The Paper Trail of Jewish Postcards
Jewish ascendency to the highest echelons of science and technology—“high tech”—is a uniquely modern phenomenon. The rise of Jewish leaders in technological firms, Michael Dell (Dell), Andrew Grove (Intel), and Lawrence Ellison (Oracle), not to mention the praise that critics from David Brooks to Warren Buffet have lavished upon Israel for its cutting-edge technology, would seem a laughably distant dream for the Jews of shtetl Europe or New York’s Lower East Side.[i] For most of history, it seems, Jews were mystified by technology, not masters over it. One relatively offbeat, yet charming, expression of the lure of technology within Jewish life comes from following a paper trail to the fascinating world of twentieth century Jewish postcards. A brief case study of the iconography, text, and context of these quaint and kitschy images uncovers layers of embedded cultural and sociological history.
In the fourteenth century, Maharil (R. Jacob Moelin of Mainz) was the first to recommend adding a New Year’s greeting to the top of correspondence sent during the month of Elul.[ii] By the beginning of the twentieth century, Jewish artists capitalized on the practice by printing a variety of simple greeting cards for the occasion.[iii] Over the next two decades, however, the phenomenon spun off sub-genres of witticisms, visual curiosities, holiday greetings, and fantastical tableaus.
By the “Golden Age of Postcards”—between 1898 and 1917—the so-called “picture-postcard,” a pre-stamped card designed for casual correspondence, exploded into the twentieth-century equivalent of a viral video.[iv] “The illustrated postcard craze, like the influenza,” recorded a London newspaper at the turn-of-the-century, “has spread to the islands from the continent, where it has been raging with considerable severity.”[v]
Our brief study of these amusing postcards begins in Germany, the epicenter of the postcard craze.[vi] A postcard (2003.056) produced in Germany depicts a family using an early telephone to make what appears to be a long distance call to Palestine; the technology was designed around 1916, but was most certainly not available in Jerusalem.[vii] The Yiddish inscription, a rhyming couplet, speaks of the “good son” who speaks with his parents “from a wide distance.”[viii]
The imagined capability of the telephone to reach a distant land undermines the pragmatic applicability of the message. Postcards, in other words, were the only way to communicate with Palestine; telephoning was simply a fantasy. Thus the postcard envisions a future in which technology could bring distant families together.
Dr. Galit Hasan-Rokem, in her “Jews as Postcards, or Postcards as Jews: Mobility in a Modern Genre,” published in The Jewish Quarterly Review, writes, “The heyday of postcard production and performance coincided with the great migrations of the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century together with the massive uprooting of populations during and after the First World War…”[ix] Jewish postcards in general, and this postcard in particular, reveal the migratory patterns of Jews—from East to West and from Europe to Palestine.[x]
A similar card (2005.056) depicts a couple tele-wishing each other a year of “comfort and love” and a year without harm.[xi] The iconography of the telephone on these postcards, as a real and imagined form of communication between separated families and lovers, uncovers early Jewish captivation with vanguard technology. Jews, of course, were not the only ones attracted to technology. However, the curious convergence of traditional text with newfound technologies signifies a certain enthrallment with the capabilities of these machines and a playful (if not misinformed) representation of the limits of that technology.
Other amusing twentieth century postcards illustrate the Jewish wonder with newfangled technological phenomena. One (2001.358) depicts a little girl’s amusement with a crystal Radio, an inexpensive radio requiring earphones. The caption also includes a formulaic Yiddish poem of merry tidings.
More curious Luftmenschen montages of amazed Jews in various flying contraptions illustrate a Jewish fascination with modern aviation.[xii] Dr. Hasan-Rokem found that, among the thousands of Jewish postcards in museum collections, “the dominant mode of mobility is… the airplane.”[xiii]
The first in this series (1992.173) depicts a Jewish couple flying on an early biplane over an American landscape, the wife holding a cornucopia filled with traditional New Year’s greeting cards, while the husband steers the motor-less plane with a steering wheel. The couple appears to be distributing these greeting cards to the town below. This Rosh ha-Shanah greeting card includes a prescribed Yiddish poem, “We bring you good tidings / A wonderful time is approaching / Of light and radiance, of happiness and joy / The world will be renewed!”[xiv]
Five years later, the same New York-based production company produced a more technologically accurate (not to mention advanced) and more creative New Year’s card (1992.180). Here, a couple flies in an early cloth-covered motorized aircraft while the inscription extols the “brass machine,” which “disappears [before] one can look.”[xv]
The airplane, like the telephone and crystal radio, is a rather unconventional object to place in—let alone dominate—a New Year’s greeting. Perhaps these images represent the alterity, or otherness, of new technology in the eyes of contemporary Jews. In retrospect, the unusual staging of these postcards appears to be at once archaic and laden with tradition, adorned with Yiddish formulaic text and yet distant from the visual landscapes of the Old World. They are brimming with newfangled technology, captivating images, and New-World landscapes. They are deeply entrenched within an industrial and modern society and employ a futuristic vocabulary.
As an artistic phenomenon, these cards pick up on photographic techniques that became a sensation around 1915.[xvi] As a small example of a more complex commentary on the place of Jews in Europe and the convergence of Jews and technology, these four images magnify—and intensify—the conversation.
Gavriel Brown is a junior in YC majoring in English, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Ryan Jones, “Warren Buffet: Israel has a surplus of brains.” Israel Today, 14 October, 2010, available at: www.israeltoday.co.il.
Brooks, David. “The Tel Aviv Cluster.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Jan. 2010.
[ii] Noam Zion, Seder Rosh Hashanah (Jerusalem: Shalom Hartman Institute, 2004), 9. available at: www.hartman.org.il.
[iii] Sharon Liberman Mintz and Elka Deitsch, Past Perfect: The Jewish Experience in Early 20th Century Postcards: an Exhibition, October 7 – December 30, 1997 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1998), 1.
[iv] Benjamin H. Penniston, The Golden Age of Postcards: Early 1900s (Identification & Values) (Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 2008), 3-8.
[v] Mia Fineman, Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012), 131.
[vi] Mintz and Deitsch, 1.
[vii] “Phone to Pacific From the Atlantic,” The New York Times, 26 January, 1915.
[viii] Google Translate, with slight modification.
[ix] Galit Hasan-Rokem. “Jews as Postcards, or Postcards as Jews: Mobility in a Modern Genre” Jewish Quarterly Review 99, 4 (2009): 505-546, 510.
[x] This image acquires an additional dimension cognizable only from our highly connected age. This postcard is perhaps the earliest representation of the “you never call me!” Jewish mother stereotype.
[xi] Google Translate, with slight modification.
[xii] “Luftmenshen,” a term borrowed from Hasan-Rokem’s work, literally means “air people,” but is also a remarkable double entendre. In Yiddish, the word can refer to “an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income.” See “Luftmenshen,” Merriam-Webster, available at: www.merriam-webster.com.
[xiii] Hasan-Rokem, 525.
[xiv] Hasan-Rokem, 528.
[xv] Google Translate, with slight modification.
[xvi] Fineman, Mia. Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012.