constantly rehashing the same arguments about Jewish civil and political rights.  It was a question Jews themselves pondered in relation to the meaning of their lives as a nation, not just in relation to other peoples, nations, kingdoms, states, or any other entities belonging to non-Jews but, above all, in relation to their own reflections on what it meant to govern themselves—and each other. The Jewish question did not have to be only whether Jews could live better or more satisfactory lives among other nations. It was also whether they could live satisfactory lives in a nation-state of their own.

Not that this question had to have an unequivocal answer. Isaac Deutscher, the political writer and biographer, had picked it up in “The Wandering Jew as Thinker and Revolutionary” (1958), and had come to an altogether different conclusion. Writing from his perspective as a Marxist, he said that

the decay of bourgeois Europe has compelled the Jew to embrace the nation-state. This is the paradoxical consummation of the Jewish tragedy. It is paradoxical, because we live in an age when the nation-state is fast becoming an archaism—not only the nation-state of Israel but the nation-states of Russia, the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and others. They are all anachronisms.

I wondered whether anyone had bothered to tell some of these more powerful nations that they were all historical ghosts. More to the point, just ten years after the founding of the modern State of Israel and two millennia into the Jewish dream of a return to Zion, Deutscher had declared the nation itself an old-fashioned ideal that was no longer relevant. More strikingly in relation to my investigation, he had tied this idea to the Wandering Jew as symbol of all that was good in the future world: internationalism, social progressivism, and universal emancipation. For Deutscher, the Wandering Jew, far from being cursed, had admirably wandered the world thinking about the future of humanity and how to bring about the next revolution. Deutscher even forgave those Jews who had mistakenly returned to Zion:

The world has compelled the Jew to embrace the nation-state…when there is little or no hope left in it. You cannot blame the Jews for this; you must blame the world.… They did not benefit from the advantages of the nation-state in those centuries when it was a medium of mankind’s advance…. They have taken possession of it only after it had become a factor of disunity and social disintegration.

The Jews, it seems, had missed out on the great benefits of nationhood, had been sold a rotten bill of goods, and were now stuck defending an idea that was itself an agent of disintegration and disunity. It did not sound very good. From Deutscher’s perspective, it also didn’t sound as if the end of Jewish wandering had been beneficial to either the Jewish body or the Jewish spirit, as Lazarus and Heschel had proposed. All of which left me—stuck in the middle of all these opinions about Jewish problems and Jewish questions and Jewish wandering and Jewish national ambitions and Jewish spiritual dreams—still confused about what it meant to be a Jew in today’s world and how that might influence the Wandering Jew whose trail I still hoped to pick up.


* * *


Unable to find my answers in the present, I looked even further in the past, turning to Moshe Idel, a contemporary Kabbalah scholar whose work focuses on Spain in the thirteenth century, a time before the Jews of that land were expelled, murdered, or forced at sword’s point to convert to Christianity. In his article “On Jerusalem as a Feminine and Sexual Hypostasis” (2008), Idel quotes Rabbi Azriel of Gerona explaining the meaning of Jerusalem in phrasing that recalls Heschel almost word for word: “The meaning of Jerusalem,” noted Rabbi Azriel, “is that there peace will be seen—yira’eh shalom—and the meaning of Zion is that there is a signpost—tziyun—for all those designated—metzuyanim—as being on the border.” Isaac ben Solomon Ibn Abi Sahula, a thirteenth-century poet, scholar, and Kabbalist, went into greater depth in Commentary on the Song of Songs:

Jerusalem is the navel of the world; and just as the navel of the fetus is connected to the intestines of its mother and draws food and support from it, similarly Jerusalem is connected with the heavenly Jerusalem…receiving emanation and effluence from it as the form of the moon receives emanation from the light of the sun…and just as the navel is at the center of the stomach, so too is the stomach at the center of the body, and so too did the Rabbis of blessed memory say that the Land of Israel is situated at the center of the world, with Jerusalem at the center of the Land of Israel.

Idel, an Israeli scholar, seems struck by the notion that these words were “written in medieval Spain by Kabbalists who never visited the land of Israel or Jerusalem,” and notes that “the veneration of Jerusalem was not only a matter of the glorious sacred history in the past, but, in some cases, also the main locus of events related to the future.” He has made the same point about mystics writing over six hundred years ago that Heschel made in the twentieth century—that understanding the Jewish connection to the city of Jerusalem involves not only an understanding of history, but an understanding of the promise, potential, and possibility of a better world. A vision of peace.

