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Wandering Jew

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

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One of my most pernicious narratives is that I am alone. This story is so deeply embedded yet, I know that, ironically, I am not alone in feeling this way. By sharing these words, and being vulnerable, I am acting with self-care, compassion and am reaching out to others.


To be alone is to feel as if you don’t belong. It is a feeling, a sense, of being disconnected, of being different, weird, other. These feelings of not belonging and of being alone come with a whole host of imagined thoughts - they wouldn’t want me there, I’m boring, I bet they are thinking X of me, they wouldn’t understand, they would think I was weak, no one loves me, no one cares…You’ll all have your own recurrent thoughts - I certainly have mine!


Thankfully, one benefit of being a rabbi is that it is my job to constantly look to my tradition, teachers and teachings for inspiration and to integrate that wisdom into my everyday and the community spaces I co-lead. And deep at the heart of what it is to be a Jew is to be a wanderer and to be someone who is or feels as if they are at the margins. ’Avram Ha-Ivri’ - Abram (later Abraham) the Hebrew is described as such in Genesis 14:13. The root of the word ’Ivri’ means - one who crosses over, the boundary crosser, the wanderer.


When I was at Leo Baeck College as a student rabbi I was taught by Rabbi Sheila Shulman (z”l) and Rabbi Judith Rosen-Berry. Their teachings have forever changed me. Particularly their exploration of the unheimlich nature of being a Jew. Unheimlich means not-at-homeness.* Whether it be our historical and geographical flights and persecution and continued exile, or a spiritual exile, or a personal one - to be Jewish is to be not-at-home. We perpetually seek home with our longing to get to the Promised Land but we remain, always in the wilderness.


Many have turned this aspect of being a wanderer, or being other, into a trope of hate against Jews. The image of the Wandering Jew was linked to the erroneous belief that Jews had killed Jesus and to the image of Cain, the murderer, wandering the earth as a criminal punishment for the murder of his brother. The picture of the plant above highlights this tension as its English name is ‘Wandering Jew’ and is now largely not used given its antisemitic connotations. (Its Latin name is tradescantia zebrina). Additionally, feeling as if you are a wanderer/different can be a form of self-hatred. It can drive us to further disconnection, isolation and sadness.


Yet being on the margins is something quite beautiful and powerful if we are able to step within it. We are afforded a priceless seat to observe and to be compassionate for we see injustice and justice clearly from this place, we see emotion and people’s personal experiences from our vantage point - on the edge. I would much rather be at the edge, with others, looking in, than in the centre with my gaze fixed right in front of me. There are many who stand at the edges with me through their own particular stories and those are my allies and friends. Hannah Arendt, the political theorist, calls this mode being a ‘conscious pariah - consciously being able to inhabit and activate our unheimlich nature to be able to bring about justice in our lives and our world. If we can find our ever-shifting home in the wilderness/on the edge we enter a world of abundance and love.


I draw so much comfort from this image of being a wanderer - knowing that if I turn myself away from my habitual stories of being alone and not belonging - towards, standing with others, as conscious pariahs - I am saved. To be human is to be obsessed with wanting to belong. To be a Jew is to question this longing and assumption that we can ever fully belong. To be a Jew is to see the beauty in the wilderness for it is a gift.** To be a Jew is to use our unheimlich nature for justice, for being strong allies where we are needed and to seek compassion for ourselves and others.


* This understanding of 'unheimlich' comes from Freud's work on the uncanny/‘not belonging to the home’ (p2 - Freud, S. (1919) The Uncanny. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Accessed on 07/11/18 at http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/freud1.pdf.).

This website unpacks the etymology of the term - of not being at home/heim which sits alongside the common translation of the word - meaning 'weird' etc. https://www.thelocal.de/20200825/unheimlich/https://www.thelocal.de/20200825/unheimlich/

* See Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 55a on Numbers 21:18-19 in this week’s Torah portion - Chukkat.

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