May 15, 2010

Another Shabbat in West Orange, NJ.

I know, I know. You're asking yourself: Where is this post going? The last time I blogged about my experience in West Orange at a very large, Orthodox shul, I got a few ... unsavory ... emails about my words. My experience this time around was actually worse, if you can believe it, despite going to what was hopefully deemed the "quiet minyan." I found out later that maybe went to the non-quiet minyan, but rather to simply a second, regular minyan. Someday, I vow to find a quiet minyan at this shul. I spent most of my Shabbat thinking about how irritated I was with these folks, but for the sake of the shul and for the sake of my sanity, I've decided to focus on something deliciously positive about my experience this weekend: the Our Way Family Shabbaton.

When Tuvia and I walked into shul Friday night, I saw a huge group in the lobby signing (as in, sign language, not the gangsta' signs you might be more familiar with). I've always found myself fascinated by those who use sign language, especially those who aren't deaf/hard of hearing, but who are devoted to the language and opening the world up to those who use sign language every day. We quickly learned that it was a Shabbaton, welcoming the deaf and hard of hearing, through a branch of the Orthodox Union, known as "Our Way." At seudat shlishit tonight, two of the individuals gave a d'var, one of them speaking with a sign language interpreter, and the other signing and speaking his way through his d'var, with the interpreter reading his words aloud.  It was, in a word, fascinating. It was also really frustrating because the two women in front of me were jabbering inconsiderately while I was trying to understand what the man was saying. Sigh.

So the entire experience led me to a few question:

  • What are the halachos of being a frum, deaf/hard-of-hearing Jew? 
  • All of the interpreters there were women -- how does this work into everything? 
  • Can a woman sign/interpret the reading of the Torah? 
  • Is it okay for a frum Jewish male to tap the shoulder of a sign-language interpreter in order to ask her a question or get her attention? 
  • How do you deal with hearing aids or cochlear implants on Shabbat? Is the Jewish community more accepting of cochlear implants than the wider community?

Perhaps most importantly, I just want to know what it's like to view the world, the Jewish world, through the lens of a deaf/hard-of-hearing Jew. So much of Judaism is based on texts, writings, and traditions that easily can be read. But what about the niggunim, the tunes of songs, the joy of hearing voices meld together -- it's one of my most favorite things about Shabbat, the songs, the voices swimming heavenward. I would have liked to approach one of these individuals and asked if they'd be interested in writing a blog post for me, to answer all my queries. But I felt awkward, unsure of myself. I can sign my name, successfully, but that's it.

How do you speak Hebrew in sign language? Are the letters the same? Can I spell "shmi Chaviva" with the letters I know as "s, h, m, i, c, h, a, v, i, v, a" ...? Or do I need to sign something special to say "shmi" and then, only then, spell Chaviva?

I'd like to contact Our Way, just to see if someone would be willing to write a guest post answering my questions, helping me to understand the world through the ears of the deaf/hard-of-hearing frum (or just) Jew. If anyone out there in blog land knows of someone who'd be willing to do this, let me know. Or, maybe, if you're one of these people or you have a child or family member or friend who goes through the motions as a deaf/h-o-h Jew, let me know. I'm absolutely intrigued. This community is a very unique one that probably doesn't get as much as attention as it should, as far as awareness goes.

On a closing note, I have to say "mad props" to Our Way for establishing -- in a very Jewish fashion -- the Our Way Jewish Deaf Singles Registry!


Shira said...

Hi Chaviva,

I hope you find someone for your guest post. In the meantime, I might be able to answer some of your questions. In high school I took an ASL course, and then later I encountered the deaf Jewish community of Toronto (Not "Our Way," but something similar).

Halachos - I think its complicated, and really depends on the person, and the level of hearing they have, or whether they have a cochlear implant.

I think you'd find different opinions about men/women and tapping the shoulder... but as it is a matter of communication, and not a matter of greeting, as in shaking hands, my experience would say it is no problem.

I'm not sure if a woman could sign/interpret the reading of the Torah. That is a really cool question. I think it would be okay in some communities, but not in others, and probably has more to do with hashgafa than halacha.