The Wandering Jew—I saw in a sudden flash of clarity—had not gone back to Zion. The Jews, as a people who had roamed the earth for nearly two thousand years, had never left it in the first place. At least not in their hearts and souls.

I had taken the wrong path from the outset. I had gone into the depths, looking for hidden meaning, when, in reality, the object of my pursuit had always been right in front of my face: the Wandering Jew as he appeared in the eyes of those who had perpetuated the legend in the first place.


* * *


It had been a long road but, for the first time since I embarked on my investigation, I felt as if I were on the trail of the real Wandering Jew—not some imaginary figure who had supposedly affronted Jesus Christ, but the invented figure whose main manifestation was the legend itself.

There was nothing straightforward about the figure’s appearance in European mythology, and the sources had failed to line up their stories before I started inquiring into the details. The first written source, the one most often invoked, can be found in The St. Albans Chronicles and is attributed to Roger of Wendover, a thirteenth-century monk at St. Albans Abbey. Roger of Wendover recounts the story, related by an archbishop from Armenia, of a man named Cartaphilus, who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and who spent his days with Armenian clergy in anticipation of redemption. Cartaphilus does little wandering in the report of his activities, ostensibly made in 1228, and you would not think there was anything wrong with him other than being stuck in immortal limbo as he waits for the Second Coming. In fact, the report, which notes that Cartaphilus was also baptized into the Catholic faith under the name of Joseph, describes him as

a man of holy conversation and religious, a man of few words and circumspect in his behavior, for he does not speak at all unless when questioned by the bishops and religious men; and then he tells of the events of old times, and of the events which occurred at the suffering and resurrection of our Lord, and of the witnesses of the resurrection, namely those who rose with Christ, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto men; he also tells of the creed of the apostles, and of their separation and preaching.

It seemed to be a curious story about an immortal sort of haunting figure who acted more like an ascetic Christian preacher than a wandering Jew. The change came in the incorporation of this original source into another account by a monk named Matthew of Paris, who introduced a new element into the telling: a small drawing, made by himself, of the Wandering Jew. With the move from word to image, all the prejudice and mockery already latent in the tale rose to the surface.

The legendary figure, who had been described merely as “the Jew Joseph who is still alive awaiting the last coming of Christ,” became, in Matthew of Paris’s rendering a hunchbacked, bearded, big-nosed, barefooted, half-dressed, blanket-draped caricature of a human. In short, a Jew.

A Jew—at least as Europeans saw any member of this wandering tribe of exiled refugees living on their lands and waiting for their return to the Holy Land. Yes, they were waiting, though not for Christ, but for their return to Zion. Did it actually matter, though, what their own desires, intentions, or dreams might be? It was Christians, sitting around in their abbeys talking about the legend of the immortal Jew, who decided that this Jew was waiting for the Second Coming.

In a way, they were right. Jews sometimes could seem immortal, at least as a collective whose identity was maintained for thousands of years. But this was not the way they looked at the figure of the Jew Joseph, who, at least according to their own version of the story, was the Christian Joseph.

So much for the original telling of the legend of the Wandering Jew, which involved no wandering—or even a Jew. When did the legend resurface in its next form? In 1602, when a little German chapbook, Short Description and Tale of a Jew With the Name Ahasuerus, found such a captive readership in the religiously conflicted Europe of the day that it was published in thirty-two editions during its year of publication. It was also translated into Dutch, French, English, Danish, Swedish, and Italian. In the original edition, the Wandering Jew, given the absurd name Ahasver, after the Persian king who wiped out nearly all the Jews in his kingdom, looks like something between a court jester and a silly magician. In the English edition, he looks like a vagabond who needs a shower and shave. Either way, as Aaron Schaffer explains in “The ‘Ahasver-Volksbuch’ of 1602,” a history of the pamphlet that was published in Modern Philology in 1920, “growing up out of the Christian oral tradition…it gained impetus throughout the Middle Ages, until some ingenious ecclesiastic, realizing its value as a weapon for the Protestant church, wrote the pamphlet in 1602, which, because of the inflammable state of mind of the Germany of that time, spread like wildfire through the land, experiencing edition after edition.” What started out as relatively innocent legend about an eternal penitent became transformed, in the medieval European mind, into a curse upon a people whose greatest crime was not shunning the Christian Messiah, but simply insisting on being and remaining themselves.

