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Prayer Type

How Eliyahu Koren used typography to encourage a new way to pray

Joshua J. Friedman
June 30, 2009

Publishers of prayer books—siddurim—have long struggled to engage American Jews, to heighten their alertness at synagogue, to encourage them to see prayers not as mere echoes of the past but as vital supplications whose meaning is renewed daily. One way of doing this is to flood the page with commentaries, explications, instructions, and supplementary readings; this approach, exemplified by the ArtScroll siddur, has been the dominant mode for the past 25 years. Yet too much additional reading risks turning a prayer book into a tutorial rather than a conduit to sustained reflection.

There is another way: to sweep the page clean and then reconstitute it using only the poetry of prayer and the tacit language of design. This is the quiet revolution being mounted by Koren Publishers Jerusalem, which has outfitted its popular all-Hebrew Israeli siddur with a new English translation and pared-down commentary by Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (adapted from his new British authorized siddur) and brought it to America. Indeed, when you open the siddur, you may feel a kind of liberation. Prayers that have traditionally been printed as long undifferentiated paragraphs, margin to margin, are parceled out like poetry. Different type sizes and indentations create a visual rhythm that signals structural shifts in the liturgy. The design itself instructs the reader in the shape of the service, without distracting from the words on the page.

Book design’s building block is the letter. The Hebrew letters of the Koren siddur were designed specially for the original Israeli edition. If you look closely, you will find a second Hebrew typeface, designed years earlier for the Koren Bible and used here for setting longer biblical quotations. Look at the alephs to distinguish the two. The Koren Bible aleph is majestic, with three bold diagonal strokes. The Koren siddur aleph is playful, with a central bold stroke framed by two small flags, waving from thin stems. Both typefaces are beautiful without calling attention to themselves, like a well-crafted chair.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the creator of these letters is also the founder of Koren Publishers. Eliyahu Koren, who was in his 70s when he published the original all-Hebrew siddur, in 1981, described his design philosophy in its preface: “From a visual standpoint, the contents of the prayers are presented in a style that does not spur habit and hurry, but rather encourages the worshiper to engross his mind and heart in prayer.” The care and deliberation that Koren hoped to enable in others were values that defined his artistic practice and shaped his career. They would lead him to found his company and to craft both the Koren siddur and the Koren Bible, one of the all-time icons of Hebrew design.

Decades before any of these accomplishments, Eliyahu Koren was already one of the most influential designers in Israel. Born Eliyahu Korngold in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1907, he immigrated to Palestine in 1933 and set about looking for work. Koren had excelled in art school, but in Palestine he found an underdeveloped graphic-design industry that largely amounted to sign-painting. His break came when the Jewish National Fund hired him to lead its first graphics department. In this position, which he kept for 21 years, Koren oversaw the creation of many of Israel’s most prominent symbols, including its first postage stamp and, in his own design, the seal of the city of Jerusalem—a lion rampant in front of the Wailing Wall, framed by olive branches—still in use today.

His greatest project got underway in the early 1940s, when Judah Magnes, the president of Hebrew University, asked Koren to create a new typeface for the first original edition of the Hebrew Bible to be published in Israel. Koren’s art would complement the ambitious scholarly effort of Umberto Cassuto, a rabbi and Hebrew University professor who was searching for the most accurate ancient source manuscripts. But unexpectedly, and within a few years of each other, Magnes and Cassuto both died, leaving the project to founder. The Hebrew University Press, having already waited 10 years for its new Bible, simply reprinted a 19th-century edition with a few of Cassuto’s emendations.

Koren decided to carry out the original effort on his own. He formed his own small publishing house and immersed himself in Hebrew manuscripts and early typefaces, looking for inspiration. He based his letter on medieval Sephardi script, while giving it a modern touch. He consulted an ophthalmologist and learned about early research into the legibility of Latin types. In every aspect of his work Koren was meticulous. When he received the cast metal type from the illustrious Deberny and Peignot foundry in France, Koren immediately spotted imperfections and sent it back. The foundry calculated the imprecision at three hundredths of a millimeter and recast the letter at its own expense. “In the final Koren design,” writes the late Israeli book historian Leila Avrin, “the letters are sharp, almost never rounded, with balanced contrasts, faintly serifed, with its few diagonals always parallel to one another. The beauty of the letter never detracts from its readability.”

