Last week, much to my frustration, I realized I didn't have time to participate in two great learning opportunities this summer. The first was a class on the poetry of Abraham Joshua Heschel; the second, a course on the Book of Ruth, where we'd do a word-by-word translation. After a year of studying Biblical Hebrew I'm now theoretically capable of this, hard to believe. Both classes were in my Treo until I finally admitted I needed to spend at least part of the next few months doing less rather than more, and also leave time open for things like learning last-minute Torah portions. I can never say no to that.
Meanwhile, I've been thinking about spelling (what graphic designers do when their brains are fried from looking at too many typefaces)—specifically, about what I call the "Politics of Chet," the Hebrew letter "chet" (above). I work for a number of Jewish organizations across the religious and political spectrum, and each one transliterates Hebrew a bit differently. Like someone juggling multiple lovers and trying to avoid blurting out the wrong name at an inopportune moment, I have to keep track of these competing schemes. There's an official way, extraordinarily complicated, which has spawned infinite stylistic interpretations. Much of the confusion centers around the many letters of the Hebrew alphabet representing "ch" (the sound you make when clearing your throat). Each instance is supposed to be notated differently, but since most Americans with a bad Hebrew School education, like myself, have no idea how to spell in Hebrew, those "ch" sounds--and particularly the letter "chet"--are transliterated without rhyme or reason. How one spells also seems to have deeper political meaning, like the significance of kippot styles in Israel (knitted or velvet? black or in color? etc).
Here are my completely unscientific and tongue-in-cheek observations of the Politics of Chet.
If you transliterate the letter "chet" as "ch," you probably
--are either Orthodox leaning to the right, Conservative but from a traditional synagogue, classically Reform (i.e., choir and big organ at services), Renewal
--heard your grandparents speaking Yiddish
--think that "h” with a little dot under it looks ridiculous
--have no patience for odd variants and spell words the way they sound, end of story.
If you transliterate it as "h with an underline" or "h with a dot," you probably
--are either Orthodox leaning to the left, Conservative from a synagogue with lots of social action programs, Reform and planning a congregational trip to Israel next week, Renewal (included in both categories since all spellings are beautiful and mystical in their own way)
--are a little obsessed with grammar
--know how to add a custom character to a font so you can actually type an “h with a dot under it.”
If you transliterate it as just plain “h”, no dot, underline or preceding “c,” you are definitely Israeli and think Americans are wusses for needing silly things like vowels or dots to figure out how words sound.