Looking at the drawings, I wanted to laugh at myself. I had spent my investigation looking at words, when all along I should have been looking at images. Schaffer was writing in 1920, the same year Henry Ford published a four-volume set of booklets under the title The International Jew: The World’s Problem, and just a few years before the publication of My First Two Thousand Years: An Autobiography of the Wandering Jew by German American writer George Sylvester Viereck, whose later support for the Nazis earned him the nickname “Swastika Viereck.”

Now I began to see how the meaning of the legend had been shaped by whoever could more effectively and convincingly exploit the image of this figure. In 1921, a biopic about Theodor Herzl, made by Austrian director Otto Kreisler, was titled The Wandering Jew. The same title was given to a 1933 British production of the legend that tried to show sympathy toward Jewish suffering. In the latter film, the Wandering Jew is no longer immortal, having been forgiven by God and mercifully allowed to die at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition, which simply burns him at the stake.

A slightly more realistic attempt—using the very same title and filmed in that very same year—was made in America by Yiddish-speaking Jews. It was about a German Jewish painter who is asked to resign from his professorial position at the Berlin Academy of Art and whose portrait of his father, titled The Eternal Wanderer, is removed from the academy’s collections. The film was produced in New York just a few months after the rise of the Nazis and was re-released in 1938 once the extent of their anti-Jewish agenda became sufficiently clear. To little avail. The sympathetic images of the Wandering Jew were not as convincing as the ones that portrayed Jews as evil aliens.

Real trouble for the Jews starts with the rise of Nazi propaganda in both the exhibition halls and the movie theaters. A 1937 exhibition in Munich, The Eternal Jew, conflictingly depicted Jews as the scum of the earth, lower than the lowliest animal, yet somehow also at the center of a conspiracy to control the world—including, of course, the German people.

The point of no return in the Nazi campaign to degrade the image of the Jew may have come in an identically titled 1940 propaganda film that appeared in the guise of a documentary. “The ‘civilized’ Jews that we know in Germany,” says the voice-over narration, “give us only an incomplete picture of their racial character. This film…shows the Jews as they really are, before they conceal themselves behind the mask of the civilized European.” There is no way to compete with such juicy images of the poverty in which Jews lived in Poland. Filmed as the Nazis invaded Poland’s Jewish ghettos, the images in the pseudo-documentary elicited not sympathy for a destitute people, as might be expected, but a primal contempt that would preclude any attempt at a sympathetic portrayal of these people, who, after all, had no other place of their own in the world.

The whole investigation started feeling like nothing but a succession of dead ends—a serial killing of wandering Jews that revealed nothing but false images created by those with something to gain from the oppression of those who happened to insist on being themselves. Repeatedly, in one way or another, the plight of the victims was cast and recast as a question of their responsibility.

People were forever inventing their own versions of the Wandering Jew, and sometimes these inventions were reflected in real Jews left with few options but to wander. There were those Jews who wandered through the imagination of others, and those Jews who wandered the paths, streets, and roads of the real world. Either way, they were Jews, and this was something no one in the history of the world had yet figured out how to change. That was the problem and the miracle of the Jewish people. You could not get rid of them—and they, for their part, could not quite turn themselves into people whom their fellow citizens, in so many nations, would not see as a problem that needed to be solved.

I was losing patience. The more I looked for the Wandering Jew, the surer I became that there was some real example out there who could be identified as such. There had to be a real document by a real person about real experiences that somehow talked about the real Wandering Jew. There had to be some eyewitness account out there that could be trusted—and that would lead me to some final understanding in this investigation.


* * *


As it turned out, I found not one but two eyewitnesses—both of whom had published reports in the 1920s, within about a year of each other, that included the term “Wandering Jew” in the title. The first was a Jew named Joseph Roth, an author and journalist known for taking on tough subjects. Uninterested in legends or dreams, Roth was focused on the plight of real Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, the same group Emma Lazarus had singled out forty-five years earlier. She had written about these Jews in the early 1880s, before about three million Jews immigrated from Europe to the United States, seeking refuge from the very same conditions Roth was still observing in the twenties—just a few years after the United States sharply restricted immigration from Europe. Lazarus had written her prophetic warnings three decades before the World War I, in which Roth had fought as a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Roth, in his turn, published his report, The Wandering Jews (1926), a little over a decade before the outbreak of World War II. The conditions during these periods were, in some senses, similar, but humanity was quickly heading toward an even greater catastrophe.

