17 July

Tracking Down The “Wandering Jew.” He Challenges The Word Police To Think Before They “Send”

by Jon Katz

All my life, I’ve been curious to know the origins of the term “Wandering Jew.” As a Jew who is not observant, I’m used to people referring to my people in awkward and sometimes unsettling ways.

I can’t count the number of times people, including friends, referred to “jewing” somebody down when they bargained. I’ve even done it myself once or twice.

People have asked me why Jews killed Christ or confided that the holocaust was a hoax by the Rothschilds.

I met a Romanian immigrant who told me she kept her children indoors on Easter because she believes Jews hunt Christian children on Easter and drink their blood.

No, I said, I think that’s Jewish vampires.

Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene is reliably reported to have said in a 2018 Facebook Post that “Jewish space lasers or blue beams of light” were causing the California wildfires.

The post has since been deleted.

And more than one boss and colleague referred to me as a “wandering Jew” because I moved around a lot when I was a reporter.

I’ve heard the term a thousand times, but I never thought to track the origin down.

Last week, I went into a nursery to buy Maria a succulent I liked, and the woman behind the counter said, “oh, you should get her this Wandering Jew.”

I was startled because I had never seen one or heard the term used in a nursery.

It was an interesting plant with purplish flowers. “Why do they call it that?” I asked her, and she shrugged and wrapped it up for me. Maria loves it.

I figured I better do some research.

Here’s what I found: Within the Tradescantia genus, more than 75 herbaceous perennials are commonly referred to as wandering Jew plants or spiderwort.

No matter which variety one is drawn to, these plants are hardy, fast-growing, and low maintenance (unlike most Jews I know.)

Maria doesn’t know where the name comes from either. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be good. It wasn’t.

The “Wandering Jew” comes from a medieval European folk story about a mythical Jew who mocked Jesus and was condemned to wander the earth until the apocalypse.

In the 20th century, the term was picked up by the Nazis and used in their propaganda campaign against the Jews.

I was not offended when the nursery salesperson used the term for Maria’s plant. Nor was I offended by the many odd and poorly conceived references to Jews I hear all the time.

I mean, lighten up; if judging people cost money, we’d be living in a much better country.

I know this woman in the nursery,  she is very nice, and I’m sure she knows I’m Jewish; she’s seen my credit cards often enough.

I would not think of calling her a racist or an antisemite. I never heard racial or ethnic slurs in my house when I grew up; my parent never denigrated other kinds of people.

But it’s widespread in many households. Lots of people grew up hearing all kinds of slurs and putdowns.

I did say to the nursery clerk as I was leaving that some people might be distressed at the term “Wandering Jew.” They called them something else now, but I didn’t yet know what it was.

Oh, she said, thanks, she said she I didn’t know.  She certainly didn’t want to offend anybody. There were no Jews around her when she grew up, she explained, embarrassed. Well, I said, maybe that’s why they call them wandering Jews.

(Be careful, I thought, you could end up on CNN if anybody got a video.)

It’s effortless to say or write or otherwise express an insensitive thought about the growing number of Americans who compete to see themselves as victims.

Rather than politely or sensitively correcting people who stumble, they simply call them racist.

I don’t think I am a victim. This country has been good to my people and me, despite the dumb things I sometimes hear. They don’t make me a victim.

Countless Jews were.

The terms racism and insensitive fly around like chicken feathers in a henhouse. I wrote the other day about Maria coming into my office and cursing loudly about her sewing machine, giving her trouble. She was frustrated.

I wrote that she screamed “f—-,f—-,f—” at the top of her voice at least a dozen times.

Then she calmed down and walked out.  If you know Maria, you know how she lets out her negative energy on rare occasions.

Zinnia was shocked. I was not. Maria, I wrote, is half Sicilian and is not shy about revealing her emotions.

It was a matter of moments before the first “racist” accusation came sailing into my inbox. The second wrote that I was both “racist and insensitive.”

As an American of Sicilian origin, one wrote that she had suffered terribly from people joking about temperamental Sicilians and other stereotypes.

I know about stereotypes. All jews, blacks, women, Irish, Italians, Muslims, Chinese, and other Asians do. I’m sure I’m not getting them all.

These were not trolls but intelligent and seemingly articulate people. I should say a dozen Americans of Sicilian heritage immediately rushed to message me and say they saw no offense at all in what I wrote. Neither did Maria, who is the alleged Sicilian victim.

She thought the messages were silly.

Social media is a great gift for the people I call the “Word Police.” Millions of people live to correct, warn and judge other people, almost of whom they don’t know and will never meet.

The country could use a good sensitivity movement, especially in Washington.

But as a writer, I don’t like the Word Doctors. They rarely differentiate between humor, irony, insensitivity, and racism. There is a fascistic whiff about them to me.

They should never be in charge of our words.

