Just lick it

Ahead of the International Stamp Exhibition, an event that takes place in Israel once a decade, a survey of Israeli philatelic highlights.

stamp 224.88 (photo credit: Israel Postal Company)
stamp 224.88
(photo credit: Israel Postal Company)
In May 1948, and for many months thereafter, nine scraps of paper inscribed Doar Ivri (Hebrew Post) could be bought over any post office counter in Israel for the equivalent of three dollars, with nothing more to pay if they had descriptive "tabs" attached. Today, these same scraps of paper are commanding as much as $5,000 a set in the US and even more in Europe. Many of the early Israeli stamps, and not a few of the later ones, are popular - and scarce - for a number of reasons. Above all, Jews have always been avid collectors, and Israeli stamps are an accessible, educational and colorful link between Jews in the Diaspora and their spiritual homeland. Dr. Josef Burg, minister of posts in the 1950s, put it this way: "We want our stamps to represent the story and the history of Israel, its hopes and fulfillments, the remembrance of a great past, the portrayal of a dramatic present, the building of a purposeful future. In our stamps, we show the People of the Book again building the land of the Bible in the spirit of this greatest Book of Books." Thus, quotations and motifs from the Bible, Talmud and prayerbook are a prominent feature of many stamps and first-day covers, giving Israel's issues a universal appeal. The first stamps of Israel, the classic Doar Ivri, were produced at a critical time. Arab bombs and bullets were falling within feet of the blacked-out underground workshop where the stamps were being hurriedly, and secretly, prepared. Paper was at a premium; ink was virtually unobtainable; and time was against the valiant men who risked imprisonment (by the British) and death (by the Arabs) to produce the first tangible evidence of Israel's independence. The stamps were designed by Otto Wallish, a Vienna-born graphic artist who settled in Palestine in 1934. As motifs for the series, he chose facsimiles of Jewish coins struck after the war of liberation against the Romans, symbolizing the link between the ancient Jewish commonwealth and the latter-day Jewish state. Descriptive tabs - in modern Hebrew characters - were also printed, since the Hebrew inscriptions on the coins were unintelligible to the average person. A suitable place for the transcriptions, together with short explanations regarding the dates of origin, was found under the bottom row of stamps, and thus "tabs" came into being. Their philatelic importance was not, however, recognized in the early years, and members of the general public, as well as unsuspecting collectors, tore off the little strips of paper below the stamps. This, of course, increased the scarcity of the "tabbed" stamps and explains the dearth of the classic issues. EVERY YEAR, the Israel Postal Company receives scores of suggestions for new stamp issues. All are carefully noted by the Philatelic Service and distributed to a government commission and to philatelic associations, whose members recommend which suggestions should be considered and eventually taken up. Certain occasions are commemorated annually: Rosh Hashana and Remembrance Day have their regular stamps. The commission draws up an annual program of new issues, subject to last-minute additions or alteration - as in the case of the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars and, more recently, sudden deaths, such as those of Yitzhak Rabin and Pope John Paul II. The 1967 hostilities provided Israel with a windfall "Victory" series, but they also resulted in the cancellation of a Lazarus Zamenhof stamp, since the World Esperanto Congress was unable to meet that year in Israel. (The stamp was prepared and printed, but never issued - one of a number that have suffered a similar fate. Another Esperanto stamp, however, appeared in 2006.) In the period immediately following the establishment of the state, most Israeli collectors welcomed the stamps' biblical, archeological and historical motifs, but in recent years they have inclined toward more "modern" subjects - science fiction, hot-air ballooning, kite-flying, computer games, electronic mail, dairy-cattle breeding, children of Chernobyl, the Lovely Butterfly TV series and cable cars being typical examples. Upcoming themes include the Beijing Olympics; "My School" (the winning entries in a competition for schoolchildren) and "Back to School" (highlighting tolerance, excellence and special education); Israel's export achievements; and "Quality in Israel," focusing on government, produce and the environment. The artistic merit of the stamps is recognized by the large number of plaudits they have won in exhibitions and polls around the world. The artists who have designed them, no less than the motifs depicted, vividly illustrate the ingathering of the exiles. From Wallish to the very latest of the modern school, Israel's stamps have benefited from the influx of foreign-born designers whose contribution to graphic art is paramount. Their countries of origin include Iraq, Hungary, Holland, Britain, the United States, Romania, Yugoslavia, Germany, France, Bulgaria and Russia. The seal of approval was placed on Israeli philately in 1969 by no less an artist than Marc Chagall, whose "King David" stamp was followed, four years later, by a series depicting the Twelve Tribes windows at Jerusalem's Hadassah-University Medical Center. Israel Prize-winner Reuven Rubin and America's Arthur Szyk were also responsible for stamp designs. Their contributions were but a few among many made over the years by leaders in a variety of fields. As early as 1948, when the first Israeli stamps were being prepared, a British expert, Frank Read, risked life and limb to assist the postal authorities in the intricacies of stamp printing. In 1953, the UN technical