This is a Shana Tova postcard from 1901 with a photograph of Emile Zola in the centre. The card has greetings for the New Year written in Hebrew, English, Yiddish, and German around the card. Emile Zola was a non-Jewish writer who fought for Alfred Dreyfus’ innocence in the Dreyfus Affair. His support for Jews and his stand against anti-Semitism explains why his portrait appears in this series of Shana Tova cards. Other depictions in the series include Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Theodor Herzl and the Turkish Sultan, and Alfred Dreyfus – all heroes of the Jewish national revival in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. The series was produced prior to Rosh Hashanah, 1901, a few months after the meeting between Herzl and the Sultan and a year before Zola’s death.
The text on the two sides of the postcard, “From the beginning of the year” and “To the end of the year,” come from the verse in the Torah: “It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end”(Deut. 11:12). The Talmud connects this verse to Rosh Hashanah as the Day of Judgment, the day on which it is believed that one’s fate for the coming year is determined.
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Emile Zola – Emile Zola (1840–1902) was a French author and journalist. Zola became famous in the Jewish world when he came to the defence of the French Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus in what is known as the Dreyfus Affair. In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason, court-martialled, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. The arrest and subsequent trial were steeped in anti-Semitism and included the suppression of evidence and a cover-up. Journalists, such as Theodor Herzl and Emile Zola, were outraged by the Dreyfus Affair. On January 13 1898, Zola risked his career by publishing an open letter on the front page of the French newspaper L’Aurore entitled “J’accuse” (I Accuse). In his letter, Zola accused the military leaders of distorting justice and protecting the real spy and appealed to the French president for justice. In a subsequent series of articles Zola proved that Dreyfus was innocent. Since Zola was a well-known and respected figure in France, his letter became a turning point in the Dreyfus Affair. He was, nonetheless, tried for criminal libel and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Zola fled France to avoid imprisonment and lived briefly in England. In June 1899, Zola returned to France, and Dreyfus was pardoned and set free, although not exonerated until 1906. Zola died in France in 1902 under suspicious circumstances. In January 1998, French President Jacques Chirac held a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the publication of “J’accuse.” Chirac said that the French people should never forget the courage of a great writer who risked his career and his life in order to tell the truth.
Shana Tova Cards - The earliest instance of a written “shana tova” greeting is a fourteenth-century letter written by the Ashkenazi rabbi known as the Maharil (Jacob ben Moses Moelin). This letter affirms the existence of this custom in German Jewish communities at the time. In the eighteenth century, the custom began spreading beyond the German-speaking realm to other large concentrations of Jews in Eastern Europe, especially Poland. By the end of the century, Shana Tova cards began to take on distinct characteristics, such as special writing paper, with the custom spreading throughout the entire Ashkenazi world during the nineteenth century. The postal service emerged around this time, and in the 1880s, Jewish entrepreneurs began to print commercial greeting Shana Tova cards. By this time, Shana Tova cards constituted the main body of postcards sent by Jews, and this would remain so for around 100 years.
Between the end of the nineteenth century and the end of First World War, a time known as the “Golden Age of Postcards,” the vast majority of the mail sent by Jews in Europe and America consisted of Shana Tova cards. Today, in the digital era, cards sent by post have given way to text messages and emails.