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‘Unvarnished’ Messages From the Past

Among the first sites that tourists visit during a tour of Jerusalem is the Wailing Wall, whose name stems from the old Jewish practice of coming to the site to mourn the destruction of the Temple. Even non-Jews place notes in the wall’s crevices to express their respect and awe for the Jewish holy site.

But according to a recent exhibit of historic postcards in a Bronx synagogue, the Wailing Wall, or the Kotel in Hebrew, did not always elicit such positive responses from non-Jews. In fact, some tourists ridiculed it.

“Dear Owen…” wrote an American tourist named Bella. “Well, we are in Jerusalem. This is a picture where they go to wail. It is so funny.”

The message, dated March 11, 1927, was sent to an Owen Winslow in Massachusetts, and was written on the back of a postcard that showed Jewish women wrapped in colorful shawls, standing by the Kotel and weeping (circa 1905).

On another postcard with the same image, a visitor, who did not sign his name, wrote to a Miss Anna Trecker, in 1925: “Jew-Rusalem… Here is where they all come from.”

The exhibit, which took place on July 20 at the Young Israel Ohab Zedek in Riverdale, consisted of almost 100 postcards and photographs of the Kotel with messages in various languages, between the years 1895 and 1945. The collection belongs to James Garfinkel, managing director of the financial firm Abbot Solutions and a synagogue member.

“What’s refreshing about these postcards is the people’s uninhibited, unvarnished observations,” Garfinkel told the Forward in an interview. “But it’s a bit surprising, since the official line of the American Christians to Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall has always been rather positive.” At the World’s Fair in St. Louis of 1904, for example, there was a life-size replica of the Wall, which reportedly attracted many visitors.

“Since America’s founding, the Christians saw in Palestine a parallel track. They, too, had come to a Promised Land, and fancied themselves a light unto the nations,” said Garfinkel.

But maybe, he added, these same American Christians may have been equally frustrated by the fact that the Jews were not readily accepting Jesus as their savior. This discontent may have contributed to the decidedly unsympathetic views expressed on some of the postcards.

Interestingly, the Kotel was not very popular with the secular Zionist movement, either. A Jewish National Fund publication of the 1930s, which also appeared at the exhibit, praises Jerusalem for its natural beauty and Bauhaus architecture but hardly mentions the Kotel. It wasn’t until 1967, when Israel captured the Wall during the Six-Day War, that it took on such a deep spiritual and political significance, even among secular Jews.

A number of the artifacts at the exhibit shed some light on the relations between Jews in Jerusalem and the Diaspora.

One postcard, stamped with an image of the Kotel, was sent by the “Kollel Chabad” in Jerusalem to Rabbi A. Chanovitz, in New York, in 1918. Written in beautiful Hebrew handwriting, the Chabad emissary thanks the rabbi for the $42 he had donated to the poor in Jerusalem, and then added: “It is our hope that the honorable sir will continue to contribute in the future, which is why it is astonishing, in our eyes, that we have received no sign from you for three months.”

On another postcard, dated Tisha B’Av, August 9, 1927, the author writes to a Mrs. Aronovsky in Shanghai: “I went to the Wailing Wall to pray for the restoration of our Temple and for the return of our glory. There were tens of thousands, but Mary and I managed to push through.”

Probably the most treasured item in the collection is a *Kotel *postcard written in German to a Fraulein Anna Witherich and sent from the first Zionist Congress, which took place on November 2, 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. “These postcards are very rare, as they were printed specially for the Congress, and are valued today at over $1,000 each,” Garfinkel said.

He added that he has been collecting stamps, postcards and other memorabilia of Old Jerusalem for years but became especially interested in collecting artifacts about the Kotel five years ago. “It was very political for me,” said Garfinkel. “The Arabs claim the Kotel as a holy place. But the more I collected cards of Palestine, the more I realized that until 1948, all nationalities — the Russians, the French, the Germans, and even the Arabs — called it the site of King Solomon’s Temple.”

Garfinkel has begun writing a book about his collection and regularly exhibits his postcards at meetings of the Society of Israel Stamp Collectors. He will be displaying them again at a national stamp show this fall.

Rukhl Schaechter is an editor of the Forverts, in which a version of this article originally appeared.

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