As I write this I’m listening to a CD sent to me last year by the late, great singer Adrienne Cooper. After that I’m going to turn on pianist Simone Dinnerstein playing Bach. While I listen, I am writing about deafness.
The assigning and editing of the pieces here on deaf Jewish women have educated me. Among other lessons, I’ve become increasingly aware of how easily we conflate written and spoken language. I’m newly conscious of how often we use the words “speak,” or “hear.” Even a business letter, I now notice, concludes, “Hope to hear from you soon.”
In my back-and-forth emails with some of the deaf women you’ll meet in these pages, I squirmed when I realized how often I used the words that indicate speech — “I know you spoke to our reporter.” “Thanks for talking to Lilith.” — when the exchange was all in pixels.
Newly vigilant about both the inaccuracy and the solipsism, I self-consciously changed my emails to read “communicate” rather than “speak.”
Our everyday sentences crawl with unintentional exclusions like these, or unintentional slurs. We’d likely correct a teen who says “gay” when she means silly or unpopular, or correct someone who says “That’s such a lame idea.” But we rarely notice when someone uses “It fell on deaf ears” as a synonym for matters insufficiently understood. Lilith’s news section is called “Voices.” And we often describe the magazine’s mission as “amplifying the voices” of Jewish women everywhere, “providing a megaphone” for people to broadcast specific concerns not often discussed. Our language can be an unintentionally slammed door, leaving on the other side those who are not hearing.
What are the effects of these exclusions? Sociologists note that “marginality comes in clusters.” For example, a deaf Jew who doesn’t feel part of a temple because services make no accommodation for her is more likely to marry a non-Jew, or to otherwise distance herself from the synagogue community. And Jewish practice — unlike, say, the practice of Quakers, who utilize silence — is strong on rituals of chanting, praying aloud, responding orally to the person leading the service. And we haven’t even gotten to the fact that we Jews regard ourselves as a people of powerful verbal argumentation and expression. Being on the margins for one reason often means staying on the margins through other choices.
I share these observations with you because some of them are new to me. The cover story in this issue launches a kind of 21st-century consciousness-raising project at Lilith. With this issue we’re not only exploring how women are altering Jewish institutions by opening them up to greater inclusiveness, but we’re also highlighting the narratives of deaf women, which they recount with pride, irony, new empowerment, and humor.
A friend, a CODA, Child of Deaf Adults, quoted Helen Keller to me: “Blindness cuts you off from things, and deafness cuts you off from people.” The women we feature here are not cut off; in fact, they are tying themselves in, coming forward with their stories, and even with their disputes, and making change in the process.
In these pieces you’ll discover the schism in the deaf world between oralists and signers. There are those who spell Deaf with a capital D, emphasizing that Deaf culture is as valid as any other ethnic identity. Look at the parallels between sign language and Yiddish; both having the status of sidelined, minority languages. In the new Off-Broadway play “Tribes,” the deaf son in a hearing family is never taught sign language. His brother confronts their father about this, gesticulating accusingly. “Signing too Jew-y? We are Jewish!”
The articles you’re about to read are a first, bringing the experiences of deaf Jewish women in from the margins to the center. And with this issue, Lilith launches what will be a series in which women of cohorts typically viewed as eccentric — literally — take center stage to relate in their own words what is going on with them as Jewish women now.
Watch for more!
Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor in Chief