I – a wondering wandering Jew

I do a lot of wandering on the Camino de Santiago and its by-ways in France, and I constantly wonder as I wander. Wondering has brought me many an interesting experience, and being a wondering wandering Jew on the Camino is an experience all to itself.

Of all the things I wonder about, what I wonder most about is “what the…” I, a Jew, am doing wandering on the Camino de Santiago, being a pilgrim on this most Catholic of pilgrimages to a holy Relic.

A few years ago I was on the Lepuy-Santiago in France and we were very fortunate to arrive in Conque on the Saturday that inaugurated that year’s Sainte Foy “Black Madonna” celebration. The next day on Sunday the Statue of Sainte Foy all covered in jewels and finery would be taken out on procession, but alas we had a schedule to keep, and would not be around to experience it. However the evening before, Saturday, just as it was getting dark a Public Vespers is held in front to the church followed by a torchlight procession, where all of the citizens and tourist of the town would go around the narrow streets and passages from the middle ages. Everyone then carried a votive candle that had been lit at Vespers by one of the priests, followed by everyone in turn lighting each other’s candles – I did the same and it was quite an experience  being together with all the people of  this ultra-quaint town from the middle ages. But that was not the experience that made me wonder as a wondering wandering Jew. I of course participated in the public vespers (now held in the vulgate – French) in itself an experience fraught with strange feelings for me, when I all of a sudden heard the officiating priest dressed in full ornate recite the Hebrew Schema, the Jewish credo – “Hear oh Israel the lord our god, the lord is one” – which is always recited when Jews congregate in the synagogue and these are also the words to be said with your dying breath. That was a real curve ball there – here I was participating with some overbearing in what was for me an exotic catholic ritual when, bam all of a sudden I’m back in my childhood’s Synagogue hearing the Cantor recite the Schema.

As a wondering wandering Jew there is always much to wonder about the “dark world” of intensity, meaning, and solemnity on  this most famous of Catholic pilgrimages. Then there is that long line of well documented history – none of it is my history, except maybe as cautionary tales told me about the goyim (non-Jews) and their perfidy. Then there are all those town squares with their war memorials (I’m always looking to see if there are any Jewish names – sometimes there are)and most of all, all those churches –unholy churches my mother warned me against – all different but still all the same, all in one way or another a manifestation of the Catholic Mother church.

There is however a great difference between the French side of the Camino and the Spanish side. French Catholicism emphasizes the benevolent Christ and his Mother the Virgin Mary, La Vierge,  who is depicted in every church, at the entrance of many a town, and even at many a crossroads. Each French Church commemorates a common positive world depicted through statuettes of righteous persons, saints, and priests who had done good in the world. The Spanish Catholicism on the other hand, emphasizes the suffering Christ. Christianity all over the world in each country and culture has its unique face and mood, and the Spanish one has always seemed to me to be a somber one with its churches emphasizing the darker side of the passion of Christ, most especially his last sufferings depicting, plenty of gore and blood (sangre y arena) in painting sculpture and ceremony.

I am not completely unfamiliar with the Catholic world and the meaning and import of its iconography – any educated person who has read some of the classics cannot avoid some knowledge of Christian symbolism and metaphors. Even more important was that I grew up in the Bronx in the 1950’s when everyone you knew was either Jewish, Irish or Italian. My classmates in school were predominantly Jewish, with a mixture of Irish and Italian Catholics, a very few Afro-Americans and Catholic Porto Ricans. We were not by any means friends with each other across ethnic/religious lines, but in as much as we all came from families that were still, more or less, traditionally religious, we were on intimate terms with each other’s holidays, ceremonies, and customs. Each group also had its own stores selling religious paraphernalia, so I had already seen the St Christopher medallions and dashboard statues of the Virgin Mary, bleeding heart paintings and lamps, crucifixes and what have you. I was therefore not totally unprepared for the Crucifixions and Madonnas I saw in the churches on the Camino. Yet after having seen one-two-fifty churches their immediate aesthetic quality started to wear off, and instead the more primitive, almost in the genes so to speak, Jewish antipathies and fears slowly grew upon me.

