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The Stamp Collector

A philatelist passes on his little square markers of love and loss to his daughter

Liz Rose Shulman
October 09, 2017
Collage: Tablet Magazine; inset images courtesy the author.
Collage: Tablet Magazine; inset images courtesy the author.
Collage: Tablet Magazine; inset images courtesy the author.
Collage: Tablet Magazine; inset images courtesy the author.

The first stamps my father ever gave me were of Jim Henson surrounded by The Muppets. The sheet was a special issue in the 1980s when The Muppets were on TV from 1976 to 1981. I didn’t understand why he gave it to me and I didn’t know what to do with it. I wondered why he couldn’t have gotten me something more tangible I could play with, like Kermit’s guitar—I had asked for one for Hanukkah—for Kermit to hold when I’d have him sing “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie, which I saw four times the year it was released, in 1979. He never explained why he gave me the stamps. Being my father’s daughter, I’ve learned not to ask. Some things just don’t need to be talked about.

When I was in college, I told my father I was interested in Peace Studies. He laughed and said I’d never find a job. The following summer I was living at home and bartending, and when I came home late one night from the bar, I saw several World Peace stamps from St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean on the kitchen table. A set of three, they featured Gandhi, Elie Wiesel, and Rigoberta Menchu. He never brought it up. I put the stamps in my room with the others he’s gotten me over the years.

A few days after going to a Renoir exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago in 2008, my father presented me with a Renoir stamp of the painting “La Femme Au Chat et La Fiancée” printed in Burundi. My parents have a copy of the Renoir painting framed at their house. I have a Marc Chagall stamp in Hebrew, Russian, and French from Belarus that was printed on the 125th anniversary of Chagall’s birthday. I’ve got several Edward Hopper stamps, including one from France of one of my favorite paintings, “Soleil du matin, 1952.”

My father has been a philatelist since he was a kid. He’s got thousands of stamps—some old and some new, but all rare. He’ll often go to stamp shows, even ones hours away, stay half the day, make deals with other old guys, and come home with his new stamps delicately protected in plastic which he’ll only remove with tweezers like he’s performing surgery. The only other time I’ve seen him handle something so methodically is when he pulls sliced lox from its package on Saturday and Sunday mornings and places it carefully on his bagel, which he’s already prepared with cream cheese. The best gift my mother ever gave him was a magnifying glass that sits by itself with a ledge where he can place his stamps to look at behind the glass without using his hands.

He’s also a pediatrician, and a lover of the history of medicine. When he edited a medical journal for a couple decades, he wrote a feature article every month on stamps from his personal collection that related to the issue’s particular theme. One issue includes stamps from Malaysia that illustrate various forms of malaria parasites. A 2011 stamp from Serbia highlights the need to “Stop Polio Now.” A 1996 stamp from India illustrates the anatomy of the heart and celebrates 100 years of cardiac surgery. A 1987 stamp from Magyar, Hungary, shows the systemic and pulmonary circulations of the heart. A Spanish stamp from 2011 honors the 500th birthday of Miguel Servet, the first European to describe the function of the pulmonary circulation. The diabetes issue featured stamps from Oskar Minkowski (1858–1931), honored on a 1990 Transkei stamp highlighting a milestone in the conquest of diabetes. A Belgian stamp depicts insulin’s positive reaction to sugar and its molecular structure. The AIDS issue features AIDS stamps from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.

