SBL!

A photograph of the San Antonio Riverwalk. Just like me, the people in this photo have not fallen in the river.

I just got home from San Antonio, where I attended the Annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. SBL, as we call it, is the largest conference of biblical scholars in the world, and it’s held in conjunction with the American Academies of Religion. This means that for one weekend a year, thousands upon thousands of scholars in biblical and religious studies descend upon one unsuspecting American city.

The scope of the thing is truly mind-boggling. There are hundreds of papers and presentations each day, covering every conceivable topic within and around biblical studies and religion. It’s a great place for scholars to hear about new discoveries, new ideas, and new approaches, and to share their own ideas and get feedback before committing them to print. But the best part is reconnecting with friends and colleagues and meeting new ones. The conversations over dinners and drinks are consistently stimulating and gloriously nerdy.

For me, SBL also offers a chance to reflect on how I am changing and still need to change as my sight wanes. It’s a different experience every year.

The most noticeable change this year: I used my white cane. Last year I brought it with me, and I carried it in my bag throughout the weekend, but I never actually took it out to use it. This time I had it out almost the entire time. Inside and in daylight I don’t really need it for the large-scale tasks of orientation and navigation, but it warns me of curbs, planters, and benches, and warns people around me that I will definitely run into them if they don’t move. At night on the narrow and winding Riverwalk, on the other hand, I needed the cane (and a few timely nudges from my friends) to keep from taking a swim.

The social and networking aspect of the conference keeps changing, too. I’ve never been great at picking faces out of a crowd, but now it’s near impossible. I’m sure I walked right by dozens of people I should have said hello to, and failed to notice friends and colleagues attending sessions with me. Name tags are useless, so I’m sure I also miss out on meeting scholars whose work I know but have never met in person.

Even meeting close friends can be disorienting. Suddenly someone appears right in front of me, or beside me walking in lockstep, and it takes a few seconds to piece together who they are from their voice and whatever visual clues I can get. Sometimes I start a hug or a handshake without knowing who’s on the other side, and recognize them halfway through. Luckily, my assumption that people who want to hug me or shake my hand generally have a good reason to do so hasn’t backfired yet! 

I am curious to see how my experience of the conference changes over time. It will continue to provide a benchmark for my vision and adaptation, as well as for my scholarly career. Next year I plan to present a paper—a dual novelty since it will be my first paper at an academic conference and my first presentation from Braille notes!

Hebrew Braille: First Impressions

An image of my twenty-volume Hebrew Bible in Braille, sitting on my bookshelf.

I finally took my first stab at reading a second language in Braille.

My twenty-volume Bible in Hebrew Braille has been sitting around for five months, ever since Jewish Braille International graciously sent it to me, free of charge. This particular copy is used. It once belonged to a certain Nancy Ellen Jaslow, presented to her “on the wonderful occasion of her Bat Mitzvah, October 11, 1963.” So thank you, Ms. Jaslow, for your Bible. I hope I will put it to good use.

I cracked it this weekend and read through the introductory material. The project of creating a Braille system for Hebrew and transcribing the Bible was conducted by a team of blind and sighted Jewish rabbis and scholars from New York, London, and Vienna. They began in the early 1930s and finally published in 1954, hindered by “the stringencies of the time,” as the introduction so euphemistically admits. It’s not a scholarly edition of the text, but I was impressed to see that well-known biblical scholars like H. L. Ginsberg and Theodore Gaster had reviewed the text and notes.

On Monday morning, I perused the key to the text and began to read. At this time, I have read exactly one page of Hebrew in Braille. Since some of you have asked, I thought I would share some of my first impressions here.

First Thing: What is It?

All Braille, everywhere and in every language, is made up of cells, which are made up of six or eight dots in two columns, like so:

⠿   ⣿

It has to be embossed very precisely and uniformly; there are no fonts or scripts or cursive in Braille. Braille already pushes the fingers to their perceptive limits, and there is no room for fanciful embellishments. Eight-dot Braille is mostly reserved for musical and mathematical notation, while every language that I know of uses six-dot cells.

