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A book on Hebrew Typography? What would it contain?

I have just finished reading the marvellous book by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole on the Cairo Genizah, Sacred Trash. I am also busy at work (again, but perhaps this time with actual visible results to come soon) on a new website on Hebrew Typography. While such a site should contain an active blog (as this one does not, but could), it should also contains information that, like the many shards found in the Genizah, is not available elsewhere and needs to be assembled into a coherent whole. If I could tell that story as well as Hoffman and Cole have illuminated both the process of exploring the hundreds of thousands of Genizah artifacts, and what we have learned from them, it would be a big deal.

Unfortunately, while I have been quite facile with web technology this past decade or so, I find my memories of Hebrew type in need of refeshment. So, what should such a site cover?

  • Hebrew lettering—obviously, some discussion of Hebrew letterforms, including the early "chicken scratches" used until (if we assume that Birnbaum is still authoritative on this subject) the first exile. A few words at least on mystic traditions attached to the forms? Obviously, some space on the various calligraphic styles that have developed over the past two or three thousand years
  • Hebrew printing—we start in Italy with the earliest printers, then on to Soncino (credit Griffo?) and Bomberg and how Bomberg's Talmud really changed how we study Talmud--is this the first time we got the hypertext layout? Then on to early European types, the "Yiddish types" (Ittai Tamari has done great research on this subject, but only in German--has he published in English? Then there is Herbert Zafren's work), the great Hebrew types of the Middle Ages--Le B^eacute;, Kis, Van Dyke (not convinced); certainly spend time on the early 20th century with Frank-Ruehl, Chaim, etc.; then the great Israeli explosion of the 1950s (more of less--start w/Koren which is earlier, but then types of David, Narkis, Friedlander, Yarkoni); modern Israeli type--there is some wonderful work happening, both traditional and avant garde--note Oded Ezer)
  • Multilingual typography—The difference between what we are used to seeing (dueling languages and straight, opposite margins), and what thoughtful typographers do to ensure usability, grace, and readability (how/when to position Hebrew, transliteration, translation in reference to each other and examples that make the case that paying attention makes a difference. This, of course, is my own favorite subject. Should also be some notes on appropriate sizing of say Latin U/lc and Hebrew w/ or w/o vowels.
  • Technology?—It may be worth inserting something somewhere about the difficulty of setting Hebrew with nikud, trup, etc., from the setting of separate lines in the metal, to the various compromises used in modern systems, if only to help explain why there are some things that require special software (or lots of time and effort in cold metal), so that people know what the problems are and when to look where for solutions.

Does this make sense? What am I missing (or including, pointlessly)? What are sources to which such a series of writings must refer? (by which I mean not just the Birnbaum volumes or Friedlander's booklet on designing Hadassah, but, say, the Porro polyglot)

Until I fix this blog (coming, I hope), just email me comments.

Authoring HTML: Handling Right-to-left Scripts

Copied from Robin Cover's XML Daily Newslink for 10-Sep-2009:

Authoring HTML: Handling Right-to-left Scripts
Richard Ishida (ed), W3C Technical Report

W3C announced the publication of a Working Group Note on "Authoring HTML: Handling Right-to-left Scripts." The document was produced by members of the Internationalization Core Working Group, part of the W3C Internationalization Activity.

The document provides advice for the use of HTML markup and CSS style sheets to create pages for languages that use right-to-left scripts, such as Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Thaana, Urdu, etc. It explains how to create content in right-to-left scripts that builds on but goes beyond the Unicode bidirectional algorithm, as well as how to prepare
content for localization into right-to-left scripts.

The specification is intended for all content authors working with HTML and CSS who are working with text in a language that uses a right-to-left script, or whose content will be localized to a language that uses a right-to-left script. The term 'author' is used in the sense of a person that creates content either directly or via a script or program that generates HTML documents.

It provides guidance for developers of HTML that enables support for international deployment. Enabling international deployment is the responsibility of all content authors, not just localization groups or vendors, and is relevant from the very start of development. Ignoring the advice in this document, or relegating it to a later phase in the development process, will only add unnecessary costs and resource issues at a later date. It is assumed that readers of this document are proficient in developing HTML and XHTML pages..."

A Yiddish-English-Russian newsletter @ KlezKamp

Just a short notice of a week of solid fun up at KlezKanada, a week-long annual gathering of Yiddish culture buffs at Camp Bnai Brith, about an hour north of Montreal.

wooden lettersFirst, I borrowed a set of huge wooden type letters from the National Yiddish Book Center. Big, major fun.

This item is about Unicode. If you don't think that Unicode matters, or if you have stayed away because it sounds too technical, I heartily recommend Joel Spolsky's "Unicode and Character Sets" page. It's complete title is "The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets (No Excuses!)" but don't let that stop you if you aren't a programmer. Much of this applies, in spades, to the rest of us.

I haven't had time to breathe for months. There is a lot of neat stuff that should be noted here and isn't here yet. But I thought I'd mention an especially neat item that killed this afternoon.

Max and Minka have an amazing Yiddish decoder ring on their website (go to and click on "yiddish"). This is great for people who have the simplest possible computers and just want to get some decent Yiddish onboard. Unfortunately, to avoid encoding issues, Max made up a backwards, non-standard encoding. Great for one-time use; awkward for turning into a manuscript using commercial fonts.

