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  • Shannon Honl

Digital History Review

Mapping Modern Jewish Cultures. Created and maintained by Shachar Pinsker in collaboration with the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. Reviewed October 23, 2022. Accessed via iMac using macOS Monterey version 12.6 and Safari version 16.0.

Mapping Modern Jewish Cultures was launched in 2020 as an interactive web-based experience. The project explores the history of “transnational Jewish modernity” by Combining GIS data with still images, archival texts, and multi-media sources. Visitors explore the story through four visual “pathways” – Cities, People, Time, and Stories. Collectively, these four elements illustrate the network of cities, coffeehouses, and people who contributed to the history of Jewish modernity across Europe, America, and the Middle East from 1800-2000.

While the story may appeal to curious members of the general public, the site is primarily meant to be used by researchers and educators. And it succeeds as a multi-media-rich scholarly resource. According to the website’s “about” section, the project is forecasted to expand and evolve over time. And visitors are encouraged to check back for added tools and new content. However, it is unclear what, if anything, has been added since the launch in 2020.

Testing on a variety of devices (iPhone, iPad, MacBook) and browser software (Safari and Chrome) indicates that the site was built with a Responsive Web Design (RWD) approach. RWD is essential for ensuring the adaptability of a site’s content to any screen size or orientation. And this project performed seamlessly on both large- and small-screen devices. However, a site disclaimer recommends users access it from a computer for the best-optimized experience. Therefore, this review is based on access from a desktop, not a tablet or mobile device. (See article header for exact specifications.)

Mapping Modern Jewish Cultures was initially designed to serve as a complementary digital experience to Dr. Shachar Pinsker’s monograph, A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish culture (2018). Dr. Pinsker, a literary scholar and cultural historian, teaches in the Middle East Studies and Judaic Studies departments at the University of Michigan. While researching and writing his book, Pinsker realized the limitations of communicating visualizations via a traditional text-based platform. So he decided to confront the challenge by developing a “digital, open source, media-rich” website to (better) convey visually what his book could not. This digital humanities project was a six-year collaboration between Shachar Pinkser and a team of multidisciplinary faculty, students, librarians, and GIS experts at the University of Michigan. The site was created using ArcGIS Online (by ESRI) and appears to be hosted and maintained by the U of M.

Without reading Pinsker’s book, it is difficult to discern if the site serves as a suitable complement or augmentation. But, with patient, careful exploration, it does suffice as a standalone experience. The site is not a continuous one-way conduit of evident information. Instead, it requires the user to interact with the features and think critically about the content presented to comprehend the network of connections in support of the narrative. While this process may be exciting for a scholar, it could easily befuddle an untrained visitor.

The navigation of the site is well-executed and straightforward. The main navigation, which remains consistent at the top of each page, features five menu items. The User Experience (UX) developers smartly avoided the implementation of drop-down menus with nested sub-content, which only obscures information. Instead, they distilled the content into five self-explanatory labels – home, about, cities, people, stories, and time. This ensures visitors can easily find their way to all pages. In addition, the landing page reinforces this same navigational framework with portals into the Cities, People, Time, and Stories pathways.

The site’s landing page briefly introduces the project and invites visitors to explore the four visual pathways. At this point, it would have been helpful for the authors to situate this resource within the greater context of their narrative argument. What does this information show, and what visual work is it doing to underscore their conclusions? Maybe this omission was intentional. But in a world of endless digital distractions, most general audiences will not work this hard for the information. It misses the opportunity to prime an audience with an interpretive framework to guide the exploration that (hopefully) follows.

Landing page for Mapping Modern Jewish Culture

The rational sequence – not always the most well-traveled route – begins with the Cities pathway and progresses to People, Stories, and Time. A hover and click over the “Cities” text launches the pathway. But it would be better if the icon associated with the textual link was also clickable.

The Cities pathway launches an interactive geographical map. Six nodes appear, representing the international cities of Odessa, Vienna, Warsaw, Berlin, Tel Aviv, and New York City. Unfortunately, exploration is not intuitive, and visitors should carefully read the directions, or they will easily miss the intended visualization. Once zoomed into a particular city, the user can apply different historical map layers and adjust the timeline to reveal patterns and progressions. The only functionality glitch on this pathway is the links from specific cities to their respective StoryMaps, which results in a 404 page-not-found error. Fortunately, the Stories pathway is accessible via the main navigation and landing page.

A screen recording of the interactive map demonstrates the layers, progression over time,
and geo-tagging of cafes within New York City.

The next pathway introduces people through digital visualization. Visitors are presented with a walk-through showcasing people's relationships with cafes, cities, and other people. Visitors are invited to immerse themselves in the full visualization experience after the demo. This launches an overwhelming but fun interactive graphic. Toying around, one begins to discern the connections between literary figures at cafes and the immigration impact of those figures upon other cities and, thus, their influence on new acquaintances. This visualization conveys relationships faster and better than any text narrative could. However, more contrast and better use of negative space would enhance the productiveness of the graphic design.

A slide show of screenshots illustrate the connections that begin to appear first among people, then between cafes and cities.
The viewer can see how more contrast would improve the visibility of these connecting lines.

The Stories pathway is the third and most effective tool. Here visitors can dive deep into ten café cultures across the six cities for an intimate look at how that shaped Jewish patrons. The interactive scroll-through stories are richly illustrated with layers of text, maps, works of art, and primary source documents. Overall, this experience is an educator’s dream. It encourages further engagement and is beautifully executed. It is also appropriately situated within the progression of the other pathways. First, visitors get a sense of where in the world this story transpires. Then they gain an understanding of the complex relationships at play. Finally, the Stories pathway enriches and builds upon that foundational knowledge in meaningful ways.

A screen recording brings to life how richly illustrated and affecting the Stories are.

Time, the final pathway, falls flat in comparison to its predecessors. The chronological interactive presents each café across all six cities from 1800-2000. Each café represents a milestone on the timeline and includes a title and dates of operation. In some instances, the entry features a visual asset. But the interpretive significance is lost without a brief description, caption, credit, or the ability to expand the graphic. This pathway fails to illustrate these coffeehouses’ impact on their respective cities. The site would be better without this unnecessary and distracting pathway.

A timeline screenshot shows how the lack of content misses an opportunity for further interpretation.

In summary, minor criticisms aside, this site is a valuable resource and a worthy digital endeavor. It functions well as a digital narrative blended with archival documentation and teaching resources. The design, while not bespoke, is practical, visually accessible to a range of audiences, and easily navigable. The transparency of contributors indicates the content is rooted in careful academic research. And the visual pathways present information in ways that traditional textual narrative cannot, or at least not as effectively. However, the experience would be more meaningful had the content curators provided an interpretive framework and situated the visualizations within a narrative argument. Regardless, this is a fun and stimulating resource. Educators, cultural historians, and coffeehouse aficionados will indeed find it appealing.


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