My collection of Rosh Hashana greeting cards and other material, which I have featured many times in these pages, generally focuses on the beautiful, spiritual, and meaningful, but in this article, I present some of my more “off the beaten path” items that I think might be of interest to readers.
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John Dean is a former attorney who served as White House counsel for President Nixon and is best known for his role in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal and his subsequent testimony to Congress as a prosecution witness.
Throughout my legal career, I have always believed that former prosecutors often make excellent defense counsel, and vice versa, because they have unique skills, experience, and insight having served as counsel for “the other side” and, as I have discovered, the same principle is applicable to ethics experts. Thus, John Dean, who was subsequently disbarred for his ethics violations, now characterizes Watergate as “a lawyer’s scandal” and has become a valuable contributor to the legal ethics field. He has used his inside knowledge of the Watergate affair to analyze how such highly respected lawyers could run afoul of the law, what actions have been taken to reform professional responsibility, and what further steps could be taken to curb such misconduct in the future.
My practice of carrying a miscellaneous Judaica-themed postcard in case I run into a notable personality paid off when, many years ago, I served on an ethics panel with Dean and got his autograph on the Rosh Hashana card exhibited here. “The one that got away,” however, is a Rosh Hashana card that I asked Muhammed Ali to sign when I met him just strolling one day through the streets of Washington, D.C.; I have misplaced that card, and it eats at me to this day.
One very interesting sub-category of communications sent by Jewish servicemen stationed in Europe during World War II took the form of “V-Mail Service” cards that were artistically customized to carry Rosh Hashana greetings. Shown here are three of the nicer examples from my collection.
V-mail, short for “Victory Mail,” was a hybrid mail process developed by Eastman Kodak and used by America during the Second World War as the primary and secure method to correspond with soldiers stationed abroad. To reduce the cost of transferring an original letter through the military postal system, a V-mail letter would be reviewed by censors, photographed, and transported as thumbnail-sized image in negative microfilm which, upon arrival at their destination, would be blown up to 60 percent of their original size and printed. According to the National Postal Museum, “V-mail ensured that thousands of tons of shipping space could be reserved for war materials. The 37 mail bags required to carry 150,000 one-page letters could be replaced by a single mail sack. The weight of that same amount of mail was reduced dramatically from 2,575 pounds to a mere 45.” This saved considerable weight and bulk at a time when both were difficult to manage in a combat zone.
Another important benefit of the V-Mail system was that it prevented espionage communications by foiling the use of invisible ink, microdots, and microprinting, none of which would be reproduced in a photocopy.
On the 1905 card exhibited here, a Jew is depicted shlugging Kapparot on Erev Yom Kippur dramatically using a chicken whose head has been photographically replaced by that of the reviled Tsar Nicholas II, a wicked antisemite who supported organized pogroms against the Jews. The clear message of the artist is contempt, even hatred, for the Tsar: “The Tsar should die and, when he does, I’ll be able to have a good, long and peaceful life.” It is virtually certain that this card was mailed and received outside Russia, because possession of it or any involvement with it would surely have resulted in a death sentence.
It is also fascinating to note that antisemites, who still propagate and disseminate the libel that the Tsar was murdered in 1918 by “the Jews” for “ritual purposes,” maintain that this card evidences Jewish pre-knowledge and planning of the murder more than a decade before they were able to effect it. Even as recently as a few years ago, officials of the Russian Orthodox Church continue to spread this odious antisemitic accusation.
In one of the most famous fictional tales in the entire Jewish canon, Taddeush, the notorious antisemitic priest, planned to accuse the Jews of a new ritual murder. To save his people, Rabbi Yehuda Loeb, aka the Maharal of Prague (1513-1609), created the Golem using the Shem Hameforush (the actual name of G-d) and Kabbalistic formulae communicated to him in dreams. Under R. Loeb’s control, the Golem served as a powerful defender of the Jews of Prague and, when his task was completed, R. Loeb killed the beast by erasing the letter aleph from the word emet (truth) on the Golem’s forehead, leaving the word met (dead). It is interesting to note that the Rosh Hashana card featured here incorrectly depicts the Hebrew word “Golem” as being inscribed on the beast’s forehead.
The Great San Francisco Earthquake, which struck the coast of Northern California on April 6, 1906, and devastated the city is still remembered as one of the deadliest earthquakes in American history. Some 300,000 people were left homeless, and the death of 3,000 people remains the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California’s history and is still high on the list of the worst American disasters.
cMost the city’s Jewish institutions were leveled, including Temple Emanu-El – which its rabbi, Jacob Voorsanger, described as “our noble Temple Emanu-El” which “showed its gaping wounds through roof and walls”; the new Geary Street synagogue; the Russ Street synagogue; the Lombard Street Home for the Aged, which R. Voorsanger described as “totally destroyed by fire”; and Mt. Zion Hospital, whose interior he described as “standing as a mere frame, the interior having been frightfully wrecked by the earthquake.”
