THE HEBREW ALPHABET
AND HOW A LETTER MAY UNMAKE THE WORLD
BROKEN LIGHT: A TALK ABOUT THE ALEFBEIT.
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.
I know that in the modern world, in modern Israel, Hebrew is used to ask for an oil change or go on the Internet and order socks with a picture of Donald Trump riding a unicorn on them, but for me, my first association these particular letterforms, the Hebrew alphabet, the otiyot, was that it was the language of my ancestors, the shape of my people. Ancient, mysterious, and numinous. These shapes: thick lines of black-and-white each ending in a little curl like a black flame rising. Was this flame something to do with the temple? With eternal light? Or perhaps an arcane Kabbalistic alchemy of words.
The prayerbooks in the shul of my childhood were musty and worn, like the old tefillim of the praying men…or the threadbare carpets. The prayerbooks had been shaped by use, the way an old tool takes the form of the hand that touched it. And it seemed like the Hebrew letters had also been shaped this way: They had been worn over millenia by the touch and speech of those who had muttered their sounds. And Hebrew, at least in the traditional shapes, seemed to preserve the motions of ink and brush, the motions of a scribe not writing so much as drawing the letters, his hand floating above the surface of the parchment like a hovering bird.
Rabbis and kabbalists look carefully at everything and make connections and draw inferences. Every element of the Torah can be examined as if it were made of atoms and molecules. And then looked at even more closely to reveal language electrons. Memory quarks and neutrinos. The Torah is a finite expression of the infinite so therefore this finite text can be examined infinitely. Little stories, little parables were told about the shapes and positions of the letters. For example, there is a tradition considering the fact that Bet is the first letter of the Torah. It’s kind of like a square bracket at the very beginning of the text. It’s closed on the top and bottom and on the right side. But it is open on the left. It means start here—it all starts here—and then keep going left in the direction of reading. Be open to what is to follow. The shape of the letter is an aphorism, a parable.
But it’s not only Jews who consider the shape of the letters and thought that they might represent something. According to the 17th century Christian Kabbalist and linguist, Francis van Helmont, Hebrew letters are “actually diagrams illustrating how the lips and tongue should be positioned when uttering the sounds they make.” There has been this perennial idea that Hebrew letters have a unique connection to the physical world. For instance, in 1881, John Henry Broome wrote that the constellations which formed the zodiac could be shown to be derived from the Hebrew alphabet. The stars form Hebrew letters.
And like with the Zodiac, it’s often believed that there is an almost magic connection between the Hebrew letters and the world. For example, there is a tradition concerning the golem, that creature made out of clay. Some sources say that once the golem had been shaped out of clay, one needed to write on the golem’s forehead the Hebrew word for truth, emet (the letters aleph, mem, and tav) and the golem would come alive. Erase the first letter, the aleph and you are left with mem and tav, which is met, the word for “death.”
Another way to bring a golem to life was to write God’s name on parchment and stick it on the golem’s arm or in his mouth. One would remove it to stop the golem.
This idea of hiding secret bits of paper, secret writings, in hidden places was full of mystery and intrigue to me as a child. Secret agents and pirates hid little scrolls in secret places. And it’s true, like most Jewish families, we had a mezzuzah on our front door. Inside the mezzuzah, behind the letter shin, I knew that there was a little scroll with Hebrew letters written on it. They were prayers, though I didn’t know exactly what was hidden away on our doorframe. It made me think that there were aspects of the world that were ancient, that we couldn’t see. There was literally more than meets the eye about our life. What could that be? What was the story behind the story? There were superstrings and black energy, intimations of a network of forces that were invisible that were represented in these letters.
A few basics about the Hebrew alphabet in case it’s been a while since your Bar or Bat Mitzvah. 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, though I think she’s quoting tradition, 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, kind of cowlicks on each letter. 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’ve created images for each letter of the alefbeit but for this space and I see them as relating to “palindromes” (words which are the same backwards as forwards. One of the most famous palindromes is what the first man said to the first woman when he introduced himself in the Garden of Eden—“Madam, I’m Adam.” I consider the images in my series as visual palindromes 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.
The 20th-century Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg was thinking about the idea that in Heaven, freed from gravity, one could move freely in any dimension and so he created music that relied on musical relationships that worked up, down, backwards, backwards-and-upside-down. I imagine that my images also engage with the boundlessness of the infinite, a world not bound by the gravity of the line, or the page, or even writing or reading in one direction
I’m also 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, as I mentioned earlier, 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.
In the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ famous short story, “The Library of Babel,” there are an infinite number of books in an infinitely large library. Each book contains some combination of only 22 letters. Borges doesn’t specify, but obviously, he means the Hebrew alphabet with its 22 letters. Everything in the infinite universe, according to Borges can be represented by some permutation of the Hebrew alphabet, the primordial alphabet, at least for the West. The 22 letters are the building blocks of everything. They are everything. Our world is language.
Do we think in language or do we only know what we think because of language? This recalls for me what it says in Genesis: the earth was without form and void until God gave shape or reality to it all with words. With the letters which form the Hebrew alphabet.
But are there things which cannot be represented in language? We know there are sounds that cannot be represented with our letters. We can only talk about these sounds. A fire crackling. A baby crying. The sound of a supernova. Maybe we hear a cow make the sound “moo” or a rooster say, “cockadoodledoo” because the letters are a kind of lens, a window onto the world which only allows us to see a certain view, a certain quantity of light to reach our eyes which themselves are a type of window.
Just in case all my spritzing gives the impression that I think I’m a big macher knowledgeable about Hebrew, 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.