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.