The Turbulent History of Jews and Israel, Told in New Year's Greetings

From the emigration to America to Israeli satire, the faded tradition of Rosh Hashanah cards is more exciting than you think. Examples are on display at the Israel Museum.

The Israel Museum (Courtesy)

In an episode in the sixth season of “Seinfeld,” when Jerry’s girlfriend discovers he threw a card she sent him in the garbage, she tells him she put a lot of thought into that card. Jerry retorts that she signed the thing and addressed the envelope; she didn’t draw the picture or write the verses. How long was he supposed to keep it anyway?

In recent years, a similar question has occupied the mind of the curator of the Israel Museum’s Jewish Art and Life wing, Rachel Sarfati.

The Israel Museum (Courtesy)

“That’s a critical question that’s been with me since I started dealing with Jewish New Year cards," Sarfati says. "When we talk about a Rembrandt painting or an archaeological artifact, there’s no question. But when it comes to a New Year’s card, we have to consider whether there’s a place for it in a museum.”

After all, the digital revolution has changed attitudes. “Today, sending Rosh Hashanah wishes by card is retro,” Sarfati adds. “It’s not the real thing. So that makes the earlier ones fit for a museum.”

In the 50 years of the museum’s existence in Jerusalem, Jewish New Year cards have been collected in three of the institution’s departments. The Design and Architecture wing took interest in the works’ graphic design, the youth wing wanted to depict the first generation of children born in Israel, and Jewish Art and Life saw the cards as Judaica items.

The Israel Museum (Courtesy)

In recent years these collections have been united in one area — after the museum acquired thousands of cards from the collection of designer and illustrator Hayim Shtayer.

In 2008, two years before his death, Shtayer proposed that the museum buy his collection. Sarfati received the task of picking a few thousand cards from tens of thousands. She started by consulting with Shtayer and finished after his death, with the help of his wife.

In recent days an exhibition opened at the museum displaying New Year’s cards from the institution’s collection. The exhibition, curated by Sarfati, was designed by Eyal Rosen. The two tried to summarize a beautiful century-long tradition swept away by the digital age.

The Israel Museum (Courtesy)

Copying from the Christians

The inception of New Year’s cards is widely attributed to the issuing of the first postcard in the second half of the 19th century. “With the invention of the postcard, its illustrated twin followed close behind, including illustrated cards for the Christian New Year,” writes Prof. Shalom Sabar, a historian of Jewish art at the Hebrew University, in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition.

From there the path was short to sending cards for the Jewish New Year, starting in the beginning of the 20th century. At first they were modeled on Christmas and Easter cards.

The Israel Museum (Courtesy)

“Christian motifs underwent a conversion,” Sarfati says. “Hebrew script topped a Christian illustration or photograph.”

In any case, these cards accompanied the most turbulent years in the history of the Jewish people: the prospering of Germany’s Jews, the vibrant culture of Poland’s Jews, the mass emigration to America, the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel. The story of the cards is the story of world Jewry.

The cards were intentionally linked to current events. In an example in the exhibition, printed in Germany between 1910 and 1919, Jews holding suitcases are seen waiting for a train. At bottom is the slogan written in Yiddish “Nach Eretz Yisrael” (“To the Land of Israel”).

The Israel Museum (Courtesy)

In another card, printed in Warsaw during those years, an angel representing the New Year inhabits a wooden boat approaching the shore. A group of Jews gape at the sign he’s holding: “May a good New Year be your fate” — the words of a traditional greeting. In another card, sent from New York, a train carries good wishes like “To Eretz Yisrael” and “Certificate” — the permit for immigration to British Mandatory Palestine.

Anyone who could afford it printed photos of his family or himself on cards.   Photos were taken in studios and overlaid on landscapes. To a couple’s 1927 photos were added the inscriptions “See you soon in Eretz Yisrael,” “Have a Good Year” and “Wishes from Eretz Yisrael.” In 1931, another person sent a card with his photo — 22-year-old Tel Aviv was in the background.

A bit like North Korea

The Israel Museum (Courtesy)

The Zionist movement used these cards as a propaganda tool replete with images of agricultural communities. After World War II, the naivete and innocence of earlier years were replaced by military motifs. Soldiers, tanks, battles and military parades found their way onto cards. “To a Year of Victory” or “To a Year of Peace and Security” became the most common New Year’s wishes.

Later in the century cards were adorned with the images of heroes such as Moshe Dayan or Ariel Sharon. “It looked a bit like North Korea, testimony to a militant state commemorating the great heroism of its army,” says Sarfati.

The Israel Museum (Courtesy)

The social changes following the trauma of the 1973 Yom Kippur War were expressed in cards as well. The exhibition displays some of the works by the Israel Prize-winning artist and designer David Tartakover, who is also a collector of New Year’s cards. In his works, he replaced traditional New Year’s wishes with political and social messages.

Thus, in a 1983 New Year’s poster created after the killing of Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig, Tartakover depicted a grenade instead of the traditional pomegranate. (The weapon and the fruit share the same word in Hebrew.) In a 1985 card he drew wheat in the shape of a slice of bread — protesting economic policies that stung the poor.

In 1987, a few months before the first intifada, he depicted a used coke bottle filled with olive oil, serving as a Molotov cocktail. In 1995, he designed a poster with a photo of an Israeli-made handgun, looking like any supermarket item. The inscription was “Happy New Fear.”

The Israel Museum (Courtesy)

“That was my visual expression of the violence that erupted that year in Israeli society,” Tartakover said in Dana Arieli-Horowitz’s Hebrew-language book on art, politics and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — “Creators in Overburden” (2005).

“Men murdered women, women murdered men, violence in the family, and violence fueled by politics and ultra-nationalism. The violence employed by settlers and the army in the occupied territories seeped into all areas of life in Israel. Violence — that was the message I wanted to convey in the New Year's poster.” Sure enough, Rabin was assassinated a short time later.

As Sarfati puts it, “The traditional wish of ‘may this year with its curses end and a new year and its blessings commence’ assumes an almost opposite connotation in works likes these. They hold a warning of the dangers in store for the coming year and the ones to follow.”