Ari Davidow, Hebrew Typographer, Extraordinaire


For over a decade, while I lived in Oakland, CA during the 1980s and 1990s, my answering machine informed all and sundry that they had reached "Ari Davidow, Hebrew Typographer, Extraordinaire." It was a title of which I was immensely pround.

Eventually I got fed up with tools that never let me set economical Hebrew with the finesse and skill that I could apply to English. I was also busy programming and working on web tools, so I took a Sabbatical.

book coverAbout a year ago two things happened. First, someone called out of the blue and asked me to translate some typesetting files created in Israel for an American edition of a new book by Adin Steinsaltz (The Miracle of the Seventh Day: A Guide to the Spiritual Meaning, Significance, and Weekly Practice of the Jewish Sabbath). Although I now program such projects using Python instead of Pascal, I discovered that, as a practical matter, the tools were almost, but not quite ready to do things faster better funner than had been the case in the '90s. The Steinsaltz book was done using the best of the old, early desktop publishing methods.

But, while researching tools for the new book, I discovered OpenType. I purchased a whole new OpenType library from Masterfont with which to experiment. It's exciting: vowels set beautifully, and there are more characters and combinations than I ever had before. In any Hebrew-aware word processors on the Mac and PC life is suddenly simple. Beautiful Hebrew and Yiddish are relatively easy to set. I'm just looking for an excuse to purchase the Middle East version of InDesign (I am abandoning Quark XPress. It is soooo last century.) so that I can try this new stuff out on a real book.

At around the same time, I got e-mail from a new Rabbi, Bruce J. Pfeffer, who had just done his rabbinic thesis at Hebrew Union College (HUC) on "Typography and Kavanah: The Prayerbook Page Layout". He had noticed some of my pages (either the "Jewish Holiday Toolkits" or my page on Marcia Falk's "Book of Blessings", for which I was a typographic advisor--they ignored me! and did some minor work). He felt that I was describing Hebrew typography as it should be. Splendid fellow!

Since I spent a lot of years studying typography, including visits with many leading typographers in Israel and the US, and extensive manuscript research into how calligraphers and the best of Hebrew printers had handled multilingual text, this was a nice confirmation that the knowledge that I attempted to bring forward was valued. It also reminded me that I had been promising for over a decade to try to organize multilingual resources. Oops. (I did write a chapter in "Computers and Typography" describing layout issues and some computer problems of the day, but that was back in 1993, based on a lecture I gave at Type90 at Oxford.)

album coverSo, in recent months I have new fonts. I've been playing with Hebrew on the Mac and the PC, with Word and with nifty tools such as "AbiWord", the open source unicode-compatible, Word-compatible tool of increasing choice. Among other projects, I typeset the liner notes in Yiddish and English for an incredible CD of Yiddish sung by Becky Kaplan, with tsimbl by the inestimable Pete Rushefsky, "Oyf di veg". (Pete's sister did the cover — I did the inner text.) And, at the end of the summer I'll be at KlezKanada giving a lecture on Hebrew typography for the first time in almost 15 years, and also giving workshops in how you put Yiddish usefully on a page — a songsheet, perhaps, or a CD cover.

So, things are hotting up. It's time to gather some resources and start getting the word out. Back in the late 1980s, I put a mailing list together, "Electronic Hebrew Users Group (E-HUG)" about Hebrew computer resources. Then, I got busy, and the information became easily accessible and I could move on. Now it's time to talk about the stuff that really matters. Typing is easy. Now let's talk "typography". And who better to type about it than me, the Hebrew Typesetter, Extraordinaire.


I'm writing a manuscript in Word 2000 with both Latin and Yiddish characters. When this file is going to be transferred and edited on a Mac OS 10.3 working with Quark Xpress, how are we going to have the right Yiddish characters?
Morten Thing

There is no direct connection between Hebrew-enabled Word's encoding of Hebrew/Yiddish and the American version of Quark XPress (or, for that matter, Adobe InDesign). First, the program isn't going to understand how to handle the left-to-right (LTR) requirements of Hebrew or Yiddish, so all of the Yiddish that you patiently typed in logical order will now appear backwards.

Next, unless you used OpenType fonts for the Hebrew, there isn't going to be any built-in way for your Mac to know that the Yiddish characters are Yiddish - it will know that you have changed font, and that you are accessing odd characters, but there won't be anything implicit or explicit in the file that says "Hebrew font".

Some compositors have solved this with a combination of "mirror" Hebrew fonts (Hebrew fonts that display backwards, so that you can have a paragraph appear reversed on the page, which will look correct in Hebrew), but you still have to convert from standard Windows Hebrew to whatever the font requires. Back when I used Quark XPress I would run everything through a filter that would reverse the order of the Hebrew characters, and then change from Windows Hebrew to my own proprietary encoding, then handle line breaks manually. Tedious, but not so bad with Yiddish. (Murder with Hebrew, because unlike the case with Yiddish where there are a few composite characters in the font that already contain the vowels, in Hebrew each vowel would have to be manually kerned under the relevant consonant.)

The better solution, of course, is to start with OpenType Hebrew in Windows, and then move to the Middle Eastern version of either Quark, or better, InDesign. There you have fonts that travel between platforms in an internationally standard way, and tools that are designed to handle the mix of LtR and RtL text. I am actually available to handle this commercially if you are interested, but I am unique only in my knowledge of Hebrew typography—there are other typesetters who should be able to do the same, and perhaps even cheaper.

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This page contains a single entry by Ari Davidow published on May 21, 2004 10:37 PM.

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