The Sylvester Syndrome

January 31, 314: Sylvester I whose name is “the Israeli term for New Year’s eve celebrations” began his papacy.

Silvester or Sylvester (also spelled szilveszter, sylvester or sylwester) is the day of the Feast of Pope Sylvester I, a saint who served as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church from 314 to 335 and oversaw both the First Council of Nicaea and Roman Emperor Constantine I’s conversion to Christianity. The feast day is held on the anniversary of Sylvester’s death, December 31st, a date that, since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, has coincided with New Year’s Eve.

As a result, many Europeans call New Year’s Eve “Sylvester.” When European Jews started to emigrate to the Land of Israel starting in the nineteenth century, the new year in their new country was, of course, Rosh Hashanah. But they still wanted to mark the changing of the secular year as in their old countries, so they continued to celebrate “Sylvester.”

Over time, the practice grew in popularity – especially after the aliyah in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union, where Christmas was banned and everyone celebrated Sylvester instead – to the extent that Sylvester parties are now held in many bars, clubs, restaurants and peoples’ homes each year. As more and more Israelis consume American and European popular culture, they have also become more familiar with other holidays such as Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.

Of course, it would not be Israel without a controversy! Many religious and some secular Israelis do not celebrate the holiday because it is not a Jewish one. And while there are not too many confirmable details about the life of Pope Sylvester, there are some anti-Semitic stories. According to this U.S. News & World Report article from years ago:

“The year before the Council of Nicaea convened, Sylvester convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem.  At the Council of Nicaea, Sylvester arranged for the passage of a host of viciously anti-Semitic legislation.  All Catholic saints are awarded a day on which Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that saint’s memory.  December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day – hence celebrations on the night of December 31 are dedicated to Sylvester’s memory.”

Over the following centuries, the New Year reportedly brought much anti-Semitic activity:

On New Year’s Day 1577, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that all Roman Jews, under pain of death, must listen attentively to the compulsory Catholic conversion sermon given in Roman synagogues after Friday night services.  On New Year’s Day 1578, Gregory signed into law a tax forcing Jews to pay for the support of a “House of Conversion” to convert Jews to Christianity.  On New Year’s 1581, Gregory ordered his troops to confiscate all sacred literature from the Roman Jewish community.  Thousands of Jews were murdered in the campaign.

Throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods, January 1 – supposedly the day on which Jesus’ circumcision initiated the reign of Christianity and the death of Judaism – was reserved for anti-Jewish activities: synagogue and book burnings, public tortures, and simple murder.

So, whether one celebrates Sylvester is up to the individual Israeli. In fact, if you ask Israelis why they celebrate Sylvester, they’ll most likely shrug and reply, “Life is hard here – we’ll take any excuse to party!”

If you are in Israel, though, make sure you do not party too hard – since Sylvester is not an official holiday and January 1 is just a regular day, you’ll have to go to work or class!

Presented here for your consideration is a 12-lira stamp issued by the Vatican City postal authority in 1953 honoring Pope Sylvester I (Scott No. 194).

Pope Sylvester I - Vatican City - 1953


The Beatles’ Last Concert

January 30, 1969 – The Beatles’ last public performance, on the roof of Apple Records in London. The impromptu concert is broken up by the police.

In January 2007, Great Britain’s Royal Mail issued a set of six self-adhesive stamps and a miniature sheet of 4 stamps honoring popular Beatles record album covers, including many fans’ firm favorite, “Revolver” and classic releases like “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road”.

Each self-adhesive sheet stamp in the collection has two designs – the first Royal Mail self-adhesive stamps to do so.

The four-stamp miniature sheet takes a look at some of the memorabilia produced for eager fans of the world’s first super-group, including their first single, “Love Me Do.”

Beatles Miniature Sheet - Great Britain - Jan 2007
And here is the First Day Cover of these issues produced by the Royal Mail.  I particularly like the fancy cancels with the guitar design:
Beatles Jan 2007 Royal Mail FDC

Jewish Farming Communities in Kansas

January 29, 1861: Kansas became the 34th state of the Union. One of the unique aspects of the history of the Jews of Kansas was the Jewish agricultural colonies that were established on the High Plains during the 1880’s. The Jewish Agriculturists’ Aid Society of America included seven Jewish agricultural colonies in places with such Biblical and/or Jewish names as Beersheba, Montefiore, Lasker, Leeser, and Touro, Gilead and Hebron. For more about this interesting attempt to create what Zionists would come to call “The New Jew in America’s Heartland” see “Jewish Farming Communities Enriched Kansas Cultural Heritage” at  Today, there is a thriving Jewish Community in Kansas, much of it centered in Overland Park – a Kansas City suburb.

