Collaboration: Hannah and Jessica
Most Houseplant Addicts are familiar with the popular and well-known Tradescantia genus of plants. It is a beautiful trailing group of plants that spread easily, come in many textures, colors and take little care to thrive. They go by many names; Inch Plant, Speedy Jenny, Spiderwort and more! But most likely you know these popular plants by their controversial common name “Wandering Jew“.
Do you know where this plants common name comes from? We thought we did! But the truth is, we only knew a small portion of the folklore and history behind this name.
It is because of those of you, in our wonderfully kind and inclusive Houseplant Addict community, who reached out to us about this subject that made us stop and take the time to educate ourselves – and we are so glad we did! Now we’d like to help educate others too. The history behind this name goes much deeper than we could have possibly imagined and today we’d like to dive deeper with you all into the origins of this common name.
Tradescantia are a genus of roughly 75 species of herbaceous wildflowers in the family Commelinaceae. These trailing/climbing plants grow up to 9″ inches tall and when planted in the ground will spread indefinitely if conditions are right. They come in a wide range of colors from green to purple to an iridescent silver.
Technically speaking only three species within the Tradescantia genus that carry the common name. These include tradescantia fluminensis, tradescantia zebrina, and tradescantia pallida. The most popular and most common being tradescantia zebrina; named for it’s silvery stripes that adorn dark-green foliage providing striking contrast to it’s white three-petal flowers.
There are a few theories on where the plant acquired the common name, though when the plant acquired this nickname is virtually unknown but the common name seems to have gained popularity sometime in the 1950’s to the 1970’s.
“Gardeners would share cuttings from their WJ houseplant with neighbors and friends and like the Jews from long ago, the WJ houseplant would travel from place to place,”– Growing WJ Plants – gardeningknowhow.com
The above quote is one popular theory often cited by plant lovers as the creation of this common name but it is more likely that the plant gets it’s name from an early Christian folklore tale.
In this tale a Jewish man taunts Jesus on his way to Golgotha. In turn Jesus curses him and dooms the man to walk the Earth until the second coming of Christ. These plants were likely nicknamed after this wanderer due to plants long and seemingly endless lifespan.
But hang on! That isn’t where this story ends, that is just the beginning. There is a lot more to the story behind this character and we owe it to our Jewish friends and neighbors to look into the long history behind this character.
History and Folklore
The tale of the wanderer character has been retold many times throughout modern history. It is often believed that the earliest version of this tale can be found in the Englishman Roger of Wendover’s “Flores Historiarum” (c. 1228), in which upon meeting the archbishop from Armenia who told him the following story:
Cartaphilus, a porter of the hall in [Pontius] Pilate’s service, as Jesus was going out of the door, impiously struck him on the back with his hand and said in mockery, ‘Go quicker, Jesus, go quicker! Why do you loiter?’
And Jesus, looking back on him with a severe countenance, said to him, ‘I am going, and you will wait till I return.’
And according as our Lord said, this Cartaphilus is still awaiting his return. At the time of our Lord’s suffering he was 30 years old, and when he attains the age of a hundred years, he always returns to the same age as he was when our Lord suffered.He is a man of holy conversation and religious, a man of few words and circumspect in his behavior, for he does not speak at all unless when questioned by the bishops and religious men; and then he tells of the events of old times and of the events which occurred at the suffering and resurrection of our Lord.Englishman Roger of Wendover’s “Flores Historiarum” (c. 1228)
In the bible (John 18:20–22) we see a reference to an officer who struck Jesus at his arraignment before Annas. Often this is cited as the basis for the legend.
The appearance of the character shows up as early as the 13th century in stories and literature. He is first used in Medieval stories to show anti-Jewish hostility. People continued to use his story for oral traditions into the 15th century, where they state the man repented his sins and converted to Christianity to wait out his sentence.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that the story (the character of the WJ has no given name in most folklore; but in others, he’s called Cartaphilus, Malchus, or Ahasuerus) was used primarily to spread hatred of the Jewish people. We will go into more detail on this in the next section.
