The Wandering Jew is one of the oldest Jewish stereotypes, one that was used by Christians to define Jews’ centuries of exile and dispersion. The stereotype renders the Jew a perennial wanderer who learned the hard lesson of survival while “on the road.” But this notion of wandering is not simply a consequence of historical exile; it reaches back to the very depiction of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, an apt description of a people who emerge from nomadic shepherds, the great wanderers of the ancient world. Abraham is called “to go out.” Jacob, Joseph, and Moses become who they are by wandering, by being homeless. Think of the names of the portions in Genesis: “Go out” (Lekh lekha) “He sent” (Vayishlakh), “He went out” (Vayetze). Homelessness, being always in search of a home, becomes the very trope of Israelite existence. The Israelites become a people as they wander in the desert. In the final portion of the book of Numbers (33:1-36:13), every time the Israelites get settled, God commands them to move, to uproot, to decamp. Their identity is forged in motion. Israel experiences God while wandering in the Sinai desert, homeless. Even when Jews stay in one place, they are always prepared to move, always on the precipice. Their “house of God” (the Mishkan/Tabernacle) is a portable dwelling. “I wander, therefore I am.”
This is more than circumstantial; it seeps into our very psyche throughout history. The Jewish mystical classic, the Zohar, often has secrets revealed while teacher and disciples wander the hills of the Galilee. They meet a wandering child and an old man who teach them secrets of divine truth. Secrecy is disclosed in motion. The 16-century kabbalist Moshe ben Jacob Cordovero authored a book called Sefer Gerushim (The Book of [Self] Exile), describing self-imposed exile as a spiritual exercise to experience the divine. The stories of the Baal Shem Tov are replete with tales of him and his magical, trusted wagon driver, Alexei, traveling through the Carpathian Mountains. In the annals of Hasidic folktales, Hasidim always seem to be going somewhere, always wandering. The Jews took their historical circumstance and made it into a spiritual discipline.
And then comes Zionism. Zionist historian David Vital calls Zionism the “Copernican Revolution in Jewish history.” Now everything shifts from wandering to “coming home.” Meir Kahane’s 1974 farewell to America and call for mass aliyah is aptly entitled Time to Go Home. Even more moderate Zionists such as David Ben-Gurion advocated a “negation of the Diaspora” Zionism. Home would now be the central, even sole, motif of Jewish existence. Suddenly, the Wandering Jew wanders no more; we can rest our collective bones and finally unpack that suitcase that was perennially tucked under our bed.
But what is the price of this blessing — of this revolution? As Odysseus learned when he finally returned to Penelope, hearth and home are not what we imagine. So much of Jewish life and creativity have been about wandering, homelessness, and exile. While there has been pain and oppression, there was also magic, mystery, and energy. Motion has been the engine of Jewish creativity. The early Zionists instituted a principle of “knowing the land (yediat ha-aretz) — that is, knowing the land by traveling in it. But traveling through one’s homeland is not the same as wandering. Wandering contains a different kind of power. Surveying the woods in your own backyard is not the same as traversing mountains you have never climbed.
Yitzhak Danziger’s celebrated sculpture “Nimrod” — a large statue of a mighty warrior that represents territorial nationalism and a nativist myth — was first exhibited in Jerusalem in 1942. This nativist character, which stands about 35 inches high, was constructed of red sandstone imported from Petra in Jordan. The figure of Nimrod was viewed as an emblem of the Canaanite ideology, which saw Judaism and Zionism as the enemy; for them, the renewal of the Hebrew people was only about place (Israel) and language (Hebrew). Canaanites wanted to establish a Hebrew identity based on ancient Semitic myths of heroes such as Nimrod. Benjamin Tammuz, a short story writer and Canaanite, hailed the statue as “the beginning of Israeli rebirth.” David Ohana, in his wonderful book Modernism and Zionism, writes, “If ‘Nimrod’ in its beginnings [1940s] embodied the myth of the ‘new Hebrew’ in his old-new land, in the 1980s and 1990s the work began to symbolize a longing for vagrancy, for the exile. From being the ‘Hebrew,’ ‘Nimrod’ became the ‘wandering Jew’….The myth of Nimrod as a structural form overshadows the changing Zionist or post-Zionist content.”
In a new exhibition of the statue “Nimrod” in the 1990s, the statue was taken off its pedestal and placed on the floor. The figure no longer stood above the people as an icon but rather closer to the soil, a nomad or wanderer. “Nimrod” moves from a symbol of rootedness in the land to a wandering figure, a critique of Zionism’s notion of Israel as the “sole national home and homeland of the Jewish people.”
This longing to wander persists — even within Zionism. By the early 1970s, we had another phase of Zionism — the establishment of settlements (yishuvim), an interesting term that denotes permanence despite the very precariousness of their existence. But in some way, the “settlements” — themselves products of continued wandering from Israel to the territories, from the Zionist home to some new place — were understood by some as the true biblical home, Greater Israel, an idea that arguably challenges the secular home of classical Zionism. But here, too, restlessness persists. Some settler youth, no longer comfortable in the home their settler parents created, wander yet again, to “outposts,” farther from the Zionist home (Israel), anarchic, rebelling against the authority of home, the permanence of home, to yet a new frontier. For them, the Jewish state as presently construed is no longer sufficient. Zionism as home, meaning here a nation-state whose borders are determined by the international law and not by the Hebrew Bible, a state where Jews could be autonomous and part of the family of nations, no longer satisfies their vision. And so they wander. “I wander, therefore I am.”
Perhaps Zionism’s “negation of the Diaspora” — that is, its negation of the Wandering Jew, the Golus Yid — protests too much. God promises settlement, but infuses our blood with the desire to wander. Decamp, uproot, move — thus sayeth the Lord. Perhaps home may be somewhat overrated — or over idealized. If we let it, home, too, can become an idol.email print