With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fast approaching (no pun intended), I thought I would dedicate this column to items relating to these holidays. Postcards with greetings for the Jewish New Year are what come to mind first, even in our computerized age of e-mail greetings.
According to the National Library of Israel, “Around the time that the postal service emerged, in the 1880s, Jewish entrepreneurs were beginning to print commercial greeting cards for the new year. By this time, new year greetings constituted the main body of postcards sent by Jews, and this would remain so for some 100 years.”
The most wide-ranging selections of Jewish postcards in early 20th century America were issued by the Hebrew Publishing Company, which was located on the Lower East Side of New York. I own a few Rosh Hashanah postcards from this publisher, but the one that is my favorite is pictured here. It bears a postmark of October 3, 1910 on the reverse, and the obverse depicts a polar bear with a backdrop of snowy mountains, rays of sunlight, and the American flag on a wooden pole, planted firmly in the snow. “A Happy New Year” is in English and Hebrew, and at bottom in Yiddish – “North Pole.”
What do a polar bear and the North Pole have to do with a Shana Tova card? Well, on April 6, 1909, a U.S. Navy engineer named Robert Peary became the first person (along with his assistant Mathew Henson, and two Inuit men in the final stage of the journey), to reach the North Pole. This event made worldwide headline news, and it became a source of immense pride that this tremendous feat of discovery in exploration was first accomplished by an American. To feature this dramatic pro-American subject matter for this Shana Tova card illustrates the thought process and feelings of the vast majority of American Jews, including recent arrivals, during that era – that to celebrate this event was to be patriotic, to be a grateful and proud citizen of the United States of America.
This next photo is from the collection of the Jewish Museum of New York. It is a carved and engraved piece of walrus tusk bearing Shana Tova greetings for the year 1910. The piece was done for a husband and wife who ran a store in Nome, Alaska. It was made by a well-known Inuit artist of the time, Angokwazhuk, who, for a fee, would engrave walrus tusks with a fine needle, and could produce images in an almost perfect imitation of a photograph. He enhanced the incised lines by filling them with India ink, graphite, or ashes. While it’s apparent that the man’s beard is neatly trimmed, if you look closely, the woman seems to be wearing a wig, suggesting that this couple were observant Jews.
For the Jews of the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries, porcelain plates known as delft were made by Dutch artists with black wording in Hebrew in the center, to be used for different Jewish holiday meals. Shown here from the collection of the Israel Museum is the earliest known example of this type, dating to 1672, as indicated by the factory hallmark on the reverse. It has the familiar Rosh Hashanah greeting of Chasimah Tova (May your good fortune be sealed) in the center.
This shofar, also from the collection of the Israel Museum, is made of a ram’s horn that has been heated and worked to give it a distinctive, flattened profile. It has finely engraved Hebrew words on both sides stating, “Blow the horn on the new moon, on the full moon for our feast day. For it is a law for Israel, a ruling of the G-d of Jacob, 5441.” (Psalms 81: 4-5). This shofar is probably from Germany, and is a rare example due to its origin date of 1681. The vast majority of extant Hebrew engraved European shofars date to the 18th and 19th centuries.
On Yom Kippur, religious men in Poland, Ukraine, and parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (depending on the era, distinct areas of these countries were known as Galicia), customarily went to synagogue dressed in a white robe known as a kittel, girded by a band that separated the pure and impure parts of the body. In the late 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, it became popular to substitute for the band a belt with a decorated silver buckle. Typically, these buckles varied in style of workmanship, ranging from simple to ornate.
The simplest would be a flat piece of silver that was engraved with animals and a Hebrew verse. More complex examples featured the animals in raised relief, either by the method of casting or hand-done, known as “chasing” or “repoussé,” with any Hebrew wording neatly engraved. Finally, there were examples that were entirely done by hand in high relief, including Hebrew wording. A select numbers of these buckles were also skillfully done in a method known as niello, which uses a black compound of sulfur with silver, lead, or copper to fill in engraved designs in silver. These buckles would then be gold-washed, also known as gilding.
The first buckle shown here, from the collection of the Jewish Museum of Warsaw, is a classic type of example. It is engraved with a pair of lions flanking a shield topped with a crown, which symbolizes the Crown of Torah. Inside the shield, the Hebrew states, “For on this day, He will provide atonement for you, to purify you from all your sins; before G‑d, you will be purified.” (Leviticus 16:30). This buckle is from the Ukraine, and it bears a silver hallmark for the year 1839.
The second buckle is a fascinating example, because it has a hallmark from the city of Vienna and was made between 1867 and 1872. Viennese Jews did not have this custom of fashioning a buckle for Yom Kippur, so at first glance, it is curious that this item hails from Vienna. The answer to this is that during the second half of the 19th century, there was substantial emigration of Jews from Galicia to Vienna. This buckle, from the Gross family collection of Tel-Aviv and on loan to the Center for Jewish Art at the National Library of Israel, is masterfully cast, with the decorative elements in high relief. There is no Hebrew verse; instead, in the center of the shield is a pair of hands splayed in the priestly manner. This indicates that the owner of this buckle was a kohen and wanted that element of his heritage prominently displayed on his Yom Kippur belt buckle.
Although these two examples bore silver hallmarks, the majority of these buckles lack hallmarks entirely, as the Jews of most areas of Europe were barred from the silver guilds well into the 19th century and therefore could not stamp a silver hallmark on any piece that they fashioned. It should also be noted that silver Yom Kippur belt buckles are one of the most forged and copied areas of antique Judaica, so be sure to consult with multiple experts of antique Judaica before purchasing one for your own collection.
Here is wishing you all a sweet new year. Welcome 5782!