I wish these people were with me when I went to the South in the late ’60s as a reporter and came across black people who had been murdered, lynched, raped, beaten, jailed for no reason, chased by mobs, shot by cops, segregated in poor neighborhoods, denied decent schooling and confined to the worst jobs for the least money.

I will never get over the things I saw, still, see and hear about, or doubt for one second that ours is a nation suffering still from systematic racism.

In my life, the real anti-semites didn’t talk about insensitivity; they went out and slaughtered as many Jews as they could find. In our yearning for victimhood, we are losing perspective.

I’m grateful the people messaging me didn’t see the charred bodies of Jews in concentration camps who were burned alive. Is that the same thing as dissing a sewing machine?

I believe Trumpism is largely a movement of victimization. Can we all be victims and survive as a nation?

I asked one of the young women who was outraged by my Sicilian comment about how lynching stacked up to joking about a funky sewing machine, but she did not, of course, answer me.

My own feelings are to go easy on calling people I don’t know racist or insensitive. I don’t do it. I hope I never do it.

People can’t be super vigilant every moment of their lives; they will stumble and step on their own feet.

Racism is an ugly thing to call anybody, and when I do it, I make sure to know what I am talking about, the malice,  confusion, or even insensitivity that caused me to react in that way.

It’s a horrible thing; it should not be diluted and trivialized by the Word Police and the ever-growing hordes of victims that make up the American political world, the Kingdom of the Perennially Pissed.

Beyond that, I didn’t start a blog so that rude and ill-informed people can tell me what words to use when I write. At the least, it’s obnoxious; at best is works to stifle the free exchange of words and thought.

In a democracy, that’s a big problem.

There is another message for me in this, and that is a theme I’ve been picking up on for some time now.

We need to be nicer to one another, less angry and judgemental, less willing to tell other people what to say and think, and practice empathy: we all make mistakes, we all stumble and fall.

It’s effortless to call somebody a racist while hiding behind an anonymous computer. It’s harder to explain that they might consider using different language; some remarks can hurt people.

It’s harder, but not that hard.





  1. Labeling a personality trait as an aspect of one’s race is racist. It is also insensitive. I was not playing any kind of victim. I was making a comment on what was an insensitive thing to say that clearly hurt another of your readers. I don’t know about the other person in that conversation, but I am not a young woman by any means amd I am very well aware of the horrible effects of widespread, wholesale racism. Words are powerful. Casual, offhand, seemingly innocent turns of phrase may seem like harmless fun to you, but can, and do, hurt others.

  2. The trouble with people is not that they don’t know but that they know so much that ain’t so.

    Josh Billings

  3. Thank you for your writings. I don’t understand the judgement of others but then there are a lot of thing I seem to not understand about this world. I am probably judgmental and racist myself and don’t even know it. Changing the name of beautiful plants because someone passed down a story seems a but ridiculous to me. I was called on saying the name of this very plant today and was read the “story” o f how it got it’s name. It’s just a beautiful zebra looking plant that is strong, agile and never gives up. Think it’s a very good name.

  4. The Wandering Jew Plant has been renamed The Wandering Dude – according to my friends who are into plants.

  5. I am a 75 year old gardener, whose mother was Southern Baptist and whose father was Jewish. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Rochester, NY, and have been considered Jewish by non-Jews and non-Jewish by Jews. Both groups can be unkind. But I am very fond of my Wandering Jew plant. It grows with very little encouragement, and puts down roots wherever it goes if you allow it to trail across the ground. When its base no longer nourishes it, and the plant begins to die from the base upward, I cut off the healthy pieces, put them in water, allow them to re-root, and start anew. I see it as a symbol of resilience and optimism, of the ability to adapt, to “make yourself a home” wherever you might be. My plant and I do more than survive; we grow back stronger after hardship and loss, and thrive in situations where others barely survive. There are worse things than being a Wandering Jew.

  6. Wow, what a coincidence. I was discussing my Tradescantia and its common name with a gardening friend just the other day. I’m Jewish, and when I casually referred to my plant at “the Wandering Jew”, I sensed her flinch. She is not Jewish, but she’s a sweet hearted soul who would never want to offend anybody, and to her – and a few other non-Jews I’ve observed over the years – the sound of the phrase made her uncomfortable in some undefinable way. I explained to her that I wasn’t offended, that I’ve heard the term all my life – and no, I didn’t know the story behind it either – that my Mom often used it to refer to anyone in the family who was late for dinner, on vacation, moving to another state, or the like. “Your cousin Sheldon? You mean the Wandering Jew? He’s moving again, this time to Pittsburgh, I hear.” This whole discussion with my friend got my curiosity up, so I hit Google, and found what you did. I’d known that the phrase referred to a character in an old story, but I’d thought it was something like the Flying Dutchman – some harmless folk tale or other. When I read about the cursed Jew at the Crucifixion, I must admit it made me just a tad queasy. I decided that when my Mom used the term in a humorous way, she was reclaiming it, the way that the LGBTQA+ community has reclaimed the word “queer”. Or maybe not. She’s not around for me to ask anymore. But that’s what I decided to think about it.

