Mapping the Jewish World in a New Way

If your idea of high-tech Jewish mapping is finding your way to the nearest bagel shop using Waze, it’s time to update your thinking. Some of the most exciting work in Jewish studies today is using advanced technology to traverse continents and centuries by means of stunning new maps created with GIS-processed databases.

Thanks to a remarkable new book by Professor Marcin Wodzinski called Historical Atlas of Hasidism, you can go on this journey without leaving home. Together with his colleague Waldemar Spallek, assistant professor of geographic information systems and cartography at the University of Wroclaw in Poland, Wodzinski takes you to the intersection of Hasidic history, spirituality, community and culture. What you will find there is a world that continues to fascinate with its dynastic Jewish courts, tzaddkim, healers, mystics and more.

Even if you don’t know a shtibl (prayer hall) from a shtreimel (hat), this beautiful book will give you a new understanding of how a movement that began in 18th century eastern Europe endured, evolved and continues today. And if you think the current feuds between religious and secular Israelis are destructive, reading about the vehement opposition met by early Hasidim—complete with book burnings and declarations of herem (excommunication) — may provide some comfort. Today we cherish both the insights of the Hasidic masters and the teachings of the revered Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (a.k.a., the Vilna Gaon), who personally led the heated opposition.

Wodzinski uses rare sources of data to give us a picture of Hasidic life and how geography shaped its dynamics. My favorite is a collection of 7,000 19th century handwritten petitions, or kvitlekh, written by followers of Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher seeking his guidance, rulings or spiritual interventions on their behalf. Based on a database built with the places of origin for these personal requests, the Atlas provides a map showing how far Rabbi Guttmacher’s influence extended. It further explains that many followers of a particular Hasidic tzaddik rarely saw their rebbe, dispelling the notion that close proximity was needed to sustain the deep personal devotion early Hasidic rabbis inspired.

Map of petitions to Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher by location of the sender. Copyright Marcin Wodzinski and Waldemar Spallek, 2018.

When Professor Wodzinski presented his book recently at Stanford’s Rumsey Map Center (the perfect setting for his innovative work and one of my favorite places on campus), he was following in the footsteps of another pioneer in the field of data visualization. Yale University Professor Edward Tufte was accorded rock star status here for The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and related books. Long before anyone had heard the term infographics, he demonstrated how data matched with quality graphic design and maps can reveal meaning that is otherwise invisible or obscured.

Reading the Atlas made me want to revisit classic Hasidic tales. On my bookshelf I found a collection by Martin Buber published in 1955 by Princeton University Press, the same source that has issued the Historical Atlas of Hasidism. Buber wrote in a 1907 introduction to The Legend of the Baal-Shem, “The Hasidic teaching is the proclamation of rebirth. No renewal of Judaism is possible that does not bear in itself the elements of Hasidism.”

The Jewish world may not yet recognize the power of big data, geography and design to make those elements more visible, but the Historical Atlas of Hasidism is a tantalizing contribution. It invites us on a journey whose destination is a greater understanding and appreciation of who we are and how we got here together.

To learn more, click here to watch a short video featuring Professor Wodzinski.

About the Author
Shelley is a consultant who has held executive and board leadership roles in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley Jewish community. She led development of the Palo Alto Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, was board president of Hillel at Stanford, and has served on the advisory boards of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medical Center, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. At Stanford she was the university's Director of Business Development and Executive Director for Public Affairs at Stanford Health Care. She began her career as a journalist and currently focuses on strategic communications and writing. Email:
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