“L’shanah tovah,” literally, “To a good new year,” is the greeting extended throughout the Jewish world on Rosh Hashanah.
The greeting, a tradition as old as the holiday itself, is unique among Jewish festivals. “Nowhere else in the calendar do you have a greeting” written in a Machzor, or holiday prayer book, said Rabbi Yaacov Haber, the national director of Jewish education at the Orthodox Union.
It is not enough to just talk to God on Rosh Hashanah, Haber said. Jews must also wish each other well because “the way we bless each other is the way God blesses us.”
The greeting card is an increasingly popular way to extend such salutations. More than 13 million Rosh Hashanah cards will be exchanged this year.
Jewish greeting cards date back to 13th-century Spain, but it is only in this century that they have proliferated. There now are more than 150 varieties of Rosh Hashanah cards.
Most come from major card companies such as Hallmark and American Greetings. Both have divisions that create cards with Jewish themes.
Hallmark’s Tree of Life division release more than 80 different Rosh Hashanah cards a year. American Greetings’ L’Chayim to Life division offer more than 70 designs. Many cards will feature photos and illustrations of Judaica.
Some Jewish organizations offer their own cards as a means of fund raising. Women of Reform Judaism, for example, has been selling Rosh Hashanah cards for more than 30 years.
Rosh Hashanah cards first became popular around the turn of the century during the wave of Eastern European Jewish immigration to the United States.
The cards were an inexpensive way for new immigrants to keep in touch with family back home, said Gabe Goldstein, curator of the Yeshiva University Museum in New York.
The cards, many of which were produced in Germany and distributed in the United States by the Hebrew Publishing Company, featured “romanticized images of the home and synagogue,” Goldstein said.
The cards were made up of scraps, similar to today’s stickers, smaller images pasted within a larger setting. Many were elaborate, with layer upon layer of scenes creating a larger-than-life image.
There were cards in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. Often, they were also designed to lure others to move to the United States. Many of the cards from the early 1900s featured images of the Statue of Liberty and other famous American landmarks.
One card read, “traveling forward to prosperity and a prosperous new year.”
During this era, Rosh Hashanah cards also reflected the growing appeal of Zionism.
Greeting cards were often adorned with Magen Davids—stars of David.
Reflecting the conflicting dreams of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the better life that the United States promised, some cards featured the Statue of Liberty surrounded by Magen Davids.
There were also cards that featured pictures of Zionist leaders such as Theodor Herzl. On one card, Herzl was shown holding both the American and Israeli flags.
These cards reminded people you could be supportive of establishing a Jewish state and still be an American, according to Bonni-Dara Michaels, curator and museum registrar at the Yeshiva University Museum.
In other times, and other places, Rosh Hashanah cards have transmitted a different message.
In Poland in the 1930s, as conditions worsened for Jews, many opted to head for Palestine. Some cards featured Jews waiting at a train station for their trip to Palestine.
Greeting cards were so much a part of the popular culture at the time that people collected them.
One album of cards was discovered amid the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto after World War II. That collection is held by the National Library of Warsaw and has been shown in at least one Israeli museum.
Some people design more personal—and elaborate—greeting cards.
An Eskimo, in 1910 Alaska, created a Rosh Hashanah greeting on a walrus tusk. A gold inlaid Magen David was carved on the tusk, which bore the words “l’shanah tovah.”
Another artist designed a silk banner wishing people a happy new year.
Both of these items are on display at the Jewish Museum in New York.
“The use of Rosh Hashanah greeting cards is a long-standing tradition in Jewish life that has now expanded well beyond this one holiday or one use to a wide range of cards for special occasions and festivals,” Goldstein said.
This story reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.