The Hebrew letters you can’t read

What’s in a word?  When we think about linguistic changes over time, we usually think about words and accents.  How did the Ancient Greeks pronounce Homer’s Iliad? Why does the word “mashber” in Biblical Hebrew mean precipice or edge, but today means “crisis”?

One thing you might not think of is how our script changes.  After all, even if English words are different today than 400 years ago, they’re still written in Latin letters.  Even if you’d be surprised at how some of them have changed.

But some languages have had their scripts completely change alphabets over time.  For one thousand years, Turkish was written in Arabic characters. For only the past hundred years has it been written in Latin letters.  Which means a Turkish person today who does not read Arabic characters cannot read his own history.  She has to rely on a translator to re-write old texts in the modern alphabet. It’s a pretty strange thought.  Think in reverse- what if the original Shakespeare had been written in Arabic characters? And you had to rely on someone to connect you to your own history.

It’s a question that is very relevant for Jewish studies.  First things first, Ancient Hebrew wasn’t written in today’s aleph bet.  It was written in letters that look something like a cross between Japanese and hieroglyphics.  Take a look:

image1

Today’s Modern Hebrew alphabet is descended from our sister language, Aramaic.  Aramaic is the language of the Talmud, of the Kaddish prayer, and of not a small number of Kurdish Jews in Jerusalem and Christians in the Galilee village of Jish.  This same Aramaic alphabet has been used for a lot of Jewish languages, including Yiddish, the native tongue of millions of Ashkenazi Jews across time.  Take a look at this 19th century bilingual Yiddish-Hebrew machzor, or High Holiday prayerbook, from our collection.  Or the 11,000 Yiddish books digitized online- for free- at our friends the Yiddish Book Center.  Or pick up a copy of Der Blatt in Bnei Brak.  Or visit Beit Shalom Aleichem’s library in Tel Aviv.  You’ll see those Aramaic letters everywhere.  Telling the story of the Jewish people.

What’s interesting is that even these letters have changed over time. One of these different forms is called Ktav Rashi, or Rashi script.  This alternate way of writing is named for the famous medieval rabbi.

What’s really inspiring about Jewish history is that what happens one corner of the globe inevitably ends up in another.

Rashi script (and its sister Yiddish script called vaybertaytsh), although named for a famous Ashkenazi rabbi, is actually of Sephardic origin.  Jews originally from Spain and Portugal, expelled and persecuted by the Inquisition, sometimes successfully escaped to other countries. They brought with them an amalgam of different Romance languages- medieval Catalan, Castilian Spanish, Portuguese, and more.  Often containing Arabic and Hebrew influences.

These Jews, often from distinct parts of Spain and Portugal with different languages, eventually melded their tongues into a new one: Judeo-Spanish.  Sometimes popularly called Ladino, but most scholars prefer the former term, so we’re going to use it. This tongue developed in a variety of new countries, such as present-day Turkey, Greece, Serbia, and more.

Judeo-Spanish then came to take on local influences in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation.  Making it as mixed and rich a language as Yiddish or another hodgepodge tongue you’re reading right now: English.

This language was written in the same Aramaic alphabet we use today in Israel and in synagogues around the world.  But with a twist: it was written in a form of the Rashi script. Take a look below at our copy of Istanbul’s Sephardic newspaper “El Tiempo” from January 2, 1896.  To this day, even in Modern Spanish, this remains a popular title for newspapers.  In Washington, D.C., you’ll find newsstands with “El Tiempo Latino”.

Here’s the news out of 19th century Istanbul*:

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If you’re a Hebrew speaker, you’ll notice something curious.  The title of the periodical and the headlines are written in the Modern Hebrew block alphabet we see today.  But the content is all written in a strange font, unfamiliar to the modern eye: the Rashi script!

There are words here and there you can catch.  But if you haven’t learned the script before, there are letters you won’t even recognize!  At best, you might find yourself staring in wonder as the somewhat familiar letters begin to entrance your mind and confuse you into curiosity.

This script has a version for handwriting too.  It’s called Solitreo, an ancestor of the Hebrew cursive you’ll see in Israeli classrooms today.

What does all of this mean?

In short, even if you spoke Modern Hebrew and fluent Judeo-Spanish but didn’t know this alphabet, you might not be able to read it!  Even though your Sephardic grandparents probably could. What’s more, Judeo-Spanish underwent yet another change as today it is mostly written in Latin characters!

When we learn about our heritage, who is teaching us?  Are we able to read the original texts ourselves and come to our own conclusions?  Or do we need someone to interpret them for us?

What does it mean that these texts, unless expensively re-printed in Modern Hebrew letters, are out of reach for most of today’s Jews or people who study our heritage?

You could ask the same question of our Turkish neighbors who can’t access the majority of their history in their current alphabet.

One solution is to re-print the texts.  A time-consuming one and while a good idea, can be above the budget of many institutions.  Especially for a minority language. Which limits how many texts can be made accessible to the modern reader.

Another solution is for people studying Judeo-Spanish (or any Jewish text written in Rashi characters) to learn the new script!

David Bunis, a professor at the University of Washington, is doing just that.  Here’s his take on why he’s teaching his Judeo-Spanish students the Solitreo and Rashi scripts.

While re-printing texts is great because it makes them more accessible to others, being able to read them in the original makes you the source of information.  And empowers you to read history anywhere. You are the judge, you are the interpreter. And your capacity to read is only limited by your time and effort, not by the letters you know.

No matter what, it’s great to learn about your heritage or different cultures around the world.  Preserving Jewish heritage for Jews, for Israelis, and for all our friends around the world.  To learn the lessons of the past and apply them to our present and build a better future.

Maybe you don’t have time to learn Rashi script or Solitreo, although if you’d like to give it a shot, try this free resource online.  It claims it can have you reading in 10 minutes!  Then you can peruse our catalog and find more news from Istanbul and across the Sephardic world to learn about.  Or old Yiddish prayers written by and for women.  Or maybe you want to pump up some Judeo-Spanish music in your car as you brave the traffic to work.

But no matter what you do, access this beautiful heritage.  The more you learn about it, the richer you are. And you don’t have to spend a cent to put it in your mental grocery cart.

*Image credit: National Library of Israel and Tel Aviv University

Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Join me on my journeys by reading my blog https://plantingrootsbearingfruits.wordpress.com/ or following me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/matt.adler.357. May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

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