‘Witness of time’

‘Witness of time’

In this painting by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1805-1874), “The Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus,” the Wandering Jew, at the bottom left, is running away from the pursuing demons.

The Wandering Jew is not a very appealing figure.

He’s disheveled, he’s not too clean, his shoes have holes, and his hair and beard are foul. He looks like he smells bad.

He is a mythic character, first created by Christians who said that he was present at Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, so he’s about 2,000 years old, give or take.

He is thought to have been a shoemaker, and he is charged with having refused to give Jesus a place to rest on his way to his death. “Jesus says, ‘Because you have not given me a moment to rest, you will walk the land forever,'” Dr. Richard I. Cohen said.

Dr. Richard I. Cohen

Dr. Cohen, a professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who is spending this year at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Advanced Jewish Studies, is an expert on the Wandering Jew. He will talk about the mythic figure at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck on Tuesday night.

The Wandering Jew seems to have surfaced first in the 13th century, in Europe, so even by that count he’s at least 700 years old. His visual representation comes from a Christian understanding of Jews. He (and this is not sexism, this figure almost always is an old man) has a long beard, a cane, and a small purse, usually holding five pennies; he often has a sack slung over his shoulder, and it is clear, from the torn shoes, from the tatters, from the hints of motion, that he has been walking. His walk will continue forever.

He is, in a sense, a true descendant of Cain, doomed forever to roam; he never will die and he never will rest.

But, according to Dr. Cohen, the figure of the Wandering Jew has changed over time, as he constantly is reinterpreted by the world and seen through the world’s ever-changing filters.

For just one example, one of Sigmund Freud’s teachers, Jean-Martin Charcot, a famous neurologist whose work was seminal in his field, collaborated with a colleague, Henri Miege, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the Wandering Jew; the character was considered to display a form of hysteria. “Here you can see a very clear way of medicine dealing with it,” Dr. Cohen said.

Musicians also have taken on the Wandering Jew; so too has horticulture. “Think about the plant called the Wandering Jew,” Dr. Cohen said. “Think of the notion of a plant that goes off in all different directions.”

Because the Wandering Jew has seen the mystery that is at the heart of Christianity, his own mystery appeals to the Christian world, just as his unmistakable otherness repels. The outside world “wants to know what secret he holds,” Dr. Cohen said. And so the Wandering Jew “is used by poets, by artists, by literary figures” to investigate those secrets. “There is a great interest in this figure, someone who is entering into a new society.”

Gustave Dore made many images of the wanderer – some of them anti-Semitic, Dr. Cohen said – and Keats, Shelley, and other Romantic poets wrote about him. “It keeps coming up in Polish and Russian literature, as well.”

One of the Wandering Jew’s attributes is that “he can speak all languages. He can come into Hungary, or Serbia, and speak the language.” That means that he can talk to the people who live there, tell them the secrets he has learned, or hold those secrets to himself.

“Look at Dore’s Wandering Jew,” he said. “This figure is contrapuntal with Christ going to Calvary. He emerges through shipwreck and storm. He’s a witness of time. He has seen something that everybody wants to have seen.”

The Wandering Jew seems to appear most frequently at times of stress. It is likely that his debut in the Middle Ages had to do with Europeans’ fear of a Mongol invasion. He became popular in French imagery in the 19th century. “Almost as popular as Napoleon,” Dr. Cohen said. Why? “It could be associated with internal developments within French society then, and with the breakdown of the church.”

And Jews have investigated the figure as well, creating “a distinct interaction between the reality of the Jews and the mythic notion of Jews as wanderers.”

Menashe Ben Israel, a 17th century rabbi and founder of the first Hebrew-language printing press, whose own life was, among many other things, a study in wandering, used an image of the Wandering Jew on the covers of his books, as if for branding.

When Dr. Cohen speaks on Tuesday, he will concentrate on the modern period.

“From about the middle of the 19th century, Jewish interpreters – artists, mainly, and some literary figures – began to think about the Wandering Jew in their own context,” he said. “In Polish Jewish art, you have very interesting depictions.

“At the end of the 19th century, when Jews are moving out of eastern Europe, when the issue of wandering became very important, Polish Jews pick up this figure.”

Their underlying concern, he said, was once they accepted that, yes, they had to go away, the question was, “where do you wander to?”

“In one profound case, you can see a Christ-like figure emerging from a forest. The interpretation is that the Wandering Jew has been able to emerge from the historical evolution of the lachrymose history of the Jews. He is emerging into the sun, into some kind of revitalization.”

Marc Chagall “is constantly concerned with this wandering figure,” Dr. Cohen continued. And R.J. Kitaj, a well-known American Jewish artist who died in 2007, “has several images of the Wandering Jew that are just remarkable. Sometimes he just called him the Rider. Kitaj is making associations with the history of the Jews.

“What is very engaging about this figure is that it is very constant over time,” he said. “Nothing has brought this figure to rest. Even in modern-day Israel, there are artists who have picked up the notion of the Wandering Jew, and they are trying to understand it in terms of Israel.

“Is Israel the end of the wandering?”

Who: Professor Richard I. Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

What: Will deliver the annual Buchman Lecture on the Visual Arts

When: Tuesday, May 13, at 7:45 p.m.

Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck

Why: To look at the image of the Wandering Jew, particularly in the modern period.

For more information: Call the shul at (201) 833-2620

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