Legend of The Wandering Jew

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

“…angels are manifestations from God…they could be man-like, messengers, but they could also be physical forces, the energy that shapes babies in the womb or the pestilence that destroys a nation…There was a seventy-first angel, the Angel of Losses…who came into existence when ten of the twelve tribes of Israel were exiled…”

AngelLosses hc cIn Stephanie Feldman’s debut novel, Angel of Losses, folklore, ghost stories, and history all combine to tell the tale of a modern family whose future may be held hostage by their unknown past. Each night at bedtime, a grandfather would entertain his granddaughters with elaborate ghost stories involving magic men and angels, stories that the old man never fully explained. After his death, Eli’s granddaughter Marjorie discovers his notebooks filled with accounts that were supposed to be destroyed after his death. In those tales and through dreams in which her grandfather visits her, Marjorie uncovers her grandfather’s hidden past, a past that holds implications for her family’s present.

Feldman mixes legend, mystery, and history to create an intricate story that bridges yesterday and today. The one legend that links the others in the narrative is that of the Wandering Jew, traditionally identified as a bystander who taunted Christ before the crucifixion and is now cursed with immortality and forced to wander the earth in search of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Folklore tells us that the bystander told Jesus to “go on quicker”, to which Jesus replied, “I go; but thou shalt tarry till I come”. It was this narrative that served as the starting point for the author and was the topic that connects the author to her main character, Marjorie. Like Feldman, Marjorie is preoccupied by the legend of the Wandering Jew. Marjorie’s obsession with the topic shields her from painful issues in her own life, and it helps her feel closer to her beloved grandfather. Feldman takes the legend of the Wandering Jew, which is mistakenly thought of as a Jewish myth but is actually one with Christian roots, and places it in a Jewish context of her own making, established in Jewish legends both real and imaginary.

The story of the Wandering Jew is thought to have first spread throughout Europe around the 13th century, and various cultures have their own versions of the legend. In some incarnations, the man is a shoemaker; in some tellings he has various connections to Pontius Pilate. In German, he’s the “Ewige Jude” or immortal Jew, whereas French tradition focuses more on his wandering, referring to him as the “the Juif errant”. As Feldman explains, it’s the man’s immortality, not his wandering, that is his defining characteristic. Over time, the legend has taken on more of a Faustian “deal with the devil” quality, with the Wandering Jew being cursed to walk the earth forever until Jesus returns. Although most people naturally assume that the Wandering Jew originated as a metaphor for the diaspora, it has only been since the 18th century, when the legend became attached to the questions surrounding the independence of European Jews, that the association between the legend and the diaspora came into being. In Feldman’s novel, the Wandering Jew gains associations with other, more personal, struggles for Marjorie and her family.

Stephanie Feldman_ cr Sarah Miller PhotographyThe Wandering Jew has existed in many forms throughout literature as well as history,
beginning as early as the 17th century, predominantly in Germany, France, and England. In 1820, the gothic novel that first attracted Feldman to the legend, Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, was published in England. In this archetype, Melmoth makes a Faustian deal for an additional year of life and then, like the Wandering Jew, must find a person to replace him to release himself from the pact. The book represents not only a reimagining of the Wandering Jew myth, but is also a social commentary on the times, criticizing Roman Catholicism in favor of Protestantism. Maturin’s narrative had a large impact on many writers, not only Feldman. Nathaniel Hawthorne named one of his characters “Doctor Melmoth” in his work Fanshawe, Alexander Pushkin comments on Melmoth in his work Eugene Onegin, and Edgar Allen Poe mentions the “devil in Melmoth” in one of his poems.

The tale of the Wandering Jew has persisted across the centuries and is now the subject of countless plays, movies, and artworks, including a 2001 play by Glen Berger called Underneath the Lintel, the 1988 movie The Seventh Sign, and the painting The Eternal Jew by Samuel Hirszenberg now housed in the Israel Museum. The myth has been used for entertainment, education, and even, sadly, as an instrument of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda in 1940.

The Wandering Jew served as the inspiration for Feldman’s debut work, which centers upon the painful, often unexplained experiences each of us has in our own histories that still haunt us, even today. The feelings of loss, torment, and eternal suffering, embodied in the Wandering Jew tale and represented by the ghost stories and legends written down by Feldman’s character Eli, remind us that the past is never fully behind us. As with any enduring legend, however, the stories are more than simply tales of woe. Rather, they provide us with lessons to help us better navigate our present, just as they did for Marjorie.

About the contributor: Rebecca Henderson Palmer is an author, book reviewer, and blogger living in central Ohio. Rebecca is currently writing a two-book series centered upon Lady Margaret Beaufort, and you can find her online at rhendersonpalmer.com.

Posted by Claire Morris


  1. Mystica
    April 30, 2014

    I had not heard of this legend. I am intrigued.