Wandering Jew 

Growing Anywhere


in First Person • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


It might have seemed appropriate, albeit a cliché, to get a new houseplant when my husband and I separated. “It’s good to bring in new life,” one friend said tritely. “Watering it will keep you from being depressed,” another friend mumbled as she left my apartment, gazing downward sheepishly. Another suggested I take up gardening. “It will be good to get your hands dirty with soil,” she said. New cycles of life and all that. These pallid remarks weren’t personal, I know. And the suggestion to get closer to nature when grieving was nice, of course. But most people, it seems, just don’t really know what to say when you’re hurting. None of it was comforting. I’d been experiencing intense waves of grief, and I hate when someone tells me what they think I should do, especially when it’s self-serving — more to do with their discomfort at someone else’s pain — so they say things to make themselves feel better. My friend Pat, who was two decades older than me, knew what to say, though; or rather, she knew that she didn’t need to say anything at all, during the few months I spent with her, when I learned that tending to plants is really tending to oneself, and that all of it — the breakups and the plants and the people who do and do not get you — ultimately has to do with just getting old.  

Besides, I already had a plant, a rubber tree with eighteen smooth, shiny green leaves each the size of my outstretched hand, all with tiny diagonal veins. It was a gift from my mother sixteen years ago. It’s done surprisingly well on the window sill that faces south in my living room in Chicago. I don’t have a great track record with plants (or relationships, it turns out), but the rubber tree keeps growing. When my mother gave it to me, it had two small leaves. It was a cutting from one of her plants. She had taken the rubber tree from her Aunt Rose’s home when Rose died. Giving me a cutting, she told me, was a way to keep Aunt Rose alive. It was fitting, she explained, because my middle name is Rose. I was named for my great-grandmother, and Rose is Shoshana in Hebrew, which is also my Hebrew name. I have a tiny rose tattoo near my hip, a seemingly rebellious act at age 19. It was as red as fresh strawberries. It’s faded now to a soft pink, maybe even a light peach, almost as though to remind me that I’m getting old. I’ve always loved roses, but who doesn’t? People pay up to $40 an ounce for the plant’s oil, picked and pressed by hand up in the hills of California, bottled up pretty and corked in small, precious, pink glass. Their smell is sweet and strong, sometimes pungent, the petals soft and silky.  

“You are a rose,” my husband told me once, stroking my hair, “inviting but thorny,” as though predicting some future hurt. “You’re no shrinking violet,” he laughed, “that’s for sure.” I’ve thought about that a lot since we separated, about how we used to lie in our bed in the late afternoon on the weekends, the sun coming through the blond wood blinds. “Hitchcock shadows,” I said to him playfully more than once, as the light through the slats made stripes along his forehead and nose as I stroked his cheek with my fingers.  

A few years ago, the rubber tree my mother gave me got so big, I cut a couple of leaves and made another plant which sat in my husband’s office in our home. It lived on the floor in a maroon pot between his bookshelf and the window. Though it was in his workspace, I watered it weekly along with the other rubber tree that sat in our living room. I walked lightly on my toes when I entered his space even when he wasn’t there because it was, well, his room. We had been very intentional about having our own private writing spaces when we moved in together years before so I always felt like I shouldn’t enter the room when I watered the plant. He took the plant with him when he moved into his new apartment, where it lived between a big leather chair and his television, just under the window sill. He had to repot it, he told me, a year after he moved, because it had exploded into dozens of huge dark green leaves, each as big as a catcher’s mitt — a sign of health I took to mean that he, like the plant, was thriving without me. I was jealous of how easily the plant seemed to grow. Knowing that he still cared for it gave me some odd comfort, like in a way he was still — peripherally, incidentally, at best — caring for me. One time he told me he was glad I was a rose, despite my thorns, and I was glad that he could see the good in me, even though it could be buried sometimes.  

