26 Oct, 2020

Few people below middle age bother to send postcards today; instead, if they don’t make a phone call, they send a photo and message by the WhatsApp application or email or go into one of the social networks. But a century or more ago, postcards were a useful and popular method of communication among relatives and friends. 

For the past six decades, British collector David Pearlman has amassed the world’s largest collection of Holy Land postcards and is now donating his 100,000+ collection to the Hebrew University (HU) in Jerusalem. 

What first impressions did the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia Wilhelm II have upon his arrival in Jerusalem on a dusty afternoon in 1898? What excited Christian pilgrims visiting Capernaum, once a fishing village established during the time of the Hasmoneans and located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret)?  What did the earliest Zionist settlers feel upon their arrival in the Holy Land? What messages did British soldiers stationed in Palestine during World War I send home to their parents? 

Even without email, Facebook and WhatsApp, there were quick, easy and cheap forms of international communication – postcards, both to share experiences and also as souvenirs of far-away places. 

London-based historian and collector Pearlman has focused on 19th and 20th century postcards from the Holy Land that serve as an invaluable window into the modern history of the Land of Israel, covering virtually every area of life – religious, architectural, fashion, social customs, historical events, art, politics and travel.  Pearlman generously decided to donate his collection through the British Friends of Hebrew University to the Folklore Research Center at the university’s Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies.

An accountant by day and a collector by night, Pearlman scoured auction houses, private collections and estate sales to piece together his “Postcards of Palestine” collection.  It is the largest of its kind in the world, numbering 130,000 postcards.  The collection documents Israel’s history, from the Ottoman Period and British Mandate to the early Pioneers, from the Six Day War through the early 21st century.  It includes historic events from General Edmund Allenby’s visit to Jerusalem in 1917 and Lord Arthur Balfour’s attendance at the grand opening of Hebrew University in 1925 to the creation of the State of Israel and the emergence of new cities like Tel Aviv, among others.

“I began collecting stamps as a young boy and graduated to postcards when I realized that instead of collecting dull postage stamps I could collect these beautiful cards,” Pearlman recalled.  “I kept them in shoeboxes in my garage all these years.  At a certain point the collection grew so large that I began to park my car on the street to make room for more shoeboxes.” 

Another interesting facet of the collection is the abundance of artwork by leading 20th century Bezalel School artists, such as Meir Ben Gur Aryeh, Ephraim Lilllien and Zeev Raban, as well as photography by “Karimeh Abbud –Lady Photographer,” one of the first female photographers in the Arab World.  A significant portion of the collection are postcards that catered to Christian pilgrims who made their way from Egypt to Jerusalem to Damascus, visiting the holy sites along the way and sending their loved ones postcards that depicted camels, palm trees, Bedouins, an overflowing Dead Sea, and included pressed flowers or scriptural quotes. 

 “A classic message would read, ‘Yesterday we were in Bethlehem. Today we’re in Jerusalem. Tomorrow we’re going to Nazareth.  It’s so hot here!’“, shared Dr. Dani Schrire, director of Hebrew University’s Folklore Research Center, who together with Prof. Hagar Salamon, head of Folklore and Folk-Culture Studies was entrusted with this treasure. The Folklore Research Center was established in 1970 by the late Prof. Dov Noy and is home to several important collections. 

“The most moving part of this story is David Pearlman’s passion for the collection. You can see it has truly been a labor of love and we are grateful that he’s entrusted his life’s work to our university.  It is a terrific vote of confidence in our position as a world-class research institution,” added Nigel Salomon, chief executive of the British Friends of Hebrew University.   “It’s also fascinating to read the postcards that British Tommies stationed in Palestine sent home during World War I.”

In one such postcard, a soldier named Walter writes to his parents, “I can say ‘mafish’ which means ‘enough’ [in Arabic’]…and I hope the war will soon [end] so I can go home again.”  Another soldier wrote, “I came through here…between Mount Ebal and Mount Grizim…It is of course the Shechem where Jacob fed his flocks and Jacob’s well is here.  There are many springs and consequently gardens where I saw the first green I’d seen for months.”  

Another British soldier marvelled at the biblical resonance of the cities around him.  He mailed his parents a postcard of the Kinneret and wrote this message on the back, “This is the shot I should like to see more than anyone in Palestine but don’t expect to have the opportunity to do so.  The man in the next bed was up there with the cavalry says it’s very fine, the water being beautifully clean and there are several nice streams running into it.  While there they were able to get fresh fish that were a nice change from the ‘bully [beef]’…The lake which saw so much of His life on earth and which to my mind holds such fascination.                                                                                                               

According to Schrire, the collection’s significance is not merely one of quantity. Pearlman did extensive research on his postcards and provided HU researchers with valuable annotations and a complete catalogue of his collection which includes 1,500 postcard publishers.   And Pearlman’s gift is now in good hands: “In a way, Pearlman wanted these cards to return to Zion, to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Once a collection arrives, we bring in conservation specialists to preserve the collection to the highest standards.  And then the real fun begins – university researchers from a variety of disciplines are excited to begin working on the collection and to understand the imagination that the Land of Israel had on its many visitors.”

Commenting on this unique gift to the university, its president Asher Cohen added, “this extraordinary collection of postcards has found its way home to Jerusalem; it’s entirely appropriate that Israel’s leading center of advanced learning and research is now the home and custodian of such a remarkable trove which joins our other notable collections—Albert Einstein’s personal and academic papers and the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.” 

When asked about his favorite postcard, Pearlman shared, “I haven’t got a favorite postcard; it’s the whole collection that feels like part of my family. They’re all my favorites. It’s like touching a piece of history,” he concluded.

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