Gilded greetings

Originating in 19th-century Europe, ‘Shana Tova’ cards have served to connect and reflect Jewish life.

illustrated greeting card (photo credit: Courtesy)
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 holidays.
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.
German Jews 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 Yisrael.
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.
The 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.
The mass 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.
Jewish 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.
Shana 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 and distributors.
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 Yisrael.
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 horizon.
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 customers.
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.