Gene Weingarten: Oy! Gene repents his sin


(Eric Shansby)
Columnist December 5, 2013

To: The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob 1

Re: My atonement

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

Hello again. You might remember me from my fraudulent bar mitzvah in 1964. 2

I was the one kid in my heavily Jewish neighborhood who never went to synagogue and never learned to read Hebrew. My parents paid a rabbi to teach me a bunch of melodic sounds that allegedly corresponded with some squiggles in a big, yellowed scroll I pretended to read at my bar mitzvah. Why did my devoutly secular family resort to this charade? For the worst reason: Friends and relatives were watching. (We also celebrated the Yom Kippur fast every year by ceremonially drawing the dining room curtains, so the Bermans next door couldn’t see us eat.)

I know, I know. We pretended to be something we weren’t, and this brings consequences. Being sort-of Jewish, I expected punishment, and I knew these things can take time. In my case, it was a half-century.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column in which I complained about being forced to write fewer words than usual. As a joke, I switched over to Hebrew, which is more concise than English. How did I obtain the Hebrew? I Google Translated my own lines.

You are thinking it was reckless of me to trust a machine. I agree. We Jews invented due diligence, which is why I also consulted experts. Alas, this is where things started going south.

A good friend of mine, a yeshiva girl turned journalist, is fluent in Hebrew. She is also (this is completely true) the wife of the handsome firstborn son of the world’s most famous living Talmudic scholar. 3 So I cut and pasted the Google translation, sent it to these wise and good people. They made a few small fixes, and I sent it in.

The calls and letters started coming in on the day the column was published.

It turns out that cutting and pasting a line in Hebrew is not a good idea, because cut-and-paste gets confused by languages that read right-to-left. It prints it out properly, but, apparently flustered, puts the period not at the end of the sentence, on the left, but at the beginning, on the right. To a Hebrew scholar, reading right to left, the dot in the wrong place just looks like a speck on the screen, easily missed by handsome firstborn sons who are, for all I know, direct descendants of King David.

Next to weigh in was the computer publishing system of The Washington Post, which, like cut and paste, does not recognize right-to-left, particularly with a period placed at what appeared to be the end of the sentence. So, it said to itself, this is a normal sentence, to be stacked in a narrow column, left to right and top to bottom. So now, it could only be properly read bottom-to-top and right-to-left. It was as though the sentence had been printed on four index cards, a few words on each, and then the cards were shuffled. To better explain how garbled this sentence seemed to a reader of Hebrew, I’ll apply the identical shuffle to Hamlet’s most famous line: “Is the question to be, that to be or not.”

Of course, that confusion should have been plain to me, as a Jew, when I read the page proof. Unfortunately, for reasons heretofore repented of, I just saw squiggles.

So. With this column I hereby confess my youthful sins and beg for no further punishment, and acknowledge You are almighty and infallible. 4

1 And, for those in Reform temples, also the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. (I am including footnotes because the Talmud does.)

2 They tell me you watch those things with interest, which, to tell the truth, surprises me a little because they’re not exactly the Super Bowl. Adenoidal adolescents, allegedly grown to manhood, chant indecipherable words in nasal falsetto with an intonation that makes it all sound like a sustained, six-minute kvetch.

3 I was seriously over-engineering this proofreading process. It was as though I were asking Stephen Hawking to check my arithmetic.

4 Except, if I may say, for the heart of the artichoke, a wonderful, tasty thing to which, for no earthly reason, you glued clumps of fiberglass.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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