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Uprooting the Wandering Jew

The grassroots movement to rename a plant

by
Rachel Román
June 09, 2022
 Christian Petzold/Unsplash
Christian Petzold/Unsplash
 Christian Petzold/Unsplash
Christian Petzold/Unsplash

In the last few years, there have been outcries over racist or otherwise offensive names on schools, buildings, mountains, and rivers. Now, a grassroots movement by botanists, arboretums, and garden shops seeks to rename the wandering Jew plant (Tradescantia zebrina) due to the belief that its moniker is antisemitic.

Liz Hughes, the co-owner of Groovy Plants Ranch in Marengo, Ohio, switched T. zebrina’s name from wandering Jew to wandering dude around 2019 after hearing about the renaming movement. “Culturally, a lot of people are trying to move away from any name that could be offensive to any person,” she said. “In general, it’s really important to be politically correct.”

“It’s clearly an antisemitic name,” said Jon Greenberg, a Jewish botanist who runs the website Torah Flora. “For the wandering Jew plant, the name reflects the fact that it’s invasive. The perception is that Jews come into an area, they take over, and transform the area in a way that people living there are not happy with.”

The name implies that Jews are “outsiders and invaders,” Greenberg noted. “This plant has several other common names—like spiderwort and silver inch,” he said. “You could use those positive, neutral names.”

John Tradescant the Younger first brought the plant—native to Mexico—to England in the 17th century while documenting plants from the New World. It was called Tradescantia after Tradescant, and zebrina from the striped zebra, due to its striped leaves—which trail, or “wander,” from the main plant. The origins of the plant’s wandering Jew nickname is thought to have been derived in the 19th century, although the exact date and the intent behind the nickname are unclear. The expression “Wandering Jew” comes from a mythical Jewish figure who was cursed to roam the earth until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. In more modern eras the term has also been used in less derogatory ways—by Jews and non-Jews alike—as a metaphor for the wandering of Jews in the desert and the perseverance and persistence of the diasporic culture.

Greenberg believes this kind of positive spin on the name is “wishful thinking,” and Yair Mintzker, a professor of history at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, who is writing a book about the Wandering Jew, believes the original myth is “definitely negative.”

Culturally, a lot of people are trying to move away from any name that could be offensive to any person.

“The idea is that the Jews are a cursed people who somehow never died. In English, he’s known as the Wandering Jew, but, in Germany, for example, he’s known as the Eternal Jew,” Mintzker said. “There’s a series of parallels between his personal history and the history of the Jewish people as a whole: They are cursed, they turned away from Christ, they originate in Jerusalem, and no one can quite explain why they’re still roaming the earth.”

The figure of the Wandering Jew first appeared in a 13th-century text, the Chronica Majora by Matthew Paris, a monk at the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban in St. Albans, England. In this account, the mythical figure is condemned by Christ to wander the earth. The legends vary, but all portray the Wandering Jew negatively. In the Chronica Majora, the Wandering Jew was Pontius Pilate’s doorkeeper, who struck Christ while the latter was on the way to the Crucifixion, and said, “Go on faster, Jesus.” Christ’s response was, “I am going, but thou shalt tarry till I come again.” Other legends have the Jewish figure taunting Christ or spitting on him. According to Mintzker, the most common lore is that of the cobbler Ahasverus (spelled differently in multiple texts) that is found in a 1602 German pamphlet. One legend in the pamphlet states that Christ rests on the doorway of Ahasverus and asks for a glass of water. An indignant Ahasverus refuses Christ and yells for him to leave. Upset by Ahasverus’ lack of charity, Christ said, “Truly I go away, and that quickly, but tarry thou till I come.” Basically, Christ condemned Ahasverus to roam the earth until his return.

This story of Christ’s condemnation has been used over the centuries to persecute Jews. “There was propaganda all throughout history using him as an example to eradicate Jews, including during the Nazi era,” Mintzker said. “In 1940, the Nazis made a film called The Eternal Jew. It’s not really about the legend, but the title itself kind of evokes this old legend. This is the most heinous Nazi propaganda movie of all time. It really is repellent.”

Now the botanical movement is citing the story to prevent possible offense to the Jewish community. A blog from Bloombox Club—a plant shop in the United Kingdom—states, “We’ve decided to use the name ‘Wandering Dude,’ in favor of the (anti-Semitic) name ‘Wandering Jew.’ We assumed the name referred to the Israelites, sentenced to ‘wander’ through the desert in search of the promised land until the last member of the original generation (Moses) dies. But further research revealed ‘Wandering Jew’ to be connected to an apocryphal myth, one that has been used to justify anti-Semitism since at least the 13th century.”

A blog post from the Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, Oregon, points out the “offensive origins” of the plant’s nickname: “Inequities run deep in the natural sciences, and it’s apparent in the racist and xenophobic nomenclature of some trees and plants.”

Likewise, plant shops, houseplant groups and blog writers, like Gardenstead and Houseplant Hobbyist, have decided to relabel the plant. An opinion piece in the Cincinnati Enquirer makes a case to rename the plant wandering dude, noting that wandering Jew “sounded wrong—offensive even. We just need big-box garden centers to grow with the times and sell Tradescantia zebrina as ‘The Wandering Dude.’”

It comes from a good place, a desire to be thoughtful.

Matt Arrington, the life science greenhouse director for Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, decided to stop using the name wandering Jew after reading about the movement and the supposed antisemitic nature of the plant’s name. He now uses the moniker as a teaching opportunity. Like many, Arrington originally believed that the plant’s common name meant perseverance.

“I had always felt like the ‘wandering Jew’ moniker had more to do with wandering in the wilderness and the fact that the plant seemed to be successful regardless of how neglected it might get. It was kind of new to me to read about the European folktales associated with the Crucifixion and some of these more negative stories,” he said. “If nothing else, then it creates a talking point. A place to have these discussions and err on the side of sensitivity without erasing the past name.”

Some of those who are renaming the plant, like Arrington and Hughes, are not Jewish and are unsure whether the Jewish community is for or against the name wandering Jew. Hughes said none of the Jews that she has spoken to view the label negatively. Arrington asked a BYU Jewish professor, who was ambivalent but agreed on it being a good talking point. Mintzker—who is Jewish—said that due to a reclamation of the figure of the Wandering Jew by Jews as a positive figure, starting in the late 19th century, many would not view it as antisemitic.

“It’s kind of amazing that this anti-Jewish legend is somehow reclaimed by Jews as a positive,” Mintzker said. “They use it as an expression of their own exile and many wanderings and even the eternal nature of the Jewish people. [The Wandering Jew] is a very Jewish story as well.”

However, Hughes and Arrington say that the progressive younger generation tend to be advocates for changing offensive paradigms. “It comes from a good place, a desire to be thoughtful,” Arrington said. “I think that there’s an added sensitivity because of the distance from those physical hardships, those horrible things that had happened in the past.”

According to Hughes and Arrington, no one has complained about the plant’s name change.

“People are receptive,” Hughes said. “Older customers laugh because they think ‘wandering Dude’ is a funny name. It is a little bit silly. When possible, we go by the Latin name.”

Rachel R. Román is a writer and photographer who has written for Forward magazine and Geekwire.com. She has written and taken pictures for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Cholent and Jewish in Seattle magazine.

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