‘Mazel tov on assimilating:’ The strange, rich history of Rosh Hashanah advertisements

From Yael Buechler, The Forward

“No one can blame you for forgetting them—when Your Greeting is published in the Annual Rosh Hashanah Edition,” says a 1937 issue of The American Jewish World of Minnesota.

Long before the era of perfectly orchestrated social media posts wishing “l’shanah tovah” to friends and family, families and businesses placed Rosh Hashanah greetings in newspapers, a practice used in the early 20th century as a source of income for American-Jewish magazines came into being.

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Christmas greetings gained prominence in 1927 when President Calvin Coolidge issued the first official Presidential Christmas greeting. The tradition quickly expanded to include a variety of holidays, with prominent politicians, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, placing advertisements in Jewish newspapers ahead of the High Holidays.

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By the late 1940s, more local businesses and national brands had caught the trend and began placing holiday greetings in Jewish publications to connect with the Jewish community and show their support. The length at which advertisers took the Jewish market to court was unprecedented. The greetings were specific, personal, and highly creative — unlike, for example, the themes and images used by advertisers around the holiday season, which contained “rather generic Christian content,” said Leigh Eric Schmidt, author of Consumer Rites: The Buying and selling”. of the American holidays.”

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The following six Rosh Hashanah greetings offer a glimpse of the changing place of Jews in the post-war American landscape—a time when the Jewish community underwent accelerated assimilation but, as these ads show, remained wonderfully unique.

An advertisement that appeared in The American Jewish World on October 1, 1948. Courtesy of NLI Historical Jewish Press
Although the St. Paul Dispatch-Pioneer Press, a secular newspaper serving Minneapolis’ sister cities, had trouble spelling “Israel” — see “Isreal” — the newspaper recognized the importance of the new land to the American Jewish community in this salute in the Minnesota-based American Jewish world in 1948.

The advertisement wished “the young state and its people everywhere a new year full of peace, prosperity and happiness”.

By acknowledging the new State of Israel in such loving language — speaking about how one would speak to a parent about a beloved new child — the ad sought to touch the hearts of the Jewish community, and validated the special interest advertisers began to build a relationship with him.

An advertisement that appeared in the B’nai B’rith Messenger on September 4, 1953. Courtesy of NLI Historical Jewish Press
Maxwell House’s 1953 ad in the Los Angeles-based B’nai B’rith Messenger, quoting from the Prophet Amos, demonstrated the amazing level of thought advertisers put into appealing to the Jewish market. During this period, Maxwell House opened a series of greetings highlighting obscure books from the Tanakh, including Ezra in 1967 and Samuel in 1970.

Most US Jews, then as now, were probably not particularly familiar with Amos, Ezra, and Samuel, making Maxwell House’s decision to single them out quite remarkable. The campaign, conceived by a company run by Joseph Jacobs — an advertising executive who got his start at Forward — was planned as a way for the coffee company to brand itself as “the taste of tradition” for Jews, Kerri said P. Steinberg, author of Jewish Mad Men: Advertising and the Design of the American Jewish Experience. That work, Steinberg said, was part of a broader mission for Jacobs, who aspired to “educate the mainstream marketplace about the purchasing power of American Jews.”

An advertisement that appeared in the B’nai B’rith Messenger on September 24, 1954. Courtesy of NLI Historical Jewish Press
This greeting from Mildred Younger, a California politician then running for State Senate, was placed in the 1954 B’nai B’rith Messenger. It was unusual at the time to come across a Rosh Hashanah greeting from a female politician. The fact that the Republican Younger, who later failed in her candidacy as the first woman in the California Senate, wrote a greeting in the newspaper spoke for the growing political importance of the Jewish community.

An advertisement that appeared in The American Jewish World on September 4, 1964. Courtesy of NLI Historical Jewish Press

This ad, placed in 1964 by a local chemical plant in The American Jewish World, which was declared a Superfund website a few years later, explicitly stated the implication of many Rosh Hashanah greetings of the period. “One of the best examples of assimilation into the community was provided by those of Jewish persuasion,” the ad reads. “While retaining their individuality, they have become a contributing force to their communities.”

“Jews, like other Americans, had … an opportunity to transcend ethnic ties … and redefine themselves according to the then-popular American melting pot theory,” when they moved to the suburbs, Steinberg wrote in Jewish Mad Men. To her, the first two lines of that greeting “reflected what so many Jews at the time wanted to hear about themselves”—that they had “made it” in America. This greeting went even further and publicly wished the Jews “mazel tov on assimilation!”

An advertisement that appeared in The Sentinel on September 23, 1965. Courtesy of NLI Historical Jewish Press

The Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation dug through the archives of Jewish history to find a 300-year-old Dutch woodcut illustration of a shovel lasier for this salute, which was placed in The Sentinel, a Chicago Jewish newspaper, in 1965.

The ad also includes the phase “Rosh Hashanah Greetings” in Yiddish, a language somewhat unusual to find in an English-language newspaper in 1965. According to Steinberg, the use of the Yiddish phrase “underscored the traditional value or legitimacy of the illustration” and would have helped appeal to an aging readership.

An advertisement that appeared in The Sentinel on September 23, 1965. Courtesy of NLI Historical Jewish Press

This 1965 Rosh Hashanah greeting by Ford, quoted from the Book of Psalms: “Hear the voice of my supplication…as I lift up my hands to thy holy oracle.” year a quote from a popular Solemnity prayer book by Rabbi Morris Silverman and in another an excerpt from the priestly blessing.

The greeting included a photo of a newly built Conservative synagogue in Southfield, Michigan, Shaarey Zedek Ward, completed in 1962. The modern synagogue architecture depicted, Steinberg said, was likely included in the ad to appeal to the younger generation of Jews. while the quote from the Psalms was probably intended to appeal to older, more traditional generations.

The overall effect spoke to the changing environment of American Jewish life: the quote, combined with the quaint new “holy” site of Michigan, suggested that Jewish religious life might thrive in American suburbs.

These Rosh Hashanah ads not only celebrate the rapid changes in the mid-century Jewish community and their growing role as a powerful American consumer. They also served essentially to salute the Jewish community as new and remarkably American.

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