No matter if it was the Spanish blood and pain, or the French Madonna and goodness, all these churches are quite an assault on the sensibilities of this wondering wandering Jew, as I’m sure it must be on any Jew entering this world of Catholic sacral iconography, that is after all the backdrop of and raison-d’etre of the Camino. The French Camino’s churches and their iconography do not frighten me though, not at all like the Spanish churches and their iconography – they are, in fact, meant to frighten their own believers, and for non-believing Jews with even only inkling as to what had all through history taken place in the Catholic (Spanish) world, they positively horrify – they actually made me shudder sometimes.

My own Conque experience upon hearing the Schema was in some sense reminiscent of the one described by Arthur miller in his short story “Monte Sant’ Angelo.”  Published in 1951, it is a semi-autobiographical description of a journey Arthur Miller took in Europe in 1947 right after the war and the holocaust. Traveling in Italy with a friend of Italian descent who is returning to the home of his ancestors, and is like a fish in his catholic Italian world, renewing his roots there. Millers alter ego Bernstein feels left out, lost , and constantly made aware that he had no such roots there in Italy (or anywhere else for that matter) – no, he belongs to a people and culture that almost disappeared just a few years ago. Thus how could Bernstein/Miller not feel a terrible sense of rootlessness in as much as it was so emphatically counterpointed by the rootedness of his friend. He is at a loss until one Friday evening in a café he meet Mauro di Benedetto (Morris of The Blessed, i.e., Moses) a traveling salesmen – a catholic – who yet by his entire demeanor, the way he dresses (he always wears a black hat while the local men wore beret) his involvement with his wares, his body language reflects that he cannot but be a descendant of those Jewish itinerant salesmen who used to walk across Europe in the Middle Ages. I know that demeanor – I have it – whereby one Jew recognizes what he thinks is another Jew.

The clinching evidence to his Jewish ancestry was his stating that: “I am doing just as my father had done, it is our custom…You see, my road ahead is marked for me. I used to go with my father, as he had done with his father. We are known here for many generations. And my father always returned home before sunset on a Friday night.  A family custom I guess.” And always on Friday night, without knowing why, they carried a fresh bread home.

Arthur Miller was therefore immediately convinced that Maura was a forbearer of his, and just as immediately he was filled with a new confidence – he felt for the first time the equal of his Italian  travel companion. His up-to-then unconscious quest for an identity with a culture that had so often been on the verge of total eradication, had left him with a feeling of inferiority which now turned into a feeling of great pride. Of what he should be proud of, he has not a clear idea; perhaps it is only that here a vestigial Jew had secretly survived, albeit attenuated and shorn of his consciousness, but still a remnant of a ”nation” and culture that not only predated Catholicism on the continent of Europe, but also had in some form or another been undeniably formative for European culture.

I was also once similarly affected by the Jewish cemetery in Prague. Most Jews I knew (including me) have very little genealogical depth in their knowledge of their families: uncles aunts, grandparents, perhaps one great grandparent or two, but beyond that all was lost somewhere in the vast hinterlands of Eastern Europe. Family consists of names and pictures you hardly ever heard of and most postwar Jews rarely if ever talked about them- many of us therefore grew up with the history, religion of Judaism, but these had no physical personal roots, with all now mostly destroyed and even hushed up. And in western Europe so few cemeteries have survived intact, and in any case families had moved and moved, time and again, and lost track of where their dead had been buried. But here in Prague is saw a headstone dating back to the 13th century, and just by seeing it, for the first time in my life I felt that localized, geographical, continuity which every French Italian, Check nobleman or peasant has shad with his forbearers.

