Regular readers of this column know that in my Jewish festival pieces, I often like to feature intriguing and historical greeting cards, which constitute a window into Jewish history in general and how Jews have historically celebrated their holy days in particular.
In this piece, however, I would like to showcase four of the more unusual Passover cards in my collection.
Exhibit 1 is a Yiddish card circa 1910, which shows a couple dressed in their finery appearing before a judge in a crowded American courtroom. The exchange on the card, a classic example of Yiddish vaudeville humor at its best, runs as follows:
Judge: When were you married?
Parties: On Pessach
Judge: What is Pessach?
Parties: When the Jews left Egypt
Judge: Oh my God, that’s a long time to be married!
Not to step on an amusing punchline, but it is worth noting that the author of this card was apparently unaware that Jewish law prohibits marriages on Jewish holidays, including during the intermediate days of Passover. First, because “we do not mix one joyous occasion with another” (Moed Katan 8b), which would detract from the pure joy of each occasion; second, because we do not enter into a legal transaction during holidays, including Chol HaMoed, and the wedding ceremony is considered a legal transaction.
Exhibit 2 is a very unusual postcard written in Braille; can you determine which of the Four Questions is written on it? (The answer appears at the end of this column.)
An old gag, typical of old Borsht Belt humor: A blind man at a Seder inadvertently picks up a piece of matzah instead of his Braille Haggadah, runs his fingers over it, and asks “Who wrote this nonsense?”
The Jewish Braille Institute (now called “JBI International”), founded in 1931, compiled worldwide censuses of blind Jews; began a correspondence course program for blind Jewish youth; and maintained a circulating library of books related to Judaism and Jewish culture. (In 2003, JBI donated its entire 70,000 volume library to the Library of Congress.)
Today, it provides religious instruction to blind Jewish children and also published a free international Braille magazine of Jewish culture, to which Helen Keller wrote (1959): “With pride, I still read the Jewish Braille Review, which the Institute publishes for the blind, and bless the spirit of sympathy and brotherhood in which it serves both Jews and Christians in many lands.”
One of the first challenges faced by the Institute was the need for a uniform Hebrew Braille (which would be read from right to left!), so it mobilized an international panel, which formulated an International Hebrew Braille Code (1936) and which, after many adaptations, was completed in 1944. Mrs. Harry Cole, an early Hebrew Braille Code expert, took over five years to complete the first Braille translation of the Hebrew Bible.
It is difficult to pin down who created the first Braille Haggadah and when. Possibly the first such Haggadah, which was acquired by the National Library for its renowned collection of haggadot, was printed in the United States in the early 1950s in cooperation with the New York Guild for the Jewish Blind. In the mid-1950s, Temple Shalom in Succasunna, NJ produced what it claimed was the first Hebrew-English edition of the Haggadah, and Rhea Fink created a version in 1956.
Another claim to publishing the first Hebrew-English Braille Haggadah was made by the son of Bernice Wolfson of Beth El Congregation in Omaha, Nebraska, who tells a wonderful story: The renowned blind jazz pianist, George Shearing (famous for “Lullaby of Birdland”), was in town for Passover, and Bernice invited him to attend the family Seder, where he was thrilled to read from her Braille Haggadah. The family was invited to attend his concert the following night, at which he announced, “Last night, I had an extraordinary Passover experience with the Wolfson family” and proceeded to play a jazz variation of Dayeinu.
Though there is a general decline in the use of Braille books due to technological advances using computer-assisted reading technology, Braille haggadot continue to be in demand to facilitate the full participation by the blind in the Passover experience.
Exhibit 3 is an April 10, 1908 advertising card mailed from Cleveland by the C. Cook & Co. that reads as follows:
The Jewish Holidays will start next Wednesday and the demand for poultry will be better than ever. We expect that we can get you 14-15 cts. for almost any kind of chicken. Ship them as early as you can each day.
Ducks are bringing 15cts.; Turkeys 15-16; Broilers $5.00 – $6.00 per doz. Maple syrup is in good demand. Eggs selling well, bringing in 15cts. per doz.
Let us hear from you daily, we will do our very best for you at all times and will make returns to you the same day.
According to the Commodity Year Book, which used U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the average price of a dozen eggs in New York in 1908 was 22 cents. At first blush, one might think that the Cook Company was offering its customers a tremendous bargain but, in fact, the price of eggs in New York was much higher (a staggering 47 percent higher), which may be traced to 1906 when a group of New York City kosher poultry distributors organized the Live Poultry Commission Merchant’s Protection Association, which fixed wholesale prices for kosher poultry; forced poultry retailers to buy exclusively from the Association; and punished uncooperating retailers while setting up competing local retailers who sold their goods at significantly reduced prices.
Thirteen Association members were convicted of illegal price-fixing in 1911 based principally upon the testimony of Bernard Baff. As a result – aside from his livestock being poisoned and his store bombed – he was murdered by 100 poultry retailers who resented his cutting out middlemen and selling at prices significantly lower than the competition.
To lend a bit of perspective to these prices, however: One 1908 dollar is worth about $25.60 today. As such, kosher poultry for Passover would run the 1908 consumer about $3.58 to $3.84 at today’s prices (and a dozen eggs would also be about $3.84).
During the beginning of the 20th century, chickens were mostly raised on family farms, which sold eggs as their primarily income source; chicken meat was a delicacy reserved for holidays and special occasions – and the Passover Seder certainly ranked as both a holiday and “a special occasion” for Jews. Kosher poultry was more expensive than beef but, only a few decades after the Cook Company issued our Passover price list, industrialized farming and transportation made chicken widely available and much cheaper.
And that’s why, even today (and ever since Herbert Hoover’s 1929 presidential campaign), politicians always promise “a chicken in every pot” – albeit not necessarily a kosher chicken, which is still far more expensive.
Exhibit it 4 is an anti-Semitic card displaying a grinning “Jewish matzah,” complete with a caricature Jewish beard and hat, with the Yiddish caption: Du Bist a Matze Ponem (“You have a Matzah face”). Due in part to the increased immigration of European Jews to American shores at the turn of the century and the accompanying increase in anti-Semitism, it was issued in 1905 as part of a series mocking the Yiddish language and showing less-than-flattering depictions of Jews.
And now for the answer to the Pesach Braille quiz: The card features the first question of the Ma Nishtanah: “On all other nights, we eat chametz and matzah, but on this night only matzah.”
Wishing all a chag kasher v’sameach.