The common custom of sending Rosh Hashana cards dates to the Middle Ages, thus predating by many centuries Christmas and New Year’s cards, which only became popular in the United States in the nineteenth century.
The first reference to the Jewish practice of written Rosh Hashana greetings may be found in the Book of Customs of Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Moelin (1365-1427), aka the Maharil, the religious leader of German Jewry in the fourteenth century. In his commentary on the familiar Talmudic statement in Tractate Rosh Hashana (daf 16b) that the fate of every person is written and recorded in one of the Heavenly Books opened on Rosh Hashana (and sealed on Yom Kippur), the Maharil writes that letters sent during the entire month of Elul preceding Rosh Hashana should open with the blessing “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”
For centuries, these Rosh Hashana greetings were generally written on expensive and fine stationery by few Jews, and the German-Jewish custom of the Maharil only reached broad popularity with the invention of the postal card in Vienna (1869) by Jewish-Austrian economics professor Emanuel Alexander Herrmann and the ensuing production by the Austrian post of the world’s first postcard, called “Korrespondenzkarte,” as an inexpensive way to transmit short letters.
Herrmann (1839-1902), who served as professor of national economics at Vienna’s Institute of Technology, published an article on January 26, 1869, in the Neue Freie Presse, Austria’s leading newspaper, called “About a Novel Means of Postal Correspondence.” He proposed that all envelope-size cards, whether written, produced by copying machine or printed, ought to be admitted as mail if they contained less than twenty words – a sort of “Twitter” of its time – and was franked with a two-Kreuzer postage stamp (the standard letter postage was then five Kreuzers). Austria’s postmaster general was enthusiastic about the idea; the “Correspondence Card” was officially introduced on October 1, 1869, and some three million cards were sold in the next three months alone. Great Britain introduced the postcard just a year later, and in the next few years, the use of postcards became an international phenomenon, with the United States launching the first penny postcards on May 12, 1873. Postcards were only available for domestic use until 1874, when the Universal Postal Union was formed and international delivery became possible.
The years 1898 to 1918 marked the height of popularity for illustrated postcards and, by 1913, almost a billion cards were sent in the U.S. alone, and that 20-year period, known to deltiologists as “The Postal Card Craze,” also launched the Jewish New Year’s card boom. Most of the Rosh Hashana cards, called “shone-toyves” in Yiddish, were produced in Germany, where the Jews were leaders in the printing industry in the early twentieth century, with more than 30 printing houses owned by Jews in Berlin alone; in Poland, where the shone-toyves were produced mostly in Warsaw by both Jewish and non-Jewish firms; and in the United States, primarily in New York City.
The mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the United States in the first decades of the 20th century gave a new boost to the production of the cards, which have become important remnants of this period in Jewish-American history. Since women were generally responsible for sending shone-toyves, the study of these cards also provides particular insight into the female experience of Judaism and immigration at the time. Some rare photographic postcards are sometimes the only existing images of long-gone Jewish sites and historic events.
The use of shone-toyves by Jews was not embraced by all. For example, in 1888, a writer for Izraelita, a Warsaw monthly, condemned the practice of spending great sums of money on lavish and grandiose postcards, but the popularity of the medium soon rendered these objections irrelevant.
In 1880, only about one-sixth of America’s 250,000 Jews were of East European origin, but only 40 years later, with the American Jewish population growing sixteen-fold to four million, about 85 percent had arrived at these shores from Eastern Europe, mostly to escape the Russian pogroms. This enormous migration of Eastern European Jewry to the United States became a common motif in shone-toyves from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. As evidenced by many of the items from my collection exhibited here, a frequent theme was immigrant ships arriving at our shores, many in the form of a shifskarte (“ship ticket”) and many featuring the Statue of Liberty as a metaphor for freedom in the Goldene Medina (the “Golden Land”) and depicting American Jews joyously welcoming the poor, broken and downtrodden new refugees with open arms. These cards, which became an important way for the new immigrants to maintain contact with the family and friends they had left behind in the Old World, contributed to the incredible growth of Rosh Hashana illustrated cards.