That was what the hearing the schema in the square in front of the church in Conque awakened in me. It was a good feeling – that was France and anyway in the last 20 to 30 years there has almost been a Jewish renaissance and no Jew need to feel left-out rootless anymore. When Miller wrote his short story there still existed unspoken quotas for Jews at many golf clubs, universities and other educational institutions and top echelon jobs, all over the USA. They were considered smart but very very uncouth. That changed with the prodigious output of Jewish American literature and, yes, such types as Woody Allen, and above all the growing significance of Israel’s relationship to both American Jews but also American internal and external power politics. Being a Jew is not anymore being a member of a lost and destroyed people, rootless and persecuted: quite on the contrary a recent census of Jews in the USA is considered to be very imprecise just because in many circles even the slightest teint of Jewishness confers status: i.e. the person must be smart, creative…. So why not declare yourself as a being Jewish! Much like it helps being (or appearing to be) gay if you’re a designer, hairdresser, dancer etc.

Al in all Conque was an uplifting experience- beautiful town with a great ambiance and the inclusiveness vis-à-vis us tourists that night in the procession around the town was very heartwarming.

I will now relate an experience I had in 2009 in Leon in Spain: again I the wondering wandering Jew has an experience that underlines his own Jewishness, but this time it was anything but heartwarming – Not that the people in Leon were not very gracious and friendly, but there was something in their celebration of Easter that was a …well let me relate what happened.

My friend B., also a Jew of sorts, with whom I was doing the Camino in Spain, and I arrived in the city of Leon on the first day of the Semana Santa – holy week – that preceded Easter Sunday. There was a festive atmosphere in the air, and we enjoyed some of the traditional Semana Santa fare such as a sweet bread reminiscent of “French toast”, but did not imbibe the yellow stuff all adult Spaniards seem to be drinking in cafes and bars. Sitting in a café just of the Cathedral we got into a very pleasant conversation with a young Spanish couple who had asked us if we were pilgrims. As it turned out the man had also done the Camino some years ago. We asked them what that yellow drink was everyone was drinking to which they responded that it was made from lemonade and wine and people only drank it  during the Semana Santa and that it was called Mattar Judio – kill the Jew – and it is said that every time someone drank up a Judio mataran. Now our Spanish was not much better than their English, so I figured I must have heard wrong, but when I saw the way B. looked at me – I knew! This young educated couple continued to all giggly tell us of this “quaint” Easter custom, without batting an eyelid as to what they were saying.

And that was not all. Later that day and the next day we saw some kind of spooky procession of floats carried by people wearing cloaks and hat very like those worn by the Klux Klux Klan, only more colorful and sometimes we saw people dragging gigantic crosses behind them. And then one evening as we were strolling along we happened onto a square where lots of families in a very festive mood were congregating and lighting each other’s votive candles – very upbeat, until! In the distance we heard a very low rumbling which got louder and louder and we could hear them now as large drums beating a deep base rhythm not unlike a heartbeat and then a float appeared all lighted up by giant candles in the darkness carried by people in Semana Santa costumes…Then B. who rarely acknowledges his Jewishness, whispers to me “this is no place for two little Jewish boys.” And thus we leave, with (unnecessary) caution.

I’ve spent many an enjoyable evening in a French Catholic hostel, where the great food and wine was accompanied by grace and talk of the church and such, never hiding my background and with a good feeling of communitas. Yet Once in a while though, on the Camino, in France or Spain, I get a slight twinge, ever so slight, but it’s there, a slight twinge of the ghetto my forbearers came from. And when that twinge comes over me, I begin to wonder: I wonder what the…I am doing on a Catholic pilgrimage trail, but perhaps then that is the lot of every (wandering) Jew: to travel on the historic trails marked out by others.

I do, however, feel the call of the history of all those that have trodden the pilgrim path before me, and when I wander on the Camino and its many byways, after only a day or two I slip into the role of being a pilgrim: I act like a pilgrim, I am taken to be a pilgrim by one and all who live and go on the Camino, therefore I must be a pilgrim. How often have I not been asked “are you a pilgrim on the Camino”, and for each time I answer yes, I feel more corroborated in my venture. Being a pilgrim consists of a state of mind, a role to be played and an acceptance by the locals so if I fulfill all these requirements, who’s to say that I’m not a pilgrim – the wondering wandering Jew has become a wondering wandering Jewish pilgrim.