When a 14-year-old Pakistani student of mine, Azan, was diagnosed with Thalassemia, a rare blood disorder, my father got me a stamp with a picture of the first child ever diagnosed with the disease. The stamp came from Pakistan and included the little perforations around it that are important to stamp collectors. The first postage stamps, available in Great Britain and Ireland in 1840, had to be cut from sheets with scissors until they were made with perforations a decade later. “You should frame the stamp,” my father told me, “and give it to your student.” For most of the school year, Azan was in the children’s hospital where my father works. I told my father I wanted to visit him. I wasn’t family, though, so I wasn’t allowed to see him. “Come to the hospital,” my father said. “I’ll get you in. Briefly.” I arrived at my father’s office, and after instructing me to put on scrubs and gloves and a mask, he walked me to the section of the hospital where Azan was staying. He used his staff ID to open the door to the area, and told me to hurry up. I gave Azan the framed stamp. He started to cry. We wouldn’t talk about it.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, my father bought me a mint sheet of stamps from Liberia that feature Obama’s face. I’ve got the first stamps ever issued with Anne Frank’s name and picture. It accompanies the stamp he got me with Miep Gies—the woman who helped hide the Franks in Amsterdam. The stamp is a “First Day Issue” on an envelope signed by Gies. He included the certificate of authenticity that came with it when he gave it to me. “So you know it’s legit,” he said. I have three Shakespeare stamps from Gibraltar: each with a quote from Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth he gave me when I started teaching high school English in 2003. When I met my husband Tony, I wasn’t sure my father would like him. “He’s not Jewish,” I told him when we started dating, “and he’s a poet.” We didn’t talk about it. After we got married, my father bought my husband five stamps, each a favorite poet of Tony’s (I think my mother sneakily told him who they were): Gwendolyn Brooks, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov. “You should frame them,” he told me, “and give them to Tony.”

Perhaps my father is so cerebral because he’s a scientist and a researcher. But he’s got the best bedside manner of any doctor I know, and his patients love him. Too much emotion just isn’t his thing. Or maybe it’s because he was seven years old when his dad died. His father survived WWII on a ship in the Pacific only to come home and die of cancer a few years later. I think of that when I remember being a bratty 12-year-old preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, and he told me I had to keep practicing in front of him. He was editing an article he wrote and didn’t look up. I’d chant my haftorah portion, and when I finished, he’d say, “Again.” After chanting it four times, I blurted out, “I bet your dad didn’t force you to practice like this.” He said, “My father was dead when I prepared for my Bar Mitzvah.” I continued to chant.

Though I had given up on majoring in Peace Studies in college and had decided to double major in English and Hebrew—that decision elicited the same concern from my father about my future ability to find a job—I decided I wanted to study abroad in Israel my junior year. I was accepted to Tel-Aviv University. It was fall 1991. The world was building up to first Gulf War; my father said I couldn’t go. A week later, he gave me a set of stamps with the founders of Israel, and another Israeli stamp with the word peace in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. We didn’t talk about it. One morning at breakfast over bagels he told me that the first stamps in Israel were issued two days after Israel became a state in 1948.

I did finally get to Israel for school. Hebrew University in Jerusalem was the only graduate school I applied to in 1992 (again, for English and Hebrew Literature). When I got accepted, I bought a duffel bag and a one-way ticket to a program I didn’t know much about. I returned to Chicago in 1995, five days before Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. A couple months after the assassination, my father got his hands on a First Day Issue from the Federated States of Micronesia with Yitzhak Rabin on it. Rabin’s name and dates of his birth and death were printed on the stamp, along with “Peacemaker, Prime Minister of Israel.” The other two countries to issue a stamp honoring Rabin were Israel and The Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Israel’s stamp came out 30 days after Rabin’s assassination in observance of “Shloshim”—a memorial held on the 30th day after someone has died—for the first time in Israel’s history. Stamps usually take months to design and produce, so it was rare for the stamp to come out in a month. When John F. Kennedy was killed, for example, the U.S. Postal Service issued its memorial stamp seven months later. When Rabin was assassinated in 1995, stamp printers were able to produce stamps more quickly. I’ve also got a five-shekel Rabin stamp that came out after the original memorial stamp. It says, “Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, 1922-1995.” Ten years later, in November of 2005, my father gave me a sheet of nine stamps celebrating the opening of the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel-Aviv, designed by the Israeli architect, Moshe Safdie. The stamps were issued on the tenth anniversary of Rabin’s assassination.

A couple months before Rabin was killed, I was able to reverse our tradition. After all the years of him giving me stamps, I was able to buy him one. I got him the First Day Issue celebrating 3000 years of Jerusalem’s City of David. The year 1996 (5756-57) was to be declared the “Tri Millennium of Jerusalem, the City of David.” I sent him an email on Sept. 4, 1995, soon after I got the stamp:

Dad—Today the post office issued new stamps marking the 3000th anniversary of Jerusalem. I got you a bunch and, yes, they have the perforations. They’re really beautiful, old pictures of Jerusalem, plus one of the Knesset. I’ll bring them home with me. I got up really early today to get them because they only made a certain amount.

