• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: The Nu? Typography

In 1950, the year of my birth, Reuben Leaf, graphic artist and proprietor of the eponymous studio on E. 18th St. in New York City—just a handful of blocks from where I slept in swaddling in a factory-made crib—published his book Hebrew Alphabets: 400 B.C. to Our Days. Little did I know that 70 years later, I would own a rescued copy of this book to share with other designers.


This book marked the first time in 2,000 years, Leaf asserted, that a volume presenting specimens of a range of historical Hebrew lettering and graphic art had been published. “The lack of such a book has been the cause of difficulties and failure on the part of many a Jewish graphic artist and craftsmen,” he wrote. It was Leaf’s goal that his publication would result in the improvement of and accurate use of Hebrew lettering. (I wonder if he had ever seen Berthold's special specimen volume of Hebrew typefaces and printing material?)


During the current correctness-age, when letterforms are being questioned by the woke guard, it is fascinating to read this sentence in Leaf’s 1950 introduction: “It is important for the artist to realize that the Hebrew Alphabet, in its manifold shapes and renderings, is an integral part of the cultural legacy of the jew; the accepted and sanctified shapes of the Hebrew Alphabet are not only time-honored, but an inseparable part of his consciousness. No responsible artist will therefore take liberties and trifle with the basic forms lest he destroy, or impair, its legibility.” He further implied not to use caricatures of the forms for commercial products or political posters.


As a kid I learned how to “read” the Hebrew alphabet, the square version known as the Merubah (as well as Ashuri or Syriac) alphabet. I knew the sounds but not the meaning … and only with the help of accent marks that allowed for different sounds. The Merubah dates back to the Babylonian captivity. This was an alternative to the Semitic, Aramaic language, which was simpler than complicated ancient characters.


Leaf selected all these (and dozens more) alphabets from manuscripts from different parts of the diaspora.


When I was twelve-thirteen years old, I learned the names and shapes of letters but never how to make them into words (a lost opportunity). Leaf provided the names of the Hebrew Letters and their meanings: Aleph/Bull, Beth/House; Gimel/Camel; Daleth/Door; He/Lattice window; Vaw/Hook; Zayin/Weapon; Heth/Fence; Teth/Winding; Yod/Hand; Kaph/Bent hand; Lamed/Ox goad; Mem/Water; Nun/Fish; Samekh/A prop; Ayin/Eye; Pe,Fe/Mouth; Tzadeh/Fish hook; Quoph/Eye of needle; Resh/Head; Shin,Sin/Tooth; Tau/Sign or Cross. (Its been a long time.)

Palestine Fifth Century
Sixth Century, based on a palimpsest from Cairo
Early Spanish Hebrew alphabet, the forerunner of the Rabbinical script known as Rashi
Tenth Century, based on a manuscript
Prague Haggadah Alphabet
Mastheads, headpieces for newspapers and advertisement headlines (Yiddish & Hebrew)
"Modern" Hebrew Lettering for NYC Newspaper ads, c.1940s.

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