Life & Culture

Yomtov wishes, sealed with a silent tear

A look in the archives discovers festivities from years past


On a recent trip to Polin, the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, I bought a pack of reproductions of Yiddish postcards in the gift shop, charming images of a by-gone era. But I was surprised to find that some of the original postcards are to be found in London, in the collection at the Jewish Museum London.

The tradition of sending New Year’s greetings for the Jewish holidays dates from the 14th century but it was not until the mass production of printed material and affordable stationery that the practice became widespread.

The first postcard was invented in Vienna, 1869, just a blank square of thin card. The classic picture postcard followed shortly after and was quickly taken up by the public, becoming so popular that the years between 1898 and 1920 have been referred to as the “Great Post Card Craze.”

During this craze, the practice of sending Jewish New Year postcards also took off. Germany and Poland were the centres of production for these cards, with German printers primarily using biblical imagery for illustrations and East European printers opting for artwork depicting scenes from day-to-day Jewish life. The image was often paired with a rhyme or short message in Yiddish.

The postcard pictured here (right) tells a sad, but familiar, story of families separating in the hope of finding a better life in a new country. It was common for husbands to leave their wives and children in Eastern Europe while they set off for England or America, in search of a better life. The idea was to establish themselves with housing and a job and then earn enough to pay for the rest of the family to travel across and join them. Often, the husband would never send back for his family and would start again, marrying a new woman in his new country.

The Yiddish message reads:


The husband is writing a letter for the New Year

A silent tear falls from his wife’s eye

Send us, God, a livelihood, good fortune,

And keep us separated no longer.


With travel restrictions still in place, many of us can share their sadness at being separated from family at this time of year.

Later on, an advertisement in the Jewish Chronicle was (and is) a very popular way for individuals and business owners, Jewish and not, to wish their families and Jewish customers a Happy New Year and Well Over the Fast. The Rosh Hashanah JC is always a bumper edition and the newspaper always carried many pages of these greetings.

The business greetings reflect the times. From 1964, for example, there’s a greeting from Adolph Cohen, ladies’ hairdresser and wig maker, of 101 Whitechapel Road and 187 Anson Road NW2. Popularly referred to as “the Professor” because of his “hairdressing school”, Adolph Cohen was well-known in the Jewish community and taught many young Jewish apprentices how to be a ladies’ hairdresser. His two addresses reflect the movement of Jews from the East End to the suburb of Willesden. Apprentices often went on to open salons of their own, some in the West End of London, many in the suburbs. Hairdresser to the stars, Vidal Sassoon was just one of these. Others, less well-known, were much loved by the ladies of North West London who would go in for a weekly shampoo and set.

There aren’t many photographs of Orthodox celebrations of the festivals because photography is prohibited on Yomtov. This black and white photograph (far left) from the Jewish Museum London, is of children from the Jewish Orphanage, Norwood, seated at the festive table in their succah, with the principal Dr Edward Conway and Mrs Conway in around 1955-58. The photo must have been taken on one of the intermediate days of the festival when photography is allowed.

After leaving Norwood, Dr Conway went on to be headmaster of the Jews’ Free School from 1958-73, and many readers will remember him. JFS archive material can be found at the London Metropolitan Archives and at Southampton’s Anglo-Jewish archives.


The Hidden Treasures website is a Board of Deputies initiative, bringing together archives of Jewish interest. The next Hidden Treasures online event — Just a Minute — explores synagogue archives and takes place on Sunday October 18 at 6pm. Follow us at @seethetreasures or go to to find out more


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