Friday, January 08, 2010

880. Characters

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.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Mein Zayde the printer and essayist is smiling down on this entry from Menshevik heaven, wherever that may be. Thank you for the illumination.