31 Days, 31 Ideas

31 Days, 31 Ideas

31 innovative ideas to transform the Jewish future from Daniel Sieradski, posted over the course of 31 days, beginning January 1, 2010.

January 2, 2010 at 12:01am
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2. Pop-Up Jewish Dictionary

Yesterday I introduced Pop-Up Parasha, a Javascript widget that would create interactive hyperlinks from biblical references.

Today I’m going to build on the idea of virally-distributed Jewish reference tools a bit more, with a widget that can help break down even more barriers for Jewish novices interested in delving further into the study of their culture and traditions.

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"I don’t know what you’re talking about."

That’s a phrase that seems innocuous enough. But when it’s being said in response to one’s use of Aramaic, Hebrew, Yiddish or Yeshivish terminology, or in reference to a religious concept or practice, it’s a real indicator that you are failing to adequately communicate with your audience.

This point was driven home for me by my non-religious friends back in America who followed my blog, Orthodox Anarchist, while I was overseas in Israel throughout 2004-2007.  As my Jewish knowledge expanded and I began to talk about my religious values, practices and experiences using Jewish vocabulary, my friends started tuning out and some eventually stopped reading all together.

The reason I would almost universally get from my friends was “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  It’s not that they weren’t interested in following along in my journey of self-actualization and even learning along side me.  It’s that there were too many references they couldn’t follow. The text read like goobledygook to them and so they shut themselves off.

To help my friends out, I started manually hyperlinking all my Jewish references to Wikipedia and abusing the HTML abbreviation tag, <abbr>, to provide quick mouse-over translations of Aramaic, Hebrew, Yiddish and Yeshivish terminology.

The way <abbr> works is supposed to be like this:

<abbr title="Jewish Federations of North America">JFNA</abbr>

And, if your browser properly supports the <abbr> tag (and if Tumblr, the blog service I’m using, didn’t automatically strip <abbr> tags out of my code), what should happen is that when you mouse-over the term JFNA, a little box (known as a tooltip) will open with the full title of the organization.

But I started using it like this:

Now imagine having to do this, by hand, every time you want to make a Jewish reference accessible to others:

<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_eschatology" target="_new"><em><abbr title="The world to come; the Jewish eschatological imperative.">olam haba</abbr></em></a>

You can imagine how, after a while, it would become tedious, which is why I eventually stopped doing it. It’s also considered “bad markup,” which could potentially make your HTML code invalid. This is a major issue for those running non-profits — especially  those receiving U.S. government grants, who are thus required to make their websites accessible to those with disabilities. Bad markup doesn’t play well with screen readers. Furthermore, what’s to say that once a reader clicks off to Wikipedia that they’re ever coming back?  And at greatest disadvantage: How many people actually know how to do the above and how many would actually take the time to do it? (Apparently, not even I would.)

So again, it occurred to me, why not make a Javascript widget (or alternately, a browser toolbar/plug-in), that would automatically scan Web documents for references to Jewish vocabulary terms — Aramaic, Hebrew, Yiddish and Yeshivish in both Hebrew characters and English transliteration?

Olam haba, oylem haba and עולם הבה would all become hyperlinked terms that, when moused-over, would open a pop-up that contained Hebrew and transliterated forms, a pluralistic definition of the term, an audio link for pronunciation, an illustration if applicable, the related Wikipedia entry (or perhaps that of some other reference source), a list of recommended reading, including links to related websites and books, and a search bar.

This isn’t a terribly radical idea at all.  A dozen such widgets already exist for secular references sources, like Headup.  And thanks to Wikipedia, Headup manages to catch a significant number of Jewish terms, as shown here on my friend David Kelsey’s blog, The Kvetcher:

But we can do better for ourselves than a generic reference widget. And we must do better if we hope to effectively communicate Jewish ideas, values and practices to those with a limited knowledge thereof.

So what would this widget look like?

If done as a browser plug-in, in addition to being made available as a widget, this utility would be accessible to anyone using Internet Explorer or Firefox. It would put a Jewish terminology search bar in every user’s browser. It would work on every Web site, regardless of whether or not the publisher had installed the widget. It could be given an on/off switch, just in case it ever gets in the way. And it would have a Web front-end like Dictionary.com (seeing as how, for some reason, there is still no free, searchable online Jewish dictionary, except for Morfix, which is only modern Hebrew-to-English, and Chabad’s Glossary, which is non-pluralistic and does not include pronunciation or morphology).

This tool, and the one I introduced yesterday, are fairly inexpensive to create considering the cost per person reached. Widgets spread virally, by online publishers who act like bees for such pollen, making their reach extensive.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews could be exposed to no-click Jewish learning in just a span of months.

Such an application has the potential to unlock doors — to make accessible that which otherwise seems beyond grasp. By putting a world of Jewish knowledge at people’s fingertips, they’ll never need to fear how they’ll ever learn enough to be in the know, and they’ll never have to feel ashamed by asking. They can just start learning.

Tomorrow, making Hebrew writing a bit more accessible on the Web…

Notes

  1. 31days posted this

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