Who was Mrs. Harry A. Cole of Cleveland? A Tale of Academic Sleuthing and Recovering the Name of a Braille Pioneer

For the past two days, I’ve been on the hunt for a name. I’ve been looking for it for months, actually, but this week I got serious. I’m writing an encyclopedia article on the history and development of Hebrew Braille and I want to make sure to credit the women who made important contributions, as well as the men.

So I have been frustrated that the woman who transcribed all twenty volumes of the first Braille Tanakh (=Hebrew Bible) is identified ever and only as “a Mrs. Harry A. Cole of Cleveland.” I wanted to credit her by her own name, but this is how she was referenced in every written source I could find. I read the preface to the Braille Tanakh, newspaper articles about its publication, even bulletins from her congregation at the Euclid Avenue Temple in Cleveland. But everywhere she was simply “Mrs. Harry A. Cole of Cleveland.” I even called the temple, and while they could confirm that she had been a member and was now deceased, they had no record of her first name.

This morning, I called the headquarters of JBI International (formerly the Jewish Braille Institute), the organization that had commissioned the development of the International Hebrew Braille Code and the publication of the first Braille Tanakh. I wasn’t sure how far I’d get. They might have nothing, or I might have to wait for Beth, the Director of Development, to search through piles of dusty correspondence in JBI’s archives, but I didn’t even get halfway through my question before she had an answer:

“I’m curious about the woman who transcribed the Braille Tanakh—“

“Oh, Belle Cole?”

And there it was. Belle Cole.

The name sprang so easily to her mind—how had I not found it?

Quite reasonably, as it turned out. Belle Cole’s given name was never used in print materials, but it appears in a hand-written note that sits on display at JBI headquarters. In 1950, Leopold Dubov, JBI founder and chair of the committee that designed the International Hebrew Braille Code, gifted a first edition of the Braille Tanakh to Mrs. Cole, with the following inscription on the flyleaf:

“Presented gratefully and inscribed to Belle Cole, the First Lady of Hebrew Braille Land, to whom, thousands of years after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, was given the priceless privilege of translating the full Hebrew text of our ancient Holy Bible into the miracle script known as Braille. Surely, a unique and heaven-blessed ‘mitzvah,’ an achievement of matchless worth and enduring significance.”

Several years ago, her family returned the Tanakh to JBI for preservation, and this page sits displayed under glass in their collection, in the same building where Beth works. She offered to walk over and take a picture for me:

A photo of the inscription by Leopold Dubov to Belle Cole. Photo by Beth Rudich of JBI

I have since found further verification in a congratulatory notice in a bulletin from the Euclid Avenue Temple. The main text of the notice still refers to her as Mrs. Harry A. Cole, but it quotes the text of Dubov’s inscription, in which her given first name appears. This bulletin hadn’t turned up in searches because the process of scanning had mangled the text. It had elided the s and Google had indexed it as “Mr Harry A. Cole.” Quite a step in the wrong direction, but when I searched by her first name, it turned right up.

It is important to remember all of those who worked to bring Braille to Hebrew speakers, and sacred texts to the blind, especially those whose names are in danger of being lost to history. My sleuthing was a testament to the power of high-tech tools and to the necessity of good old-fashioned low-tech methods. I am glad I found the name of Belle Cole, and I will be happy to recognize her in print, by her own name, for the first time since her “unique and heaven-blessed ‘mitzvah’” was completed.

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!”