MC's Jewish identity and the Wandering Jew: hoping I will not screw this up

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Kitty Crocodile

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This is something that kept me awake last night. Sometimes I don't see it as a problem, and sometimes I wonder if that's because I'm simply not aware enough. I'm not sure I'm going to figure this out on my own, so:

I write fantasy. The characters in my book are near immortals who live in present-day, real-world Europe - when they die, their bodies switch back on (unless they are too physically damaged). Many of them are in some ways mentally damaged because of what they've gone through during their long, often painful lives. I love history, and this kind of a frame lets me use all kinds of interesting stories and themes and details in human history.

My main character is a 15th-century Spanish Jew who dies during the Spanish Inquisition, returns back to life extremely traumatized by what he's gone through, and struggles with his sanity and his identity for the next couple of centuries (while some other things happen too - the main story begins in early 21st century, and some of it involves his backstory).

In the 15th century, before he understands what he's like, my MC survives the massacre of his community. His inexplicable survival (which is actually a resurrection) traumatizes him, and when the Inquisition arrives and announces the grace period during which people are encouraged to confess and give each other in, MC comes forward and gives himself in as the Wandering Jew. In the process he draws attention to Jews in hiding who have sheltered him. It all ends badly, and when he resurrects again, he stays out of Spain for the next four centuries and denies his Jewish heritage until the mid-20th century - he is not able to deal with his past, and the idea of accepting it is simply unthinkable because of what his confession once cost him and other people. It is not until the holocaust and certain events in his personal life that he changes his way of thinking, acquires some perspective of his own, and acknowledges his past. (I am wondering, though, what kind of a Jewish identity does he have at this point, but that isn't quite relevant to the plot even though it's an interesting question.)

I am not Jewish. Jewish history interests me a great deal, and I've researched Jewish history in Spain and in Europe enough that I'm confident to write about this topic. I'm aware that these are not my stories I'm telling. (I have even less to do with Spain.) The story itself does not focus on Jewish history or the MC's Jewish identity. It's a sort of a mystery novel, and though I'm sure it doesn't sound like it, in certain ways it's quite funny.

But I'm really afraid of screwing up, and I'd like to have some perspective from other people: is it disrespectful or otherwise problematic how I use the Wandering Jew in this story? Is there something else you find problematic? I'm a complete outsider to Jewish culture and history, so I feel I can't decide this for myself, and...it would just be really mortifying if I screwed this up.
 
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Squids

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I'm Jewish by blood and grew up that way (Christian now, but still pretty into my Jewish roots). Sounds really interesting to me. You could do a LOT with that concept. You've definitely piqued my interest just with the description.

Basically, it just comes down to how you do it. If you make him a giant stereotype, it will be offensive. If he's just a guy who happens to be Jewish, and that leads to problems because of the world he lives in, then I don't see what's wrong with that. There are many Jews who were forced to deny their heritage for centuries when almost every country was either expelling them or flat out killing them.

Just don't cock it up is what I'm saying, I guess.
 

RichardGarfinkle

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Squids

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I'm having a tough time with his premise. The Wandering Jew is a character from Christian folklore not Jewish. And since the mythology is of a Jew who taunted Jesus, it would not be a wise person to claim to be when facing the Inquisition.
http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14773-wandering-jew

I didn't even think of that. I just thought he meant wandering Jew in general. Like a Jewish person wandering through Europe and time. Not like, the Wandering Jew.
 

Kitty Crocodile

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Yeah, it's The Wandering Jew that he's afraid of being. Richard, I see what you mean. Does it improve things if I say that he is mentally unstable and genuinely fears to be the Wandering Jew? To him, at that point in his life, it seems to explain why he's still alive when he clearly should be dead. He tells this to the Inquisition because he badly needs some kind of absolution (he's a bit detached from the reality) and can't quite live with himself. It's not a sane thing to do, obviously, and in the 21st century it's used against him by someone who was there too. It's a deeply shameful and painful memory.