In explaining the reasoning behind his report, Roth insists that he is looking for “readers with respect for pain, for human greatness, for the squalor that everywhere accompanies misery.” He is interested less in the Jewish question in abstract terms and more in “the human beings that constitute the problem, and the circumstances that cause it.” Describing these circumstances, he explains that Jews in Central and Eastern Europe

want to leave the country where a war might break out from one year to the next, and from one week to the next, a pogrom. And so they leave, on foot, by train, on board ship, for Western countries where a different, somewhat reformed but no less dismal, ghetto offers its own brand of darkness to the newcomers who have barely managed to escape the clutches of the concentration camp.

Roth’s concentration camp did not yet fly a Nazi flag—he was writing a good six years before Hitler took power in Germany—but the direction was clear enough to him. “The ones who emigrate,” Roth continues, “are those who have wearied of the petty but unremitting struggle.” They “are wanderers by instinct,” he notes, clarifying that they “have no home anywhere, but their graves may be found in every cemetery.” Then he makes a chilling prophecy: “There is a historical feeling, based on plentiful experience, that the Jews will be the first victims in the event of a bloodbath.”

Roth—like anyone even minimally informed about the political aims and ambitions of the Jews in the century prior to his writing—knew that the Jewish response to being the perpetual victims of repeated European massacres was to go back to the only place they had ever called home. That did not mean he liked the idea.

As he saw the situation, Jews “began to agitate for rights and freedoms as a nation before they had been accorded even the most basic ones as humans.” As someone who had put his own life on the line for the honor and legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was no fan of nation-states, the ambitions of which had ripped apart the social order he had known. He vented his frustration back on his own people, arguing that “even if the Jews were to succeed in acquiring all the rights of a ‘national minority’…it would still beg the greater question of whether…they are not renouncing far more important claims.” Revealing everything he loathed about the life of nations, he expressed the hope that his people would be spared a nation of their own:

The era of “national history” and “patriotic studies” lies way back in the Jewish past. Jews patrolled and defended their own borders; conquered cities; crowned kings; paid taxes; were subjects; had “enemies”; were taken prisoner; dabbled in global politics; brought down cabinet ministers; had a kind of university, with professors and students; a stuck-up caste of priests, wealth and poverty, prostitution, ownership and penury, masters and slaves. Do they want all that again?

But if “all that” offended Roth’s particular brand of idealism, the question other Jews in his time were asking was why they should not be able to experience these social ills and riches on their own terms. This was social order itself, as it existed in every place on the planet. Jews would sometimes benefit from it, and sometimes be its victims, but it would exist regardless of where they lived and what part of the world they might control as a nation.

Though Roth did not care for this bitter reality, he was pragmatic enough to see that it was the only way forward for a people with few options. “It is surely better to be a nation than to be maltreated by one,” he admits. “But it’s a painful necessity nonetheless.” He adds that “in these circumstances Zionism is really the only way out: If one must be patriotic, then at least let it be for a country of one’s own.” This is not the Zionism of the handsome new Jew with broad shoulders and dark skin tilling soil on a kibbutz. It is the Zionism of despair. It is a Zionism all too real and all too necessary.

By 1937, when Roth published a revised edition of The Wandering Jews, events in Germany underscored the urgency of his observations of the mid-1920s. “The Jew wanders from one Nuremberg Law to the next,” he writes in the preface to his revised edition:

He wanders—staggers, rather—into the fatuous hope: “It won’t be as bad as all that!”—and that hope is nothing but moral corruption. They stay, and at the same time they wander: It’s a kind of contortionism of which only the most desperate prisoners are capable. It is the prison of the Jews.… There is no counsel, no consolation, no hope.

Roth ends his 1937 preface with three conclusions he calls pessimistic: “Zionism can only bring a partial solution to the Jewish question.… Jews will only attain complete equality…once their ‘host-nations’ have attained their own inner freedom.… It is—failing some divine intervention—hardly possible to believe that the host nations will find such freedom.” Since the third and second conclusions canceled each other out, the first was, even if partial, the only workable solution left.