Pictured today for your enjoyment is a block of 4 United States stamps from the 1974 Rural America series, commemorating Kansas Hard Winter Wheat (Scott No. 1506).

rural america kansas winter wheat blk of 4 - usa


International Holocaust Remembrance Day

January 27, 1996 – Germany first observes International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is an international memorial day on January 27th commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. It commemorates the genocide that resulted in the death of 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and 9,000 homosexual men by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on November 1, 2005 during the 42nd plenary session.  The resolution came after a special session was held earlier that year on 24 January 2005 during which the United Nations General Assembly marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust.

On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, was liberated by Soviet troops.

Prior to the 60/7 resolution, there had been national days of commemoration, such as Germany’s Tag des Gedenkens an die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus (The Day of remembrance for the victims of National Socialism), established in a proclamation issued by Federal President Roman Herzog on January 3, 1996; and the Holocaust memorial day observed every January 27th since 2001 in the United Kingdom.

The Holocaust Remembrance Day is also a national event in the United Kingdom and in Italy.

In 2008, the post offices of Israel and the United Nations released a joint-issue of stamps commemorating this day.

Jewish settlement in North America 101

January 26, 1654:  MAJOR DATE IN THE HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN JEWISH COMMUNITY.  With the capture of Pernambuco (Recife) from the Dutch, Portugal retook Peru and Brazil. The Jews, (numbering approximately 5,000) having fought on the side of the Dutch, fled for the most part to Amsterdam. Hundreds also escaped to North America, with 23 eventually arriving in New Amsterdam.

OMG!  Jewish refugees arriving in a foreign country to re-settle.  What other time in history does this remind you of?  Sure … the gradual immigration and re-settlement of Jews in Palestine who were escaping certain death in Nazi Europe during World War II.  So, it’s an indicator of the virulent and persistent hatred of the Arabs that the anti-Jewish violence remains in Judea and Samaria today.  Other than Peter Stuyvesant and a few mostly impotent members of the KKK, Jews did not meet with nearly as much violent resistance to their presence in America.  Opposition from the indigenous peoples, the Native Americans, was non-existent compared to the kind the Jews met with in the Middle East.  Mostly because white Europeans decimated the Native American population with armed violence and smallpox, leaving them in a position to not be aware that Jews were “invading” New Amsterdam.  Also, Arabs had state sponsors like Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to fund their attacks on Jews seeking sanctuary in their 3,000 year-old homeland, while Native Americans were totally disenfranchised.

But the date is cause for celebration in the annals of American Jewish history.  Thank G-d, he saw fit to bring us to this great country!

Nearby is a U.S. postage stamp commemorating the 300th anniversary of New York City with a scene that would have been characteristic of New Amsterdam in the late 17th century.

300th anniversary of NYC

Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., 1821-1910

January 23, 1849 – Elizabeth Blackwell is awarded her M.D. by the Geneva Medical College of Geneva, New York, becoming the United States’ first female doctor.

In October 1847, Blackwell was accepted as a medical student by Hobart College, then called Geneva Medical College, located in upstate New York. Her acceptance was a near-accident. The dean and faculty, usually responsible for evaluating an applicant for matriculation, were not able to make a decision due to the special nature of Blackwell’s case. They put the issue up to vote by the 150 male students of the class with the stipulation that if one student objected, Blackwell would be turned away. The young men voted unanimously to accept her.

When Blackwell arrived at the college, she was rather nervous. Nothing was familiar – the surroundings, the students and the faculty. She did not even know where to get her books. However, she soon found herself at home in medical school.  While she was at school, she was looked upon as an oddity by the townspeople of Geneva. She also rejected suitors and friends alike, preferring to isolate herself. In the summer between her two terms at Geneva, she returned to Philadelphia, stayed with Dr. Elder, and applied for medical positions in the area to gain clinical experience. The Guardians of the Poor, the city commission that ran Blockley Almshouse, granted her permission to work there, albeit not without some struggle. Blackwell slowly gained acceptance at Blockley, although some young resident physicians still would walk out and refuse to assist her in diagnosing and treating her patients. During her time here, Blackwell gained valuable clinical experience, but was appalled by the syphilitic ward and those afflicted with typhus. Her graduating thesis at Geneva Medical College ended up being on the topic of typhus. The conclusion of this thesis linked physical health with socio-moral stability – a link that foreshadows her later reform work.

On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States. The local press reported her graduation favorably, and when the dean, Dr. Charles Lee, conferred her degree, he stood up and bowed to her.

The United States Postal Service issued an 18-cent stamp honoring Dr. Blackwell (Scott No. 1399) on January 23, 1974 – the 125th anniversary of the date of her graduation from medical school.  The USPS held the First Day of Issue ceremony for the stamp in Geneva, New York where First Day Covers were produced and sold to collectors.

Elizabeth_blackwell_stamp - U.S.


Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust

January 22, 1943: A death train that originated in Grodno, Poland, on January 17, erupts in violence at the Treblinka death camp when 1,000 Jews armed with boards, knives, and razors attack guards. By the next morning, thousands of Jews who had been on the train are dead, killed by Treblinka SS troops armed with machine guns and grenades.

