Science & Technology

Getting Your Words’ Worth

By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

Pancho Villa, last words: “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”

There is not much we can do when the words don’t come, or when we knowingly offer them as a poor substitute for careful thought.  The wordprocessor, however, has made it much easier for us to improve upon our writing before unleashing it on the hapless public.  It allows us to recover from the inelegant word, the poorly phrased idea, and the repetitious phrase.  We can seldom take back speech, but the computer has made it easier for us to tweak our written remarks before the damage is done.  We are less loathe to rewrite and edit than in the days of the typewriter, because a few flicks of a mouse can move paragraphs, insert words, or correct our spelling and grammar.  Combining the wordprocessor with e-mail makes us more expressive, more willing to share ideas with a wider group of acquaintances.

The Jewish user wants a wordprocessor that speaks as many languages as he or she does.  We need to handle Hebrew and mixed Hebrew-English text — a daunting task, when you consider that these scripts run in opposite directions.   The products we review here -_ Dagesh and Qtext — are two top performers.

We have come a long way since the days of the venerable EinsteinWriter, the standard in Israel in the halcyon days of DOS.  EinsteinWriter satisfied the need to manipulate both English and Hebrew text with ease.  Generally, though, most users didn’t trash their copy of WordPerfect when they installed Einstein.   It couldn’t compete with all the features the big developers offered.  You used the Hebrew wordprocessor sparingly, when you needed it.

Each of the Windows wordprocessors we will consider here could easily serve as your only one.  Both Dagesh2.1 (Torah Educational Software; $139) and Qtext8 (Dvir, at; $214) have more going for them than what their big-time competitors delivered just a few years ago.  Easy installation, advanced formatting, headers and footers, columns, tables, bullets, graphics, dictionaries, spell-checkers (multi-lingual), and wonderfully detailed help files are all there in top form.  If you are not familiar with the Hebrew keyboard, both offer you keyboards on screen which allow you to navigate the unfamiliar alphabet with clicks of your mouse.

Both take full advantage of Win95, and have a comfortable, intuitive feel.  I personally found Qtext’s single-key toggle between Hebrew and English slightly more attractive than Dagesh’s procedure.  Curiously, neither supports long filenames, which I consider to be a major flaw.

Incidentally, neither of these are Hebrew-English wordprocessors so much as multilingual packages, each supporting literally dozens of languages, including Russian and Arabic (but not Farsi, for some reason).  Both are Israeli products.  These packages are a wonderful testimony to the cutting-edge performance of the Israeli software industry.

There are many differences between the two products.  Dagesh supports more languages, and ships many more fonts: 116 (including 25 Hebrew), as opposed to 22 (with 12 Hebrew fonts) for Qtext.  Dagesh is far more versatile in the formats it imports from and exports to, including such non-obvious options as Excel, Lotus, and old versions of Word and WordPerfect.

On the other hand, Qtext has many features not even attempted by Dagesh.  It allows macros, footnotes, sums columns, sub- and superscript options, and packages a fax utility and a paint program.

Unless you specifically need one of the features not supported by the competitor, both are such good products that you should allow the “feel” of the product to govern your choice.  And if you can’t compare, you won’t go wrong with either.

Don’t expect to find my copy of Microsoft Word in the trash bin.  Because I write often, I am reluctant to leave behind the features with which Word pampers me.  Neither of the two Israeli products offers all that much flexibility in a search/replace operation.  I often like to strip end-of-line characters from e-mail, in order to stretch text to the longer margins of my wordprocessor, so that a six-page message shrinks to two or three.  You can’t do that with Dagesh or Qtext.  Endnotes are not possible with either of them.  Word comes with dozens of templates for common and not-so-common tasks such as invoicing and creating a newsletter; neither of these programs includes them.

For work in English alone, then, I continue to use Word, switching over when I need Hebrew capacity.  Many readers, though, will not need these features and should be able to blissfully use either of these wordprocessors for all their writing needs.  I should also mention that both of the multilingual products have a helpful tool that Word lacks.  They allow you to preview fonts from a long pull-down menu, so you roughly know what your text will look like if you choose that font.  This is essential once the number of your available fonts moves past the century mark.

One last difference between the two.  Both allow you to insert nikkud (vocalization) under Hebrew letters.  Oddly enough, Dagesh’s nikkud options lack both the meteg and the dagesh!