The Wandering Jew was the Jew with the problem of the self—the one who needed little more than to go somewhere and do something in order to live a life worth living. And many Jews, it seemed, chose the nation-state that came into being, not out of ideology but for the simple reason that it offered just a little more humanity than any other possibility. It was the only place on the planet they could even consider calling home. Was it perfect? Certainly not. But who’s perfect? And, as Roth’s conclusions suggested, the only solution to the Jewish problem was a partial one, because any final solution was always going to be a new attempt to create a world with no Jews at all.


* * *


Roth reconfirmed, as a Jew, all the things that had been said about Jews and their wandering, but from the perspective of a journalist who had gone out and reported on them. Albert Londres, who was not Jewish but French, did something similar, going even further than Roth and making it all the way to Palestine to see what the Jews there were all about.

Londres, like Roth, was direct: “The Jewish problem is complicated,” he writes in The Wandering Jew Has Arrived (1930), “but I think it can be summed up in a single question about air: to breathe or not to breathe. No more, no less.” It is a matter of life and death—as it was for Emma Lazarus.

Londres also understood that the Jewish ghetto, for all its filth and backwardness, served as a safe space for Jews. “It was their refuge,” he explains, adding, “There, they forgot the insults; there the stings of the whiplashes were able to heal.… In this way, they reconstructed, in thousands of fragments, the homeland they had lost.” As he begins his trip from Paris into the wilds of Eastern Europe, up into the angled Carpathian Mountains, where Jews lived in squalor, he recapitulates the deep schism that exists between Jewish consciousness in Europe and the European attitude toward Jews. “Laugh in their faces,” he says, “pack them in special wagons, prohibit them from owning land—but do not touch their Sabbath, or their Torah, or their curls.” He may not be Jewish, but Londres knows that, in the Jewish heart and mind, there is nothing more holy, sacred, or lofty than the commitment to continuity.

In the Marmarosh Mountains, Londres finds the physical incarnation of the Wandering Jew. In the middle of winter, on the snow-covered mountainsides of present-day Ukraine, he finally meets his Wandering Jew—whom he identifies as a tzaddik, a righteous man:

When I noticed the eternal Jew on the snow slopes, I did not think that he was selling pencils and candles but that he was walking toward Jerusalem. I told him so. He immediately took me for a halutz, a pioneer, a laborer of Palestine—meaning, a nonbeliever, a denigrator of prophecies. He answered that he loved and feared God. I returned to the issue of Jerusalem. He answered that the time had not yet come. I asked him from where he derived his certitude. He answered, “From the tzaddik.” And from where did the tzaddik derive his? He answered that the tzaddik of Vizhnitz spoke to God as well as to the prophet Elijah and that, when the time of the return came, one or the other would certainly let it be known to the tzaddik.

Reading these words, I was filled with a kind of satisfaction tinged with regret, because I realized that this meant my investigation was coming to an end. Here was true testimony from a real wandering Jew, and though Londres gave his account with a healthy dose of irony, he did not realize how tragic it was. Rabbi Yisroel Hager, the holy Vizhnitz rabbi to whom the man on the slope had referred, once said, “I would very much like to travel to the Holy City of Jerusalem, but due to the ‘Zionists’ I will not go, even if I would lock myself in my room and avoid any contact with them.” He died in 1936, and his son, Rabbi Chaim Meir Hager, heeded his father’s word, moving neither himself nor his community to Palestine. Most of the Vizhnitz Hasidim perished in the Holocaust. Having survived, the holy rabbi’s son then made the move his father had prohibited, moving to Bnei Brak, a neighborhood not far from Tel Aviv, where he built a new community made up of people who had left before the war as well as those who arrived afterward—one of several religious leaders who turned a small village into a global center of ultraorthodoxy. Still, the younger Vizhnitz rabbi did not not totally ignore his father’s words. He had not moved to Jerusalem.

Londres’s Wandering Jew had heeded the rabbi of his day and continued his path up the mountain selling pencils and looking for a future in which he and his small family could live out their lives simply as Jews. “We left the Wandering Jew,” Londres writes, “climbing an entirely white mountainside. I watched him for a long time. His back bent, his double horse pouch over his meager shoulder, solitary, he resumed his journey, loving and fearing God.” Londres had given me the clearest vision of the Wandering Jew of my entire investigation. This was not a cursed personage forced to roam the earth for all time. It was a figure who lived his individual destiny in constant reference to his collective history—to his people. It was an individual who was also a people at one and the same time.