From the " word to the wise about layout" department

sample InDesign page with 'invisibles' showingI was typesetting a new Yiddish CD. The song lines were relatively short, so I decided to set English, Yiddish, and transliteration all parallel. My idea was that even if every line turned over, I would still be slightly ahead of what happens when I set, say, Yiddish+translation, plus the same number of lines underneath, padded by a bit of space, for the translation. A bit dense (and not something I'm likely to repeat), but overall, it worked well. I also thought I'd see how I felt about putting the English on the left of the Hebrew. I do see how I feel—I don't like it, even in a layout this dense.

And, as you'll see, I managed to get into big layout trouble, despite InDesign generally making this sort of work easier than any other tool I've ever used. (Yes, in part this means that tools for doing multi-lingual typography has generally sucked big-time.)

Conversion of Windows TTF to OTF fonts


I have just finished setting a new siddur. That has sucked up time, where there has been time, for a few months. Small project. Less time. I'll try to make some time today, though, to talk about what a wonderful new world I am facing using InDesign ME (supplied by the Font Blog sponsor, FontWorld, if I might extend a grateful plug).

I came down this morning to find an e-mail from Dan Sieradski (better known as "Mobius" of my favorite Jewish blog, Jew*School complaining that he had found a stash of very cool free fonts on the Internet, something called "Ben's fonts, but that he couldn't use them on his Mac with OS X. I downloaded them and confirmed that they were simply standard Windows Hebrew fonts. That's all Mobius needed - he found an appropriate utility to convert Windows to Mac TrueType (TTF) and he was off and running. I decided to try the slower, "read into FontLab, save as TrueType" route, which also works perfectly. Open the font. For whatever reason, FontLab saw these as "MacOS Roman" (odd, given that the fonts were Windows TTF—that may have been a default for the Macintosh version of FontLab). I then set the encoding "to "ISO-8859-8 Hebrew" and saved as OpenType (OTF). Now I have a single version that can be used on any of the household computers, be they Mac or Windows (or, coming soon, Linux).

There is probably a FontLab-related tool to automate this. I'll have to check. While I was at it, I also took a look at some fonts that came with the original version of Dagesh, back when my friends at Kivun, in Israel, were working on it. They don't seem to match any known encoding, but it occurs to me that it wouldn't be such a big deal to convert these, too, to OTF. Since the character sets are larger, the results would be useful for Hebrew with vowels, Yiddish, etc. It's not a project for this week, but it could be coming soon.

New Hebrew Computer Resources: keyboards and type tips

heb/eng sample from my Tu B'Shvat 'toolkit'I have added two new webpages to support the workshops I will be giving at KlezKanada.

If you haven't added Hebrew resources to your computer and you are running Windows NT or later; MacOS, or Unix, then take a look at my Hebrew Keyboard Layouts page. So far, this is most useful to Windows users, but there are resources for most platforms. Let me know if they are helpful, if you find errors, improvements, etc.

In as succinct and short manner as I was able, I have outlined a few very basic type tips: things you absolutely need to pay attention to if you are doing songsheets, CD notes, or whatever. These rules are going to be new to a lot of people, and they will result in texts that look "funny". That's because usability is generally ignored, and most of the multilingual materials being distributed are dreck—that's a technical term that means "opposite of usable". Still, this stuff is very simple. It follows rules that have been used for thousands of years. We're going to have a short workshop, I think, and that's fine. I like to teach the way O'Reilly used to do books: only for as long as it takes to cover a simple subject.

Quark blows it, again


Or, in my caustic way, I guess I could just say, "Quark blows, again." This isn't even a Hebrew issue.

Working on a new Siddur (prayerbook) project, I decided to create some quick samples of the proposed cover using Quark 4.whatever on my Mac, where most of my fonts reside. I have created a special Hebrew layout for many Hebrew fonts so that, by typing backwards and kerning the vowels into place, I can use them with XPress. What I forgot was that the program doesn't know how to handle OpenType fonts, so when I went to create a PDF to send to the client, I got printing errors. I mention this only because at the recent MacWorld I made a point of stopping by the Quark book and asking if this has been incorporated into the current version. No such luck.

But, I did have a demo of InDesign 2 on the Mac (usually I now use InDesign CS on my Windows machine) which I reinstalled and used to import the Quark file, then to create the desired PDF. Piece of cake.

I wish Quark would do something to make me regret moving on to InDesign and investing in the MiddleEast (i.e., knows how to handle Hebrew) version of same. Actually, maybe I don't wish that, except that I have loved to hate Quark for so many years that it is hard simply moving on with my life and not hassling with the same old issues any more.

Hebrew using Windows

It can't be type type type, although I wish it could be. At some point I had to spend some time working on tools. Tonight, for instance, I decided to figure out what I did wrong when I moved over to an old Windows2000 box a few months ago.

Hebrew on the Web

I've been researching Hebrew on the web for several months. A friend of mine at Hebrew College asked me to look at several URLs and figure out what he could do to put things online that would be equally accessible under Hebrew-enabled Macs or PCs (or, for that matter, Linux, Unix, whatever). As folks who have done this for years know, this is messy. There are two general standards, the Windows way (charset=Windows-1255), and the supposedly standard way, (charset=iso-8859-8). If you are encoding your pages straight UTF-8, you also take advantage of Unicode. Last year I did some tests with my friend Jack Woehr and we discovered that if you really write Unicode, Hebrew displays fine on Mac and PC using utf-8. This year I got a quick project to get some Hebrew up on the web for "we are the future" and jumped in to see if I could find something simple. The results mostly work on PC, but there are some issues on the Mac, under OS X, using Safari.

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