What's Jewish and Has Rubbery Purplish-Red Leaves?

How Wandering Jew Got Its (Unpleasant-Sounding) Name

Call Me a Wandering Jew: Tradescantia zebrina’s more common name relates back to an old Christian legend that first cropped up in Europe in the 13th century.
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Call Me a Wandering Jew: Tradescantia zebrina’s more common name relates back to an old Christian legend that first cropped up in Europe in the 13th century.

By Philologos

Published March 10, 2013, issue of March 15, 2013.
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What’s purple, crawls without legs, and is of the Mosaic persuasion? I hope you give up, because if you’re still trying to guess, I shouldn’t be telling you that it’s a Wandering Jew.

Where mine originally came from, I have no idea. I only know that it’s been in my garden for a long time, growing in pots that I’ve stuck it in and in a few places where I haven’t.

I didn’t get it as a gift and I certainly didn’t buy it, because what nursery would bother to sell a plant any leaf of which, particularly if attached to a bit of stem, will start growing almost anywhere by itself? As far as I can tell, it simply wandered in from somewhere and stayed.

Its official name is Tradescantia zebrina, which doesn’t sound very Jewish, and it doesn’t look very Jewish, either. It has elongated, thick, purplish-red leaves of a rubbery consistency that grow on a similarly colored, creeping stem, which is so delicate that it breaks in two if you do much more than look at it crossly.

If in contact with moist earth, the broken-off part will then begin to root — which doesn’t in itself explain how Wandering Jew gets very far. My own guess is that it’s helped by disgusted gardeners who, tired of seeing it self-amputate every time they brush against it, pick up the fallen segments and fling them, angrily, as far as they can.

Does this sound a little like history’s repeated banishments of the Jews and of the ease with which they have settled down in new places until banished again?

If it does, that’s no coincidence, the connecting link between Jewish history and Tradescantia zebrina being the old Christian legend of “the wandering Jew” that first cropped up in Europe in the 13th century.

Probably the earliest version of it can be found in the Englishman Roger of Wendover’s “Flores Historiarum” (c. 1228), which relates how the author met a visiting archbishop from Armenia who told him the following story: “Cartaphilus, a porter of the hall in [Pontius] Pilate’s service, as Jesus was going out of the door [on the way to his crucifixion], impiously struck him on the back with his hand and said in mockery, ‘Go quicker, Jesus, go quicker! Why do you loiter?’

And Jesus, looking back on him with a severe countenance, said to him, ‘I am going, and you will wait till I return.’


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