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.
Wikimedia Commons
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.’


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.