Polish historian comes to UMD to present “Historical Atlas of Hasidism”

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Marcin Wodzinski shows the prevalence of Hasidic communities, organized by country and population percentage. Hallie Kay/Mitzpeh.

By Hallie Kay
For Mitzpeh
@TheHallieKay

 

A Polish historian and professor discussed the magic of Geographic Information Systems and the patterns of Eastern European Hasidism Thursday evening in Susquehanna Hall at this university.

Marcin Wodzinski, director of the Center for the Culture and Languages of the Jews at the University of Wrocław in Poland, discussed the specifics of his new book, “Historical Atlas of Hasidism” as part of his Space and Spirit: Historical Atlas of Hasidism lecture.

Wodzinski conducts research that focuses on the history and culture of East European Jews.

A major idea of the lecture was that Judaism is a religion of time, not of space, and that Hasidism is the sect that embodies this idea the most. “Hasidic culture is a culture of remembrance,” Wodzinski said.

“This atlas is presenting things that were impossible 20 years ago,” Wodzinski said. Thanks to digital humanities like GIS, something like this was previously out of reach.

GIS takes research data and organizes it geographically, making for huge strides in the Jewish history research.

Wodzinski’s presentation consisted of technical maps, mainly showing the magnitude of the Hasidic movement, its patterns and the structure of influence of Hasidic courts.

Wodzinski called it the “phenomenon of the chain miracle,” playing off of the phrase “chain migration.” Once Hasidic people realized that a Hasidic leader was effective in their teachings, people believed that they were miracle-makers, and would travel anywhere to receive such blessings, he said.

Wodzinski knew that this was a pattern, but the GIS technology allowed for furthering his research to become a reality with full visualization.

In conducting his research, Wodzinski looked at the period from 1740 to the Holocaust, splitting it into five sections. Each section was given a map and areas of concentration were identified.

He talked about how Eastern Europe was “conquered” by Hasidism. He said that there was a general correlation that followers of a major Hasidic leader were incredibly loyal.

Over the course of the presentation, Wodzinski pointed out that Hasidic influence in areas like Russia and Ukraine were beginning to disappear as Hasidism proceeded to move farther south to areas like Hungary and Romania.

He considers the period of 1815-1867 to be “the peak of Hasidic influence in Eastern Europe.”

Wodzinski focused on the idea that this atlas only shows “what happened” and “how it happened,” but not why certain patterns occurred.

He said that a major reason he created a work of this nature was to help inform future student research on this subject and establish a clear basis for the ins and outs of Hasidism in Eastern Europe.

Wodzinski also discussed what he called the “urbanization or metropolization of Hasidic leadership.” The nature of this culture was no longer limited to visiting the rebbe at the court at strange visiting hours, but was now opened up to everyday life.

Because of the great migration made by Hasidic people to larger cities, it became more common to see Hasidic leaders on the street. Wodzinski said this was neither good nor bad, but simply indicated a significant “change in spiritual life.”

Wodzinski called this new culture “A la carte Hasidism,” as it made it very easy for Hasidic followers to jump from one leader to another. Life no longer revolved around traveling long distances a few times a year to see the Hasidic leader, he said.

Wodzinski showed maps of the shtibelekh, or prayer houses, that were scattered in the multitudes across Europe. These maps showed a definitive hierarchy of power and influence, showing how many shtibelekh there were in a given area.

Wodzinski detailed the Hasidic journey through the “tragic chapter of the Holocaust,” but ended on an uplifting note with the “revival” of Hasidic life seen today internationally.

Using 44 telephone books from all different Hasidic groups, Wodzinski was able to track the living Hasidim.

Wodzinski found around 129,000 households of Hasidim in existence, with an average of 5.5 people in each household. Based on Wodzinski’s estimates, around 700,000 to 750,000 Hasidim are alive today, and the number is  growing.

“Hasidism is a Polish phenomenon. It was born in Poland. So, what else should I be studying?” Wodzinski said.

“The university’s job is to promote research and knowledge,” said Hayim Lapin, who is a Robert H. Smith Professor of Jewish Studies and History, and director of The Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Program and Center for Jewish Studies at this university.

This was, to him, “an opportunity to present to the university community, who may or may not be specialized in this area, the current research in Jewish history.”

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