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Letters from the Past, Fonts for the Future

Libi Astaire

All it takes is a quick stroll down a street in Jerusalem to see that Hebrew letters aren’t set in stone. Store signs, snacks, and even books all come with interesting letter treatments that are designed to catch the eye. But what goes into making a Hebrew typeface? And how has the computer age affected this ancient art? To find out, we’ve gone into the “teivah,” to take an inside look at the world of designing Hebrew letters.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

fontsIt was a tough job, but somebody had to do it. As part of my research for this article, I emptied my kitchen cabinet of its nosh and spread it out on the kitchen table — not with the intention of eating it, mind you, although that turned out to be an inevitable consequence of the experiment. My real objective was to study the Hebrew letters on the packaging, to see what’s new with contemporary Hebrew typeface design.  

And so as I munched away at some potato chips, I took a good look at that backwards-spinning peh on the Elite Tapuchips bag — a peh that practically sings out: Eating potato chips is fun! In contrast were the sedate letters on the label of my Berman’s Ugat Shayish (Marble Cake). Those letters, which have a scribal feel to them, seemed to whisper: Ess! Eating a piece of this cake is a mitzvah!   

Obviously, these typographic signals aren’t accidents. Someone had to design these fonts and logos, and someone had to commission them. And new fonts aren’t being designed just to market products. Magazine, books, and even seforim also get a new look from time to time. So what goes into the creation of a new typeface for Hebrew book publishing? What are the challenges, and what makes a font successful?

Before we get to the present, let’s take a quick look at the art of typography in the past. 


From Rashi to FrankReuhl 

After the printing press was invented in the 1400s, the letters of the alef-beis began to be set in “stone.” Since it was expensive to make sets of type — each letter had to be painstakingly cut from metal — printers would usually have just a few styles of typeface in their workshops. The typefaces used by famous printers such as the Soncino family and Daniel Bomberg — including the typeface that became known as “Rashi Script” (see sidebar) — therefore became the standard typefaces for the first several hundred years of Jewish printing.

During the 1800s, Vilna’s Romm family, the printers of the famous Vilna Shas, set the type style for the Jewish world.

If you scroll through the dropdown font menu on your computer, you’ll notice some of the next trendsetting names in Hebrew typeface design: FrankRuehl, Hadassah, and Narkiss.

In 1910, Raphael Frank and Otto Ruehl developed their typeface and named it FrankRuehl, and rule it did —until the 1950s. By then the center of Hebrew printing had shifted to Eretz Yisrael, and two important names from that era are Henri Friedlaender and Tzvi Narkiss. 

Henri Freidlaender, a French-German Jew who moved to Eretz Yisrael after World War II, spent more than thirty years designing the typeface known as Hadassah. Based upon a Megillas Esther in his possession that dated from the early 1800s, Freidlaender’s new font quickly became one of the most widely-used fonts in Hebrew publishing, and a modified version appears in many ArtScroll seforim

Zvi Narkis, who was born in Romania, came to Eretz Yisrael in 1944, where he studied graphic arts and lettering. The first version of his famous Narkiss sans serif (see sidebar) typeface appeared in 1958, and its contemporary appearance helped to make the typeface an immediate success.

Eliyahu Koren is another famous name in Hebrew typeface history, thanks to the Koren typefaces he developed for his Tanach and siddur. However, FrankRuehl, Hadassah, and Narkiss continue to dominate Hebrew printing — at least the printing of books and newspapers — until today.

In the 1980s, though, new technology was once again shaking up the printing community — computers. Due to a computer screen’s low resolution, it’s harder to read large blocks of text on a computer screen than on a printed page, and so the font has to be very simple and clean. Microsoft came up with a font called Arial to solve the problem, and the Hebrew version has since become the standard font used on Hebrew-language websites. (The font was actually based on one of Zvi Narkis’s fonts — a typeface called New Narkiss. Narkis took Microsoft to court.. After a lengthy legal battle — and two months after Narkis passed away — an Israeli court granted his estate $25,000.)

Computers haven’t just affected the way we read Hebrew text; they’ve also made it much easier to design a new typeface. Today there are hundreds of Hebrew fonts on the market, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all fonts are alike when it comes to quality. In fact, when it comes to books and magazines — printed material that requires long blocks of text — no new font has been able to enter the exalted circle shared by the “big three.”



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