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Turning a Page for the Blind

JBI International’s Braille materials and audiobooks help blind Jews stay connected to the community

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Diane Lipman, a volunteer at JBI International, records an audiobook in the center’s state of the art recording facilities. (Tracy Levy)
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Despite my inexperience, Blecher kindly encouraged me to try out. “Do you want to read one of your favorite columns?” she asked kindly. Uh, no? I can barely read my parenthesis-strewn work in my own head, let alone aloud, and my own jokes, which always seem so hilarious in my head, often make me wince once they’ve left my keyboard. So, I grabbed a copy of Matthue Roth’s Never Mind the Goldbergs from a shelf of recently recorded books in the studio; I’d never gotten around to reading this well-reviewed young-adult novel about a punk-rock-loving girl at an Orthodox day school, and it seemed right up my alley. After the engineer counted me down (3-2-1!), I started off nervously. I could feel a little quaver in my voice and hear my own breath. But I soon loosened up. The writing was so funny, and the experience of being scolded in class by a rabbi so familiar. When the rabbi starts yelling, “Osser! Osser!” (Forbidden! Forbidden!) at the protagonist—well, let’s just say I could relate. And when you relate, you read better. (Reader, I passed the audition. Once I’ve finished a big fundraising push for Maxie’s beleaguered public school library, I’ll start volunteering at JBI.)

Of course, I’ll never read as well as Maggie Burke, one of JBI’s regular voices. I chatted with the voracious Burke, a theater veteran who’s also done a lot of television—she played Dr. Audrey Samuels on As the World Turns for a decade and a nearly endless succession of judges on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. (A doctor and a judge! It’s like a Jewish mother’s dream!)

“I’d always thought recording for the blind would be a nice way to give back,” Burke told me, “as well as good muscle exercise for me as an actress. My father was a huge reader, and then he developed myasthenia gravis, which was really hard. I wanted to do something but didn’t know how to go about it. Then my friend Betty Rollin—I went to Sarah Lawrence with her—asked if I wanted to join her in doing this. Now it’s been about three years, and I love the people, I love reading the books, and I’ve brought another friend in and we trade off. She reads and I direct, and then we switch.”

While JBI’s recording studios are top-tier, some of the rest of the technology is a little lacking. The 23-year-old Braille embosser takes up nearly half a room in JBI’s office on East 30th Street in Manhattan. (Fortunately, the City of New York just gave JBI a grant for a new embosser and new servers.) JBI is currently in the process of digitizing all its old audiotapes; visually impaired and sighted employees are determinedly plowing through tons of vintage materials. It’s fascinating walking through a building full of old and new machines, reel-to-reel tapes and zippy computers, old-school library stacks and tiny flash drives. You can see how we’re truly at a transition point in our digital and literary culture.

Some things don’t change, though, no matter how much technology progresses: When I was there, a seeing-eye dog, a golden retriever, sat placidly in a corner.

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Correction: Marcelo and Rebecca Korc live in El Paso, while their daughter, Yael, attends the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) in Austin. Yael travels home every weekend to be with her family.The “Hebrew” braille texts she receives from JBI are transliterations–so they’re the same whether you’re a Spanish or English reader/speaker.

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Jewish Books for the Blind

Photographs by Tracy Levy