* * *


Londres’s Wandering Jew goes off into the snowy mountains, but Londres himself follows a different path, taking a ship to Palestine to see the desert reality in which Jews are building a new future for their people.

The only problem, he reports, is that there is already a people on the land who call it home. And while, according to them, they have no problem living with Jews, it does not mean they agree to live in any place the Jews might make their national home. It is not the Jews who are the problem. It is their desire to claim the land as their land—a desire that will unleash a conflict that will eventually develop into a new version of the Jewish question.

After Londres returned to Paris, in mid-1929, the conflict heated up so much that, on hearing of the riots and massacres of Jews that had occurred that August, he went back to investigate.

The conflict, as he frames it, has several roots. The first and main one is the masses of Jews returning to what they consider their homeland. You might think that two peoples who claimed the same land as their home, and who had both been subjects of other empires or nations for centuries, could work out a compromise in which each got what it needed—and still makes room for the other. But animosity grows where differences emerge, and here is where things begin to fall apart, especially as the two national movements increasingly diverged in their presumptions. And who was to blame? In Londres’s eyes, it was the British.

“If victory fell to the British,” he explains, recapping the history of World War I, “they promised to establish an Arab kingdom, a great kingdom as magnificent as the legend. Victory came. England puffed its cheeks and exhaled. The Arab kingdom vanished. Israel took its place.” Evidently, the British Empire had been playing a double game, and the Jews, a minority in Palestine at the time, were left to pay for the empire’s broken promises. Londres continues:

The more the situation of the Jews improved in Palestine, the more the feudal privileges of the Arab chieftains came under threat. The time had come to halt the “Jewish invasion.” To achieve this, the chieftains had to incite the fellahs (serfs), whom the Jews, in their daily lives, did not trouble too much. False rumors had already begun to do their work. As in the Middle Ages, the Jews were accused of spreading horrible diseases. Rumor had it that they were distributing poisoned sweets and fruit to Muslim children. And was it not being said that they were attacking veiled women? But the evidence was lacking. Religious fanaticism was enough to arouse the masses.

As Londres writes, “Doctored postcards depicting the Zionist flag flying over the Mosque of Omar passed from hand to hand.” The issue was turned into a religious war. Jewish nationalists paraded through the Old City of Jerusalem to the Wailing Wall carrying the blue-and-white flag they hoped would one day represent their nation. The provocation hit a raw nerve, and an uprising began. Yet the Jews who were targeted were not those fighting for national independence. They were whoever happened to be at hand. “On August 23,” Londres reports, “the day of the grand mufti, the throats of two Talmud students are slit. They were not making political speeches, their eyes were searching for Mount Sinai, in the hope of discovering the shadow of God.” The political and the religious merge. This is not enlightened Europe. It is the Middle East.

Londres joins a meeting of Arab clerical leaders—five Muslim and five Christian—in which recent events are discussed and a common position is worked out. The representative speaker is Sheikh Monafar:

The land of Palestine is an Arab country; the Arabs were in this country for many years before the Jews.… The Jews, in the course of history, accidentally occupied a few corners of Palestine but never all of it! And during their reign, what did they create? They left nothing in the form of civilization. And what signs remain of their rule? A mosaic! The Romans drove them away. They left. And no trace of them remained. That’s about it for the ancient past. Five hundred sixty years later, Islam triumphed. Our ancestors retook the land and returned it to its ancient nationality. Since then, we have lived in our own home.

Londres prods Sheikh Monafar, pointing out that Palestine had been occupied by the Ottoman Empire, to which the Sheikh replies, “We were as though among our own.” Occupation by Muslims, it seems, is not the same as occupation by Jews. And as Sheikh Monafar points out, even under the Turks, the Arabs tried to attain greater independence. “One can say, I believe, that we represent a national home,” he concludes. “But in recompense, Lord Balfour sends us the Jews to build a national home here as well. A national home in another national home—that’s war!”

