Historical Atlas of Hasidism

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Marcin Wodziński, Waldemar Spallek
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , July
     2018.
     280 pages.
     $75.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691174013.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism, by Marcin Wodziński and featuring cartography by Waldemar Spallek, is the first major study of this important Jewish spiritual and social movement utilizing demography and cartography to present a new perspective on this movement. Wodziński and Spallek follow the movement from its origins in the 18th century to the present, charting its growth, expansion, destruction in the Holocaust, and rebirth in major centers of Israel and the United States, along with smaller centers in Europe. 

The scholarly study of Hasidism begins in the early 20th century with the studies of Simon Dubnow. His work emphasized the intellectual aspects of Hasidism. One result of this was that those Hasidic groups that had the most interesting or radical teachings gained the most attention and study. A good example is Bratzlav, a group whose teachings were intellectually interesting, yet who were, at the same time, socially marginal. Yet, judging by the amount of scholarship devoted to Bratzlav, one would think that it was a major group in the world of Hasidism, instead of numerically small, and socially insignificant, for most of Hasidism’s history. The other influential idea presented by Dubnow was that after 1815, the last year that Dubnow considered intellectually creative, Hasidism degenerated into a social movement of, with few exceptions, no particular intellectual interest. This was the dominant perspective throughout most of 20th century scholarship. However, in recent years, a younger generation of scholars has begun to reexplore the history of Hasidism, utilizing new perspectives and methodologies, expanding their horizons to encompass the complete history of the movement from its origins until the present. 

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism approaches the history of the movement with the tools of demography and geography. Important questions about the history and sociology of Hasidism are answered for the first time with data drawn from a wide variety of archival and documentary evidence. The findings are presented in seventy-four maps and a multitude of charts, tables, and illustrations. Together, they portray Hasidism as a living movement that was central in some regions of Eastern Europe while more marginal in others. Another important finding is the distribution of the different Hasidic groups as well as the relative strengths and weaknesses of their geographic influence. Maps also show these distributions at different historical points. There are tables that give invaluable information about the influence that specific Hasidic groups had in particular places, and in relation to the Jewish population in these places as a whole. The shtiebel, the Hasidic prayer room, was the center of Hasidic life in the cities and towns of Eastern Europe, and each group had its own meeting place. One large table shows the distribution of shtiebels by location and affiliation. It summarizes how many adherents comprised each group, and where they were located. For example, another table shows the distribution of places of prayer in one town near Lodz (present day Poland) in 1910. The town boasted eight shtiebels, but only 20% of the town’s population frequented them. These maps, charts, and tables present a picture different and more complex from that of the hagiographical literature and popular imagination. 

These maps and charts are supported by a series of nine chapters which explain and illustrate the key concepts that are the basis for the charts and maps. The first two chapters give an overview of the origins and expansion of Hasidism. Chapters 3–5 describe and explain the key concepts of Hasidic life, the dynasties which led the Hasidic groups, the courts in which they lived and that were places of pilgrimage for their followers, and the shtiebels that were the center of Hasidic life in the towns and cities where the Hasidim flourished. These discussions are enriched by photos, diagrams, and other illustrations. 

The last four chapters bring the story of Hasidism into the 20th century. Chapter 6 discusses the pioneers of Hasidism who established Hasidic courts in the United States prior to World War II. Chapter 7 describes the two great upheavals that disrupted the Hasidism of the 19th century. The first of these was World War I, which dislocated many Hasidic courts and greatly increased urbanization and had a major impact on Hasidic life and culture. The Holocaust was the greatest catastrophe of all, destroying the centers of Hasidism and most of its followers. The next chapter describes the rebirth of Hasidism in the new centers of Israel and the United States. The final chapter describes how the lost world of East European Hasidism was reimagined. The post-war Hasidic world not only idealized the glories of prewar Hasidism, but reimagined its geography and the importance of the various dynasties. For example, courts that were major centers in prewar Europe, and not reestablished, were all but forgotten. At the same time, groups that were marginal but were reestablished, are now seen as groups of historical importance. Hasidic “geography” also changed significantly: groups that originated in Galicia or Poland are now perceived as Hungarian or Romanian. Another noteworthy phenomenon is that groups who are important today project their contemporary status into the past, thus rewriting the history of prewar Hasidism. 

This an indispensable work for any serious student of Hasidism, and a pioneering work in putting the history of this movement on a solid demographic and geographic foundation. The narrative chapters summarize the current scholarly understanding of the topics discussed in a clear and comprehensive manner, and the illustrations add a valuable dimension. A comprehensive bibliography and indices enhance the user friendliness of this work. The specialist and the non-specialist can learn much from this highly recommended and valuable study.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Morris M. Faierstein is Research Associate at the University of Maryland.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marcin Wodziński is Professor of Jewish studies at the University of Wrocław in Poland. His many books include Hasidism: A New History (Princeton, 2017) and Hasidism: Key Questions (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Waldemar Spallek is Assistant Professor of Geographic Information Systems and Cartography at the University of Wrocław in Poland.

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