Jewish Heritage Europe

Marcin Wodziński on “Atlassing” Hasidic Heritage in his award-winning Historical Atlas of Hasidism

Prof. Marcin Wodziński of  the University of Wrocław, Poland won a 2018 National Jewish Book Award  for his volume Historical Atlas of Hasidism.

Moshe Idel, author of Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic, has described the book (whose cartography is by Waldemar Spallek) as “the richest and most updated illustrated history of the entire process of emergence, growth, suffering, decimation in the Holocaust, and then the surprising renewal of Hasidism in modern times. A must for understanding this most vital aspect of Judaism.”

In this personal essay, Wodziński describes how he was drawn to study Hasidism and explains how his book “atlasses” the rich material heritage of the Hasidic movement — physically, geographically, and spiritually — through maps and other in-depth exploration.




“Atlassing” Hasidic Heritage in the Historical Atlas of Hasidism

By Marcin Wodziński

The material heritage of Hasidism has become an object of significant interest, both academic and popular. This is in part a result of the increased accessibility of places once Hasidic, the growth of Hasidic pilgrimages to Eastern Europe, and the growing awareness of local populations of the importance of these places for Hasidic spirituality. A symbiotic, if not always peaceful, coexistence between Hasidic pilgrims and local inhabitants has reshaped many East European towns and villages: Uman, Leżajsk, Belz, Lelów, and Bobowa, for example, as well as many Hasidic groups.

Inside the Baal Shem Tov’s Ohel, Medzhybyzh, Ukraine

This was a source of my initial fascination with Hasidism some 30 years ago, when I visited for the first time Jewish cemeteries in eastern Poland and found graves there covered with petitionary notes (known as kvitlekh) and Hasidic pilgrims coming to those sites. It opened to me an entirely new perspective on Poland, its history, and its geography. I understood, or rather experienced, that what for me was a small and insignificant village might be an important spiritual center for somebody else.

Thirty years later I’m still guided by this enlightening experience, although through years in academia I have managed to transform this early intuition into a self-conscious methodological approach. Historical Atlas of Hasidism is an outcome if this approach, and in a sense a culmination of my 30 years of fascination with Hasidism.

The book offers a geotemporal analysis of Hasidic places from the inception of Hasidism in the late 18th century until today. But the “atlassing” in the title of this article refers not only to chrono-spatial visualization, or simply to the maps that the volume provides. It was my ambition that this atlas, unlike a map, would provide a comprehensive, multi-layered, and sophisticated image of the charted reality.

Hasidic synagogues, their interiors and exteriors, batei midrash, shulhoyf, Hasidic prayer houses, yeshivot, cemeteries, graves of tsadikim and graves of rank-and-file followers, houses of the tsadikim and their courts; in the Historical Atlas of Hasidism all these objects have been shown and analyzed together with mobile utensils: books and manuscripts, portraits (taken as physical objects and not only as the likenesses of the famous people), lampoons, devotional prints, dress, correspondences, kiddush cups, Hanukkah lamps, and collection boxes. Together, the volume’s 74 maps, numerous charts, tables, infographics, and 98 unique illustrations of Hasidic life past and present provide a rich picture of Hasidic material culture.

Kock, Poland: house where legend says the Tsadik Menachem Mendel of Kock lived in the mid-19th century…but in reality it was bought in the interwar period by R. Mendel’s grandson

Several chapters are devoted almost entirely to mapping the material heritage of the Hasidim.

Most notably, chapter 4 charts Hasidic courts, both grandiose palaces of the most influential tsadikim of the ‘royal’ dynasties and poor sheds of the ascetic ones (such as, for example, the house of the tsadik of Kock). It shows their location within town structures and courtyards with their various buildings and diversified functions, as well as individual buildings and their decorations.

The topography of the Hasidic court in Ger [Góra Kalwaria] demonstrates a surprising symbiosis of Hasidic and Catholic religiosity. Since Góra Kalwaria (in Polish “Mount Calvary”) had been founded as a center of Catholic devotion, with the town laid out in the shape of a cross, the buildings of the Hasidic court and the yeshiva were developed within the Catholic outlines of a cross – as can be seen on the map below.

Hasidic court in Ger [Góra Kalwaria], early 20th century. The map has been drawn on the basis of material provided by Eleonora Bergman. From Historical Atlas of Hasidism (courtesy of the author)
Hasidic prayer houses (shtiblekh) in Eastern Europe and the New World are the subject of two following chapters. Few images of the exteriors, and, even more so, of the interiors of the shtiblekh have been preserved; still it is possible to recreate with some precision typical structures of the shtiblekh, their functions, locations, and the dynamics of various Hasidic groups in establishing their prayer sites.

The map of Hasidic places of worship in New York in 1918 has been developed on the basis of The Jewish Communal Register of New York City. From Historical Atlas of Hasidism. (courtesy of the author)

Interestingly, chapter 6 documents the replication of East European Hasidic divisions in the New World, namely a tendency for Galician and Hungarian congregations to cluster in the eastern part of the Lower East Side, with the Russian and Polish congregations in the western part and in Williamsburg (see the map).

In chapter 7 the Atlas starts with material loses of the Hasidic world during the First World War, continues with interwar revival, and culminates in the map of the ghettos, and death and concentration camps during the Second World War and the Holocaust.

The Holocaust marked the end of Hasidism in its classic Eastern European version, but it did not signify the end of Hasidism.

The Atlas traces the story of the post-Holocaust life of Hasidism in Europe, Israel, and North America; its proliferation, new pilgrimage centers, and new structures, of which possibly the most renowned is the seat of Chabad-Lubavitch at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn.

The Atlas not only shows this building and its replicas (in Israel, North and South America, Europe, and Australia), but also discusses other aspects of the material culture of Chabad in Israel and Europe (see image of the advertisement in Kfar Chabad, Israel, below).

Portraits of R. Menaḥem Mendel Schneerson, the last tsadik of Chabad-Lubavitch, announced by some of his followers to be the Messiah, are ever present in many Ultra-Orthodox settlements in North America and Israel. This banner is the largest advertisement in the Chabad-created village of Kfar Chabad, Israel. Photo by the author

The parts of the Atlas most relevant to material heritage in Europe, however, are sections on the Hasidic center in Antwerp and the closing chapter discussing contemporary pilgrimage sites (see the map below).

The Atlas allows readers to study the spatial distribution of Hasidic pilgrimage centers in Eastern Europe and their connections to the new centers of Hasidism today — but one might also use the atlas as a guide to those places, as I have included the relevant places and dates of yearly pilgrimages.

Likewise, if you want to know where to go for a tish (Hasidic festive meal), use section 8.4 as a guidebook and enjoy an encounter with contemporary tsadikim!

Hasidic pilgrimage sites in Europe, 2016

 – – – – – –

January 13, 2019

 – – – – – –

Marcin Wodziński is a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław, Poland. His book Historical Atlas of Hasidism (Princeton University Press), with detailed cartography by Waldemar Spallek, won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award in the Scholarship category.