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Shackar Pinsker

Shackar Pinsker

The research project examines the link between cafés and modern Jewish culture in a comparative way, and reconsiders the influential notion of “the public sphere.” It maps, analyzes and reconstructs the network of Jewish café culture in cities across several continents: Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York City and Tel Aviv. It demonstrates how urban cafés acted as a modern “silk road” in the creation of modern Jewish culture. The project traces the movement of Jews across cities and cafés in Europe, the U.S. and Palestine/Israel from the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. Mapping the network of urban cafés and investigating their crucial role in modern Jewish culture force us to rethink the nature of the public sphere as a space open to all. As such, the project makes a vital contribution to scholarly fields such as History, Literature, Cultural Geography, Jewish Studies, Urban studies, Media Studies, and Gender Studies. The project also seeks to engage a general audience eager to have open access to a reliable, well-researched digital reconstruction of the world of Jewish cafés and culture that does not exist anymore.

In order to achieve these goals, our team employed a hybrid model of publication. While part of the research and analysis is presented in Shachar Pinsker’s book, A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture (NYU Press, 2018), crucial aspects of this project could not be communicated in a traditional, linear humanities monograph. In order to overcome this challenge, the monograph is accompanied by a digital, open source, media-rich tool, mapping and reconstructing the network of urban cafés using digital sources and platforms in non-linear, multi-modal, and interactive ways.

The first step of the project was to locate and obtain in archives and libraries around the world hundreds of images (photographs, artworks, cartoons and advertisements) of important coffeehouses, as well as people and institutions of print, literature, and art that were associated with the cafés. With support from the Stephen S. Clark Library at U-M, and from M-Cubed, we identified and created digital layers of maps of the cities in the relevant historical periods. These visual materials are connected to numerous letters, memoirs journalistic and literary texts that are related to cafés and modern Jewish culture, translated from various languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Russian and Polish. Thus, we have produced a large database of visual, spatial, and chronological data, and experimented with a number of storytelling and mapping digital tools.

The New Model Publication Grant from the Institute for Humanities allowed us to complete an essential aspect of the project. A central goal of this project was to employ an experimental, hybrid model of scholarship to map and reconstruct the role of urban cafés in modern Jewish culture. We wanted to enable students, scholars, and other users to engage with this scholarship through "deep mapping," or an interactive, non-linear engagement with spatial data and narratives. And we wanted to do so in an innovative and collaborative spirit that allowed scholars at various stages to build expertise and capacity for further digital humanities projects at the University of Michigan.

As a result of this funding, we were able to bring together a team with a diverse skillset across the digital humanities to publish Mapping Modern Jewish Cultures (http://mapping.judaic.lsa.umich.edu/). This platform allows users opportunities to engage with spatial, photographic, and narrative content through both linear and nonlinear methods. 

To accomplish this, we followed several steps:

(1) Developed and followed a set of data entry and cleaning procedures to create a database of all content (currently accessible in archival form at http://ec2-52-11-202-148.us-west-2.compute.amazonaws.com/cafes); 

(2) Created an API (Application Programming Interface) to distribute this content to multiple platforms, including ArcGIS Online and Scalar;

(3) Designed several modules to support different types of interactivity, such as a web mapping application ( http://mapping.judaic.lsa.umich.edu/cities.html ), a social network visualization ( https://mapping.judaic.lsa.umich.edu/people.html ), a timeline module ( https://mapping.judaic.lsa.umich.edu/time.html), and media-intensive ArcGIS Story Map ( http://mapping.judaic.lsa.umich.edu/stories.html );

(4) Developed a single responsive website to collect these modules and introduce them to users through an understandable and compelling user interface ( https://mapping.judaic.lsa.umich.edu/about.html ); and

(5) Conducted user testing and went through subsequent revisions and redesigns to facilitate an immersive and robust experience for scholars and learners.

This project engaged developers and designers with diverse and complementary expertise. They included undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, librarians, and technology support staff.  A prototype of the website is already online, and has been shared in various contexts such as invited talks, conversations with graduate students, and communication with librarians and colleagues in Jewish Studies, Digital Humanities, Middle East Studies, and other areas, as well as the public at large.  We expect the impact of the project to grow significantly as more people make use of it as part of their scholarship and teaching. We also expect it to develop in new directions, through collaboration with other scholars from various institutions, and with input from users.