For example, the rare postcard from the turn of the nineteenth century exhibited here depicts a steamship, moving from right to left, from the Old World to the New World. Two eagles, one representing imperial Russia, the other the United States bald eagle, sit on either side; underneath the former is written mi-choshech (from darkness), and under the latter is written l’or (to light).
The two cards exhibited here are by Chaim Yisroel Goldberg (1888-1943), a Polish graphic designer, photographer, illustrator, printer, and Yiddish and Hebrew writer and poet who is perhaps best known as an important and prolific early designer of Rosh Hashana cards. The card on the left depicts a group of immigrant Jews standing on the shores of the United States welcoming a boat in which “the new year” is shown in the form of a woman holding flowers and a sail that declares: “May you be inscribed for a good year.” The accompanying Yiddish caption reads: “Pure in light like G-d’s angel, in the hand of the sailing flag loaded with blessings, the new year now arrives.” The card on the right shows a group of immigrants on the dock, having just disembarked from the ship that brought them from Europe.
Born in Poland to a chasidic family, Goldberg received a traditional Jewish education and studied in a yeshiva before traveling to Germany to study art. After returning to Warsaw in 1912 and opening a photography studio, he was hired as a graphic designer of postcards and other greeting cards by the publishing house Yehudia. He created many Rosh Hashana postcards by photographing staged scenes in the studio using amateur actors in Jewish attire, and used various graphics techniques to make them look like paintings, adding rhyming Yiddish text which he personally authored. He also had a particular interest in improving what he considered to be flawed Hebrew typography, and he designed new and more readable Hebrew fonts.
In 1935, Le Triangle, a well-regarded Paris publishing house that specialized in Jewish art, published an album consisting of 50 of Goldberg’s paintings on Jewish themes, which were broadly praised by art critics. During World War II, he escaped to Soviet-held Bialystok, but when Nazis occupied the city in June 1941, he was interned in the Bialystok ghetto and put in charge of illustrating official posters for the Judenrat. He was murdered by the Nazis in 1943, as were his wife and son. After the Holocaust, an album was found among the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto containing 32 of his postcards printed in Warsaw from 1912 to 1918, which may today be found at the National Library of Poland.
Beautiful lithographic die-cuts, such as the ones exhibited here, also known as “prasim,” became very popular at the turn of the 20th century and were often used for prizes awarded to Jewish children.
The 1909 card exhibited here along with its accompanying prasim cutout by Jacob Keller depicts two eagles in the sky: under the Imperial Eagle of the Russian coat of arms a group of impoverished, traditionally dressed Russian Jews, carrying their meager belongings, line Europe’s shore, gazing with hope and yearning across the ocean. Waiting for them are their richly dressed smiling Americanized relatives, whose outstretched arms simultaneously beckon and welcome them to their new home. Above them, an American eagle clutches a banner with a line from Psalms 91:4: “Shelter us in the shadow of Your wings.”
Sadly, the warm portrayals on these Rosh Hashana cards, which the Jewish publishers hoped would encourage their persecuted brethren in Eastern Europe to join them in the United States, constituted sheer fantasy. In fact, many, if not most, native American Jews and German-born immigrants looked down on these Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jewish immigrants as social inferiors who would quickly outnumber them, would never assimilate, and would generate antisemitism, causing irreparable damage to their own acceptance and social status. Indeed, opposition to this wave of Jewish migrants was such that, beginning in the 1920s, severe limitations and restrictions were placed on Jewish immigration – many of whom then attempted to gain admittance to Eretz Yisrael, where they faced often insurmountable barriers and obstacles from the British. In particular, Jewish immigration to the U.S. diminished sharply with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, which limited the number of immigrants through a national origins lottery, and was particularly restrictive for immigrants from Eastern Europe.