Koren was as diligent as Cassuto in striving for textual accuracy. He took great care with vowels and cantillation marks, which were drawn by hand and added to the typeset page. When the Bible was finally published, in 1962, it was celebrated in public ceremonies. “Israel is redeemed from shame,” wrote Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. “This is the first Jewish Bible in the last 400 years.” Presidents of Israel would be sworn into office on it. A commemorative book published years later includes photos of the celebrations, plus two of Koren inspecting manuscripts and proofs at the start of the project, with his sleeves rolled up and his expression grave. His hair is dark. By the time the Koren Bible was published, 20 years later, it was mostly silver.

It would take until the 1970s for Koren to begin work on his siddur. His central task was the same: to create beautiful, legible letters and pages to accentuate a sacred text. But unlike the Bible, the siddur is an anthology, pieced together from Torah verses and rabbinic writings. Koren therefore set out to design a new page layout that would differentiate the text, highlighting its source material and keeping the reader alert. Koren also developed a distinct but related siddur typeface, since he felt that the one he had developed for the Bible was too sacred to reuse, except for biblical quotations. This typeface was even more legible than the first, with similar letter pairs distinguished by their shape: dalet, for instance, extends its arm horizontally, while resh angles its arm upward.

“Eliyahu Koren was a perfectionist,” Esther Be’er wrote in an email. She went to work for him as a typographer 30 years ago and remains at his company today. “He didn’t care if a project took a long time (he wasn’t business-minded) as long as he was satisfied with the outcome.” Koren died in 2001, but his methods and philosophy are still alive. To produce the Hebrew-English Koren siddur, the editor, Raphael Freeman, would lay out a section of the book—30 or 40 two-page spreads—and then sit down with Be’er, who would review them to ensure that each had the authentic Koren feel. “Nothing in Koren goes without Esther first making sure that the layout is ‘Koren-y,’” says Freeman. The font chosen for the English, Arno Pro, is contemporary but distinguished, much like the siddur’s English translation. Unlike virtually every other Hebrew-English siddur, the Koren siddur prints the Hebrew on the left-hand pages and the English on the right. This strategy, which Koren advocated during his lifetime, is both aesthetic and practical: it means that no matter which language you are reading, you start from the center and read outward.

Conservative and Reform Jews are used to coming to synagogue and seeing shelves filled with copies of Siddur Sim Shalom or Gates of Prayer—siddurim published respectively by those movements. The shelves of an Orthodox synagogue have long held a variety of prayer books, reflecting the movement’s divergent streams. But since the 1980s, the ArtScroll siddur has dominated the market, and even extended itself beyond the Orthodox world, with its commentary, glosses, and instructions; it is an ideal introductory text for the newly religious and a reference for those without access to knowledgable Jewish leaders. But scholars and rabbis have long criticized its publisher, Brooklyn-based Mesorah, for its permeating ideology: its exclusion of modern scholarship and rabbinics, its incorporation of interpretation into “translations,” its silence on the existence of the modern state of Israel, its approach toward women, its archaisms. For years some members of the Modern Orthodox community have been using the ArtScroll siddur while wishing it could be more modern.

Is the Koren siddur the answer? It does feel modern, without straying from tradition. Jonathan Sacks’s substantial introductory essay quotes Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, not to mention Auden and Blake. In his translation, Sacks dusts off the familiar prayer-book language and spurs the passive Jew to action. “Listen, Israel,” he translates the opening words of the Shema. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, an influential Modern Orthodox rabbi on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has bought 500 copies of the Koren siddur for his synagogue. “I love it. I love the translation. This is English at its best,” Lookstein says. It may be years before Koren’s success can be gauged, since buying new siddurim is an expensive decision that synagogues put off as long as possible.

Everyone has an opinion about translations, but the language of design is more obscure. Does design really matter? Last October, Koren sent out 1,800 advance proofs to American rabbis and lay leaders for feedback. “The most common e-mail,” says Raphael Freeman, “was that of people telling us how for the first time in 30 years they had actually read the translation and it had transformed their davening experience. Their eyes couldn’t help but glance over to the English and they found themselves, whilst davening in Hebrew and scanning the lines of English, having a deeper understanding of their prayers.”

Joshua J. Friedman, a former editor at The Atlantic and the Boston Review, is a writer in New York City.

Joshua J. Friedman, a former editor at The Atlantic and the Boston Review, is a writer in New York City.