Phyllis Spielman, 70-year-old administrative law judge from Brooklyn (still practicing), navigates Facebook with ease. “I keep up with the times — there’s no other way around it,” said Spielman, her Brooklyn accent snapping.
But when Rosh HaShanah approaches every year and she wants to send yom tov greetings to her friends, social media just doesn’t cut it. Instead, she goes to the Judaica store where’s she’s been a customer for the past “20 or so years,” (J. Levine Books and Judaica in Midtown), carefully selects some actual cards — “I’m not into the funny cards; this time of year is not all fun and games,” she notes — and mails them out.
Spielman is typical of a segment of the Jewish community — a mostly older cohort — that has continued to send greeting cards before the High Holy Days each year.
While anecdotal reports indicate that Jews under 30 have not adopted the practice of sending real or virtual greeting cards, the tradition of sending Jewish New Year’s cards via snail mail isn’t dead yet. Like vinyl records, which have enjoyed something of a resurgence in the age of MP3 players and digital downloads, the Rosh HaShanah greeting card may be too sweet a ritual to kill off completely.
The tradition of yom tov greeting cards dates back to the 1880s, taking off at the turn of the century with the discovery of Jews as an opportune consumer population. “For the first time, wider society was learning about our traditions and calendar,” said Jeffrey S. Gurock, chair of the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society and professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University. “If thousands of Christmas cards were selling, why couldn’t Jews send out holiday cards as well? The trend was a sign of America learning about the Jews.”
“An artifact of modernity, the Rosh HaShanah greeting card has consistently kept pace with and made use of the latest technology, from chromolithography to the postcard,” observed Jenna Weissman Joselit, a historian at George Washington University specializing in Jewish-American cultural history. “Today’s digital iteration is no exception.”
At West Side Judaica, one of New York City’s largest Jewish bookstores, sales manager Shlomi Salcer says he has noticed a significant decrease in card sales in recent years. “I’d estimate a 50 percent decrease in cards sales in the past two years,” he sighed. “It’s sad, but that’s simply the way the world is moving. Who has times these days to sit down and write a card when you can send out a hundred e-mails with the press of a button?”
An informal polling of this writer’s friends asked the younger ‘Facebook Generation’ to answer the question themselves: “Do you think holiday greeting cards are a thing of the past?”
While some of the 15 respondents took the time to acknowledge the “personal touch” element, most regretfully or bluntly characterized the practice as a relic, with one individual facetiously responding, “What’s a ‘greeting card?’ Had to Google it.”
Not everyone, however, is convinced that this tradition is so easily disregarded. Jaci Twidwell, a spokesperson at Hallmark, said, “With five billion cards purchased a year (industry wide) — an average of more than 13 million cards a day — the greeting card industry meets an enduring need for people to connect in meaningful ways with each other,” she said. “Even with the explosive growth of things like Facebook and Twitter, there has been no corresponding decline in the number of greeting cards sold. While new digital tools generate a lot of marketplace buzz, they remain just a fraction of the huge and stable market for paper greeting cards, which consumers continue to tell us they value as tangible expressions of caring.”
Danny Levine, owner of J. Levine Books and Judaica in Midtown, agrees: “Nothing’s gonna’ replace this trend so fast.” With the Jewish holiday season in full swing, Levine answered briskly on the phone, “We’re still selling tons of cards. Just ordered in more today. These cards are beautiful pieces of art — collectors’ items. Facebook doesn’t have what it takes to buck this trend.” Have the types of cards that are selling changed? “No — people are still reaching for quality and beauty — a card is a piece of art.”
Levine says the sale of greeting cards has remained constant in recent years — holiday cards continuing to represent about 2 percent of his store’s total sales. He did, however, acknowledge that the consumer audience remained “middle-aged to older.”
“Young people buying? You don’t see it,” said Levine.
Meanwhile, some people, like Andre Oboler, the CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute, argue that online cards “may be more meaningful than the traditional paper card.” Online cards, or ECards, are digital creations, often animated, available for every occasion and largely free.
“They are clearly better for the environment, and they allow an added sense of richness to the presentation. Some systems require a significant amount of time to be spent customizing the card and giving it that personal touch,” he said.
He did, however, qualify that technology is only “an enabler.” “The important thing is the thought and the effort the sender invests in their message,” said Oboler. “Sometimes a few lines of text in an e-mail, written from the heart, can mean more than the fanciest e-card. Technology can make it easier for people to connect, whether it is to wish someone Shanah Tovah or to chat with family overseas.”
“Social media isn’t new,” said Rabbi Jason Miller, who blogs about Jewish technology, among other topics. “Even the Talmud is a form of social media — a back-and-forth discussion, via word of mouth. Today, the medium has simply changing from the physical word of mouth, to the virtual.”
But when asked if Rosh HaShanah greeting cards are one more tradition to soon disappear, Rabbi Miller said, “Ten years ago, I decorated my sukkah with the cards I received — beautiful cards, thick paper, rich colors. Today, I receive e-mails. Decorating the walls with flimsy printer paper filled with the generic font simply wouldn’t have the same effect.”
This year, Rabbi Miller gave his 7-year-old daughter a stack of Rosh HaShanah cards and a box of crayons to decorate, sign, and send. Thrilled, she spread out on the floor and began to carefully decorate cards for “Bubby, and Zaidy…”
“Some things just can’t be replaced,” finished Rabbi Miller. “A child’s drawings; the special human touch of an envelope and stamp.”