“It just feels like something everyone does after a breakup,” I told my friend, Pat, complaining about my friends who said I should buy a plant because they didn’t know what else to say. I was annoyed, I told her, that the friends I had seemed unaware of what it means just to be with someone without having to say anything. “Why is it that everyone knows what it feels like to go through a breakup,” I asked Pat, “yet no one knows what to do when it happens to someone else?” Oddly, Pat, an avid gardener who is 75 and who also was my next-door neighbor, was one of my only friends who didn’t tell me I should buy a plant or take up gardening. This seemed funny to me because Pat was constantly tending to her plants. But it was also not that weird at all, really, because she never told me what she thought I ought to do; which is why, after the separation, I spent so much time with her. She became kind of a stand-in for a mother or an older sister but without the baggage of real mothers and real sisters. I knew she was married once, and coupled more than once or twice, though she never talked to me about that part of her life. She lived alone when I knew her, and in the small backyard behind her apartment, she’d planted green beans, tomatoes, beebalms — I had just learned the name of these pink flowers because she’d just told me — also: rosemary, mint, oregano, milkweed, dill, berries, kale, three different kinds of lettuce. I liked being around her. She just did her thing; that is to say, she was just being herself and doing what made her feel good. So when I was with her, I felt a bit better.  

A few weeks after my separation, I was hanging out at Pat’s apartment in the late afternoon. We were drinking homemade spritzers — a combination of Aperol, prosecco, and soda water. Pat cut some fresh orange slices and threw them into the drinks. “Voilà,” she said as she handed me the glass. We sat on her rose-colored kitchen stools as the breeze came in from the open back door. I smelled basil. On her white kitchen counter were two dark red tomatoes the size of softballs next to several sprigs of mint.  

A little later, after we drank and chatted about small things (what a joy to talk about trivial things when you’re going through a breakup) — petty arguments with neighbors, deals at Whole Foods, her dog’s incessant barking, the loose plank of wood in the floor in her kitchen — I was beginning to feel a bit dizzy from the alcohol. Pat was too. She stood up, spread her arms wide to make sure she had her balance, adjusted her light teal eyeglasses that stood out amidst her short gray hair and walked out the door to her back porch. A large white diagonal pocket on the left side of her green shirt stood out to me. Its lopsidedness made it seem like the pocket, too, was drunk. I followed her like a child. Holding my drink, I stood and watched her tend to the potted plants — trimming here, cutting there, feeling the dampness of the soil with her fingers as it settled in dark, under her nails.  

One plant, in particular, caught my eye on the outside windowsill — a full one with rose-purple and green and gray stripes on heart-shaped leaves. I touched one of the leaves. Its bottom was magenta, bright but deep like a nice glass of Malbec. The stems went in all directions like the old Medusa wig I once wore for Halloween that had different-sized snakes sewn into the hair. Some branches hung far below the pot, sticking to the outside brick of the apartment building.  

“It’s a Wandering Jew,” Pat remarked, when she saw me touching the leaves. “They’re very popular. Easy to take care of. Grows like a weed. You’ve seen these before, haven’t you?” she asked. 

“I had,” I answered. An old boss, Jane, gave one to me many years ago when I was in my late 20s but it didn’t last very long in my cheap studio apartment. The studio got a lot of light but I smoked a ton of cigarettes in that tiny space and always wondered if I helped kill it. Jane was the owner of the bar I worked at when I was in graduate school. She was an evangelical Christian and bragged to customers that she had hired me, a Jew. She joked with them that she should get bonus points for not trying to convert me — though I’m pretty sure she would have been happy if she had. Her daughter, Barb, who helped out at the bar sometimes often asked me how my relationship with God was while I made Manhattans and Vodka Gimlets for our customers and tried to convince me to go with her to church. After working at the bar for several years, I finished my Master’s in Education and got a full-time teaching job at a local public high school. Jane gave me the plant on my last night. “A Wandering Jew for the Wandering Jew,” she wrote on the card she handed me at the end of my last shift. Later that night at closing time, I made out with one of the regulars who was 20 years older than me in the parking lot of the bar near my car. I’m not sure why but maybe it was because I was moving on to a real job, and he was there, a nice old guy who looked like the Marlboro Man — a fantasy for Jewish girls like me — and he made me feel young. I put the plant on top of my car. We kissed for a few minutes, the flickering Budweiser neon sign our moonlight.  

