The Clare Spark Blog

November 16, 2010

Good Jews, Bad Jews, and Wandering Jews

Wandering Jew, 1901

I have written a great deal on antisemitism, often in a more comprehensive and experimental fashion than others, including academics. For an index of blogs on the website see

One Facebook friend has asked me to explain the Wandering Jew trope, so I am excerpting a few lines from my book, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. The paragraphs are from chapter one. It is important to know that Melville was not a Jew, but his radical puritan characters evoked the image of the Bad Jew in some of his academic readers. When I refer to Christian Europe or conservative Christians, I mean those Catholics and Protestants who were asserting hierarchy as natural in the face of upsurges from below in the modern period. (When I use the term Bad Jew, I do not mean non-observant Jews as judged by Orthodox Jews. Similarly, “Good Jews” refers to those Jews who are seen favorably by philo-semites.)

[Book excerpt:] Since I use the terms Good Jews, Bad Jews, and Wandering Jews throughout this study, some explanation is in order. Traditional Christian images of the Jews have varied since their gradual emancipation after the French Revolution, but there is still no mythic representation of the Good Jew, nor can there be, for the “Jewish” hammer smashes myths and all other illusions.


For conservative Europeans throughout the Christian era, all Jews were bad; good Jews annihilated this badness by converting to Christianity. The patristic Church fathers had railed against Judaism; it was not the parent religion, but their demonic antithesis, their negative identity. The Jews were materialistic, sensual, incestuous, hypocritical, legalistic yet antinomian, hypercritical of religious leaders, cannibals of their own children, money-mad, spiritually blind, and liars.[i]

The Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment exalted singularity, materialism, and natural rights, heretofore qualities or claims condemned in the Jews. Corporatist Christians deployed the late medieval myth of the Wandering Jew to attack the “Hebraic” radical puritan adversary. Ahasver or Cartaphilus, a cobbler, having refused and mocked Christ on the way to the crucifixion, was cursed by Him to “tarry till I come.” The sleepless, footsore, indestructible Wandering Jew, longing for death, was a fixture in European folktale; he was sighted all over Europe and understood as witness to the Incarnation, a corrective to excessive skepticism in the lower orders.

However the left Romantics (e.g. Byron and Shelley) and the French rural poor of the early 19th century appropriated and transformed the counter-revolutionary myth, constructing the figure of the Romantic Wandering Jew, the Napoleonic hammer-swinging little man who represented anticlericalism and hatred of abusive, illegitimate authority.[ii]

For writers of the Terror-Gothic genre, he was both Promethean and demonic, able to pass through closed doors and the thickest walls: like the repressed facts of the material world, he could not be excluded, contained, or incarcerated. To Byron and Shelley (and later, Yeats), the Wandering Jew represented their idealistic selves, the fully feeling and thinking adolescent who would never sell out, whose probing gaze punctured all myths to construct accurate pictures of social reality as the first step in ameliorating needless human suffering.

There was no European myth of the Good Jew, then; for rebels, the Romantic Wandering Jew was Good because he was Bad, and in moments of remorse, could be disavowed by his champions. For ex-left Romantics returning to classical order, genteel religious antisemitism, with its distinctions between convertible Good Jews and unconvertible Bad Jews, shaded into nineteenth-century scientific racism, rendering all Jews evil by nature. The ideology of scientific racism (still extant today), was a reaction to eighteenth-century liberalism and republican democracy.

Correlating “the rise of the Jews” (really market society) with modernity, scientific racists rendered all Jews incorrigibly evil, conspiratorial, and money-mad, religious Jew or apostate, capitalist or communist alike. It would have been easier to spot them if ethnologists knew what the all-too-protean Jews looked like. Could Herman Melville, religion, genes, and physiognomy to the contrary, have been a crypto-Jew? [End, book excerpt. For more on Melville and his revivers, see]

Samuel Hirszenberg, 1899

                [i] 38. See Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: the Theological Roots of Antisemitism (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), Chapter Three, 219, 258.

                [ii] Champfleury, “French Images of the Wandering Jew,”The Wandering Jew: Essays in the Interpretation of a Christian Legend, ed. Galit Hasan-Rokem and Alan Dundes (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986), 68-75. “Since the beginning of the century, [Ahasverus] has decorated every poor hovel, balanced by a picture of Napoleon. It seems that the common man gave an equal place in his imagination to these two great marcheurs.”(my emph.,  i.e., the Wandering Jew cannot be a conqueror or despot if Champfleury has to call attention to the pairing with Napoleon.) For the Wandering Jew as alienated modern artist see Edgar Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali; Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1960). Rosemary Ruether sees the patristic fathers’ use of the Cain legend to represent the reprobate Jewish people as the typological ancestor of the medieval myth of the Wandering Jew, Faith and Fratricide, 133-134. See Uriel Tal, Christians and Jews in Germany (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1975), 16, 232, for descriptions of Christian strategies for dealing with the corroding skepticism fostered by persistence of the obdurate Jewish people: they must be either converted or humiliated so that their “abject state would then bear witness, testes veritatis nostrae, to the indefeasible claims of the triumphant religion of Christianity” (16). Christians might abjure rabble-rousing massacres, while excluding Jews from positions of authority.