There was war. And the Jews retained control of the land. But this related less directly to my investigation than the notion that, for Sheikh Monafar, the Jews had always been wanderers. They had never belonged to the land they claimed to be their home. They had come and gone like the wind.

Still, as Londres notes, “The Wandering Jew reached the land of Palestine.” Yet questions remain about what will happen next:

In Palestine, their pride is satisfied. They have won the right to be villains or geniuses without ceasing to be Jews.… And the massacres? Yes, they would have represented a major challenge for a people used to peace. But for them.… Live, then, Jews! From massacre to massacre.

It seemed there was no solution to what Londres called “the drama of the Jewish race.” There was no way ever to resolve the prejudices Jews evoked in others. In Londres’s words, “A thick layer of hatred covers them like stone, in perpetuity!” But that did not make them angels either. “Your restless, impassioned spirit,” Londres wrote, “brushed aside twenty centuries with a flip of the mind.” He was right. All that wandering, all those millennia of oppression, were all thrown off in a single moment of ecstatic self-affirmation that blinded Jews to the fact that others also existed.

So Jews were not perfect. Suffering had not made them better than any other nation. Was that a mortal crime? Had the ancient accusation of a sin against the savior of humankind been replaced by a modern crime against humanity? I wasn’t sure. But I sensed that there was something that still evaded my attention.

I went back to Londres, to his travels through Europe, and noticed a person I had previously taken for granted: Ben, his Jewish travel partner, who had helped him communicate with everyone he met along the way. This is what Ben had to say:

Religious Jews wait for the Messiah. Assimilated Jews become lords in England or deputies in France. The Zionists are living out their dream. But we, the deserters of the ghetto? We are the real wandering Jews.

I had finally found a Jew who called himself a wanderer. Not one who was designated so by others, but one who used the term to describe his own existential state. I also saw that Ben had a totally different vision of the figure from any that had ever existed. “Every nation has its own image,” he tells Londres, adding, “The image of the Jewish people should be Cubist: arms on one side, head on the other, legs in a corner and trunk missing!” For Ben, it was not that all Jews were wanderers. It was that the Wandering Jew, as a figure, was all the Jews who had ever existed—with all the complications and confusions and ambitions and prophecies and sins that had populated the minds and hearts of the Jewish nation.

Then I understood what had been happening all along. It had been a sophisticated setup, and I had almost fallen fully into the trap. But as soon as I realized it, I turned around, leaving the whole investigation behind, and went back to my office. I had not set off on this impossible assignment on my own—at least not only on my own. I knew exactly who had reported the original sightings of the Wandering Jew that set me off on my inquiry. I decided to let it be known that I was no fool.


* * *


There were many times in my investigation when I was almost ready to say I had found the Wandering Jew. But something always held me back. It was not because I was unsure of my findings. It was because being sure itself became questionable. I had looked at enough sources to know that the people who were most sure of their ideas were often also those who were most harmful to others. And I was determined not to cause further harm in carrying out my inquiry.

But now I was so sure of what had happened that I did not hesitate when I walked into my office and found the Wandering Jew sitting at my desk.

“You’re here,” I said.

“You knew I would be,” he answered, smiling a little sadly and a little bitterly, as if he found no satisfaction in the game he had played so well.

“What took you so long?” he asked.

“I had to make sure I was right.”

“And are you sure now?”

“I’m sure enough,” I said. “But there’s still one thing I haven’t figured out.”

“Which is?”

“Why bother sending me to look for you when you know I’ll come back with nothing in hand?”

The Wandering Jew smiled again, in that same sad and bitter way, waiting a minute or two before answering. Then he said, “I wouldn’t say you returned with nothing. You discovered a lot.”

“Nothing you didn’t know.”

“I knew it all, sure, but I didn’t see it quite the way you did. I’m a Jew—I’m the Jew—so I don’t have the distance you have. The aloofness. The nonchalance of someone who is out only to fulfill his assignment and who then goes on to the next case. I’ve lived with my mystery for an eternity. And I will live with it for many more eternities. I myself no longer know who I am—a mystic, a saint, a sage? A nationalist, an assimilationist, a socialist, a capitalist? An agriculturist, an industrialist? Who am I to say who I am? I represent every Jew who has ever lived and who will ever live. So how do I choose one version of myself over another?”

“In my book, you decide who you are, and you do your best to be that person.”