Basically, it just comes down to how you do it. If you make him a giant stereotype, it will be offensive. If he's just a guy who happens to be Jewish, and that leads to problems because of the world he lives in, then I don't see what's wrong with that.

Squids, that's exactly what I'm going for. And I'm very committed to not cocking it up!
 

gothicangel

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Hi Kitty, I'm in a similar position as you (different time frame though!) I'm writing a novel set during the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, but I'm an outsider (Christened, but class myself as no-religion, but not atheist either.) The history to me is the easy part, its Jewish culture and identity and how it differs from Roman culture. I have a pile of reading that includes archaeology, Josephus, daily life in Judaea, Rabbinic Judaism, and histories. I've also met several people on here who are Jewish who answer any questions, also my sister is learning Biblical Hebrew which is very helpful. :)

If you haven't been into the Religious Writing forum, where there is a Jewish sub-forum. If you are still concerned, perhaps look for a Jewish beta-reader. One warning I would give though, is that there is no single Jewish identity, so an American Jew is going to be very different to one from Palestine, to another who lives in Britain. This is also complicated by the fact that your MC is from the 15th century and needs to fit a 15th century Spanish Jewish identity, who will appear much more Orthodox than many Jews today.
 

gothicangel

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Basically, it just comes down to how you do it. If you make him a giant stereotype, it will be offensive. If he's just a guy who happens to be Jewish, and that leads to problems because of the world he lives in, then I don't see what's wrong with that.

On the flip side of this, before I started my WIP, I had read several Roman HF set in Jerusalem, and their Jewish characters came across as the same as the Romans, they just had a different skin colour/accent. This was something I want to avoid. I want their dialogue to sound different, show them observing the Shema, etc. Someone once said, the past is an foreign country, and that's my intention to show difference rather than similarity.

It's different for each author, but that's the way I see my WIP. :)
 

Kitty Crocodile

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gothicangel, I hadn't thought of the Religious Writing forum at all - thank you! I'll probably post in the Jewish forum and ask about a couple of things. I just realized that I don't know how 15th-century Spanish Jews would have considered the tale of the Wandering Jew. They would have been familiar with it, I'm fairly sure. But...I think I need to read more in order to write about this with integrity.

This is mostly the character's backstory, and the Wandering Jew comes up in the 21st century when another character brings up the MC's confession to really hurt him. The main story deals with how much you can rely on your memories when you've died and someone you love accuses you of something bad you don't think you could have done (this happens to my MC in the present day). But I think I need to think about the Wandering Jew more so that it's not a gimmick.
 

RichardGarfinkle

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gothicangel, I hadn't thought of the Religious Writing forum at all - thank you! I'll probably post in the Jewish forum and ask about a couple of things. I just realized that I don't know how 15th-century Spanish Jews would have considered the tale of the Wandering Jew. They would have been familiar with it, I'm fairly sure. But...I think I need to read more in order to write about this with integrity.

This is mostly the character's backstory, and the Wandering Jew comes up in the 21st century when another character brings up the MC's confession to really hurt him. The main story deals with how much you can rely on your memories when you've died and someone you love accuses you of something bad you don't think you could have done (this happens to my MC in the present day). But I think I need to think about the Wandering Jew more so that it's not a gimmick.

It's unclear whether anyone knew about the Wandering Jew in the 15th century. It's very possible that the story hadn't been invented yet. This is from the link to the Jewish Encyclopedia that I posted up thread.

The legend first appeared in a pamphlet of four leaves entitled "Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzählung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasverus." This professes to have been printed at Leyden in 1602 by Christoff Crutzer, but no printer of that name has been discovered, and the real place and printer can not be ascertained. The legend spread quickly throughout Germany, no less than eight different editions appearing in 1602; altogether forty appeared in Germany before the end of the eighteenth century.
 

