In this way lies madness…

I began writing my first textbook of Classical Hebrew around 1980. At that time text processing was just beginning to impinge on my consciousness. As in many other things, I owed my first inklings of what might be in the future to Frank Olken who tutored me in so many ways. Frank assured me that soon I’d be able to do word processing not only in English, but also in Hebrew. Alas, although Frank was a visionary, I was working in the trenches.

So for me, the height of technical sophistication was the “ball” of the IBM Selectric typewriter. And the height of sophistication in graphics was the Pilot fine point pen.

Now, there are probably already people reading this blog who are vague on what I might mean by the IBM Selectric Typewriter. In fact, it is increasingly the case that people don’t even know what a typewriter is. So for the benefit of these folks, let me elaborate just a bit. A typewriter is a mechanical device for transferring letters (“type”) to paper. Most typewriters functioned by having a set of letters at the end of levers which would be activated by a key to strike an ink ribbon which then imprinted the paper. From relatively early times it was possible to purchase typewriters manufactured for the Israeli market that could type in Hebrew.

The great advance of the IBM Selectric was to allow the user to print in variable typefaces. This was accomplished by putting the letters on a spherical removable surface. If  I remember correctly, IBM referred to these things as “elements” but they inevitably became  referred to as balls. Just about the time that I was seeking some method to draft my book, IBM provided not one but two balls for the Israeli Hebrew market. The significance of stating that these were produced for the Israeli market is that only the 22 Hebrew consonants (those used in Modern Hebrew) were represented. The vowel points and other punctuation signs familiar to students of the Classical language were not included.

If you purchased a typewriter in Israel, you could get one that typed right to left. An Israeli IBM Selectric could then use either of the new “balls” to produce Hebrew text. But these machines could not type effectively in a European (left to right) language.

As I worked through the problems of creating text in both English and Hebrew. I realized first that it was more important for me to have effective left to right editing capability even if I was concerned with a right to left language. The reason for this is that since I was communicating with English speakers, all my explanatory materials and notes would be in English, and as much Hebrew as there might be, all of it would have to be translated and some transliterated into English. So I didn’t have much choice but to consider this book to be primarily in English but with significant Hebrew interpolation.

So there was no need for an Israeli typewriter. I used an American typewriter and typed in English until I needed to insert some Hebrew. At that point, I would remove the English ball and snap in the Hebrew ball (an action which eventually I could  accomplish in just a second or two). But then I had to press the space bar or tab key to create enough space for the Hebrew. Finally, I would have to type the Hebrew letters. The right to left motion was simulated by pressing the backspace key twice after printing each letter. The keyboard was in English, so I had to memorize the locations of the Hebrew letters.

Students of Hebrew, especially the classical language, usually learn what is called the vocalized version of the text. This is a version that includes special signs that tell the student how to pronounce the vowels in the text. (Although a bit of an oversimplification, for the purposes of this discussion, you can think of the regular Hebrew language as one that represents only the consonants, not the vowels.)

These vowels are indicated by dots and lines that are drawn above, in the middle of and below the consonants. And the IBM Selectric ball did not include these signs. That’s where the Pilot Fine Point pen came into play. With the Pilot, I could draw in the vowels in a way that student had no trouble reading the consonant/vowel point combinations.

So the process for producing a page was: compose and write the English, insert the Hebrew consonants, then pull the page out of the typewriter and hand ink the vowels. Correction fluid was essential.

All that is the background for my current dilemma. Whatever admiration you might have for my battle to produce useful text in the technological backwaters of 1980, you would probably think “So with modern multilingual word processors, advances such as Unicode, etc you should be able to easily recreate your text now. Why is this taking so long?”

It started with Chapter 1, the Hebrew Aleph-Bet. Using a Hebrew-English word processing package (in this case DavkaWriter,, I began writing the text explaining how to read and pronounce each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In my first book, I created a list for learning how to write the letters by drawing each letter as a large graphic, then adding small arrows and numbers (as in, step 1, step 2, etc) to show the student how to draw each letter.

DavkaWriter has no such capability (for now), so I had to learn how to use a product such as Microsoft Paint or Adobe Illustrator to accomplish the same sort of thing. Then there was the question of the best way to display this on a Web page.

Within a short period of time, I began to think that rather than having a static Web page showing the letters, I should really have some sort of animation that would replicate how I really teach the alphabet to students–namely, drawing each character stroke by stroke. As many of you will say, but that should be easy–use an animated GIF or use Flash!

Of course, that results in buying an 800 page book called something like “Learn Flash in 2500 Easy Lessons”. Which leads to learning Perl, PHP, and a few other ancillary technologies. So, about 5 years after writing my first pages for the new version of my Learn Classical Hebrew textbook, I’m still figuring it out.

Relating these things to my good friend Ken Cohen, he looked at me with the twinkle he always has in his eye and said “In this way lies madness.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.