Wandering Jew

Wandering Jew

In Brief

Jews may aptly be called "wanderers on the earth," as Deasy does (Bloom too thinks that they have "Wandered far away over all the earth"), because for three thousand years their history as a people has been defined by expulsion, exile, and yearning for a homeland. Deasy is also thinking of the legendary figure of the "wandering jew" who, because he "sinned against the light" (by taunting Christ on the way to the crucifixion, or striking him, or denying his divinity), was condemned by God to wander the earth until the second coming of Christ at the end of time. This mythical figure was sometimes identified as a man named Ahasuerus, a bit of lore that shows up in the Citizen's mouth when he reviles Bloom in Cyclops: "Ahasuerus I call him. Cursed by God."

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In Calypso Bloom accurately thinks of his people living from "captivity to captivity." Jewish national identity begins in Exodus with the twelve tribes of Israel living as slaves in Egypt in the second millennium BCE and being delivered from their bondage by Moses, who leads them back to their ancestral homeland. The second part of Kings records another captivity, when the Assyrian empire in the 8th century BCE conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and resettled some thousands of Samarians, who became known as the Ten Lost Tribes, in northern Mesopotamia.

A still more culturally resonant exile, addressed in many books of the Hebrew Bible, occurred in the 6th century BCE when the Babylonians of southern Mesopotamia grew in power, conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the First Temple, and deported many thousands of Judeans to Babylon. When the Persians ruler Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians, he allowed the Hebrews to return to the land of Israel and build the Second Temple in Jerusalem. But in the first century AD, the Romans again destroyed the temple and again drove the Jews out of their homeland.

These disastrous encounters with the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Roman empires were followed by the long European diaspora with its history of racial discriminations, persecutions, massacres, and explusions, including Spain's exile of all its remaining unconverted Jews at the end of the 15th century. Most of these Spanish Jews went to north Africa, where they did not encounter markedly better treatment. In Cyclops Bloom complains that Jews are "At this very moment . . . sold by auction in Morocco like slaves or cattle." Gifford says of this that "Jews were not technically slaves in Morocco in 1904, but the Moslem majority did subject them to 'compulsory service'; both men and women were compelled to do all servile tasks, even on the Sabbath and holy days, and these services could apparently be bought and sold in the Moslem community."

The legend of the Wandering Jew goes far back in medieval history and even has antecedents in late antiquity, when certain Christian writers described the diasporic Jews as "a new Cain," condemned to be "fugitives and wanderers upon the earth" as a result of their criminal betrayal of Christ. This history is well detailed in Salo Wittmayer Baron's A Social and Religious History of the Jews: Citizen or Alien Conjurer (Columbia UP, 1967). By the 13th century, stories of an immortal Jew who had spoken to Jesus were widespread in Europe, and from the 14th century to the present day this figure has appeared in many different works of literature.

Mulligan mockingly calls Bloom "The wandering jew" in Scylla and Charybdis, explicitly introducing this analogue into Joyce's story about a peripatetic Jewish protagonist, and the Citizen's execration of Ahasuerus makes clear the religious condemnation implicit in the figure. Circe too plays on the anti-Semitic resonances, linking Bloom with the far less acceptably Jewish Reuben J. Dodd: "Reuben J Antichrist, wandering jew, a clutching hand open on his spine, stumps forward. Across his loins is slung a pilgrim's wallet from which protrude promissory notes and dishonoured bills." But Oxen of the Sun uses kinder language to present the same mythical figure: "Of Israel's folk was that man that on earth wandering far had fared.

Moses too was a wandering Jew, and his frequent association with Bloom joins in the recuperative work of bringing positive qualities to this mythic figure. In Aeolus Moses appears as a Jewish leader whose rousing call to national identity symbolically figures Ireland's own longing for the restoration of its homeland. Joined with the nostos theme of Homer's Odyssey, Moses gives homelessness a good name.

The verb "wander" recurs incessantly in this novel. On Christian lips it is charged with moral opprobrium, attached to souls who lack a spiritual center in God: "by the power of God thrust Satan down to hell and with him those other wicked spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls" (Hades); "And careworn hearts were there and toilers for their daily bread and many who had erred and wandered, their eyes wet with contrition" (Nausicaa); "for him too a word of pardon even though he had erred and sinned and wandered" (Nausicaa); "Thrust syphilis down to hell and with him those other licensed spirits. Time, gents! Who wander through the world" (Oxen of the Sun). But when it enters the orbit of Bloom, "that vigilant wanderer" (Oxen of the Sun), and Stephen, "wandering Ængus of the birds," the word gathers positive associations from minds devoted to exploring the varieties of experience.

JH 2017
The Wandering Jew, by Gustave Doré. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Map by Joelholdsworth showing successive deportations of members of the ten northern tribes by the Assyrians. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonian rule, in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Inhabitants of Jerusalem going to captivity in Babylon, in James Tissot's The Flight of the Prisoners, gouache on board painting ca. 1896-1902 held in the Jewish Museum, New York. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
2010 map by Ecelan showing expulsions of Jewish populations from various parts of Europe from 1100 to 1600. Source: Wikimedia Commons.