Count your hassidic blessings

The visual aids remind the reader that Hassidism was not just the masters, their teachings and tales, but a major feature was the 'shtiblekh'

By LEVI COOPER
May 8, 2019 14:18
Count your hassidic blessings

HOW DID Wodzinski calculate numbers of hassidim? Put simply: He read the phone book!. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

How many hassidim are there today? A simple question with no apparent answer. The question itself can be divided into meaningful sub-questions: Where do hassidim live, and how many hassidim live in each location – Israel as opposed to Diaspora communities; different centers in Israel; cities versus suburbs; enclaves as opposed to hassidim in the wider population? Which hassidic groups are the largest numerically, and which groups tend to flock together? Which communities have recovered from the displacement of the First World War and the devastation of the Holocaust? Which hassidic groups have a wide geographic dispersion and which communities are focused in a few select locations? Do growth rates – due to retention, recruitment and birth – vary between different hassidic groups?
Indeed, we may wonder whether it is even accurate to talk about hassidim as one demographic group, or do the differences between the various hassidic communities render the term meaningless?
These key questions are imperative for understanding the past and present world of hassidim, and provide the groundwork for considering future needs and influence of the hassidic faithful.
Jewish tradition has shied from counting people – for both religious and practical reasons. On the religious front, it is forbidden to directly count people as the enumeration singles out individuals, and the Heavenly Court may send a plague on those who have been counted. Thus, common practice is to count in an indirect manner, such as by using a verse with 10 words or counting inaudibly.
On the practical level, historically, a census was followed by taxation – either a financial burden or a requirement to supply young men to serve in a foreign legion that was hostile to Jewish tradition. In such realities, there was a negative incentive to taking stock of the numbers of hassidim.
Nowadays, we can see the opposite trend: hassidic communities do much canvasing to encourage constituents to respond to censuses and to vote in elections – all in a bid to bolster electoral power.
Thus, one available benchmark has been electoral representation. In the recent Israeli elections, the party representing most hassidim – running under the name United Torah Judaism (UTJ) – received 249,049 votes, calculated as 5.78% of the valid votes, which translated into eight seats in the 120-person Knesset.
Alas, this yardstick tells us very little: Not only does it not take stock of Diaspora hassidism, but there is no possibility to determine the relative size of each hassidic community. Moreover, the party is an amalgamation of hassidic and non-hassidic elements, and in the last election included a Sephardi faction as well. Couple that with the vagaries of voting, and the touchstone becomes shakier.

MARCIN WODZINSKI, professor of Jewish Studies at University of Wroclaw in Poland, has provided cogent answers to many of these demographic questions in his recently published Historical Atlas of Hasidism. This groundbreaking work is complete with 74 exquisite maps by cartographer Waldemar Spallek and over 100 glossy reproductions of historic and contemporary images.
The Atlas documents the emergence of the hassidic movement and its expansion. It tracks the spread and migration of dynasties, as well as the impact of the crises of the first half of the 20th century. While hassidism is often considered in terms of its spiritual message, Wodzinksi’s Atlas prods us to not forget the spatial element: The hassidic movement, its customs, lessons and stories sprouted in specific locations. These breeding grounds conditioned the heroes of hassidism – not just the charismatic leaders, but the loyal disciples as well – fashioning the contours of what hassidism is today. The visual aids remind the reader that hassidism was not just the masters – their teachings and tales – but a major feature of the movement was the shtiblekh, the intimate spaces for gathering of like-minded hassidim.
In the context of the contemporary questions posed above, Wodzinski’s Atlas dedicates a chapter to the remarkable story of hassidism’s rebirth out of the ashes of the Holocaust, and its flourishing in lands removed from the cradle of its birth.
How did Wodzinski calculate numbers of hassidim? For current maps, the method employed was creative and convincing. Put simply: Wodzinski read the phone book! Not just any phone book, but the internal contact lists of hassidic communities. Wodzinski credits film producer and photographer Agnieszka Traczewska for this innovative idea.
Thus, the Atlas is rooted in significant work collating the phone lists. Wodzinski was careful about privacy: He was prepared to receive lists where names had been deleted, with only the phone number and place of residence to indicate a family. The brilliance of the method was that the lists already existed for in-house purposes, and there was little suspicion that the numbers were doctored.
Being internal documents that were not prepared for public consumption, the lists were not always easy to obtain. In at least one case, a colleague of Wodzinski was able to procure a list of Lubavitch Hassidim in Israel, thanks to his hassidic sounding name and his ability to talk like an insider. Part of Wodzinski’s genius in producing the volume was his ability and openness to muster assistance from varied quarters. Indeed, the author acknowledges many scholars from different disciplines and various walks of life.

RETURNING TO hassidic numbers: Using the phone book and taking stock of other demographic factors, Wodzinski concluded that “we can roughly calculate that overall there are between 700,000 and 750,000 hassidim in the world today.” The data and maps offer further insights: 41% of hassidim live in the US, while 48% live in Israel – figures that roughly correspond to general Jewish demographics.
The maps depict nuanced conclusions as well. Thus, for example, Ger Hassidim are a negligible presence over the Green Line, while Chabad and Bratslav have the greatest geographic diversity in Israel and around the world. Boyan and Karlin-Stolin are the most significant groups in Beitar Illit – a city with representation from just about every hassidic group, bar Satmar. Some of these statements may have been anecdotally assumed, others may have not been apparent. Thanks to Wodzinski’s Atlas, we can now see – quite literally, thanks to Spallek’s beautiful cartography – trends in hassidic demography.
Wodzinski’s Atlas demonstrates that “despite the spectacular rebirth since the Holocaust, [hassidism] is still demographically far removed from its glory years of the mid-nineteenth century, when regionally it accounted for more than half the Jewish population.” (p. 193) Notwithstanding, as we celebrate the Israel’s 71st birthday, it is apparent that the State of Israel has provided a homeland for the rebirth of hassidism.

The writer, a rabbi in Zur Hadassa, is on the Pardes faculty and a post-doctoral fellow with the Galicia project at the University of Haifa.


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