Kitty Crocodile

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The legend became well known from the 17th century onward, but it is recorded in medieval documents, and there were 'sightings' of the Wandering Jew in (for example) 13th-century Italy. The Jewish Encyclopedia entry suggests that there is a gap between 17th- and 15th-century records and legends, so that's a bit of a problem concerning what name the Wandering Jew would have been known by in 15th-century Spain (---if any?). That seems to be an important question which I hadn't considered until now.
 

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I wonder if he would have been more likely to think he had been possessed by a demon or evil spirit initially? It could be he internalises the idea of the Wandering Jew later?
 

Kitty Crocodile

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Somakona, that...would actually solve the problem. I hope I'll find evidence that the legend of the Wandering Jew was known in 15th-century Spain (it doesn't actually matter what name he would have been called by), because this is the one darling I'd like to spare, but I could work with that. Thanks :)
 

gothicangel

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Somakona, that...would actually solve the problem. I hope I'll find evidence that the legend of the Wandering Jew was known in 15th-century Spain (it doesn't actually matter what name he would have been called by), because this is the one darling I'd like to spare, but I could work with that. Thanks :)

Maybe post in the Historical forum also? Someone there might know more about this.
 

Manuel Royal

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I think I've seen one 13th century reference to the Wandering Jew, but 40 years of casual research have gotten disordered in my brain. But, as noted, that's Christian folklore; I don't know if any medieval Jewish communities would be familiar with it.

I like the idea of a section bringing the character up to the present, and looking at it from a 21st century perspective.

Kitty, is your main character (in the 15th century) self-hating in some way? Is he seeking absolution, or punishment? (Atonement is important, but I don't think I ever see the term "absolution" in connection with Jewish religious thinking.) I was just thinking that the Blood Libel might be more relevant to the culture of that time than the Wandering Jew.

Out of curiosity -- have you read Walter Miller, Jr.'s famous sf novel A Canticle for Liebowitz? It's relevant to the Wandering Jew.

As it happens, I'm also writing a novel with a (nonpracticing) Jewish protagonist (in 1928 Pittsburgh). As an atheist former Catholic, I'm hoping to not screw it up too badly.
 

Kitty Crocodile

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A lot of food for thought there, Manuel - thanks for chipping in!

Kitty, is your main character (in the 15th century) self-hating in some way? Is he seeking absolution, or punishment? (Atonement is important, but I don't think I ever see the term "absolution" in connection with Jewish religious thinking.) I was just thinking that the Blood Libel might be more relevant to the culture of that time than the Wandering Jew.

My MC isn't exactly looking for punishment as much atonement, perhaps an explanation of sorts, and a way to put an end to what he perceives an unnatural and terrible existence. (Throughout his life he will be prone to suicide, which gives him a bad reputation among his kind and causes some speculation about the state of his soul...he isn't the most popular guy to have around) In the 15th century he seeks that explanation from religion, as far as he is capable of rational thought process. Thanks for mentioning that 'absolution' doesn't seem to come up in Jewish religious thinking - I wasn't aware of that, and that's a really important detail.

I've thought about Blood Libel after you brought it up. I can see how it would be more relevant. I could probably work with it, though it would take a lot of thinking to have the MC believe that he's involved in murdering Christian children - it's essential that he's nearly if not entirely convinced, so the Wandering Jew would be an easier pick. ;) But I'm going to think about this.

Out of curiosity -- have you read Walter Miller, Jr.'s famous sf novel A Canticle for Liebowitz? It's relevant to the Wandering Jew.

As it happens, I'm also writing a novel with a (nonpracticing) Jewish protagonist (in 1928 Pittsburgh). As an atheist former Catholic, I'm hoping to not screw it up too badly.

I haven't read that novel, but now I'm going to. :) And I'm very glad to hear that others are writing about Jewish characters in different points in history - that support group I would definitely join :D

And thanks again, gothicangel - I'll pop by at the Historical forum at some point! :)

This discussion has actually helped me rewrite the first chapter [in which these events don't come up much].
 
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RichardGarfinkle

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Jewish oral tradition has two immortal humans: Enoch and Elijah. Both are regarded as among the best of humanity.

