Free Printable Friday Night Prayerbook (Condensed Edition)

This past weekend was the Arisia science fiction convention, which is put on each January by several hundred of my closest friends in Boston, MA. I attended almost every Arisia from 1999 to 2014 (after which I moved back to the Midwest). In 2006, since all my geeky shul friends were attending the convention anyway, I started organizing a Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service at the convention hotel. Those of us who were on the synagogue board borrowed a large (and heavy!) crate of assorted prayerbooks from Temple Beth Shalom of Cambridge every year to make the service happen.

This service, I am happy to say, is still going on, organized by Terri Ash (of Geek Calligraphy) and her family. But for 2017, Terri wanted a pamphlet-style siddur containing only the prayers for Friday night, that could be stored from year to year just for Arisia. But we weren’t aware of any existing siddur that fit our needs, so, what do we do? Build our own (based on the extensive resources available at the groundbreaking OpenSiddur.org website). She asked “Who wants to help make this happen?” and of course I said “Here I am!”  Continue reading

How I make art, Part 1: Resources for Hebrew text

This week, I’ve been working on a new Judaica art piece, which I look forward to releasing next week! But before I get there, I wanted to talk about my process for making art out of text in Hebrew and English.

It starts where everything starts — with an idea. Some words catch my eye and fire my imagination. Most often, it’s either a Biblical text or a passage from the siddur, the Jewish prayerbook. (Frequently, it’s both, as Biblical quotations make up a significant portion of the wording of our formal prayers.) Occasionally, it’s a quote from the Talmud, about which more below.

But how do I get going from there? First, I go to the Internet!

… Why not start on my own bookshelf? I own numerous Bibles in both Hebrew and English (one of my favorite translations, incidentally, is Everett Fox‘s Five Books of Moses, a.k.a. the Schocken Bible). But here’s Confession #1: I’m not so strong on chapter and verse. So I start by doing a Google search for the English phrasing, in order to locate the verse I’m thinking of.

From there, I look up the Hebrew. Mechon Mamre maintains an excellent complete Hebrew-English online Bible, featuring the well-reputed standard English translation by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). I will usually go here to copy and paste entire passages. Note, though, that they provide “pointed” text, with the nekudot: vowel marks and other punctuation that are positioned around the actual letters (or, in the words of psycholinguist Dorit Ravid, “diacritics ancillary to consonantal graphemes”).* This notation is essential for study purposes, but I generally go on to strip out the nikkud, because I prefer to use just the un-pointed letters in my artwork.

* However, the Ancillary Diacritics is totally my new band name.

My next stop is, perhaps surprisingly, a Christian Bible site, one called Blue Letter Bible. While I tend to steer clear of Christian-sponsored sites, this one offers a spectacular feature that I haven’t found elsewhere: a word-by-word breakdown of the original Hebrew, as well as the Greek from the Septuagint, for every single verse of the Old Testament.

[Blue Letter Bible tools screenshot]

The language tools at Blue Letter Bible. Careful observers will pick up a clue as to the forthcoming new art piece.

My own Hebrew skills are normally sufficient to match up the corresponding words from an English translation; in fact, this is an important element in my artwork, where I frequently color-code specific words or phrases to create explicit visual connections between the texts. But sometimes I feel like the English in front of me doesn’t quite capture the nuance I’m getting from the Hebrew. When I want to refine the translation I’m including in the piece, it can be amazingly helpful to see a range of English translations side-by-side, or to click through to the Strong’s Concordance entry to see how the same word has been interpreted in different contexts. Plus, they provide a box to toggle the “vowel points” (the aforementioned nekudot) on or off, so I can copy a whole verse with just the unpointed letters. Priceless.

Now, what if I am researching a Talmud quotation? Certain sections are easy to find in translation, like the tractate of Avot, better known as Pirkei Avot, or in English as “The Ethics of the Fathers”, which is reproduced in its entirety in most traditional prayerbooks. Often, however, I will see delightful quotes attributed solely to “The Talmud”… which may be technically accurate, but not very helpful! Google is my friend here again. Sometimes it turns out that quotes attributed to “The Talmud” (such as this one, identified here) actually come from Midrash Rabbah, which is a fantastic (and often fantastical) body of interpretive commentaries, but not part of the Talmud.

Once I can get a specific citation, I can look up the Hebrew in Mechon Mamre’s online Talmud Bavli (the “Babylonian” Talmud that is the version commonly studied). Some chapters are available in English at Halakhah.com, at Sacred Texts, and at the Jewish Virtual Library. If I’m looking for Midrash Rabbah, there’s a complete online Hebrew edition at Tsel Harim.

For Hebrew text from the prayerbook, I am more likely to turn to my actual bookshelf. However, there are several useful Web resources, such as the Online Siddur, the Open Siddur Project, and the Free Siddur Project.

