Hugh Schonfield and “The New Hebrew Typography”

British biblical scholar Hugh Schonfield (1901-88) endeavored to create a type for a nation without an independent home (at the time): the Hebrew nation. Playing off German modernists who called for a "New Typography," Schonfield promoted his "New Hebrew Typography."

For this campaign, he regularized and Romanized the forms of the Hebrew letters. The contrast between horizontal thicks and vertical thins that characterized Hebrew writing for millennia, for example, was inverted into horizontal thins and vertical thicks, matching the typical treatment of the Latin letter in European types.

Like the modernists, Schonfield advocated reform for the sake of rationalization and contemporaneity — but he also seemed to argue in his designs that revising Hebrew letters into the forms that gentiles can recognize as familiar and comfortable might ease the assimilation of a Jewish minority in Europe. Schonfield's quirky reforms found few adopters, though.

Schonfield proclaimed his opinions about the "new Hebrew typography" in a 1932 book of that name. The new alphabets he proposed in the book were a response to his dissatisfaction with the traditional Hebrew writing system, in use since ancient Jews adopted it from Aramaic script hundreds of years before the Common Era. Schonfield set aside this longevity, and the belief among some that the script was authored by God as Moses received the Ten Commandments as described in the Torah, the Jewish Bible. For contemporary needs, Schonfield argued in his essay, the Hebrew types based on this ancient script were inadequate. He felt these types lacked the dignity that modern, commerce-based Europeans needed for effective communication.

Furthermore, Schonfield felt that the existing ancient Hebrew script was a form of social bondage that weighed upon modern Jews and especially Zionists, trying to emancipate Hebrew literature and politics. He was sure that only a people used to suffering would accept such a mangled, difficult and unacceptable type. Schonfield wished to reform Hebrew typography in measures that would provide typographers the ability to stylize Hebrew fonts similar to Western type styles. In his book, he provided examples of Hebrew letters that stylistically matched several different Latin types in common use. Schonfield recognized the criticism his proposal would likely spawn, but maintained that any person who was rational would agree with his arguments.

Schonfield had several complaints of existing Hebrew typefaces: they were limited to fewer styles, they lacked capital-lowercase distinction, and he found them to be aesthetically unappealing. Consequently, his proposed alternative types differed in several ways. Schonfield's alphabets included upper and lower cases. Traditional Hebrew gives special forms to five sacred Hebrew letters when they occur at the end of a word; Schonfield omitted these. Most strikingly, Schonfield constructed his letters from parts of existing Latin letters, so that they have the serifs and vertical emphasis that are foreign to the Hebrew tradition. Another difference between the traditional Hebrew text and Schonfield's alternatives is that, in the latter, punctuation and numerals are flipped in reverse of Western forms. In Hebrew script, these numbers are not flipped. These changes would have possibly created some difficulties if Schonfieldian script had been adopted.

Schonfield's reformation of Hebrew letters never gained any traction, so his story is a footnote in the history of type design. But his efforts are a typographical expression of the pressure to assimilate to dominant cultures. Ultimately, the 20th century movement to Jewish statehood found strength in embracing its formidable writing traditions rather than converting them to resemble other alphabets.

— Paige Dansinger

Suggestions for further reading:

Schonfield, Hugh. The New Hebrew Typography. London: D. Archer, 1932.

Stern, Adi. "Aleph=X, or Contemporary Hebrew Bad Type." Third Annual Friends of St. Bride Conference.