Leshanah tovah tikatevu: "May you be inscribed for a Happy New Year." This Hebrew blessing, often heard at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was prevalent in writing as early as the 14th century. At that time, Rabbi Jacob HaLevi ben Moses Moellin proposed adding the words to every letter sent before the New Year, throughout the month of Elul (August-September) - a custom which has been perpetuated now for hundreds of years. Since the first half of the 19th century, people have been sending greeting cards for the New Year, but the practice existed in other forms even earlier.
Postal cards were first issued in Vienna on October 1, 1869, but only when picture postcards appeared in Germany around 1889, did they become widely popular. This popularity stemmed primarily from a reduction in postage - mailing a postcard cost about half as much as a stamp for a letter - and it was also influenced by the development of new photographic processes. The circulation of postcards reached its peak between 1898 and 1918, when the postcard craze swept across Europe.
The first postcards issued with the Jewish public in mind were unillustrated greeting cards for Rosh Hashanah, printed in Germany around 1879. When picture postcards specifically geared to the Jewish market appeared in about 1897, their use became widespread. This was also due to the vast waves of emigration to America by east European Jews. Even then, postcards were more than just a means of communication; collecting them became a hobby, and special albums were sold in which to arrange and keep them.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Warsaw was the hub of the Hebrew printing and publishing industry in Poland and Russia. Numerous Jewish publishing houses were in operation, including Jehudia, Altneuland, Lebanon, Sinai, Central and S. Resnik. The growing demand for postcards aroused keen competition among the publishers, and this generated a broad array of postcards, diverse in style and content. Many publishers - chiefly in eastern Europe - maintained an attachment to Jewish tradition and culture. In the German-speaking countries, the style and content of the postcards were less specifically Jewish in nature, and they depicted, among other things, inventions and innovations, like the airplane or zeppelin.
Postcards were inexpensive and accessible to all and, from the 1890s until the late 1930s, were an important means of communication, especially between family members who remained in eastern Europe and those who had emigrated to distant lands. Undoubtedly, the postcards, which were also circulated in America, made the new immigrants nostalgic for the old world and for the towns of their birth. They were also a source of education, pleasure and entertainment, and occasionally served as a voice of propaganda, at a time when illustrated newspapers were still in the embryonic stage and picture albums were not easily obtainable.
Most of the postcards that illustrate this article were printed by Jehudia Publishers in Warsaw between 1912-1918. They were originally part of a unique album of 249 postcards, discovered during construction work in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. The album is now preserved in the collection of the National Library in Warsaw. Many of the postcards are signed by the artist Hayyim Goldberg, who perished in the Holocaust. These greeting postcards - staged photographs - portray the Jewish way of life in the early 20th century, combining an attachment to Jewish tradition with the message of Zionism. Many of the postcards depict the actual sending of the greetings, and a number express the ideals of the Zionist movement as well as emigration to America - subjects which engrossed the Jewish people during that period. Some of the postcards have a humorous slant; some, a romantic air. A dominant subject is the yearly Jewish life-cycle; others depict scenes of everyday life or illustrate typical Jewish occupations and livelihoods.
Staging the photograph was the first step in preparing a postcard. The "actors" were posed in a studio setting that reproduced the interior of a Jewish home; the artist completed the picture by drawing in additional elements and retouching the photo. Finally, a short verse of Yiddish greetings was appended. Generally, the postcards were issued in three versions: colour, sepia, and black and white.
With their staged studio photographs and added drawn-in elements, the postcards help us become acquainted with the Jewish way of life in Poland. The photographs on the cards have a distinct documentary value and they are singular because they represent a type of popular art that was very prevalent among Jews and yet depended, to a great extent, on the mass production methods of the time. They offer us a glimpse of how Jews lived in Poland, as seen through the eyes of their contemporaries: the fashions and manner of dress, the mood of the people and their cultural tastes, the artists and prominent figures held in high regard by the general public and whose works and portraits were chosen to decorate the walls of the Jewish home.
By the turn of the century, some religious circles in Germany and Poland levelled criticism against the adoption of "foreign" fashions, primarily against the waste of money that this enterprise represented. Yet the extensive circulation of these postcards and the variety of styles attest to the large segments of the Jewish population, traditional and secular alike, who sent and enjoyed them. Today, all too often the postcards are the only documentation of a work of art that was lost or of a building that was destroyed during World War II.
New Year cards designed by Haim Goldberg, published by "Yehudia" Publishers, Warsaw, 1912-1918 (texts translated from Yiddish).