So, as futile as it may have seemed, in retrospect there were pockets of resistance against the anti-Jewish Nazi death machine.

Grodno was formerly a part of Lithuania, where it was known as “Gardinas”.  In 1919, German troops handed Gardinas over to the Poles.

The cover shown here has Lithuanian postage stamps cancelled at the Gardinas (Grodno) post office with a violet circular cachet with the inscription, “Grodnenskaya … Kontora” and was used during the last 3 months of the Gardinas post office’s existence between January 3, 1919 and April 26, 1919.

Grodno-Grodnenskaya Kontora - 1919 - Lithuania


Confederate postage, 1861-65

January 21, 1861 – Jefferson Davis resigns from the United States Senate.  By November of that same year he would be elected president of the Confederate States of America, just 7 months after Confederate soldiers attacked Union troops at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina marking the beginning of the American Civil War.

During the first seven weeks of the Civil War, the US Post Office still delivered mail from the seceded states. Mail that was postmarked after the date of a state’s admission into the Confederacy through May 31, 1861, and bearing U.S. (Union) postage is deemed to represent ‘Confederate State Usage of U.S. Stamps’. i.e., Confederate covers franked with Union stamps.  After this time, private express companies still managed to carry the mail across enemy lines. The three major express companies in operation throughout the south were Adams Express, American Letter Express, and Whiteside’s Express. They had been operating freely for approximately two months when the U.S. Post Office ordered an end to such traffic, effective August 26, 1861. Mail destined to states that were not among their own unions now had to be sent by Flag of Truce, although some express companies still continued to run their mail operations illegally; Adams continued its Southern operations under a nominally-separate Southern Express Company, in actuality a subsidiary. Mail was also smuggled in and out by blockade-running ships—which, however, were often captured or destroyed by Union ships on blockade patrol. Because Confederate post offices existed for only a few years and official and informal records of them are lacking, relatively little is known about their operations in many regions of the South.

I submit for your inspection the first issue of the Confederate Post Office in October 1861, a 5-cent stamp bearing the image of Jefferson Davis.

Jefferson Davis - 1861

The Last Sultan: Abdul Hamid II

January 20, 1895: The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire Abdul Hamid II is credited with having issued an order to the Governors of Jerusalem and Beirut ordering them to remove all of the restrictions that had been placed on Jews trading in Syria.  The Sultan also has declared that the Jews “shall enjoy the same rights, religious and otherwise, as any of the people in the empire.”

This order was probably one of the rare bright spots of the Sultan’s reign from 1876 to 1909.  Abdul Hamid II was known as the “Bloody Sultan” primarily because he oversaw widespread pogroms and government-sanctioned massacres of Armenians, Kurds and Bulgarians.

He promulgated the first Ottoman constitution of 1876 on Dec. 23, 1876, primarily to ward off foreign intervention., which was a sign of progressive thinking that marked his early rule. But due to his conviction of Western-influence on Ottoman affairs, and the parliament’s push for the war with Russia, which he opposed, Abdul Hamid suspended the short-lived Ottoman Constitution and parliament in 1878 and seized absolute power, ending the first constitutional era of the Ottoman Empire. Abdul Hamid’s 1909 removal from the throne was hailed by most Ottoman citizens, who welcomed the return to constitutional rule after three decades.

I don’t know if this was characteristic of the many sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire, but Hamid II was married 13 times, issuing royal children from each marriage.

Shown here today are two examples of stamps issued during the Sultan’s reign.  They are the same issues of 1905, however the example on the right has the center symbol inverted, thus a printing error which typically commands higher premiums at auction.  Not so the case with this set which has a starting bid today on Ebay of €64.22.

abdul hamid II - turkey 1905 inverted

January 19, 1829 – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust:  The First Part of the Tragedy receives its premiere performance.  (German: Faust. Eine Tragödie or Faust. Der Tragödie erster Teil) is the first part of Goethe’s Faust. It was first published in 1808.

Goethe was a German writer and statesman. His body of work includes epic and lyric poetry written in a variety of meters and styles; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic; treatises on botany, anatomy, and color; and four novels. In addition, numerous literary and scientific fragments, more than 10,000 letters, and nearly 3,000 drawings by him are extant. A literary celebrity by the age of 25, Goethe was ennobled by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Karl-August in 1782 after first taking up residence there in November 1775 following the success of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. He was an early participant in the Sturm und Drang literary movement.

The stamp shown here is one of many examples of stamps from many countries honoring this literary giant.  It was issued in 1945 by the postal service Briefpost under the French Occupation in Germany just following World War II.  This occupation lasted until 1947, during which 13 stamps were issued.  The regions under French occupation would later become Baden, Rheinland-Pfalz, Saar and Württemberg.

Goethe - French offices in Germany