The plant died a couple of months later. The purple and green and gray leaves had turned to brown, and were withered and scraggly. I threw it in the garbage in the parking lot behind my apartment, embarrassed that I had killed a plant that has a reputation for growing anywhere, a plant whose name reminded me of the history of my people wandering the desert in ancient times, withstanding assimilation over millennium. Yet I couldn’t keep a stupid plant alive in a pretty nice suburb of Chicago. Standing at the dumpster, I looked around to make sure no one was looking as though I was committing a transgression. One swing with my arm and the plant went up and then down into piles of large green and black plastic bags of trash. I could see some roots hanging out of the holes in the bottom of the pot as it flew through the air. The plant was dead, that was clear, but just for a second as it went flying past me, it looked fully alive, its roots deep and thick. 

The plant is also called a spiderwort, from the tradescantia pallida species. The name Wandering Jew is believed to come from the plant’s tendency to easily migrate. The international Jewish news source, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, claims the name comes from the story of Moses and the Israelites wandering in the Sinai Desert for 40 years. The Wandering Jew is also the name of an 1844 novel, opera, and 1923 silent film, remade in 1933 — a Jewish man separated from his sister by the Bering Strait is condemned to wander the earth forever alone, never to find his sister. The wandering Jew of the film is often hunched over, walking with a cane, beaten down as he wanders. Or it might refer to a legend of a Jew who scoffed at Jesus on the way to his crucifixion and who was subsequently cursed to walk the earth until the second coming of Christ. The 1940 Nazi propaganda film, The Eternal Jew, apparently was an anti-Semitic version of the 1923 film, ordered by Joseph Goebbels.  

Bloombox Club, a plant company based in London that delivers plants all over the U.K., decided to change the name of the plant to “Wandering Dude.” “In the context of the observable Jewish diaspora; the displacement of Jewish peoples from the Southern Levant in ancient times, and subsequent statelessness from anti-Semitic regimes,” it says on their website, “we are profoundly uncomfortable with using this moniker.”  

If the stories about its name are true, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a little plant. But that day on Pat’s back porch I wasn’t thinking so much of the name when she asked me if I had heard of it. I was thinking of its heart-shaped leaves and the one I killed years ago and the bad choices I’ve made in my life and the brief respite I felt when I was with her. I wondered if my fate would be similar to the man in the silent film, condemned to wander the earth forever alone. When Pat wasn’t looking, I tore off one of the leaves like a bratty kid and ripped it into two pieces down the middle. I wanted to destroy something that was beautiful, like Lizbeth does, the girl in Eugenia Collier’s short story “Marigolds” who destroys the beautiful yellow flowers her neighbor Miss Lottie has planted. Lizbeth begins to hate the marigolds because they interfere with the ugliness of their poor shantytown. “A brilliant splash of sunny yellow against the dust,” Collier writes. As Pat tended to her plants, I crumpled the leaves I had torn and threw them off the back porch, hoping she didn’t see. A brilliant splash of purple against the alley gray. 

“Help me out here,” Pat said, as though sensing my moping, and walked down the few steps from her back porch to the backyard. I followed. At the bottom of the stairs below Pat’s apartment were several large teal pots of huge elephant ear plants lining the sidewalk just before the grass. She asked me to move a couple of the pots for her to make room for some new plants. Elephant ears are green tropical foliage plants; Pat brought some of them to Chicago with her when she moved from New Orleans, saving them, herself, and her dog, from Hurricane Katrina. When looking at the elephant ears all together, they resembled huge flat green alien faces whose necks are bent upwards, worshiping the sun, or like a crowd of fans at a show, all staring up towards the stage. Their leaves are so big and thick, fan-like, I imagined I could cut one off and use it in the winter as a sled.  

The stems of elephant ears look and feel like celery stalks, dense, anchored deep in the soil. My husband was an anchor for me. Like the elephant ear stems, he grounded me in a way I hadn’t been before, and early in the separation, I felt like I was flailing in the wind with nothing to tether me. It sounds banal, I’m sure, to have thought my partner an elephant ear and I a Wandering Jew. I’m sorry, the metaphor just fits. But when I take the comparison further, it falls apart. I’ve never known how much to bend to another person and how much to stay rooted by myself. Either my roots become too thick and start to overlap and get messy, or they’re weakened, not strong enough, don’t get enough air. I just can’t seem to get it right.  

