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

(page 2 of 2)

And according as our Lord [Jesus] said, this Cartaphilus is still awaiting his return. At the time of our Lord’s suffering he was 30 years old, and when he attains the age of a hundred years, he always returns to the same age as he was when our Lord suffered…. He is a man of holy conversation and religious, a man of few words and circumspect in his behavior, for he does not speak at all unless when questioned by the bishops and religious men; and then he tells of the events of old times and of the events which occurred at the suffering and resurrection of our Lord.”

In Roger of Wendover’s version, the oddly named Cartaphilus, also known as Joseph, does not wander, but simply lives forever while awaiting Jesus’ second coming. Nor, despite his affront to Jesus, is he depicted negatively, having repented of his deed and become a pious Christian.

Yet in many of the dozens of later versions of the story that occur in European folklore and literature, Joseph — also called Ahasuerus, Mattathias and Isaac Laquedem (a French garbling of the Hebrew for “Ancient Isaac”) — is portrayed, sometimes anti-Semitically, as a wretched outcast driven from place to place in eternal punishment for mocking Jesus on his way to the cross.

This image of him undoubtedly owed something to the repeated expulsion of the Jews from various European countries in the Middle Ages, and actual sightings of the poor fellow in person, his long white beard trailing to the ground as he strode doggedly onward with his walking stick, were reported over the centuries.

Just when “Wandering Jew” became a name for Tradescantia zebrina, or in what language this first happened (the plant is also known as juif errant in French, hebreo errante in Italian, judío errante in Spanish and ewiger Jude in German), is not very clear.

Since Tradescantia zebrina’s native grounds are in Mexico, this couldn’t have been before the first arrival of New World plants in Europe in the 16th century, but it may have been much later. The earliest documented botanical uses of “Wandering Jew” in English date to the 1880s but refer to two unrelated species: Linaria cymbalaria or ivy-leaved toadflax, and Saxifraga stolonifera or creeping rockfoil, both also rapidly spreading ground-huggers. Plant names, it would seem, have a way of wandering, too.

Should we be complaining to the Anti-Defamation League about “Wandering Jew” or campaigning to have it called by one of its other English names, such as Purple Queen or Purple Heart? I think not.

It’s a very pretty plant, especially when hanging in richly hued tresses from a tall pot, and in these days of fierce arguments about who is a Jew, I suggest we keep Tradescantia zebrina out of it.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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!
  • 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.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • 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.