The Daily Heller: Yiddish Typography Resurrected

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Noam Benatar is an Israeli-born graphic and type designer based in Zurich, Switzerland, currently pursuing his master’s degree in type design at école cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL). His 10 years of experience in the field range from marketing and visual identity through print, editorial and typeface design to web and digital design. In his work he focuses on the worlds of letters and shapes and the use of typographic elements and color.

In recent years, being a native Hebrew speaker living in a German-speaking environment, he has focused on culture-crossing in graphic design as well as the world of multi-scriptural and multi-linguistic systems. 

His research into the nomadic attributes of this multicultural language has special interest for me. Yiddish is a voice in search of a home; it inhabits the typefaces of different nations. Benatar’s work to date is collected in the smartly designed and detailed Yiddish Displayed, which is the jumping off point for our conversation below …

All through my childhood I watched my grandfather (who emigrated to the U.S. from Vilnus, Lithuania) read The Forward in what looked like Hebrew. I heard him and my grandmother speaking what seemed like a gruff (guterral) language, which, after watching some war movies, I realized sounded like German. From time to time, I heard him reading out loud in that language from the Forward (“Forvitz,” as he called it). My father told me it was Yiddish (which he partially understood but never spoke). I believe that the Yid in Yiddish derives from the German word Jüd So, what confused me was the Hebrew lettering. I studied Hebrew just enough for a Bar Mitzvah, and except when my grandfather said a prayer, it seemed like he did not know how to speak Hebrew (at least conversationally). It took years for me to realize that the Hebrew letter was representing the Yiddish language. Why is this so? Shouldn’t a German-sounding tongue use German alphabets (blackletter or Latin)?
Well, this is actually quite interesting. Yiddish was developed by Jewish people living in Europe and, in fact, when it was developed it was meant to be a language that unites these people living mostly at the time in German-speaking areas (hence, the relation to German). Actually, the very early Yiddish writings were written in the latin script and only later on, aiming to emphasize the relation of the language to the culture of its speakers, and to signify it from German, the script used for Yiddish became Hebrew, which was until then used almost entirely for biblical matters.

As the language was developed and became more significant in the life of these Jewish communities, and with their immigration outside of these German-speaking areas to Eastern Europe, there was also a slight shift from the German language itself. That was the point in which the Yiddish language really received its own unique mix, being a Germanic language with Eastern European influences, using the Hebrew script. I think one of the most important aspects of this language is how elastic and easily adapted it is. You can really see how Yiddish that is spoken in different geographic areas absorbs the culture and influences of the surrounding region, both linguistically and, as I was researching in my work, visually—typographically. 

When I was Bar Mitzvahed I read from a transliterated text. Is the Hebrew simply transliterated German or are there other essential differences?
In a way Yiddish text is a Hebrew transliteration of German. However, there are some changes in the use of the alphabet that were required due to the fact that Hebrew, contrary to German, English and many other Latin languages, has a consonant-based alphabet. A complete and unambiguous representation of the vowels and consonants in Hebrew is only possible with the help of the “Niqud” punctuation. For this reason, Yiddish text written in Hebrew will be pronounced differently if read by a Hebrew speaker. 

Your book notes Yiddish is ancient and represents a bridge between German and Hebrew worlds. Was this true with other “worlds” alphabets, say, Cyrillic or others?
I think that while you can find other relations to other scripts and languages, the relation of Hebrew-Yiddish-German is more unique and meaningful in various aspects. In a way Yiddish is the child of the strong history, origins and cultural background of these two languages, and I think the way in which it was developed and what it represents really is the middle point of different aspects between them. You can see it in its grammar, the typographic style and, of course, the culture. 

It is actually quite interesting but when you look at early Hebrew letterpress typefaces, which later became the canonical Hebrew typefaces, they were mostly developed for use in Yiddish at first and only later adapted to Hebrew. 

Paul Rand did not speak German per se, but he understood it because he was raised with Yiddish all around (he came from a Polish and Chasidic family). Can Germans understand Yiddish, or vice versa? Or is it as distant as Mandarin and Cantonese?
They are very close together. Statistically speaking, 70% of the Yiddish vocabulary is German, and the grammatical format of the language is based on German grammar. One of the main aspects I targeted in my project was this great gap that German speakers have between their ability to understand spoken Yiddish to their complete disorientation when trying to read it. 

I realized that my friends in my surrounding who are speaking German can somehow understand full conversations in Yiddish and was trying to find a way to give them this ability when they are reading as well. Being a typographic challenge, I found a typographic solution to solve it. By mapping all the syllables possible in Yiddish, I managed to write a code that is embedded in the font files, which allows [a user] to transliterate texts in Yiddish written in Hebrew to Latin texts in the German pronunciation, and vice versa. 

What is the motivation behind your book Yiddish Displayed?
The book is the result of my typographic research on the language. During the research I realized so many different aspects of the language, which all were leading to the understanding of the visual-typographic representation of Yiddish as we know it to this day. With the book I aimed to give Yiddish its place and life in the modern days. The book itself summarizes visually all of these different aspects, starting from the vocabulary, going through the linguistic, grammar and orthographic aspects and ending with it being a specimen of the three revival bi-scriptural typefaces I designed after my visual research of Yiddish type references. 

You are showing Latin versus Hebrew characters. Was Yiddish kind of like a hermit crab, adopting the letterforms of its host country? 
Absolutely. You can clearly see how different geographic areas and time periods are reflected in the typographic forms that the Hebrew letters in Yiddish took their shape from. The influences are broad and can be seen taken from Jugendstil, Bauhaus, Constructivism and even Gothic and Blackletter inspiration.

We’re told that Yiddish is a dead language (although I hear it in the streets of New York City all the time). I know there is a movement to revive it. Is your book part of that movement, and if so toward what end?
In a way it is. I think Yiddish is such a unique language from the way and reasons it was developed through its spread over multiple geographic areas to it being a melting-pot language. In my opinion it is a language with so much potential and I think, as said by Isaac Bashevis Singer in his Nobel Prize speech, “Yiddish has not yet said its last word.”

Your experiments are, well, beautiful. Is the book a capstone to this work or are you going to go further in you research?
The book as it is, is a current summary of this project and serves, other than a resource on the Yiddish language, as a starting document for the relation between the Latin and Hebrew script. As I said, I think the relation between different languages and scripts is a key aspect in my design work and I believe that the book is laying the ground for more to come.

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