  1. […] unusual blogs on anti-Semitism, see, and Generally,  “bad” Jews are seen as the anti-race or the enzymes that accelerate […]

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  2. […] out other “Jews” as Bad Jews and as the enemy of all correctly thinking conservatives (see This at a time when global antisemitism and criticism of Israel seems to have achieved a […]

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  3. […] [Book, cont.]    There is no single left or liberal standard to evaluate the social content of art.  Today’s ethnopluralists continue to scan texts for positive or negative images of their partisans.  In the 1930s, Stalinist bureaucrats separated proletarian and bourgeois consciousness so drastically that essentialist categories permeated their critical theory no less than the racialists’.  Only “workers” or the colonized masses (a.k.a. themselves) were free of perceptual distortions.  Hegelian-Marxists have attempted to locate the text in history, analyzing form and content to discover the concrete function it might have served in “the world movement toward democracy.”  Artists who artificially reconciled glaring social contradictions (between capital and labor, between ideals and reality) either through class collaboration or resignation or through formal closure–the impossibly happy ending, all threads tidily tied up–were held to be right-wing and antimodern.  Progressive artists were those who ripped into appearances to leave secrets exposed and contradictions hanging.  This is a test that Ahab and his blood-tipped harpoon should have passed; why didn’t they?   (For a hostile Southern view of New England puritans see For a blog on the Wandering Jew trope, see […]

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  4. […] and gold, see For more on the Wandering Jew myth see Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. Leave a […]

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  5. […] the demonic with art-making is an old Romantic tic that should be recognized and condemned.  See The same with sadomasochism, no longer a symptom to be identified and treated, or, more […]

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  6. Hi / Hola
    Me gustaria conseguir el texto en español / [google translate] I would like to get the text in Spanish.
    Very Important.

    Comment by Efraim — August 19, 2011 @ 6:59 pm | Reply

  7. […] (pogroms, expulsion, the Shoah), or false philosemitism (the approval of Good Jews versus Bad Jews: I would appreciate seeing precise and contextualized judgments of what is and what is not […]

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  8. […] to European ruling classes. See my blog Good Jews, Bad Jews, and Wandering Jews. Comments (6) LikeBe the first to like this […]

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  9. Clare, this matter of anti-Semitism and the Wandering Jew archetype is a fascinating subject. I have much to learn about this, but I have a basic question. You said:

    “The Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment exalted singularity, materialism, and natural rights, heretofore qualities or claims condemned in the Jews. Corporatist Christians deployed the late medieval myth of the Wandering Jew to attack the “Hebraic” radical puritan adversary. […] Correlating ‘the rise of the Jews’ (really market society) with modernity, scientific racists rendered all Jews incorrigibly evil, conspiratorial, and money-mad, religious Jew or apostate, capitalist or communist alike.”

    If I understand you correctly, you’re saying the Christian West (ultimately) created the Enlightenment which gave rise to science and capitalism and modern individualism — engendering the material-oriented capacity of the busy Puritans who worked hard and supported self-responsibility, entrepreneurial activity, and the merits of being market-savvy (including the skill to commit to savings), that is, the “good capitalists” — but at the same time the Western Civilization mainstream projected these characteristics in their negative or extreme or demented form on the “other,” the Wandering Jew, and they become mad, obsessive, money-grubbing, selfish, heartless conspiratorial traits: shown by the “bad capitalists.”

    It is a strange but ‘workable” contradiction that the very people who brought modernism into the world should at the same moment have such reservations about the new culture they were creating that they had to find a way to condemn what they did’t like about it — by conveniently recognizing its reverse in the “other.” I wonder if the Frankenstein myth relates to this: something we build out of our desire for abundance (technology) but that at the same time contains characteristics we don’t feel comfortable with (bringing constant “subversive” change, alienation caused by a breakdown of traditional community, the disconnect with “good” nature) so these dynamics are transformed into opposites instilled in another people whose culture is different: and now those others “own” the evil tendencies (as the Frankenstein monster owned them).

    If this is so, I think this is quite an insight.

    In the meantime, I know Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac both were haunted by the dream figure they called the “Shrouded Stranger.” This was a man depicted similar to The Hermit in the Tarot cards – but without the lamp. Ginsberg wrote a poem about him. He was alternately a threatening figure — possible Death or the Reaper — but at other times the shadow of his own self: a character heralding the crossover from one world to the next (from unconscious to the conscious, for example); in its best form he was the ideal of the new future in a transformed culture. This fits with Byron’s, Shelley’s, and Yeats’ views.

    Have I got this right?

    Comment by Rick Penner — November 16, 2010 @ 5:43 am | Reply

    • According to my teacher Robert Brenner, the change of land tenure in early agrarian England created markets and capitalism. Others say no. In any case, markets produce innovation, are dynamic, and change society in ways traditional elites never intended. The Frankenstein myth is a good example. The monster is a new class produced by scientific innovations; a monster that turns on its master in the popular elaboration of the myth. These centuries of economic and cultural change (much of it instigated by merchants) is crucial to the story. I’m not sure about the Beats, for the shrouded figure could be the return of the repressed material world, in other words, the Romantic Wandering Jew, or the impure self. This is all conjecture on my part, so see if you can play with it. The most important part is the fear of facing the world as it is. All else flows from that, including mysticism and irrationalism.

      Comment by clarespark — November 16, 2010 @ 7:17 am | Reply

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