February 20, 2019

Exploring what makes up the Jewish tapestry

We’ve all played the “Jewish geography” game — you know, questioning someone we’ve only just met in order to discover common Jewish connections, friends or even family.

In doing so, we are mapping out our experiences, delineating a sort of Jewish topography of interlinking backgrounds, histories and far-flung mishpachah.

Somehow I feel a sense of profound satisfaction when I discover an unexpected link with a stranger. It’s like a gift, an almost magical sense of communion with the densely woven tapestry of Jewish life — or at least with an individual or a place that helps make up that tapestry.

The idea of Jewish topography and the spaces and places — physical and metaphysical — in which Jews live, dream and interact forms the basis of a fascinating new book. “Jewish Topographies: Visions of Space, Traditions of Place” (Ashgate Publishing House, 2008) is a collection of essays by a score of international scholars who participated in a six-year research project at the University of Potsdam in Germany.

Called Makom, or “place” in Hebrew, the project aimed to explore the relevance of space and place in Jewish life and culture.

Paris-based historian Diana Pinto coined the term “Jewish space” in the 1990s to describe the place occupied by Jews, Jewish culture and Jewish memory within mainstream European society, regardless of the size or activity of the local Jewish population.

“There is a Jewish space in Europe that will exist even in the absence of Jews,” she said. “The ‘Jewish thing’ is becoming universal.”

Pinto’s thesis was a spark for my own explorations of the often-intense relationship between non-Jews and Jewish culture in Europe. I coined the term “virtually Jewish” to describe how non-Jews often “fill” Europe’s Jewish space with their own ideas and operations.

“Jewish Topographies” takes a much different approach.

It regards Jewish space from within the Jewish world rather than from the virtually Jewish perspective of outside interaction. It sees Jewish spaces as actual environments that are shaped by Jews, where Jewish life may be rooted and where Jewish activities go on.

“Jewish things” happen there and often, in turn, define the identity of the physical places where they are happening.

One of the goals of the project, the book’s editors write, was to counteract stereotypes that long have conveyed “the pervasive impression that the Jewish experience — except the Israeli one — is one of profound displacement, lacking not only a proper territory but also a substantial spatiality or attachment to place.”

“Jewish Topographies” goes far beyond geography. Its chapters examine very different, and sometimes unusual, places where Jewish experience is strongly linked, physically or emotionally, to specific environments.

Most deal with concrete settings: Jews defiantly (and astonishingly) cultivating gardens in the midst of World War II ghettos. Jews hiking and kayaking through the pre-war Polish countryside to gain connection with the land in which they live. The architectural and spatial symbolism of the eruv in contemporary Germany. The impact of what Jews eat, and the creation of definable Jewish “foodscapes.” A “map” of the new alternative Jewish subcultures that have emerged recently in Budapest.

The book also includes an epilogue that expands the concept of Jewish space into areas that only recently opened up for exploration. Called “Virtual Jewish Topography,” it chronicles the creation and growth of Judaism in the online cyberworld known as Second Life, starting with the creation of Beth Israel, the first Second Life synagogue, in August 2006.

Its author, Julian Voloj, tells a fascinating story of avatars, screen names and self-selected identities as he charts the development of synagogues, Jewish institutions, Jewish cultural activities and Jewish neighborhoods — even anti-Semitic incidents — in a world that in a sense is real but also quite imaginary.

“How does one describe a place that does not ‘really’ exist and that can be changed by a simple mouse click?” he writes. “And how does one describe a culture in transition?”

German-born Voloj is a writer, photographer and former Jewish student leader who now works for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In addition to his expertise in novel Jewish topographies, he’s also adept at playing classic “Jewish geography.”

Indeed, I was pleased to learn not long ago that Voloj’s grandmother turns out to be a close friend in Hamburg of my own first cousin once removed.

Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.”