In The Media
Early in the 17th century we see that Germany adopted the story of this character into their pamphlets and literature to highlight the anti-Jewish implications of the story. We see this as early as 1602, in the pamphlet ‘Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzehlung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasverus, welcher bey der Creutzigung Christi selbst Persbn-lich gewesen : auch das “Crucifige” uber Christum hab helfen schreyen, etc‘ where a man stands outside a church barefooted and thread bare. He hangs his head, beats his breast and sighs mournfully at the mention of Jesus’ name. This is the first appearance of the character as Ahasuerus whom the Germans nicknamed The Eternal Jew.
In 1940 we see the character resurface in a Nazi propaganda film, presented falsely as a documentary by the Nazi administration, called Der ewige Jude which translates into the The Eternal Jew. This propaganda film was released during the height of the Nazi occupation of Poland and was directed by Fritz Hippler and commissioned by the Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.
In the film Jewish peoples are portrayed as uncivilized and barbaric with low social standing. As with most propaganda, the various locations we see in the film are intentionally chosen to manipulate the viewer into the creators way of thinking.
The film shows dirty ghettos throughout Poland, often covered in grime and infested by rats – a common metaphor used by the Nazi party when describing the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the propaganda film worked in making the german people believe that the Jews chose to live this way rather than the truth which was that these living conditions were caused and created by the Nazi administration and their assault on the lives of millions of Polish Jews.
Throughout history, this character has been used in more than 100 folktales around the world. The Ukrainian people converted it to a story about the moon. In Westphalia, they tell of a man who can only rest for the time it takes to eat a small morsel of bread. The Danes and Swedes tell of a man who can only rest on a plow share.
We can find more traces of the character in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale (1387), which features a man whose unending existence shares a close resemblance. Centuries later, the character surfaces again in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) where the character appears from nowhere to tame the ghostly Bleeding Nun.
The WJ theme continued to spread across the world in poems and literature, where it became most popular in the 17th and 18th century. In the 19th century Mark Twain writes about it in The Innocents Abroad (1869) and French author Eugene Sue writes Le Juif errant (1844) (translation ‘The WJ’), where she used the character as a cautionary tale that shows famine, storms and epidemics that follow in the wanderers wake.
These are just a few of many examples of the tale spread throughout literature. Many Jewish authors, composers and play-writes such as Jaroslav Vrcblicky and Abraham Goldfaden also write about this character. Edmond Fleg in 1933 even uses the character to narrate Jesus’ biography.
Throughout history, the tale has been modified, reworked and adapted to fit many different cultures. Though some groups such the Nazi’s used the character to fuel hatred and spread propaganda, other groups chose to write him as inspiring and unrelenting to weave tales of understanding, blessings and redemption.
Too often we see things that are twisted and used to fit personal or political agenda and belief – and more often than not this is a harmful act. When this happens we cannot simply ignore the new problematic ideals that have been attached by those with nefarious intentions. We must change.
How we view the use of this common name and our reactions to it, will always be different than those of our neighbors but we hope that in sharing this history with you that you will think carefully on it’s origins, its effect on those around you and how it may make those in our Jewish community feel and choose to use another name.
Asking the Community
“Given the persistence of anti-Jewish sentiment and hateful / violent acts directed at the Jewish people, I have to that I hope the name will be retired and replaced. I am deeply proud of my Jewish heritage, which includes many long exiles during which we have maintained our faith and traditions. I would like to a believe a better and more positive name could be found.”
“There is a plant which bears the name WJ because it has a tendency to spread. The name was probably given without conscious anti semitic malice. There is also a bird called WJ, and even a card game and a game of dice.
However, in Christian legend there is certainly a mythical figure called the WJ who embodies anti-Jewish animus. The underlying notion is that the Jews are destined to wander and be reviled because they rejected Jesus.
