By Adam Grobman
Stamp collecting is a hobby that stretches back to 1840, beginning with the issue of the first adhesive stamp in the United Kingdom - the Penny Black - which featured the image of Queen Victoria.
Ever since that first label clung to common envelopes, collectors have clutched and grabbed at the next stamp to add to their books.
Dr. Zach Simmons, a local physician and philatelist – one who studies and collects stamps and postal history – had a collection of stamps as a child. He returned to the hobby decades later, spurred by his interest in history. Now, his collection focuses on stamps and postal history – postmarks and cancellations – from early and pre-statehood Israel and Middle East.
“Generally stamps are issued to commemorate meaningful events in the history of a country,” he says. “What you would learn from the stamps of Israel is that it’s a very young country. The initial Israeli stamps celebrated contemporary events and figures – but also important Jewish themes, like High Holidays and the beauty of the land.”
Along with this difference, collectors find a few other interesting details that separate Israel’s stamps from other countries.
“When the British withdrew and Israel became a state, it happened abruptly – and nobody knew what the state would be named,” Zach says. “The first stamps had the Hebrew words ‘Doar Ivri’ rather than ‘Israel.’” The words, simply meaning “Hebrew Post,” show a glimpse into the work that was to be done as the country got off the ground.
Zach is a member of the Society of Israeli Philatelists, a group that specializes in what many call “Holy Land Stamps and Postal History.” The group hosts its own meetings, publishes a quarterly journal, and shares information and displays collections at philatelic exhibitions.
He says that postal history and stamps lend insight into life at the time the piece was produced – and this is where his interests collide. “It better helps me understand the political and social history and context,” Zach says. “I like to be able to tell and understand the story behind what happened.”
For example, he says, the impact of British control in pre-state development is clear from looking at cancellations and postmarks that reference military post offices in the area. Many stamps from the time period are printed in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. “It shows that it was a multicultural area – and always has been,” he says.
His focus on Middle Eastern material has helped him reflect and appreciate the Jewish state. “As a Jew, I feel it’s important for us to understand where the state of Israel came from, what was there before, and the very special nature of its development,” he says.
Building his collection lends Zach to a fair amount of research, during which he recently discovered an interesting Harrisburg connection.
While reading “The American Philatelist” a stamp collecting magazine, Zach was surprised to see a postmark bearing the name “Yeshiva Academy Station” from the first day of Chanukah 1996.
“When the U.S. issues a new stamp, it often authorizes relevant places that aren’t normally post offices to postmark those stamps,” Zach says. “So the school would have applied and were given permission to do that.”
As he travels along through this journey of the past through postal history, Zach says it is the people that he has met that keep him inspired.
“These are really bright people who have taught me a great deal,” he says. “Many of the people who first taught me about this are people who lived through the creation of the state. For them to see the development of Israel was very exciting and they transmitted that to me and taught me a great deal – I’m grateful to them.”