illustrated greeting card.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The High Holidays are over. Family visits, trips and holiday meals are behind us
and so, too, the greeting cards and calls from friends who connect at the
Growing up in America, I remember the excitement when my mother
would announce who had sent us “shana tovas” as she called them. She proudly
displayed the cards on the mantelpiece; and when the holidays were over, they
were put in a box and stored in the attic.The custom of sending written
messages of good wishes before the new year began as early as the 14th century.
Rabbi Jacob Halevi Ben- Moses Moellin proposed adding the words, “May you be
inscribed for a happy new year” to every letter sent before the new year, a
custom which has continued for 700 years.
Since the first half of the
19th century, people have been sending new year greeting cards, but the practice
existed in other forms even earlier.
Sending new year greetings became
popular among German Jews with the invention of the postcard in Vienna in 1869.
The German cards were frequently illustrated with biblical themes. The makers of
Jewish cards in Warsaw, on the other hand, preferred to depict the religious
life of East European Jewry in a nostalgic manner. Some of the postcards were
humorous and others were more romantic and sentimental.
gradually began using specially prepared decorative paper accompanied by
appropriate inscriptions. The earliest surviving examples are from Germany
during the 1830s.
Large printed Rosh Hashana tablets, sent abroad for
fund-raising purposes, were also produced by Jews in 19th-century Eretz
However, only with the introduction of the picture postcard in
late 19th-century Europe was this Jewish custom speedily adopted, becoming
highly popular in Europe (especially in Germany and Poland) and in the US (New
York in particular).
The postcards were more than just a means of
communication. Collecting them became a hobby, and special albums were sold to
arrange and keep them. Eastern European publishers issued cards depicting scenes
of traditional Jewish life and culture, whereas German postcards depicted
inventions and innovations such as the airplane and the zeppelin.
images on the cards were often theatrically staged in a studio with amateur
actors, who posed in settings that replicated the interior of a Jewish home. The
artist completed the picture by drawing in additional elements and retouching
the photo. Finally, a short verse of Yiddish greetings was added. The postcards
were issued in color, sepia and black-andwhite versions.
immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the US at the turn of the century
boosted the production of the cards. They were a reminder of tradition and the
pull of America. Their popularity acknowledged a new and painful social reality.
Immigration and the moving from place to place in the country meant that
families no longer lived under one roof or near one another. The greeting cards
softened this reality by providing a new way of communicating.
greeting cards also integrated Rosh Hashana into the American lifestyle of
celebration and festivity. At a time when more and more Americans took to
marking holidays and other important occasions – birthdays, Christmas,
Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduation – with a card,
American Jews of the early 20th century were able to do the same.
tova cards were easily affordable and could be purchased from pushcart vendors
and ghetto stationers, as well as upscale department stores. In 1913, for
instance, “novelty cards” ranged in price from six to 18 cents apiece; postcards
were a penny, while personal greeting cards “with your own name and address”
ranged from 20 to 40 cents. It was also possible to purchase cards directly from
the Hebrew Publishing Company and its competitors, Bloch Publishing Company and
the Williamsburg Art Company. All three companies functioned as manufacturers
The greeting cards came in various shapes and sizes,
from the modest, penny postcard to an oversized, 20 x 28 cm. rectangle. Some
were embossed and accented with ribbons and frills. Many were void of
ornamentation in favor of a simple message in Hebrew and English: “L’shana tova
tikateivu. A happy new year.” Others were sweet and schmaltzy. America was
depicted as the new homeland, opening its arms to the new immigrants, while
other cards emphasized Zionist ideology with contemporary views of Eretz
In the 1920s and 1930s, cards in Palestine highlighted building
and working the land, as well as secular views of the new pioneers. Most popular
following the Balfour Declaration, Jewish new year cards made a point of
celebrating the modern city of Tel Aviv whose palm trees, sandy beaches and blue
Mediterranean beckoned, while off in the distance a mosque and a sailboat dotted
The most elaborate were pop-up and foldout cards. Although
they were intended for an English-speaking audience, the cards were actually
printed in Germany. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the finest
postcards and greeting cards were made in Germany, where artisans had perfected
the craft of color printing. The cards offered an idyllic view of late Victorian
Jewish life with beautifully dressed families placed in elegant, wellappointed
settings. A selection of these cards is displayed in the Judaica wing of the
Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
There were multicolored pasteboard creations,
frosted and beribboned, full of detail, in wild combinations of motifs, colors
and materials. Accordion pleats and paper hinges allowed the images to pop up
and open out in three-dimensional splendor. These quaint, over-the-top cards
depicted sweet-faced angels, gliding swans and bouquets of dainty flowers in
brilliant colors of cerulean blues and cheery pinks. Manufacturers redesigned
and recycled their Christmas, Easter and St. Valentine’s cards for their Jewish
Over the years, since the establishment of the State of
Israel, the custom has continued, with scenes and wishes on the cards developing
as social needs and situations changed. In the late 1970s, small glittery
brachot were sold before Rosh Hashana off rickety wooden tables on Jerusalem’s
Rehov Ben-Yehuda. They were glittery colored cards 4 x 10 cm., with nostalgic
drawings and a simple “shana tova” greeting.
Often, flimsy envelopes
accompanied them. Today, fewer and fewer cards are mailed in Israel,
superseded by phone calls and e-mails. In other countries, especially the
US, cards with traditional symbols are still commonly sent by mail, more
elaborately designed than in the past.
But the simple and naïve new
year’s card vividly reflects the dramatic changes in the life of the Jewish
people over the past generations.
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