Old New Year greetings

A recent book chronicles the history of kibbutz Rosh Hashana cards.

With cyberspace messages and electronic greeting cards the norm these days, letter writing and postcards are gradually being relegated to the bottom drawer of nostalgia. "We should not see the demise of the Rosh Hashana card as a passing with no life after it - we simply need to adjust ourselves to new realities," says historian Muki Tzur, one of the most prominent commentators on the kibbutz movement. With no fewer than 7,000 New Year greeting cards issued by kibbutzim over the years to choose from, deciding which ones would be featured in a book on the subject was a daunting task. The challenge was met by Yuval Danieli, curator of the Hashomer Hatzair Art and History Archives at Givat Haviva and his team, who whittled the cards down to a mere 600 for a book published in 2003. Tzur, a member of Kibbutz Ein Gev, which produced the first photographic kibbutz greetings card in l934, wrote the Hebrew text for the 245-page book. The cards chosen date back to the 1930s and through to the 1980s, depicting diverse scenes such as ecstatic Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall moments after breaking through in l967 or muscular, suntanned kibbutz men swinging huge scythes during the wheat harvest while their knickerbocker-clad womenfolk spread chicken feed. The collection also includes cards printed for those serving in the British army's Jewish Brigade, many of whom were kibbutz members. One card depicted a group of uniformed Jews from Palestine standing under the Arch of Titus in Rome, circa 1945. The main emphasis in most kibbutzim over the years was to send Rosh Hashana greetings cards showing the green, green grass of home rather than the muck, grime, and aching backs that accompanied much of their manual labor. The mostly postcard-size greetings were printed by individual kibbutzim or by Palphot, a publishing house that has practically monopolized the Israeli card and calendar scene since the l930s. "Kibbutz society was very politically orientated, pioneering, and ideological with set values - but one doesn't see it in their greeting cards. The cards depict lots of water, greenery, public buildings, and facilities like the pool. Whoever looks through them nowadays could think they represent a country club with few inhabitants," chuckles Danieli, an accomplished kibbutz-born artist, as he leafs through one of the albums. The thousands of cards are arranged according to kibbutzim in alphabetical order, and a dozen or so albums containing the cards sit on sagging metal shelving in Danieli's office. "The sweat and tears of farm work, the cow dung, and hay are not felt - in fact, where there is farm equipment visible it is usually as decoration for an agricultural celebration such as Rosh Hashana, Bikurim, or Succot. Founding members of kibbutzim were nostalgic for the greenery and excessive waters of Europe and wanted to recreate Europe in Palestine - the dream of making the desert bloom, for example," says Danieli, who is in his late fifties. "There is a story I remember as a boy in my kibbutz - Hamapil - about a visitor from Britain. The na ve guest asked his kibbutz host how come they had managed to build their community in the middle of a national park," he reminisces with a broad smile. Why did so many kibbutzim focus on their swimming pool? "In the l950s there was a great deal of political tension between left and right wing inside the Labor Party, and it would seem to me that concentrating on the pool was something common to all, but neutral." The kibbutznik-designed cards feature many symbols: the settlements' original water towers, granary, tripod-legged guard posts, the flag and hanukkia atop a dining room or water tower. The Palphot-published cards often depict buxom lasses working in the laundry, the fields, and taking kibbutz children to visit the cowsheds or sheep pens. "It's interesting to see that the outside looking in saw the pioneer, but the hard-working pioneer himself put the emphasis on the swimming pool," comments Danieli, pointing to a number of cards. "Of course, there's no way of showing that the kibbutz members in those years built the pools by themselves after work hours. Pre-state kibbutzim did not have the money to send postcards, and the trend only really developed in the early 1950s," he says. "In the old days, members felt obliged to send some news from home to those who were dispatched abroad on missions or were serving in the army. They started out as plain cards, later on with photographs, and developed into greeting cards," explains Danieli.