It's a Small World after All

By Geography, Jewish | Moment, November-December 2011 | Go to article overview

It's a Small World after All


Geography, Jewish, Moment


It's always a variation of the same story: Two Jews meet and run through a list of questions to find out where each was raised, which synagogues, youth groups and summer camps they attended and so forth, and from: there, uncover mutual acquaintances that link them together. The questions differ by generation, class and region, but the intent is the same: a search for connections that leads them to marvel at the amazing smallness of the Jewish world,

Jews have been keeping track of relationships for millennia--from the complex family trees in Deuteronomy to genealogical lists in the Books of Chronicles--but in recent decades the social ritual has taken on new life, and a new name: Jewish Geography.

For highly mobile young Jews today, Jewish Geography has become an ongoing game, played both in person and through social media such as Facebook and Linked-In. Jewish Geography is a "manifestation of a sense of Jewish peoplehood," says Sylvia Barack Fishman, professor of Judaic studies at Brandeis University who writes about American Jewish sociology. "When people play Jewish Geography, they're showing their assumption that all Jews are connected in some way to each other." It's probably a result of the fact that Jews were forced to uproot themselves again and again due to persecution, she continues. "It was important to establish connections when they moved, so Jews created this sociability."

The ability to forge an almost immediate intimacy with other Jews made it easier for immigrants to make friends in new places, and also served to keep them up-to-date on those they had left behind. It is a way, Fishman says, for Jews to feel part of an extended family despite different customs, foods and languages.

Jewish Geography allows Jews to construct a sense of rooted identity, writes Jonathan Boyarin, professor of modern Jewish thought at the University of North Carolina. It's "person-centered" and also what he calls chronotopic. "It rests on time--memory, history, genealogy--as much as on place markers. In Jewish geography, people located each other... along an imaginary grid beyond the rigid...dimensions of space and time."

Like Jews themselves, Jewish Geography transcends national borders. In Israel, the pursuit is called pitsuchim, a word that refers to a mixture of seeds and nuts usually eaten as a snack in front of the television, and conies from the root pei tazdei cheit, which means to crack or burst open. A common pastime among young Israeli backpackers traveling the world, the game takes its name from a 1980s Israel television quiz show in which contestants answered trivia questions in order to progress across a game hoard.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But where does the term Jewish Geography come from? No one knows, says Sarah Benor, a linguist and professor of contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College. "Sometimes that kind of thing is really impossible to find," she says. …

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