Navigating the Bible

Davka has relieved the drudgery of preparing for a Bar Mitzvah celebration by releasing Navigating the Bible ($99).  There is something here for everyone, from the befuddled rank beginner, to the confident baal koreh preparing the entire parshah.  This CD provides a variety of aids to help with reading the Torah and haftorah.  It provides a beautiful and clear rendition (Sephardic pronunciation; familiar trop) of the entire Chumash, as well as haftarot for each Shabbat and for special occasions.

You can scroll to any verse and hear it sung, or listen to an entire section in continuous play.  Repeat the line as many times as you want by clicking the mouse.  (Access time is a tad slow, and needs to be improved.)  See the text displayed on screen in letters much larger than any tikkun.  Remove the vocalization and trop with a mouse click, without having to move your eyes back and forth between facing columns.

There are many more tools for those who require them.  You can learn the trop by listening to each member of the set, while its musical notation is displayed on screen.  The brachot are also supplied.  A toggle offers you the choice of transliteration if you need real help in reading; it is displayed in a method similar to watching-the-bouncing-ball as the Hebrew text is sung.  Navigating Navigating is a breeze, as the format is attractive and user-friendly.

The developers offer extensive background material.  Navigating offers an excellent translation (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Living Torah) and substantive parshah summaries (from Ohr Somayach).  A calendar calculates Bar Mitzvah dates.  And virtually all practices surrounding the Bar Mitzvah customs are explained, ranging from the origin of the trop to customs of the ceremony itself.

In this last area, the developers may have tried to be everything to everybody, and failed.  They clearly want the product to be useful to everyone (it is!), but border on the comical in trying to be correct from everyone’s perspective.  They must deal with issues ranging from how to pronounce the Name of God while practicing, to whether a Bat Mitzvah girl reading the Torah wears a tallit or not!  Some of these just don’t go together.  Even their handling of traditional practice is a bit strained.  Many a congregational rabbi will be surprised to learn that the single option listed for the Orthodox Bat Mitzvah (who does not read the Torah as her non-Orthodox cousin does) is a “group presentation in the congregation in a special service.”  I guess my daughter must have missed something.

Jewish Hero Corps

Move over, Batman!  These caped crusaders come with tzitzit!

I have studiously avoided reviewing games and kids’ stuff.  But when I received an unsolicited copy of The Jewish Hero Corps (IBM/Mac, Jewish Multimedia Center, 914-426-0400, $25), the cover art looked so attractive I decided to install it for my children.  It was a good decision.

     “The Jewish Hero Corps” is actually the title of a series of CD comic books, only the first of which has been published.  Everything about it has the feel of the “real thing.”  The music could have come from a feature film; the voices are varied and professional.  Best of all, the visuals are exciting and a delight to any kid (and to some of their parents who may recall the comics they read as kids, if they will admit it!)

The quality is no surprise.  Michael Netzer, the illustrator, worked on Spider Man, Batman, and Wonder Woman before he became observant.  “Dreidel Maydel” is a product of his transition.  She does quite well as a heroine in completely modest attire, and like all the members of the Hero Corps, triumphs over the bad guys (the dread Forget-Me-Bots, who have developed an “unmemory chip” which they use to get people to forget the richness of their Judaism) without glorifying violence.  What they lack in the martial arts, they make up for in attitude.  Yarmulkah Youth, Magen David and Menorah Man each find ways to push positive Torah values.  Hard as it is to believe, JHC was put together so well, that it will be educational to the child with weak background, while still appealing to the one with much stronger education.  My six- and eight-year-olds didn’t really learn anything that they didn’t already know, and they don’t watch television.  Yet they came back to the CD again and again, playing with some of the games that are included, and exploring different ways to make the story progress.

Much of the draw is the result of all the flexibility the CD medium allows.  Space allows for the user to choose between different options, driving the tale in different directions.   Future episodes aim at providing eight different choice levels.

Alan Oirich is the animating spirit behind all of this.  He is full of enthusiasm for the project, as well as the know-how that comes with directing the Jewish Student Network for seven years.  In that capacity, he learned the ropes of alternative and creative modes of Jewish learning.  From the feel of this product, it looks like he learned well.

This article was featured in the Spring 1998 issue of Jewish Action.