I attended just about the worst Hebrew School in North America, where I learned to read Hebrew, barely, and write—sort of. In the reverse scenario of most afternoon Hebrew School victims, we were taught script but not print. I graduated able to read any style of letter, but write only half of them. This never posed a problem until I took private Hebrew lessons a few years ago. The tutor was aghast at my semi-illiteracy, and sent me home with elementary school homework: a page full of printed alephs, a page of zayins, etc. I did learn, awkwardly, but had few opportunities to practice; I reverted back to script when I took Hebrew grammar classes later on.
I'm a graphic designer and type geek who spent four years in a pre-desktop publishing-era job tracing fonts with a #6H pencil, so know the printed Roman alphabet intimately as a result. Typefaces have personality; they're not called "characters" for nothing. The gentle serif on the ascender of a "d" or the height of the top of a two-story lowercase "g" can mean the difference between a word that entices you to read it, or one that chases you away with cold disdain.
So last week when I sat down to draw and paint some Hebrew letters, just for fun, I assumed they would be as familiar as my friends in the Roman alphabet. I forgot that my previous attempts to reproduce printed Hebrew were as awkward as making out with your very first boyfriend. After a short, frustrating while the paper was smudged and covered with bits of eraser, but I didn't give up—and eventually the process did begin to feel like a first date. That long line in the middle of an aleph could be jaunty or mellow based on the angle and swell of a serif. A khaf was bold or retiring, depending upon how far down the descender ventured below the baseline. The more I got to know these letters, the better I could hear their individual voices—kind of like the melodies of Torah tropes, but silent—and change the sound entirely with the slightest stroke of my pencil.
Mein Zayde the printer and essayist is smiling down on this entry from Menshevik heaven, wherever that may be. Thank you for the illumination.
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