On the sheva brachot, my wedding, and UTF-8 support

21 Oct

Hello. It’s been some time since my last post on this blog, but I’ve just completed the next obvious life milestone after dropping out of my Ph.D program, which is getting married. My wedding was incredibly fun and my wife Michelle is a lovely lady, but rather than comment on either of those topics at great length I want to share one piece of prep work I did for my wedding that I think was surprisingly fulfilling. If you’ve planned a medium-sized wedding like mine before, even with professional help, you probably had to deal with a wide array of seemingly minor details that came up at the last minute. For me, a key one of these occurred when Michelle and I had our final meeting with the rabbi who was officiating for us.

One of the tasks the rabbi had given us for this final meeting was to pick out an English translation of the “sheva brachot” (seven blessings) that are read towards the end of the ceremony. The traditional Hebrew text of the sheva brachot dates back several centuries, but it’s pretty typical in liberal Jewish wedding ceremonies in the English-speaking world to say the Hebrew version of each blessing, followed by a more modern and interpretive English translation.

This is a link to the Hebrew text in proper UTF-8 encoding, with niqqud (vowel pointing) marks, and this Wikipedia page has a pretty literal translation of the Hebrew text. As you can see, it’s pretty dry, and very heavy on the God stuff. We’re not really religious people. Actually, that’s a pretty loaded and complex thing to assert, but suffice it to say that it seemed tonally off base to drop a bunch of really God-y stuff on a gathering of our closest friends at what is effectively the emotional climax of such a solemn moment; it’s just not really who we are.

However, the themes and intent of the blessings are really great; they’ve been honed by generations of our ancestors, yet they express truly timeless and relevant ideas and values. So, we were very keen to include them. I looked through various translations in Anita Diamant’s The New Jewish Wedding and ultimately came to the conclusion that, having read and understood the themes and ideas in each blessing pretty thoroughly, I should just write my own translation text. I didn’t attempt to translate the Hebrew literally. I know some basic vocabulary, but I wouldn’t describe myself as literate in Hebrew at all. Instead, I based it on the literal English translation and elements of several interpretive translations in the book. It didn’t take me very long to come up with something I liked, and Michelle was very happy with the results too.

At our final meeting with the rabbi, I told him about writing my own translation. I also told him about my desire to call on successively large groups of the audience to recite the blessings, an idea I derived from the way our shul calls up large groups of people (e.g. everyone who started a new job this year) for each aliyah at the high holiday services.

“Great,” he said. “That works fine. Just make sure everyone has a copy of the text in their program because some of these are pretty long for a call-and-response reading.” This meant I needed to make insert cards for our wedding programs with the text on it.

To wit, this was two days before the wedding. I had taken off work, so as soon as I left the meeting, I walked over to Artist and Craftsman in Park Slope and bought a pack of card stock paper, an X-acto knife, and straight edge to cut card stock into the folio-size paper the programs were printed on.

When I got home, I paused for a few minutes to decide what program to craft my masterpiece in. I settled on Microsoft Word, assuming it would be clunky but fast. I knew most of the people attending the ceremony wouldn’t be fluent readers of Hebrew, but I really wanted to include the traditional text alongside the English translation I wrote.

I started by pasting in the Hebrew unicode text from Open Siddur, then I carefully assembled the English text, tweaked the size, and fonts, and line spacing. This turned out to be a huge waste of time, because Word 2011 for Mac doesn’t understand right-to-left text properly. It displays correctly on the screen, but prints it backwards. Like, imagine if you typed the word “backwards”, and it looked that way on the screen, but when it came out of your printer, it said “sdrawkcab.” Thanks, Microsoft! I happen to have a subscription to Office for Mac, so I was able to even download Word 2015 and try with that; same results.

Now, my parents are print designers, educated at Pratt in the 1970s, so besides the experiences that allowed me to know I needed an X-acto knife and straight edge for this job, I also knew my way around Quark XPress. Quark is no more; instead, we now have Adobe InDesign. I also have a Creative Cloud subscription for work, so I appropriated myself a trial copy of InDesign and attempted to produce my insert card with that.

It was easier (but only a little) with InDesign to line up the text boxes for the Hebrew and English text, but before I spent a lot of time on it, I pasted in the Hebrew text to see if it worked. I immediately knew this wasn’t going to cut it; all the text came over as placeholder boxes, as though InDesign was expecting ISO-8859-1 text instead of UTF-8. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what it was expecting. I did some Googling and discovered InDesign has a special kind of text box called “Adobe World-Ready Paragraph”, which I suspect just means “Accepts UTF-8 text.” I created one of those, pasted in a fresh copy of the Hebrew, and it worked! Sort of. There were still a few placeholder boxes interspersed in the text. After some inspection, I realized that InDesign’s Hebrew font (of which it only had one) just didn’t have valid characters for some of the diacritic marks represented by the unicode niqqud characters. It seems kind of odd to me that they’d build it to accept UTF-8 text but just happen to be missing a bunch of well-known vowel marks, but I guess it makes sense if you consider these marks are only used in religious texts, and are omitted in modern secular Hebrew publications and books.

My frustration was mounting at the inability of these applications to handle UTF-8 text as well as, say, TextEdit for OS X can. Then it hit me — a native OS X application would just have this support inherent to it as part of properly implementing the OS X Cocoa API. My answer was clearly Pages, Apple’s debit answer to Microsoft Word. Pages is pretty inadequate for most “word processing” tasks, but since all I had to do here was create two evenly-spaced text boxes with identical UTF-8 text in them, it was actually perfect for the task. It took me no time at all to assemble the design, and the Hebrew text printed perfectly.

After a test run, I printed 10 copies on the card stock and started measuring and cutting. Things were going well until I tried to print the second batch of 10. It was at this point that my trusty HP LaserJet P1102w, which has printed anything I’ve sent it flawlessly for the last 4 years, decided it could not handle card stock.

Fortunately, the UPS Store on Flatbush Avenue has a big beefy printer that could print my PDF file on 55 sheets of card stock without breaking a sweat, and the employees were kind enough to lend me their middle school-style paper cutter. Though I had sort of relished the idea of using the sacred skills of my parents’ pre-computer graphic design education to produce this very important document for my wedding, the truth is the UPS Store was a lot faster at it. A few minutes of paper-cutting work later, I had a handsome looking stack of 110 sheva brachot insert cards.

The rabbi had told me not to look at the audience (or at him) during the ceremony, and to focus on Michelle, because it would be over before we knew it and we needed to try to savor the moment. I mostly did well at this, but I couldn’t help look out at the gathering of all my family and closest friends during the recitation of the sheva brachot. I had initially decided to hand out the task of saying each blessing to groups of people to avoid the awkwardness of selecting one or two individuals for this honor. However, this inadvertently turned out to be one of the most captivating and moving parts of the ceremony, especially as everyone in attendance was invited to rise and recite the final blessing, which is one of the most exuberantly joyful paragraphs in all of the Jewish tradition.

In conclusion, I recommend anyone who’s having a Jewish wedding ceremony write their own version of the sheva brachot (or use mine if you want, it’s cool with me). I also really recommend having big groups of people recite each one. For ours, the first two were my and Michelle’s immediate families, the next two were our respective extended families, the next two were our respective groups of friends (who, it turned out, all insisted on standing up for both blessings), and the final one was the entire audience.

This is a link to a ZIP file with my Pages template and a PDF, so you can print it or modify the English version to suit your purposes. If anyone ends up using it, drop me a line, I’d love to hear about it.