Dr. Ira Rezak collects objects of Judaica that were never meant for permanent collections. He’s an authority on “ephemera,” items usually discarded after use: tickets, campaign buttons, posters, coins, old magazines.
These envelope-free, cost-effective, unadorned forms of correspondence were first printed by one Hyman Lipman in Philadelphia in 1873. Though later embellished with photographs and illustrations, they have never been considered more than an “artistic subset,” said Dr. Rezak, emeritus professor of medicine at Stony Brook University Medical School.
Postcards — those with Jewish themes — are finally getting some respect. Over one hundred vintage postal and greeting cards from Dr. Rezak’s collection are currently on display in the gallery-cum-social hall at Congregation Or Zarua on the Upper East Side.
The sensation sparked by the first postcards in Europe and America “must have been comparable to the revolution caused by E-mail and Twitter today,” said art historian Bobbi Coller, who curated the exhibition, “Greetings From the Golden Age of Jewish Postcards.” (Coincidentally, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem has mounted an exhibition of vintage Rosh Hashanah cards, “Each Year Anew.”)
On exhibit at Or Zarua are sentimental and nostalgic early postcards from America showing Jews in shtetl garb observing religious rituals, as if to reassure their relatives in the old world that they had not left Judaism behind.
But these images soon give way to more modern scenes of affluence and leisure: A Sukkah meal served by a maid in frilled apron and cap. Holiday outings in trains, boats, bicycles, and even hot air balloons. A bride and groom in lace gown and top hat beneath an elaborate chupah.
“These were probably aspirational,” Dr. Rezak said. “Jews hadn’t quite made it to the middle classes yet.”
For Rosh Hashanah, ornate, three-dimensional cards bearing the traditional greeting L’shana Tova Tekatevu, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year,” consist of a colorized black-and-white photograph with a “pop-up” overlay of cut-outs of flowers, animals and people. Roses in heart-shaped garlands and pairs of white doves abound. One unabashedly romantic greeting depicts a would-be Cupid aiming a bow and arrow at his beloved on a balcony as she drops what could be a love letter, or maybe just another greeting card. The message of Happy New Year is accompanied by an original love poem.
Raphael Tuck, a 19th century London publisher and Orthodox Jew, known for his Christmas cards, was able to redesign them as Rosh Hashanah cards, simply by covering the background motif with Jewish rather than Christian symbols.
Dr. Rezak amassed his collection of these “accidental survivals” combing the Lower East Side in the 1960s and 70s. His quest, he said, “marked a reawakened desire to reimagine my identity as a child of Jewish Polish immigrants in Brooklyn.”
As president of the Harry G. Friedman Society, a group of amateur collectors, curators, and academics who meet monthly at The Jewish Museum and other Jewish institutions to hear experts speak about aspects of Jewish material culture, Dr. Rezak often appraises “remnants” brought in by members.
At a recent meeting, he meticulously examined a synagogue’s hoard of ephemera. “You could maybe get five bucks for this,” he said about a group of vintage Israeli coins.
Society member Nechi Shudofsky does not consider herself a collector but she has amassed a number of yads (Torah pointers) which she gave to each of her grandchildren upon their bar/bat mitzvahs. “I found one in a garbage can,” she said.
“The definition of ephemera is in the mind of the beholder,” Dr. Rezak said. “There was a time when photographs were not considered suitable for a museum.”
“Greetings from the Golden Age of Postcards” is on view at Congregation Or Zarua, 127 East 82nd Street, through the end of March; Monday to Thursday, 9 to 5, Fridays, 9 to 1. Please call beforehand, 212452-2310 x12
Martha Mendelsohn is a freelance writer. Her novel for young adults, “Bromley Girls,” was published last year.