There are many more great collections of links and scholarly resources at sites like the following:

One last technical note: I create my artwork in Adobe InDesign. Now, if I copy a line of Hebrew text from a web page, it is almost certainly in Unicode, which the browser knows to render right-to-left… but InDesign pastes in the character sequence from left to right. Because here’s Confession #2: I don’t actually use it to handle Hebrew properly. Now that I’ve upgraded to Creative Suite 6, its World-Ready Composer gives some built-in support for right-to-left sequencing at either the paragraph or character level… but the way it behaves still isn’t very intuitive for me, and I get frustrated after just a few minutes. It’s actually easier for me to cheat with an intermediate step: reversing the string in order to make it come out correctly. On a few old projects, I did this by hand (!), but these days I turn once again to the magic of the Internet, where there are handy web-based utilities for this purpose.

  • Reverse a String Online was my longtime quick-and-dirty favorite for single lines.
  • Text Mechanic’s “Reverse Text Generator” offers an additional option called “Flip Text”, which reverses each line (or technically paragraph), but keeps the lines themselves in the correct top-to-bottom sequence — just what I need for longer sections.

Once I’ve got all my text in place, in Hebrew and English, that’s my raw material. Only then can I start to play with it to create art. But that’s a totally separate process that I will try to address in another, less technical — and probably shorter! — post.

Shabbat shalom!

Art Gift Project: The First Folio Panels

Now that I’m back from the holiday visit to my partner T’s family homestead, I can write about what I made him for Christmas. :-)

Earlier this fall, I went with a friend on an art-gallery outing to Chelsea, and one of the exhibits we saw was a display of text panels — letters and book pages and such in large-format colorful frames — which made me go “OMG totally up my alley,” and on very little further reflection, it produced the inspiration for this.

T is a major Shakespeare geek, currently in the final year of pursuing his MFA in Acting at Columbia. We moved in together last fall, and while I have a lot of artwork, he doesn’t really have much. I’ve resisted the impulse to cover the whole apartment in my own stuff, but that mostly means we have a lot of empty walls in the meantime.

So I wanted to create something that would be very personal for both of us.

Jn_F1_0326s_v1There are a handful of online archive facsimile editions of Shakespeare’s First Folio (interestingly, one of them is at Brandeis, my alma mater; the other one I used is hosted at New South Wales). I went through these and picked out 9 sheets with scenes that I associate with T. Most of these are roles he’s had in plays he’s been in; one is a role I had that he came to see me in (Winter’s Tale); some are plays we saw together with lines that we quote a lot (Much Ado) or that particularly touched me (Merchant of Venice).

Jn_F1_0326s_v2aI saved the scanned JPEG images of each target page off the online archives, opened them in Photoshop, converted them to grayscale TIFFs, and messed around with the levels to get the clearest, most high-contrast image out of it I could (producing white text on black background). I also cropped off the page headers (with the titles) to make the pages a little more uniform and, okay, obscure: you have to read and be able to identify the scenes to know what they are!

There are a number of online shops that do custom canvas printing; I found a really good deal on canvasdiscount.com, which had a 10×14″ size that was just the right proportions for these pages (with the headers cropped off).

With my measurements determined, I created an InDesign document to the correct size and margins, and imported a rainbow of color swatches I’d set up for an earlier project. I placed each of the TIFFs on a separate page and applied a different solid color to each one, leaving the text content to reverse out in white. I then exported each page as a high-res color JPEG. (I could have just done all this in Photoshop, too, but I found it easier to work with my margins and desired swatch library in InDesign.) I uploaded all 9 to the canvasdiscount.com site and placed my order!

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The colors are arranged down the palette, from magenta to violet, in chronological order in terms of their relevance to him/us: when he was in them or when we saw them. They could be hung up in any sequence he wants, though. And I figure I can create additional ones in future (probably neutrals: black, grey, taupe) for the plays that are making an appearance in this year’s history, or next year’s.

On receipt, I found that the canvases really are of pretty cheap quality; notably, they’re fairly loose on the frame, so they bag out a bit. But I think for these purposes, they’re effective enough, and the color printing is nice and even.

Lastly, I knew I didn’t want to carry the whole set up to Boston in order to give them as a Christmas gift (much as it would have been really fun to make him unwrap them all individually). So I waited for an afternoon when he was out of the house, hung them all up on the wall where I intended them to go, and took pictures. Then I made a little 5.5×8.5″ booklet including the photographs of the finished canvases in situ as well as the color images of each panel, labeled with what scenes they are. I printed this (imposed with InBooklet), folded and stapled it into a booklet, put it in a 6×9″ red envelope, and that’s what I put under the tree. (But since he left town before me, I hung them all up on the wall before I left, so they’re all up for him to see as soon as he gets home tonight.)

Merry Christmas, love.

P.S.: Note that, ours being an interfaith household, for Chanukah I gave him actual theater tickets… including the Actors’ Shakespeare Project‘s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which we were able to catch during our trip to Boston. ;-)