Wish You Were Here


In a social media culture where e-mails and Twitter are often without either salutations or signatures, imagine a world so genteel where even the briefest note would begin with “dear” and conclude with “love.” Such was the refined sensibility of the simple postcard, introduced in the 19th century, with its Victorian greetings and farewells. Bad news, audits, collection notices arrive in envelopes. Penny postcards (two pennies for postcards addressed far away, to a shtetl over the seas) were for abbreviated expressions of love and friendship, for showing, in absolutely the only way possible in those days, a photo of where you were or now lived, such as the Lower East Side, that “ghetto” on the cusp of a new century that had yet to see its first car or flying machine.

Fifty of these Lower East Side postcards (and 10 from shtetls) have now come home, on display in the Museum at Eldridge Street, its gallery within the spectacular Eldridge Street Synagogue built in 1887, the very era in which several of these postcards were first dropped in a mailbox.

“It is quite unnecessary to go to Europe to see a genuine Jewish ghetto,” wrote The New York Times in 1897. “There is one, a large one, the largest in the New World, in fact, right here in New York.” The largest anywhere in the world. From 1880-1924, the museum reports, one out of three Jews in Eastern Europe moved to America, most to the Lower East Side, a quarter of a million people squeezed into barely a square mile of ramshackle Manhattan.

Without telephones, without social media, how to explain and illustrate all this to the folks back in the Carpathian Mountains, or in rural villages in Czarist Russia? How could one get word to the family back home that you made it across the ocean, that all was well (or well enough)? This was often done in a space — a postcard barely 3-by-5-inches that must have felt as cramped as the tenements: Tens of thousands sent picture postcards (often with primitive photography) of unpaved Essex and Hester Streets; laundry flapping on fire escapes, and across clothes lines; Civil War-era wooden buildings on the verge of collapse, even the windows sagged unevenly in the poor construction; almost impassable sidewalks and gutters filled with running children, bearded men, aproned women; water gushing out of fire hydrants; wooden pushcarts lined up blocks on end; peddlers hawking vegetables, bedding, fish, fabric, boots; barrels of pickles, barrels of herring; as bewigged Orthodox women clustered around pushcarts, little children clinging to mama’s skirts.

What can a postcard writer possible say? Sometimes just: this is “one block from my school.”

Sometimes nothing more than “This is where I work,” or “This is on the East Side where I teach.” Wish you were here.

The “correspondence card” was invented in Austria-Hungary in 1869, and by 1874 international postal agreements renamed it the “postcard,” establishing size and weight standards. At first, one entire side was designated for the address, leaving on the flip side only a small white area under the picture for a brief message, not much more than the 140-characters associated with Twitter. In 1907, the address side was divided in half, providing more room for a message, and more room for a picture or illustration.

The new format also allowed for photo captions, such as: “The Ghetto, also known as Judea, covers a large section of the East Side between Third Avenue and the River, between Chatham Square to 10th Street. It consists of six- or seven-story tenement houses crowded to their eaves with humanity…. The narrow streets, all through the Ghetto, are thronged with pushcart vendors.”

In the “golden age of the postcard,” 1905-15, the museum tells us, “an estimated 300 billion postcards were produced,” now time capsules for our wonder and pleasure.

With the coming of World War I, entrepreneurial war photographers, traveling through Eastern Europe, took photos of “Jewish types,” leading to black-and-white picture postcards of shtetl Jews in Rava, Ukraine, sitting on and around a stoop, or gathered in front of a bookstore on Plocka Street in Poland’s Mlawa (hometown of the great Yiddish writer, Joseph Opatoshu). Picture postcards of men in pillbox yarmulkes, women shopping in an outdoor market scene, a World War just miles in the distance.

These, and the Lower East Side postcards, are from the collection of the Blavatnik Archive Foundation. Julie Chervinsky, director of the New York-based foundation, tells us that the archive specializes in Jewish historical documents, oral testimonies and as many as 10,000 postcards (mostly from Eastern Europe and pre-state Israel) in the years spanning the world wars, with an emphasis on the experience of Jewish soldiers in the Red Army.

The forty postcards on exhibit tell the rest of the story, when Eastern Europe came to the Lower East Side.

A “ghetto” worthy of picture postcards was in the process of ending almost as soon as it was beginning, as the immigrant families moved into the outer boroughs and beyond, and as well-meaning social workers and politicians set out to Americanize the old ghetto. The exhibit tells us that as early as 1886, Suzanna Way Dodds, a hygienist, scolded the ghetto Jews, for their own good, of course: “There is nothing in a pickle to redeem it… the spices in it are bad. The vinegar is a seething mass of rottenness… and the poor little innocent cucumber, or other vegetable, if it had very little character in the beginning, must now fall into the ranks of the totally depraved.”

Four pushcarts set up shop on Hester Street in 1866 and by 1900 there were 25,000 of them. In 1906, a city commission complained, the pushcarts are “interfering with traffic and adding to the danger of fires.” There were still 15,000 pushcarts on the streets by the 1930s, but in 1940, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia forced all but 1,200 of the peddlers off the streets, to “professionalize,” the peddlers, for their own good, of course, such is progress. With tenements giving way to housing projects, and the streets no longer an open-air bazaar, and with most Jews moving away, well, there really wasn’t much to photograph or write home about.

On the walls of the shul are 50 postcards and neighborhood testimonies, from one lost world to another: Wish you were here.

“The Jewish Ghetto in Postcards: From Eastern Europe to the Lower East Side,” at the Museum at Eldridge Street, 12 Eldridge St., between Canal and Division. Through March 8, 2017. For more information: www.eldridgestreet.org.