“Yes, in your book,” he said. “But your book always has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Mine begins with the formation of the universe—from the contraction of the Creator’s light and the birth of the earth—and ends with the resurrection of the dead in a world where all nations will unite as one.”

“Sound like a hell of a book. It even sounds like you know how it will end. What else do you need?”

“I have no way of knowing where I am in the story at any given moment.”

“You want page numbers?”

“At least chapters…”

“It sounds like you want clarity.”

“Clarity is for the blind. I want peace. But as a Jew, all I get is a vision of peaceyeruh-shalem—embedded forever in my heart as the holy city of Jerusalem. I’ve been cursed to envision peace without ever experiencing it myself. It’s a torturous vision that shows me everything that could be and that I, as the representative of my people, still lack so badly.”

“Seems to me,” I said, “like a vision of peace is a good start. It can help show you the path you need to take.”

“You’d think so,” said the Wandering Jew. “But all it does is make me feel worse and worse.”

“About what?”

“About all the things I know we should do—but can’t. There are so many ways the world could be a better place. But look around—all you see is more violence, more hatred, more killing. The ’drama’ of the Jews as your friend Londres called it, is the drama of humanity itself. A struggle that never ends. A constant battle for resources and power, for a place to call home.”

“Everyone wants a home,” I said.

“But not everyone gets one,” he answered. “And that’s the point, my friend—we have been homeless for thousands of years, and our only way to create a home has left us wronging others.”

“None of that is your personal fault,” I told him. “Why get all bent out of shape by something that’s so much bigger than you?”

“Because people say that it is my fault. They blame me personally for everything that happens around me—they single me out for wrongs that are perpetuated the world over. And I have to tell you the truth, I start to wonder whether they’re right, whether I am to blame. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if someone like me could take responsibility for everyone else’s sins?”

I sighed.

“Someone already tried that,” I said. “And it has helped a lot of people on an individual level. But it hasn’t rid the world of violence.”

“So what’s left?” he asked. “More wandering?”

“You do have a home now.”

“A home that’s someone else’s home, too.”

“We don’t get to pick our home,” I said. “You take what you can get, and you do your best to share it with whoever else happens to live there.”

“But I’ve been wandering for so long, I’m not sure I know how to stop.”

“So keep wandering—but do it at home.”

“Is that possible?”

“It doesn’t have to be possible. It can even be impossible. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true. You have an impossible reality. So what? Plenty of people live in impossible realities all the time. Why should you be any different?”

“I’m not one person,” said the Wandering Jew. “I’m all my people. Can we all, as a people, live in an impossible reality?”

“I guess the proof is in the pudding.”

He snickered.

“I don’t understand you,” he said. “You’re an investigator. You figure things out, things other people aren’t sharp enough to put together. You uncover what other people don’t know, what they’re hiding, what they really think behind their façade of indifference. You’re a sharp guy.”

“It’s not about being sharp,” I said. “It’s about paying attention.”

“Fine,” he said. “And I can see that you’ve given this case plenty of attention. You’ve even found the Wandering Jew. And now, after all this, you tell me that I should keep living the way I’ve lived for millennia? That I should just do my best? What kind of advice is that?”

“I don’t give advice,” I said. “I settle scores. You planted sightings of yourself so that I would go out looking for you—and I found you. But I don’t like playing games. And I don’t like being played. So I’m telling you to go home. Because you’re wasting my time—and yours.”

“Your time, my time, it’s all a single time, all paid for by the immemorial Creator in the heavens.”

“Listen, not all of us want to live in a constant paradox, you know? Some of us just want to be the simple people we are, with our simple thoughts, living our simple lives on simple streets, and with our simple understandings of reality.”

Simple,” repeated the Wandering Jew, saying the word more like a question than an answer. “Yes,” he continued, “it’s simple enough. I’ll keep living in my impossible reality, and you’ll go back to the simplicity of your office, which is already yours. If only living in the world were as simple as that…”

The Wandering Jew got up and left—just like that—without another word. I finally had my office to myself again. I sat at my desk and settled back into my chair. But something did not feel right. “Maybe the Wandering Jew moved something around,” I thought. “Maybe he changed something in my office.” But, no, everything was exactly as I had left it when I’d started my investigation.

Yet there was something in the air. Something different. The Wandering Jew had come and gone—but, somehow, I sensed that things would never be the same again.