“This is a fun game,” Pat said. She turned one of the pots with the elephant ears around so that the leaves were rotated away from the sun. “When I do this at night,” Pat whispered, as though telling me a secret, “by tomorrow afternoon, all the leaves will be facing the sun again.” She laughed again, playfully and young, her blue eyes warm and soft and clear. She was a beautiful, old woman. On the one hand, she seemed so old that when I looked at her face, I couldn’t see the younger version of her. Yet as I gazed into her blue eyes and watched how the wrinkles in her face made everything tilt downward, I saw all of her years in the folds of her skin. Not old and not young. And so maybe this is how I need to look at aging, to see the beauty in the present and to stop looking for younger selves in people’s older selves. I wondered if my proximity to Pat alone was enough to feel better, if the energy between us, between humans in general sometimes can help us heal. I envied the contentment she had in solitude.  

A few days later, I was at Pat’s again. I brought another bottle of Aperol and prosecco and a fresh orange for our homemade spritzers and we sat on her rose-colored stools in her kitchen like we did before, chatting again about small, trivial things. Later, as the alcohol went to our heads, we walked out to her back porch. A cool breeze caused the plants around us to sway a bit. I caught a whiff of dill. Pat handed me a small Wandering Jew plant to take home with me. She had placed three cuttings from her plant in different parts of the pot so the roots had room to grow. “Try not to kill it,” she teased. I wanted to play the trick she showed me and turn it around and watch the leaves orient back to the sun, but I was worried it was too soon, that the roots weren’t thick enough, the roots not deep enough. I didn’t dare tear off a leaf. 

Things didn’t stay this way with Pat. A few months later, after an exercise class at the YMCA near us, Pat was crossing the street on the way to her car. She was hit by a truck by a man who was texting while driving, she told me later when I visited her at the hospital. She had broken her femur and her arm. She spent a month in a nursing home learning to walk again. After the accident, she became worried about falling and decided to stop drinking. She didn’t want any liquor in her home, she said. Several boxes of wine were in her study, dozens of bottles in her bedroom and kitchen. She sent me with a key to her apartment to remove all of them. Before I left the nursing home that evening, she grabbed my arm and whispered to me close, her blue eyes watering. “I wish that accident had killed me,” she said. “It’s going to take too long for me to recover from this.” I felt again like a child, like when you watch your parents experience pain seemingly for the first time, when you realize your parents are fragile. But then you grow up and you realize that they were probably always in pain, and that they were always fragile like you’ve always been, and that you just didn’t see it because you needed them to be bigger than you. I wiped a tear off Pat’s cheek. 

That night, I went to her apartment and sifted through all the bottles. Some still had liquor in them, some were empty. I poured the bottles with liquor into the sink and the vinegar-like fumes wafted up into my face. I put all the bottles in paper grocery bags. It would take me several trips to get them all out. Later, once she had mostly healed except for a shoulder problem and a hip issue, she told me she regretted saying she wished the accident had killed her. I waved my hand as though it had been nothing and told her to forget all about it.  

But when I stood facing the dumpster in the alley late that night, alone and in the cold, about to toss one heavy paper bag of bottles after another, listening to the wind whip down the alleyways in between the sounds of the glass crashing while Pat healed in the hospital and I didn’t yet know the outcome of my separation from my husband, I felt guilty. I felt guilty because I wondered if Pat and I would ever again drink Aperol and prosecco with fresh orange slices, and smell basil and dill and sprigs of mint from her garden, if we’d sit on her rose-colored stools in her kitchen and talk of small and trivial things because we didn’t have to talk about big things, because there were no pressing big things to talk about. I wondered if we’d head out to her back porch again and down the steps to her garden, if I’d follow her like a little girl and make metaphors in my head as she talked about which plants were grounded and which needed stronger roots. I’d want to just follow her around, wondering how something like an elephant ear knows how much to bend and how much to root because I just can’t seem to get it right. I’d want to follow her around and around in circles, just wander after her because, well, because I just didn’t feel like going home.•


Liz Rose Shulman’s work has appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, Litbreak Magazine, Los Angeles Review, Punctuate: A Nonfiction Magazine, and Tablet Magazine, among others. She teaches English at Evanston Township High School and in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She lives in Chicago.