The notion of the Wandering Jew comes from popular Christian folktales of the European Middle Ages dating between the fall of Rome in 476 CE and the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th century.
According to these Christian legends, the Jews have been condemned to wander because of their negativity toward Jesus. Considering the Jesus portrayed by Middle Age European Christianity, it is no wonder that the Jews refused to respect their antisemitic messiah.
Christian Europe also became the region from which the Jews were most often expelled. Most of the time they were banished by local authorities who thought that the Jews were establishing themselves financially at the expense of local population. So the authorities forced the Jews out of the city to poorer surrounding districts, where they continued to prosper and were then violently pushed back into the city by angry local merchants.
When this happened, the king who considered the Jews as his private property would intervene and allow the Jews to stay put until the next wave of persecutions and pogroms. Banishing the Jews became a go-to political propaganda program by local authorities who needed to win favor among the already-angry populations because of their poorly-governed and run-down locales.
The expulsion of Jews from entire European kingdoms began in the 12th century. These deportations were especially traumatic for the Jews, who not only lost their homes and livelihood, but were transferred to far and unfamiliar regions where they did not know the local languages and were strangers and foreigners to the local populations.
These expulsions from kingdom to kingdom created the wide geographical dispersion of the Jews in modern times. More often than not, the Jews continued to identify with the regions from which they came, and hundreds of years later still see themselves as either Sephardic or Ashkenazi.
Historically, European Jews have been classified as belonging to two major groups:
- Ashkenazim or “Germanics” (Ashkenaz meaning “Germany” in Medieval Hebrew), denoting their Central European base.
- Sephardim or “Hispanics” (Sefarad meaning “Hispania” or “Iberia” in Hebrew), denoting their Spanish, Portuguese or North African base.
A third term Mizrahim, or “Easterners” (Mizrach being “east” in Hebrew), has been used to describe other non-European Jewish communities which were located further to the east, but its usage has changed over time and often denotes Jews who never left the Middle East.
The Ashkenazi and French Jews went mostly to Poland and Lithuania, where they were warmly welcomed. They were settled in these kingdoms in vast areas from the northeast to the south of Europe. They were not, however, allowed into Russia, which became the eastern border of the Jewish settlements at the time.
When Spain and Portugal were occupied by the Christians, the Sephardic Jews were expelled. They scattered throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and eventually on to South America. Many of them migrated to the Ottoman Empire, where they were welcomed by the Ottoman authorities and established thriving communities. Other Jewish refugees from Spain went to North Africa, particularly to Morocco, which had a long history of Jewish settlement. Some also went to the Middle East, particularly to the cities of Aleppo and Safed in what is now Syria and Israel. In the Americas, Jewish refugees from Spain settled in various colonies, including Brazil, Mexico and Peru.
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