    I also found a nursery that had a really thoughtful and sensitive article on the subject, explaining why they’ve decided to refer to their Tradescantia as “the Wandering Dude” from now on. As for me, from now on, mine goes by Tradescantia. I think it’s a beautiful name, and it doesn’t make me feel queasy.

  7. Jon…
    A warning about Wandering Jew plants. They can propagate from cuttings and are invasive. In Houston, someone gave us a sprig for our yard’s ground cover. I liked the plant because it was attractive and hardy, but in a year, it had taken over everything. We needed to dig up everywhere it had gone.

    I believe we had the Tradescantia pallida, also called the “purple heart.” It is a warm weather plant, and where you are, it would need to be inside during the winter.

  8. “No matter which variety one is drawn to, these plants are hardy, fast-growing, and low maintenance (unlike most Jews I know.)” An understated and very funny line – I’ll need to borrow it one day!

  9. Wow! This hit home for me. Someone on Facebook made a comment about bringing a dog into a restaurant. He said “probably would get the most for it at a Chinese restaurant.” I don’t usually make comments on Facebook or reply to comments. I did this time. I called him on it. I said, “There’s no need for a comment like that. Let’s please be kind.”
    Should I have not said anything? Just let it slide? I thought I was just making the person aware of his words. And, sometimes words hurt people.
    I have apologized to the person and will be more aware in the future.
    Thank you, Jon.

    1. I think we have to be honest, Jeanne…you don’t sound nasty or angry to me..it was a pretty gross comment..

  10. Always assumed term came from the fact that Jewish people were unwanted and unwelcome and as a result wandered the world looking for a place were they could settle and live peacefully. This too….. the urgency I saw in the creation of Jewish state after WWII.

  11. It’s too bad the word “Jew” still carries a negative connotation. Maybe they should have named the plant a Wandering Hebrew. It sounds a little softer. A rose by any other name …

  12. Jon, I’m half Italian and no-one has ever held that against me although being privately adopted as a baby from the hospital, it’s not something I found out until I was fifty years of age and needing to know more of my medical history. My friends had no trouble relating to this information, given how my hands wave about in conversation. And how do the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene get off being in public office with the remarks she makes for the press. Or do public figures make these comments, as Trump does, for the sole purpose of attracting press attention to themselves. As to the Wandering Jew, thanks for the history lesson this morning.
    Sandy Proudfoot

  13. I always assumed (without any evidence) that the term was in reference to the biblical story in Exodus of the Jews wandering in the desert with Moses for 40 years before entering the promised land. I had no idea about the other references you cited. I will simply refer to my plants as Tradescantia species from now on.

  14. I was 18 years old when I met my first Jew. She was a wonderful girl. I have always wondered why the Jews are scorned. I’m no 79 years of age and still wondering. I have grown “wandering Jews” many times and have never thought of them as unlucky.

  15. Racism is a form of bigotry. Some s worse than others because of damage done from excluding people from social or educational opportunities (e.g., certain groups’ patriarchy, domination) to the worst physical & psychological torture of WwIi, the old south, … On and on.

    If you want to be “ironic” don’t do it with groups who have suffered, still suffering, FROM THEIR POINT OF VIEW. Your post lacks empathy

    You’re still trying to pick a fight. Your poshlost views have not changed; now you silence opposing viewpoints and libel the speaker.

    1. Nancy, some good points to think about. I don’t want to mislead you. I haven’t been castrated, and I am not looking to change who I am. I am just moving the blog towards being softer and gentler. If you saw my e-mail, you would see that this is already underway. It will happen.
      This is a good and healthy argument to have, and I don’t regret it. I want to have it.

      Hard for me to believe you read this blog if you think criticism is not allowed. What do you think you are doing here? It is not required of me to agree with everyone who criticizes me or love them for it. That is not useful or desired, and it is certainly not me.

      I can’t say the needlessly personal tone of your message helps either, but I am listening to it. Empathy is a personal and quite private thing. I don’t accept your qualifications to judge me on it.

      I remind you that my blog is a monologue, not a dialogue. I’m not looking to argue with people all day about what I wrote, nor am I interested in most criticism, which is too often nasty for its own sake or mindless. I don’t write to argue about it, that is a new idea out of social media. Generally, it sucks. You had something worthwhile to say in between the usual snarkiness, it was well worth sharing. I feel no pressure of any kind to post criticism because somebody wanted to feel powerful, the blog would be a cesspool, which was where it was tiptoeing.

      As always, if you find me and my blog so distasteful, I’m not sure why you are here unless you just like to call people names.

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