I would like to quote from,  Conrad Rudolph’s “Pilgrimage to the End of the World: The Road to Santiago de Compostela”

“A pilgrim is a not a tourist. You have a deeper experience precisely because you are not an observer in the traditional sense of the word. Something changes. You are not exactly the same person you were before. The locals look to you as a special experience, authentic. Despite the distance, you are a participator, an authenticator, even more than the locals themselves. You are part of the cultural landscape, part of the original reason for being and the history of many of the towns through which you pass. This is the pilgrimage route, and it is a deeply ingrained part of the identity of the towns and people along it. Yours is the experience of a fully reconciled alienation: the pilgrim at once the complete insider, the total outsider. This is why the pilgrimage is not a tour, not a vacation, not at all a trip from point A to point B, but a journey that is both an experience and a metaphor rather than an event.”

Ps. We did understand the young couple’s Spanish: Matar Judio, meaning kill the Jews, is the right word for that yellow lemon/wine drink. I is drunk only during Semana Santa: it was instituted in the 14th century by a king who was tired of the Easter pogroms when because as everybody knows the Jews killed Christ and the priests incited the people to go wreck their revenge on them. The king figured that dispensing this alcoholic beverage from all taverns at a time when because of Lent e alcohol was otherwise not available the populace would get so soused that they would leave “his” Jews alone. The saying attributed to king Ferdinand when he signed the decree of expulsion of the Jews from Spain , “Limonada que trasiego, judío que pulverizo” became then associated with this drink and hence the term matar judio.





One thought on “I – a wondering wandering Jew

  1. Ernest Heimann Shalom and Greetings from Jerusalem
    I enjoyed reading your experiences here and can understand them better then most since I have become quite obsessed with Saint James and have found that he is similarly obsessed with me! I have sought him out walking different Camino routes to Santiago-Saint Jean of course but also Lisbon, LePuy and now in a few weeks from Vezalay. He has found me as I walked for my pleasure in Venice, in New York City’s Chinatown, in Assisi, in Chicago, and yes here in Jerusalem as well (the Spanish do not like to hear that after their Saint floated around half the known world in order to arrive in Galicia, he forgot his head here in Jerusalem which is now enshrined in the Armenian cathedral!).
    I would like to share with you my experience from Conques and the Schemah as well. I arrived on the hill above Conques very tired after a long cold rainy days’ walk and found the slip-slide descent much more difficult than the ascent which awaited me the next morning. Finally made it in for a hot shower and to hear the evening talk out in front of the amazing tympanum went in for dinner and after singing Ultreia and dining joined the others for the Pilgrims Mass in the darkened church-a magical experience. I always attend these things, a good fellowship with other pilgrims and I do enjoy to answer the priest’s question where are you all from with “A Jew from Jerusalem”. I was especially lucky this time since there was a lovely organ recital afterwards played by a priest in residence who is one of the top three organists in all of France. He had been informed that there was a Jew in the woodpile so later he sought me ought and sang his version of “Schemah Israel” in perfect Hebrew! I was overwhelmed! I am used to priests who say things like “Shalom” or “LeChayim” but to sing Schemah? Quite a different story.
    Every year between 150-200 Israelis complete the Camino and receive their Compostela document. Mostly younger people who have no idea what they are about to experience, while some love it – others feel very much out of place – an education imbalance since 90% of those walking are usualy secular Christians. I love the freedom to walk whenever however and as long as I choose and personally not being able or willing to follow guidebooks, directions, recommended routes, or most other forms of authority I will often go walkabout in search of a all but forgotten monastery, a Romanesque church, a vinery or say the Rioja town of Hara closeby Logrono so my “pilgrimages” often take longer than most and are much more kaleidoscopic .
    I will leave now, would like to hear more of your experiences – we all have so many personal epiphanies as well as those shared by all pilgrims.

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