Student Post: Learning About Hebrew Braille

Braille Alphabet

The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) has established February as the month of Age- Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) and Low Vision Awareness Month. Those afflicted with little or no vision require material with larger print or material printed in braille, so that they may read with their fingertips as their eyes. Braille was first created in 1824 by French educator Louis Braille, who was blind in both eyes by age five. When Louis was a teenager, he was inspired by a 12-dot communication system used by French soldiers. By the age of 15, Louis had invented his own writing system. His system is much like the braille we use today and consists of six raised dots that combine to make symbols.

For those that are visually impaired and who communicate in Hebrew, braille can prove to be a challenge to learn. During the 1930s, there were only two schools that taught Hebrew braille: The Jewish Institute for the Blind in Jerusalem, and Blinden-Institut in Vienna. The only available books in Hebrew Braille were prayer books and children’s books. Rabbi Harry Brevis pulled together different countries’ braille systems and used them to create his own version of Hebrew braille. Brevis sought to create this system while attending Hebrew Union College because his own sight was dwindling and he found it much more difficult to perform his schoolwork. Rabbi Brevis was ordained at HUC’s New York campus in 1929, and became a faculty member on the school’s Los Angeles campus following his graduation.

Rabbi Harry Brevis Since its creation, Brevis’ Braille Code has been the authoritative code for blind Hebrew speakers. Brevis created symbols for sounds that are not present in English such as the guttural noise the letter chet makes. One of the most unique characteristics of Brevis’ Hebrew Braille Code, is that the Code is read from left to right, opposite of how Hebrew is normally read. Brevis states that the slate and stylus used to write braille, made it impossible to write from right to left.

The method of brailling paper can be done multiple ways, but the most cost-effective way utilizes a stylus and slate. The slate holds the thick paper while the user pushes the stylus into the paper. The slate is used to keep the dots orderly. Although cost effective- it is time consuming. In 1892, Frank Haven Hall invented the first Braille writer machine, which functions much like a typewriter. There are Braille printers readily available online for offices, school, and home use today. Although there are many Braille printers in existence now, they are still expensive. A personal braille printer on Amazon runs around $1,500 which does not include the paper needed. The thick paper used for braille is another hurdle. Five hundred sheets of standard white paper costs about $10 whereas the same volume of braille paper is around $30.

The Code created by Brevis gained popularity worldwide by Hebrew speakers and was officially adopted as the International Hebrew Braille Code (IHBC) in 1935. Although the IHBC is now more widely taught, there are not an abundance of books written in Hebrew Braille. This is because brailling books either by hand or by machine is a time-consuming and expensive task. The dots are individually poked in on a thick sheet of paper and one mistake can ruin the whole sheet. Religious materials are most of what has been brailed, but a full Torah in Hebrew braille did not exist until Rabbi Lenny Sarko created it in early 2021. Rabbi Sarko began to lose his sight about a decade ago and was determined to remain a Rabbi, with or without his eyesight. All he required was a Torah he could read from- such as a braille Torah. Rabbi Sarko searched America, Europe, and Israel, but could find no trace of a braille Torah, and so Rabbi Sarko created one for his congregation of Emanu- El Israel in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Since its creation, the Rabbi takes reservations from all over the country for use of the scroll. Before the scroll is needed for service, the Rabbi sends sheets of braille paper with the Torah portions needed for the user to practice on until the Torah scroll is needed.

The Torah In Large TypeInside Klau Library’s collection, one can find prayer books and Haggadahs written in Braille such as The School Haggadah which includes English and Hebrew braille, A Rosh Hashanah Mahzor (Hebrew), a Siddur (Hebrew), and three children’s books (English). The three children’s books can be requested from Klau Library’s Special Collections. The library not only holds braille in English and Hebrew, but also large-print books in both languages for those who can still see with some adjustment. Although large-print is more costly to create, there is much less of a shortage of large-print books compared to Braille materials. The library holds large-print fictitious, historical, and religious works within its shelves. Not only during AMD and Low-Vision Awareness Month, but all year round those with diminishing vision of all ages are able to satisfy their minds with materials found within the library.

Contributed by Darhla Miles, First Year MAJS Student and Student Worker in the Klau Library, Cincinnati