Cochlear implants - I think they are just as controversial. There is a family who have them (parents and children) and use them on Shabbat, that I know. In general, those who grew up as part of deaf culture, in a community, often don't have implants. They are less acceptable, as deafness is not necessarily seen as a disability. ASL is a rich language in its own right, and there is a rich culture there. On the other hand, for people who were the only deaf ones in their families, or otherwise were not able to be a part of a deaf community, and didn't use ASL, the cochlear implant was a wonderful invention. I'm sorry I can't say more. I'm not up on current opinions so much, as I was studying this topic over ten years ago. And its a delicate topic for some. I'm sure Our Way would probably love to write a guest post if you ask them... or another similar organization, like the one I encountered in Toronto.

Also, Jennifer, of the blog, Adventures in MamaLand, has written a few posts about ASL - she takes classes to learn ASL and she might be someone to write a guest post. She knows a lot!

ASL is a unique language. It's not just English. And signing the English alphabet in order to communicate is not speaking ASL. Even signing your name is not speaking ASL. When you are a part of the deaf community, eventually someone will give you a 'name'. ASL names are not the same as English names. Different countries/areas of the world have different sign languages, different from ASL. I don't remember the names of the other languages, but ASL is not international. Israel may very well have its own sign language, or and adaptation.

If you were to sign to introduce yourself, in Signed Exact English, you would: point to yourself, sign the word for "me," the sign for 'name,' then "is," and then finger-spell your name. If you were to introduce yourself using ASL, you would simply point to yourself and sign your name, or finger-spell your name. So, signing schmi would never really have to happen. The grammer of ASL is completely different from English as well.

I hope I got some of this right, but I'm sure some of it is wrongly remembered.

mother in israel said...

Chaviva, I just read a wonderful memoir by Myron Uhlberg, a hearing son of deaf parents, called "Hands of My Father."
While getting a child's hearing tested, I saw a sign stating that all of the hearing aids sold by the clinic have been certified for use on Shabbat (as long as they aren't adjusted, I believe).

Anonymous said...

There's a congregation for the deaf here in Chicago, but I believe it's Reform. If you're interested, it's to contact them.

Shira is right about the language. ASL stands for American Sign Language, so there's probably a Hebrew Sign Language or Israeli Sign Language or something out there as well.

Also, I wonder if the cochlear implant in those who have it is considered like a hearing aid or something - in cases where the person is dependent on it, it could be as vital to their health as something like a pacemaker.

Very interesting topic!!

Unknown said...

Cochlear implants are totally fine for Shabbos. I know a little boy who wears them no problem. Also there is a blog that I have read through beyondbt that talks about this hope this helps.

Julie said...

I'm HoH and it never occurred to me that using my hearing aids would violate Shabbat in some way... it's so much a part of me. Hearing loss makes Hebrew much more difficult, though, especially because I wasn't raised Jewish and came to it as an adult. It sucks because in school, I am exempt from second language requirements (understanding English is hard enough) but obviously that doesn't work with Judaism.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry you had a bad experience davening at the WO shul- I've been there quite a few times and it's really not that bad! Go to the right minyan for you, sit in the right place, and feel free to shush anyone if they're talking (in a nice way, if you can, I find it works best.)

As for the deaf community, I know the shul in nearby town in NJ has a sign language interpreter for the shabbos drasha who is female. And one of the deaf Jews in that shul is Israeli and knows Hebrew sign language, but I'm not sure how it's different from English. You definitely should do a guest post on it, would be very interesting!

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Great, interesting thoughts!

Hearing aids are permitted on Shabbat. In fact, we have an older fellow here who I have to urge to wear them on Shabbat; but I do.

Hebrew has its own sign language. About 25 years ago a friend came to visit in Jerusalem. He was studying deaf education in the US, and a fluent signer. We were on King David street and he spotted a few guys signing in a doorway across the street. He got all excited, ran over, and started signing to them. They looked at him like he was from Mars. Or, more to the point, speaking a foreign language. That's how I learned that Hebrew sign language isn't the same as ASL. Makes sense, of course. English isn't the same as Hebrew, either. Very different cultures.

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