Six dots allow for sixty-three different combinations of dots, not counting the blank cell. Every language has the exact same stock of cells to choose from, and each language gets to choose how it will use those cells. Since English only has 26 letters, it uses the rest of the cells to represent punctuation, common letter combinations, or whole words. Chinese, which has thousands of characters, has to get more creative. It uses two or three cell combinations to represent each character. Hebrew is like English in that it has fewer than 63 letters in its alphabet: 22 consonants (5 of which have a second form that appears at the end of words) and 15 or so vowels. This means one cell can be used to represent each letter or vowel, and there will still be some left over for punctuation.

But regardless of how a language uses Braille, it’s still just combinations of those same 63 cells. So no matter how different two languages are, and no matter how different their written scripts look, in Braille the cells look the exact same, and lines of text look very similar.

⠠⠓ ⠁ ⠝⠊⠉⠑ ⠐⠙

⠚⠪⠍⠂ ⠝⠊⠋⠄⠇⠣⠁

See? One of the lines above is Hebrew, the other English. Can you tell which is which? The first line says “Have a nice day” in English, the second says יום נפלא “have a wonderful day” in Hebrew.

Before I started learning the Hebrew Braille system, I worried that I would sometimes not know what language I was reading in. No one would ever mistake a page of printed Hebrew for English, because the scripts are just too different. But since the Braille script is universal, and reading it with fingers doesn’t allow for that same full-page first impression you get with printed text, I thought sometimes I might get really confused for a while.

It turns out this is not a problem. It could be confusing for one letter, maybe two, but then it becomes completely incomprehensible. If I tried to read the Hebrew sentence above as English, it would be “jowm, nif’lgha”—no confusion there!

I guess it’s like looking at a page of German or French. They use the same letters as English, but you immediately know that it’s not English.

So, one less thing to worry about.

Second Thing: How does it compare to reading printed hebrew?

I knew that reading Hebrew in Braille would be a different experience from reading it printed on a page or written on a manuscript. It’s written from left to right, like English, so some people have asked me if it’s more like reading Hebrew transliterated into English characters. So far, I would say it’s not like reading transliteration or Hebrew script. It’s like reading Hebrew in Braille.

Classical Hebrew, the Hebrew of the Bible, was originally written with only consonants. This is a fine way of writing for people who grew up speaking the language, but once it fell out of everyday use, readers needed help remembering proper pronunciation. Scribes and copyists added in vowels and other pronunciation aids, in the form of small dots and marks surrounding the consonants. Now when you see Hebrew, it looks like this:

וְלֹא־לְמַרְאֵה עֵינָיו יִשְׁפּוֹט

And transliterated Hebrew looks like this:

wᵉlōʾ lᵉmarʾēh ʿênāyw yišpôṭ

Both Hebrew script and transliteration include marks above and below the letter: vowel points in Hebrew and diacritical marks in transliteration. In Braille, it is impossible to modify a letter by placing something above or below it. Everything has to be linear. Each of those marks needs to be represented by a character that either precedes or (more often) follows the letter it modifies.

This has a couple of effects. It hides somewhat the similarities between related vowels. One example is that of holem and holem waw (the ō and ô in the transliteration above). These two vowels make the same sound and are interchangeable in the spelling of many Hebrew words. The transliteration and their writing in Hebrew script make this similarity apparent. In Braille, holem is ⠕ and holem waw is ⠪—two completely different cells. For those who know Hebrew, the same principle applies to shureq and qibbutz, hireq and hireq yod, and the hatef vowels.

The feel of reading Hebrew (pardon the pun) also changes, because the vowels don’t play second fiddle to the consonants the way they do in print. They are given equal weight on the page. Apart from making words feel longer, though, I’m not sure how this will affect my experience of reading Hebrew. Let me get back to reading and I’ll let you know.

And of course, until next time, “jowm, nifl’gha!”