04 July 2020

From the domes of Florence
to Greek-speaking Albania
and the ghetto in Warsaw

Part of a three-page feature in the July 2020 edition of the ‘Church Review’

Patrick Comerford

My monthly column in the Church Review, the diocesan magazine in Dublin and Glendalough, is an excursion through the architecture of Florence and its influence on domes throughout Europe, Albania and the multi-faith mixture found in a country that was once the only officially atheist state in Europe, and Poland, with its many Irish connections, including an archbishop who resisted the Nazis and foresaw the horrors of the Holocaust.

Once again, the editor of the Church Review, the Revd Nigel Waugh, has given my feature a three-page colour spread, with photographs from a variety of locations from Florence, Venice and Berlin to Sarande, Warsaw and Dublin.

There is a thread that goes through these stories, weaving an intriguing tapestry. If the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown has frustrated your plans to travel in Europe in recent months, this is an opportunity to have a ‘virtual tour’ of a variety of interesting places.

But more about that on this blog tomorrow afternoon HERE.

Pilgrims or prejudice?
the wanderings of
Carvajal and Bloom

The tomb of Christopher Columbus in Seville Cathedral … how many ‘conversos’ travelled as ‘peregrinos’ from Spain on voyages to the New World? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During his webinar lecture earlier this week, organised by the Sephardi Academia programme at Bevis Marks Synagogue, Professor Ronnie Perelis of Yeshiva University, New York, was speaking about ‘Early Modern Crypto-Judaism in its Transatlantic Context.’

He spoke, in particular, of the Carvajal family of Portuguese and Spanish origin, and how these conversos had suffered at the hands of the Inquisition in Mexico at the end of the 16th century.

The year 1492 was regarded as the annus mirabilis by many in power in Spain, who associated the year with four events: the introduction of the Inquisition, the conquest of Granada; the unification of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabel; the expulsion or forced conversion of Spain’s large Jewish population; and Christopher Columbus sailing west to the New World.

Columbus himself, in the prologue to his diary dedicated to Ferdinand and Isabel, links his voyage to the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Yet there were many conversos on the expedition, and many found safer climes in the New World. Although the Inquisition arrived in Lima and Mexico in the 1570s, many could escape forced baptisms and form communities that were cohesive for generations. In this New World, these peregrino could sow the seeds that would lead to a rebirth of Sephardic Judaism in the decades and centuries that followed.

Professor Perelis subtitled his presentation as Peregrinos de las Indias Occidentales: Criptojudaísmo en su contexto transatlántico, or ‘Pilgrims of the West Indies: crypto-Judaism in its transatlantic context.’

I was intrigued by both his maps of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the western diaspora, which showed how far these communities spread and his use of the word peregrino.

The maps were interesting, because I was already familiar with maps showing the dispersion of Spanish and Portuguese communities throughout the Mediterranean as they travelled on through Italy, North Africa, the Balkans, Greece and the Ottoman Empire.

As for the word peregrino, it conveys the sense of pilgrim – often in the context of the camino or pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela – or restless traveller. But for these conversos, the word peregrino also conveyed the concept of a convert or someone who had made the journey or return journey to Judaism.

For someone like Luis de Carvajal, his family had travelled from Portugal to Spain and Mexico, and he had made a return journey to Judaism, reconstructing his Judaism especially through the books and manuscripts he found in the monastic library at Santiago de Tlatelolco, where he had been exiled to teach Latin to the Franciscan seminarians.

The wanderings of these peregrinos and their use of this word as a self-description reminded me of the legends and stories of the ‘Wandering Jew,’ a mythical, immortal man whose legend began to spread in Europe in the 13th century. The original legend involves a Jew who is said to have taunted Christ on his way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming.

The details of the wanderer’s indiscretion varies in different versions of the tale, as does of his character. Some stories say he was a shoemaker or other tradesman, others cast him as doorman at the palace of Pontius Pilate, and he is named variously as Cartaphilus, Joseph, Ahasver, Matthias, Buttadeus, Paul Marrane, Isaac Laquadem, or the Shoemaker of Jerusalem.

In some versions, he is conflated with ‘the Disciple whom Jesus loved’: ‘So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die’ (John 21: 23).

