Vintage Eye Candy for the New Year

Looking back to my childhood in the late 1940s to the early 1950s, it seems as if Jewish holidays had as much to do with symbolic preparations outside the synagogue as with the actual religious services inside—helping to clean the house before Passover, rolling out the dough for the kreplach, or watching the men build the sukkah in the concrete yard behind the shul.

For my mother, Rosh Hashanah meant having the foresight to order engraved New Year cards well before the actual holiday. During the weeks preceding the holiday, our usually formal living room would change and become cheerfully cluttered with cards from family and friends. In a variety of sizes and colors, the cards would be stuck horizontally on the slats in the window blinds, propped up in front of the mahogany breakfront, and wedged in the small glass panes of the French doors that opened onto the hallway.

Far from an attempt to assimilate into America by mailing our version of Christmas cards, as I suspected during my cynical college years, the tradition of sending out greetings at the start of the Jewish month of Elul probably began in the 16th century. The use of commercially printed cards dates to the late 19th century, when they began to reflect the status and changing conditions of Jews in different countries.

Below is a selection from my personal collection of 200 cards. Coming mainly from Eastern Europe, England, the United States and Israel, they illustrate how Jews used to live.  

L’shana tova tikatev ve-tehatem. May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

A mother lights candles, one for each member of her family in this spiritual New Year postcard. The painter of this Art Deco-style work is anonymous. The message is “I light the candles in honor of the New Year/ Illuminate us with Thy Fire.”
In the unusual card, left, showing young women without the slender bodies of the 1920s flapper, the left side message translates as “The little boat floats silently. / Two girlfriends ride in it. Oh take us little boat to the shoreline of happiness and health.” There is no mention of husbands or wealth.
A mother and daughter stand in their symbolic home under golden arches festooned with violets and a golden heart in the pop-up card above. Seven Shabbat candles are alight as the mother blesses her young daughter.
While most contemporary Jews probably do not believe in angels, they play an important role in the Torah… In the postcard to the left, an angel weighs a man against a pile of gold on a scale, while asking in Yiddish, “On the one side of the scale a fortune, on the other a bridegroom/ Tell me, dear girl/ What is your desire?”
In a typical Jewish gesture, this man says, “Oy Vey,” in Yiddish in the strange New Year postcard above. “Phew! It’s not nice/ Truly, not nice/ To kiss strange women in sight of another person.” The reader may wonder if the reverse is true—that it’s acceptable to kiss a strange woman if no one is watching?

All images are copyrighted by Karen R. Davis. Images of Our Past: Vintage Jewish New Year Cards by Karen R. Davis available soon at