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 LinkedIn®. 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 comes 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 Israeli television quiz show in which contestants answered trivia questions in order to progress across a game board.
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.
The earliest media reference to it, according to a Nexis search, is in a 1989 article in The Jerusalem Post in which Rabbi Moshe Waldoks describes the game on an El Al flight to Israel. “In five minutes everybody’s playing Jewish Geography,” he said in an interview at the time. “There was a guy in 4-J who discovered that somebody from his hometown was in 36-B. But he couldn’t get over to him because this huge minyan was blocking the aisle.” Waldoks, author of The Big Book of Jewish Humor, says the term was circulating long before he used it. “It’s been around since the 1970s, perhaps.”
Scholars first began to look into theories of connections in the mid-20th century, in response to new modes of transportation that made the world seem smaller. In his 1961 doctoral dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michael Gurevich attempted to build a mathematical model that could measure human connections. Stanley Milgram, a Jewish social psychologist at Harvard University, continued this research by moving beyond the purely theoretical. Inspired by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy’s short story, “Chains,” which explores the links between strangers, Milgram randomly selected a pool of study participants from across the country and gave them a package to send to a random person, a “target,” who happened to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The goal of the experiment was to determine how many intermediaries were needed to connect two random people living in the United States.
Milgram found that it generally took between two to ten intermediaries to link study participants with the target, with a median of five. His findings led to an idea similar to Jewish Geography that has also captured modern imaginations: degrees of separation. Inspired by Milgram’s ideas, John Guare wrote his 1990 play, Six Degrees of Separation, which was turned into a highly successful film in 1993. A year later, a group of undergraduate students at Albright College in Pennsylvania invented “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” a game that caught fire when they were interviewed by Jon Stewart on his MTV show.
Theorists are now taking the study of human connections further. An emerging interdisciplinary field known as network science examines how webs in nature, people, information and technology operate. The U.S. military is particularly interested in this burgeoning discipline, using its research to understand internal chains of command and to predict terrorist threats.
Whatever it’s called, the human need for connection—especially in small groups such as the Jewish one—is as strong as ever. Jewish Geography “expresses a certain solidarity—and exhibits a ravenous curiosity about where people are from,” Waldoks points out. “It’s a fascinating phenomenon that shows the community feels very close.”