Jewish New Year’s Postcards
THE EARLIEST AND LARGEST numbers of Jewish picture postcards were created for Rosh Hashanah greetings. The Jewish custom of sending written messages of good wishes on the eve of the New Year developed in medieval Germany when Rabbi Jacob of Moellin, known as the Maharil (c. 1360–1427), recommended that during the Hebrew month of Elul one should include wishes for a good year in all written correspondence. This custom spread widely throughout the Ashkenazic world.

The real breakthrough came in the nineteenth century with mass-produced Rosh Hashanah postcards. It is clear that the beginning of Jewish New Year’s postcards in Germany and later in other European countries is connected to the widespread use of Christian New Year’s cards. In fact, some of the Jewish cards issued in Germany were printed as general cards with Jewish blessings superimposed. Naturally, these illustrations were not of a religious nature but rather featured smiling children or bouquets of flowers. For cards designed specifically for the Jewish New Year, publishers portrayed the ceremonies and customs of the High Holidays.

Images and themes of acculturation are abundant. For example, a scene of a family gathered around a table receiving money is depicted in two very different tableaux. One postcard depicts an Old World family; the bearded patriarch and his wife, her hair covered with a shawl, are turning toward the messenger, who is holding a telegram printed with the winning amount of “75 thousand.” Although the décor seen in a second postcard is almost identical to the first, the group seated around the festival table is attired in fashionable clothing. The men are wearing fedoras and neatly tailored suits, and none of the women has her hair covered. In some instances, the publishers appealed to both a New and Old World consumer.

Besides depicting religious life, the New Year’s cards deal with a variety of other topics, including modes for the delivery of the greetings, romance, angels and children. These images are often accompanied by lighthearted Yiddish poems. There are also scenes of crucial events in the lives of contemporary Jews, particularly emigration to the United States or Palestine.

These colorful postcards afford a nostalgic view into a bygone world. Although many of the images were staged in studios, often featuring models who made multiple appearances in different settings and garb, they faithfully represent realistic elements of Jewish daily life, both religious and secular, in the period preceding the devastation of European Jewry.

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All images are courtesy of  The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York / © Copyright 2008 / About the Exhibition