The custom of sending greeting cards before the Jewish New Year began in Germany in the late Middle Ages and gradually spread to Eastern Europe and the United States. The early 20th century was the “golden age” of postcards, and among Jews, the Rosh Hashanah greeting card was easily the star of this particular show. With the rise of electronic communications, the custom has naturally faded, and today it is likely that most of the New Year greetings we receive arrive via other mediums: text message, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok, email, the list goes on. But we wanted to look back for a moment, to those distant days when sending a Rosh Hashanah greeting required more than just a click.
The holiday postcards usually carried Jewish-related motifs, such as traditional and ideological symbols, or illustrations of major Jewish current events. With the formation and rise of the Zionist movement, Rosh Hashanah greeting cards became platforms for conveying ideological and Zionist messages related to prominent public events.
This Jewish New Year greeting shows what the opening of the Second Zionist Congress in the city of Basel looked like in the last week of August 1898. Encouraged by the First Zionist Congress that had convened there the year before, hopeful representatives of Jewish communities from all over the world gathered together again to plan the future of Zionism. In the center of the photo we can see Theodor Herzl addressing the crowd.
In the spring of 1901 a meeting between Herzl and the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid stirred hopes in the Jewish world. At the meeting, Herzl asked the Sultan to sell the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, and offered a large sum of money to the Ottoman Empire and an equally large sum to the Sultan himself in exchange for a charter for the land, but the Sultan declined the request. This special greeting card was published on Rosh Hashanah 1901 to mark the historic meeting that had taken place a few months earlier.
The same New Year’s postcard series with the photographs of Herzl and the Sultan also included postcards of other heroes of the Jewish national awakening in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, such as Nordau, Emile Zola and one of Alfred Dreyfus, shown here below.
During the first three decades of the State of Israel, New Year greeting cards were the most common mail item in the country. These cards expressed the spirit of the New Year in every Jewish home in Israel. In the last few weeks of each Hebrew year, the post office would switch into high gear to meet the challenge posed by the countless postcards that flooded the postal system. The diverse images on the postcards expressed the hopes of Israeli citizens at the beginning of the New Year. Together they form a collective picture of Israeli society in its own eyes.
At Basel, I founded the Jewish State.
Theodor Herzl, the First Zionist Congress in Basel, 1897
It is with a sense of honor and awe that I rise to open the Constituent Assembly of the State of Israel, the first Jewish assembly of our day, in Jerusalem, the eternal city.” — Prof. Chaim Weizmann, president of the Provisional State Council and the first president of the State of Israel at the opening ceremony of the Knesset, then called the “Constituent Assembly, 1949
This card from 1949, recalls two important events in the life of the nation: the First Zionist Congress in Basel, (note the wrong year written on the card – 1896 instead of 1897), where Herzl laid the cornerstone of the future homeland of the Jewish people and the opening session of the first Knesset.
Years before the Western Wall was in Israeli hands, the Jewish people prayed for “the liberation of our holy places.”
1967 was an exciting year. After days of anxious waiting and uncertainty, Israel quickly defeated its neighbors in the Six Day War. One of the symbols of this victory was the liberation of Jerusalem’s Old City after 19 years of Jordanian rule and 2,000 years of Jewish longing for the city. The postcard shows an armored vehicle entering the Old City through the Lion’s Gate. Blasts of mortar fire can be seen through the gate and outside it.
Written on the postcard is the Hebrew text: “Like lions, the warriors of Israel prevailed,” along with “Peace and security,” appearing twice:
Even the Hora was commemorated in Rosh Hashanah greeting cards. Originating in the Balkans, the Hora was brought to Israel by immigrants from Eastern Europe and has since been identified with the Land of Israel and Zionism. The Hora is a circle dance in 4/4 time which allows equality among the dancers and a sense of togetherness. These features of the dance suited the pioneering spirit that prevailed in the country in the early decades following Israeli independence and was nostalgically commemorated years later, as in this card, which likely dates to the 1970s. The Hebrew inscription reads “An abundance of blessings for the New Year.”
Today, through my visit to you, I ask you why don’t we stretch out our hands with faith and sincerity so that together we might destroy this barrier?… Why don’t we stand together with the courage of men and the boldness of heroes who dedicated themselves to a sublime aim? Why don’t we stand together with the same courage and daring to erect a huge edifice of peace? An edifice that builds and does not destroy. An edifice that serves as a beacon for generations to come with the human message for construction, development, and the dignity of man.
On November 20, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat delivered these words during his historic visit to the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem. A month later, in December 1977, the historic first El Al flight took off from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Cairo. To mark the occasion, a Rosh Hashanah greeting was issued with an illustration of an El Al airplane decorated with Israeli and Egyptian flags and the words Peace in Hebrew and Arabic.
Postcards from the Heddy Or Israeliana Collection and the National Library of Israel’s Ephemera Collection.
This article first appeared on The Librarians, the National Library of Israel’s official online publication dedicated to Jewish, Israeli and Middle Eastern history, heritage and culture.