It was the least I could do. I look back on this pattern that developed over the years with tenderness. Rather than express much emotion, my father acknowledged different aspects of my identity through stamps. That I got him one didn’t change the dynamic that it was really his hobby; I had simply entered his world for one day. It was a perfect situation: Dad doesn’t have to talk; daughter gets recognition. He can be who he is and I can be who I am. Instead of messy expectations and limitations, it was a clean nonverbal agreement we had. It worked. It was unique just to us. I felt like he really saw me when he gave me a stamp. Like, without words he was saying, I know what your interests are and who you are and what you value, and I like it.

I wish this could be the end of the story, that it could have stayed just like this. It’d certainly be a precious ending to a personal essay about a father’s love for a daughter as shown through stamps. But things couldn’t stay this way. Everything changes. Marrying a Buddhist—I haven’t gotten a stamp about that yet—has helped me to understand that everything is always changing. In his book, What Makes You Not a Buddhist, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse talks about change as inevitable. “Everything must change,” he writes, “because everything is interdependent, everything is subject to change.” Khyentse explains:

If you feel hopeless, remember this and you will no longer have a reason to be hopeless, because whatever is causing you to despair will also change. Everything must change.

I often think of this quote as I’m getting older, teaching in the world of public education—I taught English and Hebrew in my first teaching job, squashing my father’s worry about what job I’d get—which has become more corporatized with massive budget constraints. “If you are enjoying a cup of tea,” Khyentse writes, “and you understand the bitter and the sweet of temporary things, you will really enjoy the cup of tea.” As I began to learn about the Palestinian narrative for the first time, my new awareness became interdependent and intertwined, and inevitable, really, with my love for Jerusalem. Things got a bit tricky. Everything about my relationship to Israel—and to my father—was changing.

I was shocked at what I discovered as I began studying Palestinian history: that the land hadn’t been empty as I had been told growing up; that conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were horrific; that the current occupation was a direct result of what had happened in 1948 and again in 1967; that Israel professed to the world that it wanted peace and I had believed that it was true, but it wasn’t true at all; and that Zionism wasn’t the same as Judaism. Most of all, I was angry that I had believed the narrative I was taught growing up. And I felt shame at finally learning about it when I did, like I had some epiphany about Palestine that so many others already knew about. I’d meet other activists who grew up reading Edward Said and criticizing Zionism, and I felt behind. Looking back, with the worldview I have now, it seems impossible that I didn’t know. All the people and books and history existed. To continue learning about Palestine, I realized, would mean I’d have to undo what I had learned. I didn’t see this as a choice; I couldn’t turn back.

The first Palestinian stamps issued were a result of the Oslo Accords. After the Cairo Peace Agreement was signed in 1994, the Palestinian Authority took over post offices in Gaza and Jericho. In 1995, the Palestinian Authority had control of post offices in the West Bank; their stamps could be used within Israel and internationally. Gaza had its own stamps in 2009 that were used locally. When Hamas and Palestinian Authority governments in Gaza and the West Bank unified in 2014, Gaza stamps could be used on all Palestinian Authority mail. The stamps issued, of course, were Palestine’s desire to show its nationhood, as other nations have done, despite the infighting among its different factions. The stamps are simply representations of ideas—government-sponsored attempts to establish a history. The idea of Israel that I grew up with had become different than its reality. And as I learned more about the Palestinians, the idea of Palestine—a people without a state—became more real. “Stamps are excellent primary sources for the symbolic messages governments seek to convey to their citizens and to the world,” stamp historian Donald M. Reid has written. Stamps help legitimize a country, amalgamate an idea that may or may not be different from the reality.

