Looking back at my childhood, it seems as if Jewish holidays always had as much to do with symbolic preparations outside the synagogue as with actual religious services inside: helping to clean the house before Passover, rolling out the dough for kreplach with my aunt and watching the men build the tiny sukkah in the concrete yard behind the shul. For my mother, Rosh Hashanah meant having the foresight to order and address engraved New Year cards. A school teacher who returned to work around Labor Day, she had to plan ahead, especially if the holidays fell early.
During the weeks preceding Rosh Hashanah, our formal living room would change and become cheerfully cluttered with cards from relatives and friends. A multitude of different sizes and colors, the cards would be stuck horizontally in the slats of Venetian blinds, propped up in front of the mahogany breakfront and wedged into the small glass panes of the French doors that opened up into the hallway. Sometimes my friends would compare the number of cards we each received to see whose family was the largest or knew the most people.
Exchanging New Year cards has been a Jewish tradition for centuries. During the Middle Ages, the Prague rabbi known as the Maharal ruled that all letters written during this season should begin with the now familiar greeting “L’shana tova tikatevu vetechatemu,” “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”
While the tradition of exchanging holiday greetings is a longstanding one, the use of commercially printed cards dates back only to the late 19th century, when they began to reflect the status and changing conditions of Jews in different countries.
“Because many early cards show rituals taking place within the family – blessing the candles or binding the tefillin, for instance – they’re important because they reflect Jewish values and show how we once lived,” says Anette Labowitz, a coordinator of the Jewish Educational Resource Center in Davie, Fla.
Some of the earliest cards from the late 19th century are elaborate, fold-out, three-dimensional cards printed in Germany, which had highly sophisticated technology for lithographic reproductions. These cards were also frequently embossed or trimmed with gilt and feature fancy cut-out paperwork.
Generally, they fell into two broad categories: scenes related to the High Holy Days and Succot (such as men blowing the shofar, or holding a lulav and etrog) and cards of wedding scenes. New Year greetings would be printed on the bottom of the card, visible only when the card was folded flat.
Why wedding scenes? One reason may be that the first letters of the Hebrew phrase “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” spell the word Elul, the month which precedes Rosh Hashanah.
With rare exception, the people depicted in these cards were all well-dressed, fashionable members of the Western European upper middle-class, whether they were a prosperous family being served a meal in a sukkah, or an elegantly dressed wedding party. Most cards of this type were sold before the start of World War I.
Around the 1890s and the early 1900s, picture postcards, which had become popular in Europe, England and the United States, also began to be published with Jewish New Year greetings.
Some depict scenes of Palestine. Others are generic cards imprinted with Rosh Hashanah greetings. The cards produced by Raphael Tuck and his sons, British Orthodox Jews, featured sentimental Victorian designs bursting with doves, flowers, ribbons and richly colored baskets of fruit over which Hebrew script and a simple “New Year’s Greetings” were stamped.
But other postcards began to feature drawings and photographs of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the United States. The cards were printed in Germany and distributed in the United States by such firms as the Williamsburg Publishing Company of the Lower East Side.
In these immigrant greeting cards, the finery of bourgeois Jewish merchants is replaced by working class clothing: brimmed working class caps, woolen shawls, aprons and headscarves. Life moves out of the shtetl and into the American city: a tashlich ceremony takes place in view of the Williamsburg Bridge.
More significant than the changes in fashion or geography, however, are the differences in social situations. Early cards might show an Orthodox boy being tested by his teacher while his mother and sister, who probably weren’t given much education, wait anxiously out of sight in the next room for the results of the examination. But a later card will have a mixed family scene, showing girls involved with books and learning.
As Jewish immigrants adapted to America, Yiddish began to appear on cards. “I wish you renewed strength with great love that no one will destroy your dreams,” says one modernly dressed young man as he telephones Rosh Hashanah greetings to his sweetheart.
But with assimilation, Jewish New Year cards sometimes began to be put to more nefarious purposes. Beginning in the second decade of this century and continuing into the 1930s, some cards were made with puffy, satin cushions in the center of a Star of David design.
“Often these small pillows would be stuffed with drugs and sent to Jewish prisoners in jail,” says Ben Shiffrin of New York, a longtime collector of Jewish postcards.
Another reflection of Jewish life visible in the cards is the participation of Jewish soldiers in World War II. V-Mail Service cards, created by the government and distributed to servicemen, were modified to carry New Year greetings and often bore the motto: “Serving Jews in the Armed Forces.”
Some of the most poignant cards are post-Holocaust greetings printed privately by families and individuals who survived World War II. Typically, they consisted of a photograph and were sent in an effort to contact other surviving relatives and friends. “We’re alive and here; where are you?” is the message one can read between the lines.
Today, more than 12 million Jewish New Year cards are produced and sold in the United States alone, according to the Greeting Card Association. They come in a variety of designs and typefaces, some even simulating antique cards. More than just a greeting, the cards weave a web of relationships drawing far-flung families and friends closer together.