Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Question for you,” Unorthodox podcast listener Lindsey writes. “I’m seeing more and more Rosh Hashanah greeting cards popping up online. Is this is a thing? Do people actually send Rosh Hashanah cards? I’m a recent convert, and so—while I like the idea of recognizing and celebrating the holiday via the good ol’ United States Postal Service—I don’t want to come off like an overzealous baby Jew making up for the lost Christmas cards of her youth.”
Lindsey, you want reassurance that you are a full, complete, 100 percent kosher Jew(ess)? Here it is: You are asking a question that we ourselves ask every fall, as the Rosh Hashanah cards pop up in the mailbox, often with the uber-gentile phrase “Happy New Year!” on the cover. So here’s the easy part: Yes, it is a thing; lots of Jews-from-birth do it; and you will raise nobody’s ger-der if you send them out.
But that begs a deeper question: Given that they weren’t sending these cards out in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, or in the villages of Sephardic Spain, or Jewish communities of East Africa, how and why did American Jews decide to hop on the Hallmark bandwagon? Tablet contributor Jenna Weissman Joselit, the great historian of material culture, took up this question in a 2003 article in Pakn Treger, the magazine of the Yiddish Book Center. By the early 1900s, “shana tovas could be bought at any number of venues, from pushcart vendors and ‘ghetto stationers’ to fancy department stores such as Wanamaker’s, which carried the item on its main floor,” Joselit writes. “In 1913, for instance, ‘novelty cards’ could be had for anywhere from six to eighteen cents apiece … while personal greeting cards ‘with your own name and address’ ranged from twenty to forty cents.”
The cards’ similarity to gentile New Year’s and Christmas cards not only fed a Jewish appetite for Americanization, but also was quite convenient for printers. “With the exception of the actual greeting stamped on the cover or within its folds, little distinguished Jewish greeting cards from their non-Jewish counterparts,” Joselit writes, “most of which were published in Germany, the premier source for color printing … Shana tovas were often barely more than Judaized versions of Christmas, Easter, and St. Valentine’s Day cards. Manufacturers, drawing on ‘remnants,’ were all too happy to recycle last year’s stock for the delectation of Jewish customers. All it took was the insertion of a Yiddish word here and a Hebrew word there, or the addition of a Jewish star, a sefer Torah, or the blue-and-white Jewish flag …”
Which brings us to the most important question of all, which may be lying behind your letter, Lindsey: Should you send out Rosh Hashanah cards? If you want to, by all means do. But if you are on the fence, or don’t have strong feelings one way or another, maybe spend the money on something more Jewish: Have friends over for a New Year’s meal, put the money in the pushkah at a nearby shul, or take what you would have spent on postage and printing and donate it, anonymously, to a charity that helps poor people. And have a happy new year.