THE HEBREW ALPHABET
AND HOW A LETTER MAY UNMAKE THE WORLD
When I was a little left-handed kid growing up in Ireland we used fountain pens and I always smudged the letters as I wrote. I was really happy when I began going to Hebrew school and found out that Hebrew is read from right to left—the opposite of English. So I could write clearly while all the other right-handed kids smudged their writing and got ink all over their hands.
This was electric: this idea that language could be turned around. That it could make you look at things differently. Your inky hand. The page. Your way of being in the world.
The Hebrew alphabet has twenty-two letters. None of them represents vowel sounds, at least not by themselves. The vowels are represented by little lines and dots and other symbols added to the letters.
There are no capital letters in Hebrew. There are a few letters that have special forms at the end of words. In these artworks, I didn’t represent these final forms or the vowels.
Some of the letters have dots. In Hebrew, some letters change sound if there is a dot in the middle of it. For example, the second letter in the Alefbet, is called “bet” when it has a dot in the middle. Then it makes a B sound. When there isn’t a dot, it’s called “vet” and makes a V sound.
The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, is silent. According to Laurie Anderson, my authority on all things, when you see an aleph you open your mouth to begin making a sound and then stop. Then you just think about the letter. The sound of aleph is all in the mind.
Like most written languages, Hebrew has different styles of writing and different typefaces, or fonts. In these works, I’ve used two different fonts. The first, a very old one, has the equivalent of serifs—that is, little decorations at the end of the letters’ strokes. The other type of font is a more modern font. It is like a sans serif type and is much simpler. Something like the Hebrew equivalent of Helvetica. There is no Hebrew Comic Sans.
I should also say that though there are twenty two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, I’ve made 24 images. Two are variations on the same letter (Samekh and Tzadik)
I see the images in Broken Light as relating to “palindromes” (words which are the same backwards as forwards) because in these images, I’ve presented the letters forwards, backwards, upside-down, and backwards-and-upside-down. Which, unfortunately, is often how I drive.
But I’m interested in repeating patterns including those of fabrics, tiles, and mosaics. How there’s a great variety of ways that an element may be repeated and how the the individual element combines with others and often can be hard to distinguish. I’m fascinated how in some of the work in this show ended up recalling other traditions including West Coast Indigenous art.
Though my interest in the elements of language comes from literature and experimental poetry such as visual poetry, the work is also influenced by Jewish mysticism, which traditionally considers the shapes of Hebrew letters to be meaningful: elemental symbols inherently connected to creation and the universe.
Edward Hoffman writes in The Hebrew Alphabet: A Mystical Journey that, “The 13th-century mystical text, the Zohar, is filled with references to the importance of the Hebrew alphabet as a celestial code or blueprint for the cosmos… Just as we now regard the DNA molecule as a carrier of incredibly condensed information concerning the development of life, so too have kabbalists viewed the Hebrew language…as a cipher describing the universe.”
In this tradition, the letters are vessels made of the light of life itself, and recall the divine vessels which were broken at the time of creation. There’s a story which says that when Moses smashed the stone tablets as he came down from Mount Sinai, the two tablets broke into a thousand Semitic smithereens but the letters rose to heaven—even though they were carved into the stone. Another similar story tells of a rabbi being burned at the stake. His executioners wrapped him in a Torah scroll. As he was burning, he was asked what he saw. I don’t know why they asked him this. Who knows what to say at such a moment—and it’s not like they make Hallmark my-condolences-on-getting-burned-at-the-stake cards. But this rabbi answered them from the fire. He said that he could see that the Torah parchment was burning to ash but that the letters were ascending to heaven. I imagine it as a kind of alphabetic murmuration, a dark muttering cloud seeking infinity. But it is about communication, the idea of communication, and the promise of communication.
I should also add, that like many Jews who had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I learned how to read Hebrew, that is, how to recognize and sound out the letters. And then I learned how to chant using the little symbols added to the letters. But I never learned how to know the meaning of what I was reading (I did read, of course, read the passage in English translation. It was something about King Uzziah and his throne.) But not understanding the Hebrew left me to think a lot about the shapes and sounds of the Hebrew alphabet unimpeded by the distraction of knowing what the words actually meant.
I’d like end by talking about a letter that I didn’t include in this series.
There is a medieval kabbalistic text that says that there is one letter missing from the Hebrew alphabet. It will be revealed in the future. Every problem in our current universe is connected with this missing letter. An inconceivable letter which makes an inconceivable sound. We don’t know what sound it might make. Its sound will make undreamed of words and worlds.
Some think that this letter is the symbol that appears on the little black tefillin box that orthodox Jews wear on their forehead for morning prayers. The symbol looks like the letter shin except with an extra arm, kind of like a W with an extra bit, a triple U. So, the thinking goes, we might already know what it looks like. But, we don’t know what new sound it might make. This new sound that might heal the universe.
I love this idea. That discovering a new letter might fix what is wrong with the world. That its new sound would heal the crack in everything. That we might discover that this new letter is already in the world and we just need to know how to pronounce it. Or maybe that by playing with the shapes of existing letters, we might discover this mysterious missing letter and solve everything. This tradition imagines that the very letters of the alphabet are powerful. That they are magical. That the elements of our language, of our writing, of our speaking, of our communication make the world, represent the world, speak back to the world, improve the world. That there is something to say that is just beyond our reach. For now.
So of course, I, too, believe this about letters. The idea that communication, the concept of language, the idea that language, speech, and writing are themselves cause for wonder, curiosity, and creativity, And, ultimately, because this undiscovered letter is there to be found, language is a cause for hope. But, I would add that we also need to watch out for language’s ability to lull us, to beguile us, to trick us with its deftness, its beauty, its ability to construct plausible and believable worlds which may misrepresent or ignore. We must always look very carefully at language. At its beauty, its mystery. Its power to make us think and feel things. Its power to make and remake the world.