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Postcards from Israel: Going Viral Decades Before Social Media

By Cantor Lauren Phillips, Congregation Sinai, Milwaukee, WI

Twenty-first century synagogues and organizations seeking to engage the next generation of Jewish leaders can learn a lot from the early Zionists. The promotional materials that the Jewish National Fund (JNF) created to encourage thousands of Jews in Europe to settle in Eretz Yisrael were based on unique cultural developments that were being created amidst the convergence of multiple Jewish communities. These ideas serve as a model for modern communities who seek to attract new members and develop innovative programming.

The Zionists encouraged Jews to settle in Palestine without modern conveniences of social media like Facebook and Twitter. Instead, they had postcards. JNF quickly realized that they could send additional messages on postcards with a carefully chosen design. JNF began printing postcards that showed aspects of life in the new Palestine, including images of pioneers working the fields.

At the same time, folksongs began to emerge as a manifestation of the bold and carefree spirit of Eretz Yisrael. Although some of these songs incorporated elements of popular European music, the Zionists were creating a musical genre that was different from what anyone had ever heard before. This YouTube clip shows an example of one these melodies: Daniel Sambursky’s “Shir HaEmek” (“Song of the Valley”) as sung by the composer on a Kibbutz:

In 1930, JNF began printing these folksongs on postcards. The postcards were not created with performance purposes in mind; rather, the hope was that they would serve as a tangible representation of new cultural developments in Eretz Yisrael. The melodies were less important than the themes and ideals they represented. Watch the first few minutes of this YouTube clip featuring “Saleinu al Kt’feinu” (“Baskets on Our Sholders”), a song for Shavuot, followed by “Mi Yivneh Bayit” (“Who Will Build Me a House”), a song which encourages settlement in Tel Aviv and other communities of the new Palestine. <>

Two months after publication, the first series of approximately 5,000 postcards was sold out. By the beginning of 1935, a total of five series had been published and sold, featuring 52 new Israeli songs. The success of the postcards is likely a result of the fact that they create the illusion of oral tradition in a land that has been experiencing growth over mere decades, as opposed to generations.

The JNF postcards went “viral” beyond the mailbox when a German musicologist, Hans Nathan, used the melodies to inspire nationalist art music unique to Eretz Yisrael. Nathan sent letters to several of the most distinguished Jewish composers of his time, including Kurt Weill, Aaron Copland, and Stefan Wolpe, hoping that they would arrange several of these pieces for piano and voice. These arrangements brought the music and culture of Israel to the international concert stage, inspiring many of the composers to visit and/or live in Israel and contribute to the growing cultural development of the Jewish homeland.

Here is Kurt Weill’s arrangement of “Shir HaEmek” and Stefan Wople’s “Salenu al Kt’feinu”, sung by Cantor Lauren Phillips with Joyce Rosenzweig on piano at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2013. Listen and compare then to the original versions you heard in the YouTube videos.

The JNF postcards had a direct effect on encouraging those Jews who were drawn to Palestine because of their desire to be part of a spirited movement of pioneers and new cultural developments. Other families made aliyah because of personal connections in Eretz Yisrael. These are not unlike the paths that many contemporary Jewish take when choosing a synagogue community.

If we follow the model set forth by JNF’s postcards, we learn several valuable lessons that can be applied to cultivating the next generation of Jewish leaders:

  1. Build cultural connections: The folksongs on the postcards were unique because they were created out of the convergence of many cultures. What are the different cultures that make up your congregation? How can you build strength from the diverse resources within your own community?
  2. Engage people on multiple levels: JNF’s postcards were successful because they offered more than just a visual image. Printing music allowed recipients to engage with the new cultural developments that were coming out of Eretz Yisrael firsthand. They actively became part of the music, rather than just hearing it from afar. We should use this model when attracting people to our own communities; making them feel like they are part of the action instead of having them watch from the sidelines.
  3. Meet them where they are: Postcards were a primary means of communications during the 1920s and 30s. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are the major modes for communication today. Wherever possible, we should use technological developments in our synagogue recruitment strategies as well as our programming.

Over the decades, postcards became 140 character Twitter postings – our modern way of communicating lots of information in a concise format. The ways we connect are constantly evolving, especially in today’s high-tech society. To engage the next generation of Jewish leaders, we must constantly monitor these developments and apply them towards building and sustaining relationships within our communities.

Cantor Lauren Phillips was ordained from the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in May 2013. Since then, she has served Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, trading her native New York for frigid Midwest winters and beautiful lakeside summers.

At HUC-JIR, Cantor Phillips presented a capstone thesis and recital called “A Stranger Here Myself: The Postcard Project as an Exploration of Jewish Musical Identity.” The program explored an initiative from the 1930s in which prominent Jewish composers arranged Israeli folk songs that were printed on postcards by the Jewish National Fund. The postcards were created to inspire Jews in the Diaspora to make aliyah. The songs were among the first examples of secular Hebrew music to reach Europe. Cantor Phillips offers workshops based on her research and has presented excerpts from the Postcard Project at the North American Jewish Choral Festival, Limmud Chicago, and the Milwaukee Jewish Community Center’s Day of Discovery.

Cantor Phillips received her BA in Music with a minor in Communications and Media Studies from Tufts University and her MM in Vocal Performance from The Boston Conservatory. She is a proud member of the American Conference of Cantors.