assistance administration sent Otto M. Lilien, a print technologist, to advise on the photogravure production of postage stamps. And three years later, British artist Abram Games, who was himself responsible for a number of issues, conducted a course in Tel Aviv on designing for photogravure. The vast range of attractive designs bears testimony to the multifaceted activities of Israel and world Jewry. Great moments in Zionist history, achievements in the fields of science, technology, defense, sport, immigration, export and the arts, as well as towering personalities in religious and political life - all these have found their way onto the envelopes and into the albums of Israeli collectors on the 2,000 different designs since 1948. The latest releases include a souvenir sheet marking Tel Aviv's centennial and others showing Independence Day posters; "Jerusalem of Gold," integrating genuine 22-carat gold-leaf into the sheet; and - a first in Israeli philately, perforated in the shape of a Magen David - commemorating the 120th anniversary of Hatikva's premiere, in the then nascent settlement of Rishon Lezion. BUT PERHAPS the most fascinating - and, to many, the most controversial - is a stamp representing the so-called "new sabra." The image, designed by Eli Karmeli, has traces of the "old" sabra - the hat, the shorts and the sandals. But, according to exhibition curator Michal Broshi, "these no longer represent a young farmer, but rather the attire of an average Israeli, possibly soldiers' clothes or intentional fashionable carelessness. Hutzpa, bluntness and directness still characterize today's sabra, along with a large measure of affability, which compensates for the rest. The young Israeli is also a proud patriot, holding a flag in hand, but he no longer withdraws from the world, rather communicating with it through the Internet and electronic mail." Israel's ceaseless quest for peace with its Arab neighbors has been marked by several issues over the years. President Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977 led to the treaty with Egypt two years later; and the Oslo Accords paved the way to the 1994 agreements first with the PLO and then with Jordan. The past few years have also seen a rise in stamps with religious themes - Chabad, rabbis of Jerusalem, and the hamsa symbol against the evil eye (2006); birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing), Bar-Ilan University and Moses Maimonides (2005); Rome's Great Synagogue (2004) and Budapest's Dohany Street Synagogue (2000); Succot's hakhel l'yisrael ceremony (2002). The 5766 and 5767 festival stamps depicted the six orders of the Mishna, while last year's series featured the biblical figures Yael, Esther and Miriam, with the first-day cover carrying a quotation from Ruth (3:11): "All the elders of my town know what a fine woman you are." The centenary of religious Zionist education in Israel was commemorated by a stamp depicting the late rabbis Judah Leib Fishman (Maimon) and Isaac Jacob Reines, the Mizrahi leaders responsible for its early curriculum. The Hebrew inscription on the tab reads: "To raise and educate our sons and daughters in Torah and good deeds, and to implant in their tender hearts the love of Zion and the hope for the return of its exiles" - aspirations extracted from the manifesto prepared by Rabbi Ze'ev Yavetz for the first conference of Mizrahi. US themes, too, have been well to the fore. A recent series was entitled "Children of America Paint Israel," while over the decades Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, Harry S Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt and Leonard Bernstein, as well as Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Hebrew Union College, have all been honored. Nor are striking designs the only attraction of Israeli philately. Postal stationery, booklets, pictorial postcards, personalized stamps, printing-plate blocks and vending-machine labels open the way to a wealth of specialization, which can ultimately include the so-called forerunners of Palestine and the interim period - the weeks in 1948 after the closure of the British Mandatory post offices and before the establishment of Israel, when Jewish National Fund labels overprinted Doar were accepted as a legitimate means of prepaying postage. Caution must be exercised, however, in the field of study chosen and in the items acquired: Modern Israeli philately is no child's game - although it does, of course, appeal to children. Great attention must be paid to the condition of the material (this applies to the stamps of all countries) and to its authenticity (unfortunately, a good deal has been forged or tampered with), but with care and sound advice a substantial collection - and, in time, a worthwhile investment - can easily be built up. An indication of the wisdom of philatelic foresight is provided by the late Dr. Moshe Hesky, an adviser to the Israeli postal authorities and one of those most intimately involved in the preparation of the Doar Ivri series. Describing the events on the day in May 1948 when the issue was put on sale, he relates: "On Sunday morning, I left the printing press to buy the new stamps and a few first-day covers at the Rehov Mikve Yisrael post office in Tel Aviv. There I was told that many members of the public had complained that they had to buy stamps which were partly without perforations. In one case, an irate customer refused these faulty stamps altogether, and I had to persuade the harassed postal clerk to take them back." Today those imperforate stamps cost several hundred dollars. The perforated ones the irate customer agreed to take in their place are worth a few cents. n The writer is the author of The Running Stag: The Stamps and Postal History of Israel (Christie's-Robson Lowe, London, 1973). The World Stamp Championship, Israel 2008, is at the Israel Trade Fairs and Convention Center in Tel Aviv, May 14-21.