The story takes many forms and its origin is likely to have had little if any specific connection with Jews. Not until the 13th century did it become a clearly anti semitic legend, often linked with the tradition that an officer of the high priesthood struck Jesus on the way to the cross and Jesus condemned him to suffer punishment until the so-called second coming (“You will go on forever until I return” is what Jesus is said to have told him).
The WJ is said to be called Ahasuerus, the same name as the Persian king in the story of Mordechai and Esther. The legend says that the Ahasuerus who struck Jesus was a Jerusalem shoemaker.
Centuries of anti-Jewish prejudice inexorably conditioned Christian communities to see the Jew as a pathetic sinner doomed by his rejection of Jesus.
The WJ was given different names in different versions of the story and became the central character in a sheaf of poems, novels and artistic and musical works, though the tragedy of the Holocaust has largely discredited the notion.
However, some fundamentalist Christian circles who hang on to the story find it hard to come to terms with the vitality, dignity and creativity of the Jewish people and the vibrancy of the State of Israel.”
“We greatly appreciate you reaching out to better educate yourself and your group. Yes the term is offensive and people should refer to the plant by a different name.”
By: Adam Chaskin – Jewish Community Alliance
“Any botanist will tell you that the WJ is a unique species of plant which – when given minimal sustenance – will nevertheless spread and grow. Similarly, if you cut out its roots and plant it in other soil, it will regenerate itself and start anew.
This plant’s nomenclature is, of course, a comment on the Jewish People’s ability to adapt to varied environments and conditions. “Wandering” is what Jewish history has been all about. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs were nomads. The Jewish nation itself was forged in Egypt and while wandering through the Sinai desert – the only nation ever to establish its identity while wandering outside its homeland. And for the past 2000 years we have been wandering the world.” Read More..
We hope this article has provided some insight as to the history behind the Tradescantia genus’ common name and helped you understand why the name causes discomfort and pain for many people. We would like to ask that, out of respect for your fellow members, you use one of the many other names for this plant including but not limited to; tradescantia [variety here], wandering dude, inchplant, spiderwort, speedy jenny and so on.
While we cannot force you to use these alternate names outside of our community, please understand that these alternate names are the Houseplant Addicts networks preferred terminology. If you continue to use this term now knowing the history behind it and the pain it causes many people then you will be removed or banned without notice to you.
We hope you will take the time to listen to your fellow Houseplant Addicts, have civil discussions with each other and we hope that if you have further questions about the history of this common name that you will take the time to look through the many resources we provided, self-educate and reach out to your local Jewish communities as we have.
We’d also like to remind our members that sometimes those who use this term are not using it with ill-intent, but they just do not know better. When that is the case, we hope that you will take the time to share this article and help educate them so we can all thrive together.
Please note* the use of the WJ term in this blog article is for educational, historical and discussion purposes ONLY.
- The Wandering Jew (Sue novel), an 1844 novel by Eugène Sue
- Le Juif errant (opera), an 1852 opera by Fromental Halévy, loosely inspired by Sue’s novel
- The Wandering Jew (Heym novel), 1981
- The Wandering Jew (1923 film), British silent fantasy film
- The Wandering Jew (1933 film), British fantasy drama film
- “The Wandering Jew” (ballad), a 17th-century English “broadside Ballad”
- The Eternal Jew (1940 film), a Nazi propaganda film
- The International Jew, 1920s anti-Semitic writings authored by Henry Ford
- The Jewish Encyclopedia – Wandering Jew
- THE WANDERING IMAGE: CONVERTING THE WANDERING JEW by Joanna L. Brichetto
- Collections historical texts and references to The Wandering Jew
- The Wandering Jew in English Lit. to 1850 by Samuel Gene Andrews
- THE WANDERING JEW — A JEWISH PERSPECTIVE Published By: World Union of Jewish Studies