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April 18, 2014

BELOW THE BELTWAY

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Oy! Gene repents his sin

An open page of an English-Hebrew dictionary.
By Gene Weingarten
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - To: The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob(1)

Re: My atonement

Hello again. You might remember me from my fraudulent bar mitzvah in 1964.(2)

I was the one kid in my heavily Jewish neighbourhood who never went to synagogue and never learned to read Hebrew. My parents paid a rabbi to teach me a bunch of melodic sounds that allegedly corresponded with some squiggles in a big, yellowed scroll I pretended to read at my bar mitzvah. Why did my devoutly secular family resort to this charade? For the worst reason: friends and relatives were watching. (We also celebrated the Yom Kippur fast every year by ceremonially drawing the dining room curtains, so the Bermans next door couldn’t see us eat.)

I know, I know. We pretended to be something we weren’t, and this brings consequences. Being sort-of Jewish, I expected punishment, and I knew these things can take time. In my case, it was a half-century.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column in which I complained about being forced to write fewer words than usual. As a protest, I then petulantly switched to more concise languages, including teenage Twitterspeak, aboriginal Australian and also, in some places where my column was published, Hebrew. How did I obtain the Hebrew? I Google-Translated my own lines.

You are thinking it was reckless of me to trust a machine. I agree. We Jews invented due diligence, which is why I also consulted experts. Alas, this is where things started going south.

A good friend of mine, a yeshiva girl turned journalist, is fluent in Hebrew. She is also (this is completely true) the wife of the handsome firstborn son of the world’s most famous living Talmudic scholar.(3) So I cut and pasted the Google translation, sent it to these wise and good people. They made a few small fixes, and I sent it in.

The calls and letters started coming in on the day the column was published.

It turns out that cutting and pasting a line in Hebrew is not a good idea, because cut-and-paste gets confused by languages that read right-to-left. It prints it out properly but, apparently flustered, puts the period not at the end of the sentence on the left, but at the beginning, on the right. To a Hebrew scholar, reading right to left, the dot in the wrong place just looks like a speck on the screen, easily missed by handsome firstborn sons who are, for all I know, direct descendants of King David.

Next to weigh in was the computer publishing system of The Washington Post, which, like cut and paste, does not recognize right-to-left, particularly with a period placed at what appeared to be the end of the sentence. So, it said to itself, this is a normal sentence, to be stacked in a narrow column, left to right and top to bottom. So now, it could only be properly read bottom-to-top and right-to-left. It was as though the sentence had been printed on four index cards, a few words on each, and then the cards were shuffled. To better explain how garbled this sentence seemed to a reader of Hebrew, I’ll apply the identical shuffle to Hamlet’s most famous line: “Is the question to be, that to be or not.”

Of course, that confusion should have been plain to me, as a Jew, when I read the page proof. Unfortunately, for reasons heretofore repented of, I just saw squiggles.

So. With this column I hereby confess my youthful sins and beg for no further punishment, and acknowledge You are almighty and infallible.(4)

(1) And, for those in Reform temples, also the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. (I am including footnotes because the Talmud does.)

(2) They tell me you watch those things with interest, which, to tell the truth, surprises me a little because they’re not exactly the Super Bowl. Adenoidal adolescents, allegedly grown to manhood, chant indecipherable words in nasal falsetto with an intonation that makes it all sound like a sustained, six-minute kvetch.

(3) I was seriously over-engineering this proofreading process. It was as though I were asking Stephen Hawking to check my arithmetic.

(4) Except, if I may say, for the heart of the artichoke, a wonderful, tasty thing to which, for no earthly reason, you glued clumps of fibreglass.

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