The very rare card pictured here, labeled Le-shone-toyve shifskarte (A Good Year Ship Ticket), which features a larger format and a more elaborate design than other flat New Year’s cards, is meant to resemble a ticket for passage on a luxurious steamship of the time and may be found in the collections of several Jewish museums around the world. The banner in the center of the card, where the name of the ship would normally appear, reads “Le-shone-toyve shifskarte.” Drawing upon the well-known Jewish blessing “May you live until 120,” under the banner in smaller print are the Yiddish words: “Valid for 120 roundtrips in the waves of life.”
As a means to elevate the Jewish and Zionist iconography of the ship, the Magen David is prominent in the card’s imagery, including in the two anchors that frame the illustration, the life preservers at the top of the card, and the fabric draped around the sides. A shofar, the defining symbol of Rosh Hashana, is in the center of one of the life preservers at the upper right, and the Golden Book, which was created by Herzl at the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, in 1901 to honor donors to the Jewish National Fund, is set in the middle of the life preserver on the upper left. The text along the left and right borders features traditional Rosh Hashana greetings, including “A year of life, peace, happiness and joy”; “A year in which God will lead us proudly to our country”; and “Blessed are you when you enter and be blessed when you depart.”
Most important to the Eastern European immigrants arriving in the United States is undoubtedly the Statue of Liberty at the center of the piece, which is framed on both sides with Tefillat HaDerech (the “Blessing of the Road”) that is recited by Jews upon undertaking a long voyage. The factory shown to the left of the Lady Liberty represents the work sites for many of the new immigrants; the train to the right of the Statue represents the fact that many of the Jewish refugees arriving at Ellis Island continued their journeys on to other American cities; and the bold text above the two images is from Psalms 91:11” “For He will order His angels to guard you wherever you go.” The Yiddish text is in the form of a lighthearted contract between the passengers and the supervisor and director of the steamship:
Every holder of the free ticket is entitled to 120 free yearly round trips for himself and his family. Each passenger will prepare himself for the New Year by listening to the blowing of the horn. During each trip each passenger will pray for long life, prosperity, and peace. – The Divine Providence [i.e., the ship’s supervisor]
Each of the passengers is permitted to bring on the ship, free of charge, generosity, charity, happiness, and good deeds and is encouraged to give charity throughout the trip. Each passenger is permitted to bring onboard, free of charge, baggage, which may include items needed for celebrations during 120 years of voyaging. They may include appropriate gifts for children, for bar mitzvahs, as well as wedding gifts such as gold, diamonds, and modern clothing. – The Sustainer of Life [i.e., the ship’s director]
Finally, although I collect only paper Rosh Hashana items and not objects, the walrus tusk exhibited here is arguably the most unique Rosh Hashana greeting “card” of all time and I simply could not exclude it from this article.
When the United States purchased the Alaska Territory from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, in what was then called “Seward’s Folly” but which proved to be one of the greatest bargains of all time, the Alaska Commercial Company, a Jewish-owned firm, secured the seal-fishing rights. Jewish traders began regular visits to the area; the first permanent Jewish settlers arrived in Juneau 1885; and the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 brought more Jews seeking their fortunes to Alaska.
The photograph of the singular Alaskan artifact shown here combines the Jewish custom of sending Rosh Hashana cards with the centuries-old Inuit craft of walrus-tusk carving. The piece is believed to have been engraved by an Alaskan Inuit known as “Happy Jack,” who is credited with the introduction of the art of engraving walrus tusks with a very fine needle in 1892, which resulted in an almost perfect imitation of newspaper halftones and fabric textures. On this remarkable tusk, Happy Jack has recorded the faces and costume of an Orthodox Jewish couple who are believed to have operated a store in Nome. The woman, who is wearing a sheitel (wig), is dressed in a typical very early 1900s style and the man, who sports a neatly trimmed beard, wears a top hat, which was traditionally worn on formal occasions and Jewish holidays. The Hebrew inscription transmits the traditional Jewish New Year salutation, “May you be inscribed for a good year, 5671 ” and adds in English “Nome, Alaska.”
Wishing a shana tovah u’metukah to all!