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Thursday, October 8, 2015

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Stamped in memory

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When I was a university student in Jerusalem, my great-uncle Binyomin, who had a shul in Boston, mailed me a photograph of a stamp. He asked me to hunt it down for him. Issued in 1962 to commemorate Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the stamp featured the words “Shema Yisrael” in graduated shades of orange, in the shape of a flame set against a black background. I found the stamp in a dusty box, amid other alte zachen in the shuk, and bought it for him.

Although I had no philatelic interest and regarded postage stamps as purely utilitarian, it intrigued me that Uncle Binyomin wanted the stamp. I found another one and bought it for myself. The next time a new set of Israeli stamps was issued, I bought them all and began to collect. Dating from my student days, I have an unbroken set of first-day covers and tags.

Lately, I have begun to backfill my collection. With the help of online opportunities for purchase or bid, I have added, for example, a set of pre-state stamps, as well as the first set of stamps issued under statehood. My goal is not to amass a comprehensive set of stamps, but to supplement selectively.

Perhaps not surprising for a professor who deals with Jewish memory, I have a special interest in memorial stamps – those issued to mark Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, the memorial day for soldiers fallen in Israel’s battles. The design, text and frequency of issuance of these stamps and their day of issue envelopes speak to evolving cultural values in Israel, the way the country regards its past and its present.

In the run of stamps in my collection, the Yom Hashoah issues often feature flames or hands raised in fists or stretched out in supplication. One memorable one depicts a hand composed of strips of a tattered tallit. The stamps or their envelopes usually include a biblical verse, such as Eileh ezkerah – these I remember – from Tehillim (Psalms), a phrase ensconced in religious memory as the opening of a powerful poem about martyrology recited on Yom Kippur. Rather than yearly releases, Yom Hashoah issues became more sporadic over time.

Yom Hazikaron stamps appear more regularly. Their designs feature memorial spaces, headstones, stylized accouterments of war (such as tanks) or abstractions. Rarely do they invoke biblical verses. Instead, they may include verses of modern Israeli poetry, such as Haim Gouri’s poem about Bab el-Wad. And while the texts of the Yom Hashoah stamps are always translated into English, sometimes those on the Yom Hazikaron stamps appear only in Hebrew.

What do these differences say about cultural memory in Israel? Clearly, both days anchor sets of memories that are important to Israeli self-definition. The bilingualism of the Yom Hashoah stamp speaks to a history shared by all Jews – thus, the texts appear in the languages of the two largest Jewish postwar populations. In recent years, Holocaust-related stamps are sometimes not explicitly linked to Yom Hashoah and may expand beyond the framework of Jewish memory – for example, to the January UN Holocaust Remembrance.

The Yom Hazikaron stamp, by contrast, insists on the Israeliness of memory. The secular texts, primacy of Hebrew and regularity of issue point to a commemoration of losses embedded not only in the country’s origin, but – sadly – in its present. That is to say, on Yom Hazikaron, Israelis mourn not only their ancestors – real and spiritual – but their neighbours, their friends and, most tragically, their children. I’m not suggesting that these losses matter only to Israelis, and not to Jews more broadly, but that Israelis, of necessity, feel them most acutely and intimately.

It’s no disrespect to commemoration to yearn for a future in which these losses have faded into the past and become historical, truly a memory and not a lived present.

As Yom Hazikaron melts into Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, and we celebrate the enduring miracle that is Israel, I spread out before me the decades’ accumulation of stamps. Taken together, they celebrate architecture and art, science and literature, sages and mystics, the beauty of text and the beauty of the land.


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