Others refer to words in the Bible: ‘Because they have not listened to him, my God will reject them; they shall become wanderers among the nations’ (Hosea 9: 17). Others link the legend with Christ’s words: ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ (Matthew 16: 28).

In my naivety, I had thought the term ‘wandering Jew’ may have been derived from the story of Cain in Genesis , who is punished to wander over the earth, or the forty years of wandering in the wilderness after the people escaped slavery in Egypt.

The Book of Esther also describes the Jews as a persecuted people, scattered across every province of the vast empire of Ahasuerus, which is similar to the later Jewish diaspora in Christian-ruled empires and the experiences of Jewish refugees escaping the Inquisition and finding themselves scattered across the Mediterranean and Latin America.

A popular houseplant is known as a ‘Wandering Jew.’ The name is used for several plant species within the Tradescantia genus. They include at least 75 different herbaceous perennial species, including some noxious weeds, some prized outdoor garden plants such as the garden spiderworts, and three indoor houseplants.

The name is thought to derive from the plant’s habit to migrate to wet, moist regions, or because they are survivors that may be pushed right to the brink of desolation and but can be brought back to full health within days with tender, loving care – a reminder that life fluctuates and that things can get better.

But I sometimes wondered whether the Wandering Jew was an antisemitic trope.

Last year, the London-based Bloombox Club announced online Bloombox Club that is no longer going to refer to Tradescantia by this common name ‘Wandering Jew’: ‘We assumed the name referred to the Israelites, cursed 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 recent celebration of Bloomsday in Dublin … is the ‘Wandering Jew’ an antisemitic image in European literature (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Ulysses, James Joyce has Leopold Bloom thinking that Jews have ‘wandered far away over all the earth, and that for 3,000 years the history of Jews as a people has been defined by expulsion, exile, and yearning for a homeland.

Bloom is half Jewish, born to an Irish mother and a Jewish father in house in Clanbrassil Street or Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem’ – two doors down from a Comerford family home. But Bloom was not brought up a Jew: as Ulysses relates, he has been baptised three separate times. He thinks of himself as both Jewish and Irish, and Ulysses fuses two myths, the wandering of Ulysses and the Wandering Jew.

In Calypso, Bloom thinks of his people living from ‘captivity to captivity.’ Bloom glances also at the Arab world, complaining that Jews are ‘At this very moment … sold by auction in Morocco like slaves or cattle.’

In Scylla and Charybdis, Mulligan mockingly calls Bloom ‘The wandering jew,’ explicitly introducing this image into this story about a peripatetic Jewish protagonist.

Circe makes clear the anti-Semitic implications of such speech, implicitly linking Bloom with the far less acceptably Jewish Reuben J. Dodd: ‘Reuben J Antichrist, wandering jew, a clutching hand open on his spine, stumps forward. Across his loins is slung a pilgrim's wallet from which protrude promissory notes and dishonoured bills.’

But Oxen of the Sun uses kinder language to present the same mythical figure: ‘Of Israel’s folk was that man that on earth wandering far had fared.’

Joyce’s frequent association of Moses with Bloom helps to bring positive qualities to the figure of the Wandering Jew. In Aeolus, Moses appears as a Jewish leader whose rousing call to national identity symbolically figures Ireland’s own longing for the restoration of its homeland. Joined with the nostos theme of Homer’s Odyssey, it is almost as though Moses gives homelessness a good name.

The word wander is repeated throughout Ulysses. On Christian lips, it is a term of moral opprobrium. But when it enters the orbit of Bloom, ‘that vigilant wanderer’ (Oxen of the Sun), and Stephen, ‘wandering Ængus of the birds,’ the word gathers positive associations from minds devoted to exploring experiential reality.

Disturbed by the antisemitic appropriation of Hebrew lettering and Jewish prayers around the figure of the Crucified Christ on the Crucifix on the Charles Bridge in Prague, and the image of the feminine persona of Sinagoga, blinded by a snake in her portrayal on mediaeval cathedrals, including Lichfield Cathedral, I wondered too about the theme of the ‘Wandering Jew’ throughout western literature.

Perhaps Bloom and Luis de Carvajal combine to redeem the image of the Peregrinos and the ‘Wandering Jews.’

But I still wonder.

A plaque claims Leopold Bloom was born at No 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)