Marcin Wodziński, a Jewish studies professor at the University of Wroclaw, is helping students and scholars learn about the ordinary people of the Hasidic movement.
An Orthodox Jewish mystic movement that developed in Poland and Eastern Europe during the 18th century, Hasidism allowed Jews throughout Europe to connect to God through a revered, spiritual figure known as the Rebbe.
Wodziński spoke to University of Maryland faculty and community members Thursday about his Historical Atlas of Hasidism, the first encyclopedia to show the growth and expansion of the movement from rural European villages to vast, multicultural metropolises.
“I like simple methodologies,” Wodziński said. “The atlas is presenting things that were impossible 20 years ago.”
Professor Hayim Lapin, director of The Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies, called the book an important resource.
“What he’s made available is a whole bunch of quantitative data that simply wasn’t available,” Lapin said.
As of today, there are more than 30 Hasidic sects known as dynasties and around 750,000 followers that exist worldwide. Most of these individuals and groups were untraceable and unrecorded, until now.
Wodziński, who was born in Silesia, Poland, spent 12 years sifting through data, phonebooks and old maps to trace the growth of the Hasidic movement in Europe. The professor also traveled to Israel and America to access archives and sources.
“I am from Poland,” Wodziński said. “Who else should study the Polish phenomenon of Hasidim if not a Pole?”
Wodziński said knowledge of the Hasidic movement is often based on “stereotypes and preconceptions.” He added that contemporary study of the movement often focuses on the leaders rather than the lives of the followers.
“We are interested in Hasidism because we believe this was one of the dominant forces,” Wodziński said. “At the same time, we ignore those numbers that made it into a powerful phenomenon.”
Wodziński, who said he’s interested in understanding how ordinary followers “experienced Hasidism” and “defined Hasidism,” used small petitionary letters written by ordinary people at the home or court of the Rebbe.
After sifting through 7,000 of these letters, he divided these notes into three categories; life, children and sustenance. Wodziński found health issues related to fertility most important in the life of Hasidism.
“This is not because this was the biggest medical problem but because of the social importance and social status connected to having children,” Wodziński said.
Wodziński’s atlas also displays figures that breakdown Hasidic sects worldwide. Using the publication, students can decipher which areas of certain cities Hasidism inhabited, which countries they have the strongest presence and which villages revered and trusted specific Rebbes in the past.
“I’m sure that people who are teaching modern Europe or the history of the Jews in modernity will make use of the maps for their teaching and make it available as a resource tool,” Lapin said.
While the atlas lacks an in-depth map of Hasidic influence in Europe post World War II, the encyclopedia does include a compilation of where Hasidism died during the period, followed by a discussion of the groups in Israel.
“It’s a revival,” Wodziński said. “Some people call it death and resurrection.”
During Thursday’s discussion, Wodziński faced criticism from some audience members, who questioned his technique and process. But most in attendance thanked him for his tedious work and accomplishment.
“There’s a level of granularity that you don’t have in the traditional texts,” Lapin said.