Jewish geography is a popular "game" sometimes played when Jews meet each other for the first time and try to identify people they know in common. The game has become something of an informal social custom in the Jewish community, and it's often surprisingly easy for strangers who play it to discover mutual acquaintances and establish instant context and connection.
As Etan Diamond observes in his book And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia:
This "game" of "Jewish geography" follows a simple pattern. One person asks, "You're from [insert name of city here]? Do you know [insert person's name here]?" The other one usually responds something like, "Sure, he sits behind my uncle in synagogue," or "I met her once at a youth group convention," or "She is really good friends with my sister's college roommate." Non-Jews often find it astonishing that such links are made so easily, but given both the relative smallness of the Jewish community - and the even smaller size of the Orthodox Jewish community - and the extensive overlapping social circles within these communities, it should not surprise too much. [p. xv].
Sonia Pressman Fuentes describes it in her memoir Eat First - You Don't Know What They'll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter, "... When two or more Jews meet who share a connection to a particular ... locality ... they will question each other until they find that they know, or know of, at least one other Jew in common."
The origins of "Jewish Geography" are unclear. An Israeli version of the game, pitsuchim, has been a common pastime among young Israeli backpackers traveling the world, taking its name form a 1980s television quiz show. As to the origins of Jewish Geography itself, Sarah Benor, a linguist and professor of Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College has noted "Sometimes that kind of thing is really impossible to find."
|This article or section possibly contains previously unpublished synthesis of published material that conveys ideas not attributable to the original sources. (October 2007)|
The term "Jewish geography" not only functions as the name of the game, but also describes the unique smallness and closeness of the worldwide Jewish population. The Jewish population's "Jewish geography," therefore, is what makes the game possible and lets Jews from different cities, regions, and countries easily discover people they know in common.
Both the game and the concept are Jewish-specific examples of the six degrees of separation theory proposed by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy in 1929 and the small world phenomenon hypothesized by social scientist Stanley Milgram in 1967.
While the accuracy of these theories have been questioned by some, few Jews doubt the validity of "Jewish geography," having observed its connective power firsthand.
The phenomenon can be observed in other groups of common interest and cultures, including Bahá'ís, Mormons (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and Jehovah's Witnesses.
References in Popular Culture
In the 1991 comedy, HotShots!, when Topper Harley first enters the Air Force base, the troops soon engage in Jewish Geography to connect themselves with Toppers father.
- Etan Diamond (2000). And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia. University of North Carolina Press.
- Sonia Pressman Fuentes (1999). Eat First - You Don't Know What They'll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter. Xlibris.
- Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil and Niv Elis (November–December 2011). "The New (Old) Game of Jewish Geography". Moment Magazine.