On a more subtle level, Judaism is far more about what you do on Earth than about any afterlife reward. I think many if not most observant Jews would regard longer life as more opportunity to do good.

It makes it harder to have a Jew believe that immortality is a punishment.
 

Kitty Crocodile

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Jewish oral tradition has two immortal humans: Enoch and Elijah. Both are regarded as among the best of humanity.

On a more subtle level, Judaism is far more about what you do on Earth than about any afterlife reward. I think many if not most observant Jews would regard longer life as more opportunity to do good.

It makes it harder to have a Jew believe that immortality is a punishment.

Thank you - again really helpful. This actually goes well with the MC's development in the main story and gives him tools as he very carefully rebuilds a Jewish identity in the 21st century. The trauma he's suffered and his shaky identity (perhaps he is actually of Converso background?) could explain his problems in the 15th century.
 

RichardGarfinkle

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Thank you - again really helpful. This actually goes well with the MC's development in the main story and gives him tools as he very carefully rebuilds a Jewish identity in the 21st century. The trauma he's suffered and his shaky identity (perhaps he is actually of Converso background?) could explain his problems in the 15th century.

That's sounding interesting. Could he be wondering why he deserves the reward of immortality? It's almost an inverse Book of Job.
 

Kitty Crocodile

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Could he be wondering why he deserves the reward of immortality? It's almost an inverse Book of Job.

Okay, wow. I'm so glad I decided to post here. :) That is a fascinating idea.

I initially thought about all this in terms of appropriateness, but it's clear that I actually need to do more research and (re)develop the character and his story in that regard.
 

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My main character is a 15th-century Spanish Jew who dies during the Spanish Inquisition, returns back to life extremely traumatized by what he's gone through, and struggles with his sanity and his identity for the next couple of centuries (while some other things happen too - the main story begins in early 21st century, and some of it involves his backstory).

.

I think the idea sounds interesting.

Have you read Kage Baker's books (I think the first in the series is called In the Garden of Iden)?

Your idea is different in its details, but her protagonist is also a 15th century Spanish Jew who escapes the Inquisition and becomes an immortal (who then becomes a time traveler). She sounds very different from your protagonist in many ways, but it might be interesting to see how another writer has dealt with this concept.
 
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Kitty Crocodile

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Roxxsmom, thank you so much for the tip! I just had a brief look, and In the Garden of Iden sounds fascinating. I hadn't heard of Kage Baker before.
 

Manuel Royal

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This also makes me think of Crypto-Judaism. Some Conversos secretly maintained their practices and beliefs after 1492. Some modern Spaniards and Mexicans have discovered that, not only do they have DNA indicating descent from Sephardic Jews (though that's a complex issue, given the vast number of migrations in European history), but some of their family traditions appear to be handed-down Jewish practices. It might be interesting if your MC encountered a 21st century descendant who was unaware of his own Jewish ancestry.
 

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Roxxsmom, thank you so much for the tip! I just had a brief look, and In the Garden of Iden sounds fascinating. I hadn't heard of Kage Baker before.

You're welcome :)

Unfortunately, she passed away a while back (cancer, I think. Really pisses me off how this disease steals so many before their time :( ), but I enjoyed her writing. An interesting take on time travel (though her view of the future was somewhat cynical).
 
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Kitty Crocodile

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An update: I've done a lot of reading and rewriting over the past months. :) For anyone interested, I can warmly recommend George K. Anderson's The Legend of the Wandering Jew, a detailed account of the Wandering Jew and his various aliases and appearances in European texts and folklore from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. As a result I've deleted the references to the Wandering Jew from the 15th-century section of the story and saddled the MC with the problem of immortality and wavering mental health alone, and in the 19th century another character begins to taunt him as the Wandering Jew. The identity is thus imposed on him in a much later time period.

I started subbing the novel last month, and today I realized I've set up another character in a much too modest house for a kept mistress in late 19th-century London. :p The work never ends.
 
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