As I learned more about Palestine, I stopped receiving stamps from my father. I already wasn’t getting any verbal recognition—which I was OK with when I got the stamps because I got the stamps—but now, I wasn’t receiving stamps or words. Later, I’d understand that my shift from Zionist to anti-Zionist thinking must have been very confusing for my father. I had moved to Israel an ardent Zionist, and then later, developed an unwavering criticism of Israel that involved trips to Palestine—I starting calling it Palestine—to work with Palestinians and other Israelis who would also criticize Israel’s policies. I’d scoff at the JUF newspaper my parents received. I used to read it religiously. My stamps sat in a box.

By now, you know that when I say I stopped receiving stamps, what I’m really saying is that my father stopped seeing me. I was doing other things, of course, like teaching and traveling and dating. It’s not like I was sitting around thinking about Israel and Palestine all day. Well, actually, I was. Once my feelings started changing about the unconditional love I used to hold for Israel, it permeated everything else. And my father wasn’t the only one confused. Men I dated were confused too. I had joined JDate when I was in love with Israel. I got in arguments with guys I met on the site if they hadn’t visited the country. I wanted to talk about it more than anything else. An ex-boyfriend, Mark, whom I dated when I was a Zionist, had enough of it one day. “Israel, Israel, Israel, it’s all you ever talk about,” he yelled. I replied, “I can’t believe you haven’t been there.” We broke up soon after. When I was on JDate and was no longer a Zionist, I fought with guys about that too. I’d get angry if men I met on JDate hadn’t been there and weren’t criticizing Israel enough. More than anything, though, I worried that my relationship with my father had been conditional; I had to like what he liked in order to be seen. It hurt and I worried that he just didn’t like me.

During the period I wasn’t receiving stamps, I’d miss my younger self—long before I learned about ideas and their true or false representations of reality—and I’d get upset about things like wanting more Muppet paraphernalia. I remember in 1990 when my father asked to borrow my Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy stuffed animals. He was giving a lecture, he said, and wanted them for the slideshow that would accompany his talk. It took me a while but I found them in the attic. When I asked him why he needed my beloved animals, he said the lecture was on streptococcal toxic shock syndrome. This meant nothing to me—a 20-year-old studying literature—and I watched him, dumbfounded, as he spent an hour posing my favorite Hollywood couple on the kitchen table late at night. They were dusty, and years before, I had cut Miss Piggy’s hair and gave her a mole on her cheek with a black sharpie. My father didn’t seem to mind. I remembered, as I watched him meticulously getting the right shot for his slide, when I was younger and alone and I’d pose Kermit and Miss Piggy in various sexual positions, and here was my father, posing them for a medical lecture. Perhaps he missed his younger self too. When I asked, he told me that Jim Henson died of streptococcal toxic shock syndrome.

Later, it happened. It just did—I don’t know why. I came home late one night and on the kitchen table were several Palestinian stamps. The gesture didn’t mean he supported the Palestinian Authority, or even Palestine. Rather, it was his way of showing interest in my political shift by giving me the only Palestinian stamps he could find. It was an affirmation of an idea that was important to me. A First Day Issue from 1998 had ancient drawings of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Another was the stamp of Arafat and Clinton signing the Oslo Accords in 1998 at the Wye River Conference. A 1998 First Day Issue showed a light brown and yellow mosaic floor of a Byzantium Church. A set of five Palestinian Authority stamps featured herbs and fruit on each stamp: lemon, poppy, orange, thyme, and hibiscus. The stamps were brilliant shades of yellow and pink and red and orange and green. A small blue post-it next to the stamps said, “Liz.”

Stamps are nothing more than a nation’s accepted ideas put onto sticky paper. For many, Israel and Palestine have come to represent transient political constructs in whose name much reciprocal suffering is inflicted. And yet, the whole idea of a nation, for Palestinians, remains elusive and possibly out of reach. My father understood the bitter and the sweet of temporary things, and it made me sad. He was trying. We wouldn’t talk about it, but we’d really enjoy the cup of tea.

But that was all a long time ago. Everything changes. And conditions have gotten worse in Palestine while American children play with their Muppets, posing their animals in odd positions, unaware yet of the world of ideas, waiting desperately for fathers who may or may not see them.


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Liz Rose Shulman is a writer and teacher living in Chicago.