In a tormented editorial in the May 4, 1906, edition of The Emanu-El newspaper, which he published, Rabbi Voorsanger appealed to American Jews to provide assistance in the wake of the quake, which had left Jewish support services through the city paralyzed. In that first post-earthquake issue, he listed heartbreaking personals by displaced Jews advising loved ones where they were quartered, and he provided details for where destroyed synagogues were holding prayer services.
In the incredibly poignant 1906 Rosh Hashana card shown here, which depicts Temple Emanu-El, the Geary Street Synagogue, Temple Israel, and the Bush Street Temple, the sender wishes everyone “A Happier New Year.”
On the evening of Hitler’s election on January 30, 1933 – the Fuhrer was, in fact, democratically elected, an important historical truth that many people seem to have forgotten – a torchlight procession through Berlin in honor of the new chancellor was held. Thousands of stormtroopers and members of the SS passed under the Brandenburg Gate to the presidential palace, where Hitler and high-ranking members of the Nazi Party were hailed by multitudes in what was the first of many large-scale Nazi propaganda events. The Brandenburg Gate became Hitler’s favorite parade route and many antisemitic Nazi rallies were subsequently held there.
The October 5, 1922, Rosh Hashana card exhibited here depicts the storied Gate, which became a leading symbol of Nazi power. The senders of this deeply ironic Jewish greeting could not have known what the future held for them and for the Jews of Germany only a few years later.
Shown here is a bright, colorful, and exceptionally artistic Rosh Hashana lithographic die-cut depicting what seems to be a dark-skinned Indian holding a large fan. Such die cuts, also known as “prasim,” became very popular at the turn of the 20th century and were often used for prizes awarded to Jewish children.
Exhibited here is a truly unusual postcard mailed from Vatican City by one Brother Heinrich, a Catholic priest, to Morris Levy, apparently a friend in Magdiel near Tiberias. In a perfect and beautifully-scripted Hebrew, the writer has printed “may you be inscribed and sealed in the book of life and may you merit to live for many years.” The card, which bears a September 7, 1937, receiving Tiberias cancel, was written at a time when the Vatican was led by Pope Pius XI who – unlike his successor in March 1939, Pope Pius XII, aka “Hitler’s Pope” – was opposed to Fascist brutality, racial theories, and antisemitism.
Exhibited here is a humorous Rosh Hashana card canceled September 28, 1914 – the day before Erev Yom Kippur that year – on the front and back of which the artist has drawn cartoons depictions of Krazy Kat and Ignatz accompanied by Yiddish-inspired dialogue. The recipient of the card is “Ignatz Hellinks,” which is surely what inspired the writer to adopt a Krazy Kat theme.
Krazy Kat was an American newspaper comic strip by cartoonist George Herriman (1880-1944), which ran for over three decades from 1913 to 1944, first appearing in the New York Evening Journal. The strip focuses on the curious love triangle between its title character, a guileless, carefree, simpleminded cat of indeterminate gender; the obsessive antagonist, Ignatz Mouse; and the protective police dog, Offissa Bull Pupp. Though Krazy nurses an unrequited love for the mouse, Ignatz despises Krazy and constantly schemes to throw bricks at his head, which the cat misinterprets as a sign of affection, uttering grateful relies, often in Yiddish idiom. Despite the slapstick simplicity of the general premise, Krazy Kat was one of the first comics to be widely praised by intellectuals and treated as “serious” art.
Finally, there is a fascinating relationship between Sukkot, which follows the Yamim Noraim, and the Leviathan. There is a minhag (custom) to bid farewell to the sukkah for the year by reciting the following prayer:
May it be your will, Hashem, our G-d and G-d of our fathers, that just as I have fulfilled the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan.
According to the Medrash, the Leviathan is a giant fish that G-d created on the fifth day of creation that rules over all the creatures of the sea. Originally, two were created, a male and a female, as with all other species (the Tanninim Hagedolim, or “Great Fish,” of Genesis), but G-d saw that if these two fish were to be allowed to mate and multiply, they would destroy the entire world through their great strength and numbers, because the Leviathan was so enormous that “all the water that flows down the Jordan River is insufficient to quench its thirst” (Bava Batra, 74b). Therefore, G-d killed the female and preserved it in brine to be eaten by the righteous in the World to Come. The Gemara goes on to note that “when the Messiah arrives, G-d will construct from the beautiful skin of Leviathan canopies to shelter the righteous from the sun.”
According to the Midrash Aggadah, “the Great Sea surrounds the world and the whole world rests on the fins of Leviathan.” Thus, the Rosh Hashana card shown here depicts the gigantic Leviathan circling the earth and swallowing its own tail.
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Wishing all a sweet and happy new year – a year in which our long-awaited Messiah arrives and we all merit to feast on the Leviathan and shelter under its skin!