Celebrating Jewish Literature: Red Jews in German and Yiddish culture

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I find the development of cultural ideas fascinating, which is one of the reasons I asked for a review copy of “Sons of Saviors: The Red Jews in Yiddish Culture” by Rebekka Voß (University of Pennsylvania Press). The other is that I’d never before heard the term Red Jews and was curious about not only who they were, but how a negative concept in German Christian culture morphed into a positive one in Yiddish Jewish culture. The fact that both cultures believed these Jews came from a kingdom that was the home of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel – a legend that has always interested me – added to the pleasure of reading this scholarly work. 

According to the author, the idea of Red Jews gained currency when Medieval Christians reconfigured a legend concerning the survival of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel. That legend claimed that the 10 tribes had been exiled to a kingdom surrounded by a river known as the Sambatyon. This river was impassible six days of the week, only stopping its flow on the Sabbath, when members of the tribes were unable to cross it without breaking the laws against travel on Shabbat. The members of the tribes became known as Red Jews.
Declaring that these Jews had red hair and beards served as more than a description of their physical appearance. The author writes, “At its most extreme, amid the ambiguous logic of moral significance attributed to this color, red implied falsehood, deceit, danger, violence, and bloodshed.” In the Christian imagination, that meant these Red Jews were immoral and dangerous. If they were to escape their kingdom, they would attempt to liberate the Jewish population by helping the anti-Christ begin the end of days. This idea – that a kingdom of Red Jews were a danger to Christians – arose in the 13th century and disappeared during the 1600s. Perhaps due to language barriers, this concept never spread beyond German Christian culture. 

As the idea of Red Jews began to disappear from Christian consciousness, it gained a place in Yiddish Jewish culture. Stories of Red Jews who successfully helped communities in danger began to appear. The color red came to represent pride and resilience. The legend remained popular in western and central Europe at the end of the 18th century, after which it became part of Eastern European Yiddish culture until the early 20th century. The idea also informed Zionism, which embraced the idea of powerful Jews. However, Red Jews as a symbol of power never spread beyond Yiddish culture, meaning that Jews outside of Europe never embraced the legend.

The change from a negative image of Red Jews in Christian culture to a positive one in Jewish culture forms an important part of the study. In Christian culture, these Jews were fearful warriors who embodied a threat against Christianity. As the stories developed in Yiddish culture, the Red Jews were powerful, but not because of their physical development. Rather than being mighty warriors, they used the powers given them by God to defeat their enemies. In the tale “Ma’aseh Akdumat” (which was first published in the early 1700s, although the story most likely existed in an oral form before that), the hero who arrives from beyond the Sambatyon is referred to as “a little Red Jew.” The author notes “he is presented as a frail figure, ostensibly impeded by old age and physical disability.” Yet, he is able to defeat an imposing, strong Christian monk who has threatened the destruction of the Jews in his land. This idea is also found in other tales of Red Jews, including one story whose heroes are two children – a boy and a girl – who defeat those threatening the Jewish population. Both tales offer endings where Jews are then welcomed into the society in which they live. 

The stories of Red Jews served a purpose in both Christian and Jewish communities. The author writes, “In the early modern European imagination, newly encountered peoples in distant lands were often assumed to be threatening... So too the Red Jews were collectively cast as an intimidating horde in both Jewish and Christian traditions... This Yiddish myth [of Red Jews] served as more than a literary expression of spiritual resistance and an emotional outlet or buttress for in-group identity; it’s concluding image also conveyed a desire for societal acceptance.” It should be noted that both Christians and Jews believed in the reality of the Red Jews, that is, that the group actually existed, whether as a threat (to Christians) or saviors (to Jews).

“Sons of Saviors” offers an interesting discussion of European Christian and Jewish culture of which many readers may not be aware. The book is scholarly, although its writing is accessible to the average reader. It also includes the text of “Ma’aseh Akdumat” translated into English, which is well worth reading for its own sake. Readers interested in medieval culture will find much of interest, as will those fascinated to learn how negative cultural images can turn into positive ones.