From the Newsletter | Shana Tova! Let’s See the Fruits!

By | Sep 14, 2023
From the Newsletter, Jewish World, Latest
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It’s the season of return—literally. 

Earlier this week, making plans to schlep the family back to the New York shul I grew up in, as we do every Rosh Hashanah even though my parents are long gone, I found myself channeling the classic Jewish folktale about the overcoat. In the story, the overcoat’s owner keeps replacing worn-out bits of it—the collar, the sleeves, the lining, the body. Eventually every piece of it has been replaced, but somehow it’s still the same coat.

I think that’s how it is with me and my childhood synagogue. In young adulthood, my two brothers and I would all pack up and travel to New York for the holidays because our parents were there. Then they were gone, but we still came for the singing, led by the beloved cantor who’d taught us. (He’d officiated at my wedding and always greeted my husband and our growing kids with a jovial “Let’s see the fruits!”) After he died, we kept making the trip, mostly to see one another; a few relatives remained, and they’d usually invite us for holiday lunch. Now they’re gone too, and the synagogue has even moved down the street to a new building, but I can’t seem to celebrate the New Year anywhere else.

When I tried explaining this to one of my brothers—who teaches philosophy in the Midwest and also brings his family to New York for the holidays, though they’ve switched to his mother-in-law’s shul—he pointed out that there’s a secular parallel to the overcoat story, a hypothetical object known as the Ship of Theseus. It’s used to illustrate a philosophical conundrum about continuity: If every part of the ship going back to antiquity has been replaced multiple times, can it still be called Theseus’s ship? It’s a mystery.

I suspect the mysteries of continuity press more sharply on us all at the New Year, with its familiar rituals and renewal of emotional connections, past and present. A crowd of phantoms listens to the shofar with us, of family members gone and still here, of whole communities changing and yet somehow remaining the same.        

A vivid and unexpectedly charming illustration of this continuity through change arrived this week in Moment’s offices in the form of a book called Images of Our Past: Vintage Jewish New Year Cards from the Collection of Karen R. Davis. Davis, a freelance journalist and retired film festival director who lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, has spent decades amassing about 225 vintage holiday cards dating back to the 1880s. The ones in the book range from colorful Victorian scenes of men and women at the festive table, accompanied by traditional New Year’s wishes in Hebrew, Yiddish, English or sometimes French or German, to illustrations reflecting the latest technological wonders—a couple strewing New Year’s blessings from an open monoplane, or a pair of round-cheeked toddlers excitedly hovering over a telephone receiver. (“Hello/Who is calling?/This is the old year/A good year to you, grandma!/And a good year to you, grandpa!” reads the translation of the Yiddish.)

Many images are humorous, such as one in which an angel holds a scale weighing a heap of gold coins against a handsome bridegroom, asking in Yiddish which one the recipient hopes for in the year to come. An artist more inclined to secular imagery depicts a blank check made out for “three hundred sixty-five days of health, wealth and happiness” to be drawn from the “Bank of Heaven.” Many cards show the pressure of outside forces on the community exchanging greetings. One illustration from 1903 shows nattily dressed American citizens reaching out in welcome across a narrow waterway to greet Russian immigrants clad in traditional garb; later ones from Israel show soldiers, farmers and even a stylized tank.

Davis, who grew up in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, recalls her mother ordering engraved New Year cards and festooning the living room with the ones received from family and friends. “Far from an attempt to assimilate into America by mailing our version of Christmas cards, as I suspected during my cynical college years,” she writes in the introduction, “the tradition of sending out greetings at the start of the Jewish month of Elul probably dates to the 16th century.” Davis started collecting cards and postcards after moving to Florida; she felt drawn to exploring the community’s past and particularly its Jewish past, since everything around her seemed so new. She soon began collecting more widely and became enamored of the glimpses the cards afforded of vanished eras and customs, together with enduring values (she notes, for example, that many of the cards emphasize children and family happiness over monetary wealth). Nowadays, she mourns the relative decline of paper cards sent through the mail.

The selections are clever and insightful, and the collector’s distinctive voice comes through in the captions, such as the one on a card depicting a festive meal, of which she notes, “Neither the photographer, the printer, the publisher, nor the models in this card could possibly have been Jewish, since no Jewish male at the turn-of-the-century would ever have gotten up to serve the meal.” (A gallery of selected images from the book can be viewed here. The book can be ordered at 

Nowhere do traditions of past and present ricochet off one another more than at the holiday meal. My aunt always started Rosh Hashanah lunch with a “first fruit”—something we hadn’t tasted yet that fall. Often it was a pomegranate, which, as Joan Nathan explains, is “one of the oldest and most beloved fruits known to mankind.” Apples in honey always followed; for many families, no taste or texture is more indelibly linked to tradition than the crunch of apples dipped in honey, often followed later by honey cake, which dates back to antiquity in its own right. But ingenuity springs eternal, too: If you’d rather try honey with a new twist (and take a look at yet another little-known tradition—of Jews in the American whisky distilling industry), you can branch out with a honey cake cocktail.

And while we revel in feasts, family and joyful or bittersweet memories, the serious side of the holiday can slip in unawares. With Rosh Hashanah comes the start of the Days of Awe, the ten-day period when many Jews take an accounting of the past year and, if we’re feeling brave enough, try to tidy up accounts. What’s the best way to apologize? A few of our rabbis offer insights. 

We at Moment wish all our readers a sweet, reflective and meaningful New Year. Shana tova!

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