Recently I came across a fascinating map that shows exactly how many slaves in the US were held where, county by county, from 1790 to 1860. The map also includes information on the number of free African Americans in each locale, as well as figures on the total population. When you move the year decade by decade, you can see how patterns shifted as the country grew, where slavery expanded and where it shrank. So much information can be packed into a map; they contain the power of visuals while inviting viewers to “read” them at length by clicking and examining different parts.


The map made me think about the power of maps more generally as a pedagogic tool. In literary studies, for example, mapping has become an interesting way to examine works in new ways–for example, by looking at patterns of book sales and readership, translation, citation, and much more. If you want to understand Shakespeare’s influence, for example, you might map out how many times his plays were performed, which plays were popular when, and where they were performed, over time.


How would we use maps creatively to explain issues of Jewish history? Purim might be a good place to start. One of the many unusual aspects of the book of Esther is that it takes place in… Persia. How many people know where Persia (Iran today) is, and how far is Jerusalem from Shushan (Susa)? According to Google maps, by car the shortest route is 1,562 km, taking approx. 19 hours. (I don’t recommend trying it!) Why does this book take the reader so far from the relatively circumscribed area in the rest of the books?


Of course, the number and type of maps of Jewish history that can be made are limited only by our imagination. Certainly, we can make maps of Jewish settlement in the United States back to the time of the first census, perhaps all the way back to 1654. Where did Jews tend to settle, and when? When did Jewish patterns align with more general patterns, and when did they diverge? In Jewish Life in Small Town America, historian Lee Shai Weissbach explores a time when Jews were not nearly so centralized in large cities as we are today.


What maps over time might your students create to explain trends in Jewish history?