During the 1800s, the sending of greeting cards for all sorts of occasions, mostly in the form of postcards, became hugely popular in Europe, including among Jews. Toward the end of the century, the waves of Jewish immigrants to North America brought with them this practice and began importing a wide variety of Rosh Hashanah cards. Known as “Shana Tovas,” they depicted nostalgic scenes ranging across the entire spectrum of Jewish life.1
The custom of adding good wishes for the New Year when writing to relatives and acquaintances seems to have originated in Germany in the Middle Ages and did not spread to other communities until much later on. It is noted for the first time in rabbinic literature by Maharil, while Rema in the Shulchan Aruch, quoting the Tur, mentions only the minhag to verbally wish one another “May you be inscribed for a good year” on Rosh Hashanah itself (Orach Chaim 582:9). In the nineteenth century, the author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, said that when writing a letter from Rosh Chodesh Elul until after Yom Kippur, one should add the wish that the recipient be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.
Shown here are examples of a series of elaborately produced cards imported from Germany, primarily by the Hebrew Publishing Company, in the early decades of the twentieth century. Constructed with multiple layers, these are three-dimensional “pop-ups,” with hinges that enable them to stand upright for display in the home. Multi-colored, intricately die-cut and hot stamped with gilt highlights, they are festooned with accordion-paper pleats and garlands of embossed flowers and birds. The greeting for “A Happy New Year,” in both Hebrew and English, was usually printed on the base of the card, so that it is seen when the card is flat as it is pulled out of its envelope.
As has been noted,2 the backgrounds and decorative elements of these fanciful Shana Tovas were mostly originally intended for cards for Valentine’s Day and other non-Jewish holidays. For example, a scene of a grandfather learning Torah with his grandson was inserted into what is surely an Easter basket. With the addition of a small plaque saying Le-Shanah Tovah Tikatevu, a gorgeous and empathetic Jewish New Year’s card was created. In the background of a smaller card, a Valentine’s Day heart can be seen behind a somewhat gruesome depiction of Avraham raising his knife at the Akeidah.
Any Jewish ceremony, yom tov observance, mitzvah or symbol might be used. Multi-generational scenes were popular, as were depictions of rabbis preaching and other shul moments, from the reading of the Torah to the blowing of the shofar. To the modern eye, they may seem incongruous when viewed against their over-elaborate settings. Yet no one can deny the charm these cards possess, and the part they played in reminding millions of Jews, torn from their roots, of the Yiddishkeit of their forbears.
1. I am indebted to Dr. Shalom Sabar, professor of Jewish art and folklore at the Hebrew University, for sharing so much of his expertise and knowledge of this topic with me.
2. See the article by Jenna Weissman Joselit at www.yiddishbookcenter.org/pakn-treger/03-10/holiday-cheer.
A magnificent four-layer pop-up card measuring 11” high by 9½” wide. At the top, two men flank an aron kodesh as one of them pulls the cord to open the parochet (ark curtain). Below, three “rabbis” enjoy wine and some yom tov treats, perhaps including a Shehecheyanu fruit for the new year.
Sometimes the same background, perhaps with different colored paper inserts or other embellishments, was used with various scenes in order to give the purchaser numerous themes from which to choose:
Larger card (9” high by 7½” wide):
Smaller card (6” high by 3½”wide)
A pasted construction, 8½” high by 9” wide, depicting a grandfather teaching Torah to his grandson with two onlookers, perhaps the father and a younger brother. When the base is pulled open so that the card can stand, an attached string activates the large red accordion pleat at the front. The elaborate frame may well have been originally designed for an Easter card, but with the addition of a Magen David at the top, and a small plaque with a greeting for the New Year, it becomes a beautiful Shana Tova.
Colorful postcards, with a hopeful message for Rosh Hashanah, or featuring a heartwarming poem or tender message of friendship in Yiddish, were a more economical alternative to the lavish pop-up cards. The original staged photographs were enhanced with highlights in gold ink.
Rosh Hashanah cards from the collection of David Olivestone.
Photography by Yaal Herman
David Olivestone, a member of the Jewish Action editorial committee, lives in Jerusalem.