It’s over a week into the new semester and the expectation is that life here gets less chaotic. Class schedules are more cemented, and the game of summer catch-up with friends is winding down. It’s only natural that a daily routine begin to emerge from the darkness that is balancing the school part of college and the fun parts. This routine, however, is largely variable. Even in a smaller university like Wesleyan, I encounter new faces every day, and new faces means new conversations. Only these conversations follow a template most of the time. For me, that template looks like the simple game of Jewish geography.
I grew up in a white Jewish suburb in South Florida. It was the kind of town where everyone knew everyone, even when they really did not. “Ah, yes, you know Susan too? My uncle’s cousin’s friend introduced us a few years back!” All of this is to say, the game of Jewish geography became analogous to a bad sitcom in my life: something so familiar it’s almost white noise in the soundtrack to my life. As much as I see myself outside of that game, being again thrown in an environment where I am constantly engaged in small-talk, I see how permeable I am to the culture and conversations I consume, even unintentionally.
This “small world” phenomenon is not new, nor is it specific to Jewish circles. In 1967, psychologist Stanley Milgram published the results of his “small world problem experiment” in Psychology Today. In his experiment, Milgram attempted to trace webs of connectivity between individuals. He labeled the starting person “Person A” and the target person “Person Z.” Person A and each intermediary received basic information about the target individual, and each person, beginning with Person A, had to send a letter to someone who they suspected would know the target individual. The person had to be someone they knew on a first name basis. For the first trial, Milgram selected Wichita, Kansas as the destination to select Person A, and Person Z was the wife of a divinity student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He wrote that Kansas would seem “vaguely out there” to a person residing in Cambridge. In other words, the likelihood that these people socialized in the same circles would be slim. Milgram, then, was as surprised as anyone that there were only two degrees of separation between Person A and Person Z. A wheat farmer in Kansas sent the letter to an Episcopalian minister in his hometown who sent it to the minister who taught in Cambridge, who gave it to the target individual. This happened to be the shortest chain out of all the trials. The average chain, Milgram found, was six degrees of separation, a phrase that has now been popularized in our culture.
Upon reading the study, my first reaction is to say, that’s interesting. But immediately following that reaction, I couldn’t help but wonder, why is that interesting? Why was Milgram interested in proving that we’re all somehow more closely connected than we think? And why am I so intent on doing the same thing when I meet people?
“While many studies in social science show how the individual is alienated and cut off from the rest of society, this study demonstrates that, in some sense, we are all bound together in a tightly knit social fabric,” Milgram wrote.
But Milgram’s study largely ignores the social and cultural boundaries that make his conclusion a conditional statement. My ability to play Jewish geography revolves around my identity, an identity marked by privilege. It seems like in that way, this game only serves as a cultural barrier, and limits participation based on things like race, religion, socioeconomic status. It’s exclusionary by nature. Beyond this, what kind of “connection” do Person A and Z have? How is this evidence of a “tightly knit social fabric”? Their connection is just as strong as the connection I have formed with the person I spoke to in line for coffee who, it turns out, also knows some girl from South Florida who maybe went to my school when she was nine, which is to say, not strong at all.
It’s funny that we call the game Jewish “geography.” We’re acting as cartographers in a way, constructing individual maps for ourselves. Each connection we make puts a dot on our map, which in total, is a web of the sort Milgram was trying to identify. It contains a space where everything we have learned, everywhere we have been, and all the people we have met exist as one entity. If the object of the game is to form connections, there seem to be other ways to do that more effectively, and in such a way that will diversify and enrich the map I am creating.
Jodie Kahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.