Hasidic Space: Sacred Centers and Mundane Peripheries

The formation and the institutionalization of Hasidism as an significant social-religious phenomenon, starting in late 18th century, was accompanied by its geographical diffusion throughout Jewish communities in Poland. Hasidism's original spatial appearance was through the formation of Hasidic prayer quorums in many communities, but its main prominence was visible through the establishment of the Hasidic courts, that became alternative centers of social meeting and religious practice, alongside (or opposing) the more traditional sight of the synagogue or the Beit-Midrash.

The geographical and demographical expansion of Hasidim in the Polish sphere occurred in a broader contextual framework of the non-Jewish society and in the context of the Jewish community in particular. Thus, there were three different overlapping maps which determined the cultural dimensions of Hasidism: The objective geopolitical or ethnic map of Eastern Europe; the traditional "Jewish map" (which was obviously different than the non-Jewish map); and the Hasidic new self-portrayed perception of this same territory. In my paper I would like to examine the dynamics of the geographical expansion of Hasidism through the cases of several urban courts, such as Lublin, and comparing them to the local Hasidic organizations in various smaller towns in Central Poland, during the first decades of the early 19th century.

I will deal with the lived-space of Hasidism as it was formed in Hasidic theological discourse and in the social structure of the early Hasidic movement. I will argue that this new geography, built around the courts as sacred centers, is one of the elements that enabled the rapid spread of the movement in various localities in Eastern Europe during the 19th century. Symbolizing the courts as sacred space attracted ever growing multitudes of Jewish pilgrims visiting these new centers and becoming adherents of the movement's leaders. Thus the symbolic sanctifying of the Hasidic court had great impact on the history of Jews in Eastern Europe at this point.