Liberation From Isolation
Tue, 03/27/2012
Special to The Jewish Week
At a seder for the deaf, Yehoshua Soudakoff sits among other people who sign the words of the Haggadah instead of reading them.
At a seder for the deaf, Yehoshua Soudakoff sits among other people who sign the words of the Haggadah instead of reading them.

I’ve never heard the Passover Haggadah. I’ve heard of it, of course, but never heard it, the actual words.

Like the rest of my family and the guests seated around our seder table every year, we all are deaf. With 40 to 50 guests joining us for the two seder nights at our house, the atmosphere is always casual, the dress informal (except perhaps for my suit and matching black hat); almost everyone knows each other. We come together to celebrate the Jewish holiday of liberation.

For some people, liberation takes a physical form. For others, it is emotional. Growing up in a deaf family, I never really appreciated the feeling of being just like everybody else. In our house, my deafness was never something “different.” My mother, father and siblings all had it too. It was just something we had that others didn’t.

I remember joining our extended family’s seder one year. It was great spending time with my grandparents and cousins, but it just wasn’t the same as home. At home, I could communicate with anyone I wanted without any obstacles. At home, I could take part in the reading of the Haggadah. At my cousins’, my deaf family and I could only passively watch along as everyone else proceeded with the seder, one person leading and the rest listening or engaging in lively conversation. Lip reading when you don’t know if the person is speaking Hebrew or English is no easy task.

My family is not exactly religious. I grew up attending public school up to my high school years. Then I began to nudge my parents to allow me to attend a Jewish school; my Hebrew lessons for bar mitzvah were great, but I wanted more. My wonderful mother patiently took me around to the various Jewish high schools in Los Angeles for admission interviews. But they all ended with the same thing: “I’m sorry, we cannot accept your son. We just don’t have the resources to provide him with what he needs.”

Then I considered an alternative: a yeshiva geared for Jewish deaf boys in Toronto, Yeshivas Nefesh Dovid. I attended the yeshiva for three fun-filled and immensely enriching years. The yeshiva taught me that a deaf Jew can be on the same footing as any “regular” Jew. Just seeing the deaf dean of the yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Kakon, in action was a constant reminder of this. His stories of his grandfather, Rabbi Dovid Eleizer Rabinowitz of blessed memory, the first deaf rabbi in America — the namesake of the yeshiva — were the stuff of Jewish deaf legend.

Fueled with passion for Judaism by the time I graduated, I continued to learn Torah, all the way up to the Brooklyn rabbinical training program I attend now, working towards ordination as a rabbi, and pursuing my dream of opening up a Jewish center to serve the deaf community.

Our family seder is where we all are liberated. From the feeling of being socially inept. Of feeling left behind. Of feeling like a fifth wheel. When the typical deaf person tries to communicate with a stranger who doesn’t know American Sign Language (ASL), the line of conversation invariably falls back to clichéd phrases. “Hello, how are you?” “Good.” “Um, so how’s the food?” “Fine.” “I’m sorry, could you say that again?” “What? Fine.” “Oh! OK.” Awkward silence.

I am usually not a quiet person — I have plenty to talk about with anyone. But when there is a language barrier, it is sometimes vexing to be unable to share what’s on my mind. It is for this reason that deaf people often feel isolated in a hearing setting.

At our house, we all are the same. Our friends in the deaf community (and sometimes their hearing family members) join us. All are fluent in ASL; most are unaffiliated, having never received a formal Jewish education.

Decades ago, parents of deaf children were told that their deafness rendered them “exempt from the commandments.” And even if they didn’t say that outright, the attitude was clear. And even if they got any form of Jewish education, it was filled with gaping comprehension gaps. Hebrew schools had no resources to compete with government-funded deaf schools and programs, so they simply couldn’t meet the needs of the deaf kids. Jewish deaf children grew up into Jewish deaf adults who had no clue what they were told in Hebrew school. And they passed on their gaps to their children.

Thankfully, the tide is turning. Many major Jewish organizations have begun to realize the importance of including Jewish deaf people in their agendas. Learning sign language has become more popular in recent years, both in the secular and Jewish communities. Several large Jewish websites have started adding captions to their videos.

About two years ago, I started Jewish Deaf Multimedia, which originally hosted a cooking video demonstration on potato latkes and a funny clip about Shavuot. Today, it features a collection of more than 80 educational videos and an expanding list of resources, including teaching the weekly parsha in ASL. We have also partnered with Chabad.org’s Jewish.tv, thereby expanding our reach. Every video is presented in ASL and captioned in English. Nowhere else is there such a large collection of deaf-friendly Jewish information available.

For many in my community, the seder is an annual highlight. We all have our Haggadahs open in front of us. One reader starts to sign out a passage, as everybody else looks in their booklets (that I specially crafted for the seder — complete with short insights and breaks for each reader) and follows along. Everybody at the seder table has his or her own time in the limelight.

For the Four Questions, we ask the youngest person at the table to sign out the question, while the oldest person at the table responds. We tease each other when someone reads from the wrong passage. Or if someone has had one glass too much of wine. My role at our seder table is naturally that of the “on-call rabbi.” By the end of the evening, our guests thank my parents for giving them a taste of liberation.

Here, we are free to be ourselves. •

Yehoshua Soudakoff is currently studying in Yeshivas Chovevei Torah in Brooklyn, for his rabbinical ordination. He is also the director of Jewish Deaf Multimedia and can be contacted at jas@jewishdeafmm.org.