Because of Israel’s relatively compact, event-filled history, Israeli-made New Year cards portray events and trends of the previous year(s) more than European or American cards. They illustrate images of social, political, and historic interest as evidenced in greetings which change from the traditional “A happy and blessed year” to “A year of peace and tranquility” or "A year of peace and victory.”
As such, vintage Israeli-made cards take on added meaning reflecting the dramatic changes that affected the lives of Israelis during peace and wartime. Also, these Israeli-produced cards were, in a sense, true to the traditional meaning of the Days of Awe—the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—which is meant to be a time of renewal. They are a time of remembering, self-examination, and reconciliation of sins for individuals, a time to reinvent themselves for the better. For the early Zionists, Jews in Palestine and later in Israel were reinventing themselves and creating a Jewish state.
Although the Israel Museum has a few illustrated Rosh Hashanah letters dating to the early 20th century, the custom of sending New Year cards did not really begin to flourish in Israel until the 1930s. Early immigrants from the first and second aliyah movements (1881-1914) were largely single young men and women from Eastern Europe full of socialist ideology and dreams who were involved in redeeming the land through agricultural work and building settlements.
The first kibbutz, was established in 1909 and around the same time HaShomer, the first Jewish self-defense group, was established in Palestine. Smaller groups of Mizrahi (North African or Middle Eastern) Jews, particularly from Yemen, also began to arrive but had no tradition of sending New Year cards.
Amateur photography became popular in the 1930s and even more so in the years following the end of WWII. Personalized L’shana tova cards printed with individual or family photographs were often sent by people in displaced persons camps in Europe to relatives in Israel letting them know they were on their way or had just arrived.
The period following the 1948 war into the 1950s was a time of austerity for Israelis—few people had telephones and private cars were even rarer. But despite this and the two-day Suez Crisis in 1956, the postwar decade was marked by optimistic ambitions for the future of Israel, shown by cards full of naive, innocent, fair-skinned children in peaceful, joyous settings. This new, young generation of citizens was seen as a symbol of the future and national renewal whether they had been born in Israel or newly arrived from Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East. Tellingly, reflecting the power of political parties at the time, few, if any, Mizrahi or dark-skinned children were seen on the cards.
After the 1948 War of Independence, a new figure became symbolic of the state—not the agricultural worker / kibbutznik / farmer, but the soldier, male and female equally. The first card below was published by Palphot, still a major postcard company today, in the years immediately after the War of Independence, probably 1949 or 1950. The subsequent cards also all date from the late 1940s to pre-Suez in 1956.
The Suez Canal Crisis began on Oct. 29, 1956, when Israeli forces pushed into Egypt toward the canal after it had been nationalized by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser. The waterway, which was important in bringing oil to Europe, had previously been owned by England and France, which had urged Israel to join them in their efforts to reclaim the canal. America objected to this triple occupation, fearing Soviet Russian intervention. France and England withdrew their forces and Israel followed in March 1957.
Reflecting the periodic incursions from Arabs, this 1962 card sent by Yehuda Glick wishes for “A Year of Peace and Security.” On the back, Yehuda writes, “I wish you Shana Tova (Happy New Year), a year of health, a year of abundance and success. Be content. From me and my father. A year of peace and security. We will see the rebirth of Zion.”
The reunification of Jerusalem was a dream for Israelis since the birth of the Israeli state, and the greeting cards reflect this too.
During the latter half of the 20th century, Israel became more exposed to Western culture and to material prosperity. Cards appeared with families driving in cars or in front of television sets. Jerusalem’s Israel Museum has cards featuring pop figures like the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. Others show romantic couples on the beach, in the desert, and on the snow-covered slopes of Mount Hermon. Perhaps in an attempt to ignore the news, very few cards exist showing the Ethiopian and Russian immigrations of the 1970s to 1990s, the airplane hijackings of the 1970s, or the Intifada attacks later on.
Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the custom of writing and mailing L’shana tova cards has largely died out. Instead, quick notes of holiday greetings are sent by email, Instagram, and Facebook. But vintage Rosh Hashanah cards provide a look into the way things used to be.
Karen Davis is a freelance writer and longtime collector of Jewish ephemera. These cards are from her forthcoming book, From Trash to Treasure: Seeing Ourselves in Jewish New Year Cards