Past Perfect: The Jewish Experience in 20th Century Postcards

Presented by The Library of JTS
October 7 - December 30, 1997
Online selections available indefinitely

In our age of advanced computer technology and instant electronic mail, the picture postcard is a charming vestige of the past. Originally known as a "postal card", the postcard was created in 1869. This innovation, which afforded the opportunity to send mail inexpensively, rapidly became the most common and reliable method for communicating brief personal messages. Initially both sides of the card remained blank: the front contained the message, while the back was used for the address. In 1889 private publishers in Germany began issuing postcards with attractive pictures printed on the front side. The popularity of these picture postcards increased steadily and from 1898 until 1918, a period known as the "Golden Age of the Postcard", countless picture postcards were produced and mailed throughout the world. Seeking to capitalize on this trend, publishers produced large sets of picture postcards that featured a seemingly endless variety of subject matter. These sets were avidly purchased, collected and traded by collectors.

It was within this larger popular context that the Jewish postcards in this exhibition were produced. European and American Jews participated fully in the "Postcard Craze". The earliest and largest number of Jewish picture postcards were created for Rosh Ha-Shanah greetings. The custom of sending a New Year's message is documented as early as the fourteenth century when the Maharil, Rabbi Jacob of Moellin (1360?-1427), recommended that during the month of Elul one should include wishes for a good year in all written correspondence. This custom spread widely throughout the Ashkenazic world.

The colorful images that adorn these postcards afford a nostalgic view into a bygone world. Although many of the images were staged, often featuring models who made multiple appearances in different settings and garb, they faithfully represented realistic elements of daily life. Contemporary dress, household interiors, family rituals, religious celebrations and special customs were meticulously recreated in studios. These postcards supply a panoramic view of Jewish daily life, both religious and secular, in the period preceding the devastation of European Jewry.

Many other subjects were popular with the Jewish public as well. While the picture postcards of the non-Jewish world often focused on famous world monuments and tourist attractions, those produced for Jews frequently displayed Jewish monuments: synagogues from around the world. Of particular interest were the large and elaborate temples constructed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries across Europe and the United States. As many of the European synagogues were destroyed during the Holocaust, postcards are often the only known visual record of these majestic buildings.

Another popular subject featured on these cards are "exotic" Jewish images, which captured the imagination of European Jews. The Orientalist Phenomenon in European culture translated in Jewish circles into the "discovery" of remote ethnic Jewish types. Thus many cards were illustrated with photographs of Jews from Yemen, Bukhara and other of Islamic lands, dressed in their colorful native garb. The photographers who traveled to countries such as Morocco and Tunisia visually preserved and recorded the Jewish quarters and the daily life of their inhabitants. These images were then widely distributed on postcards, providing European and American Jews with a glimpse into the little-known, remote comers of the Jewish world.

Jewish postcards supplied the past and present spectator with rare and almost immediate documentation of important events in the life of the Jewish people: the early Zionist congresses, the building of new settlements and towns in Eretz Israel, the emigration from Europe and arrival in the New World. As such, Jewish picture postcards are a fascinating visual resource for the study of Jewish history.