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Silent Minority

How Jewish tradition marginalized the deaf

Eddy Portnoy
July 15, 2010
1923 Basketball Champs of the Hebrew Academy of the Deaf. From The Jewish Deaf, 1923.(Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary.)
1923 Basketball Champs of the Hebrew Academy of the Deaf. From The Jewish Deaf, 1923.(Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary.)

One of the convenient aspects of studying Jewish history is its 3,000-year-old paper trail—the texts and records of the rabbinical and intellectual elite allow us to examine contours of Jewish law and history. But in contrast, we tend to know less about average Jews, whose lives didn’t receive much attention in the writings of the intellectuals. That began to change in the late 19th century, when the Yiddish press hit the streets, for the first time recounting the lives of the unwashed masses of Jews in the public record. Tablet Magazine offers some of their stories, reconstructed from century-old newspaper accounts.

In July 1936, one of Warsaw’s Yiddish dailies, Moment, described the wedding of two Jewish deaf-mutes. An arranged marriage of a well-educated boy from a well-off family to a “poor, but beautiful” bride, the story made special note that the groom’s parents, who owned a successful hat-making company, had a “strange pall hanging over them.” All three of their children were unable to hear or to speak.

The majority of the wedding guests were similarly afflicted, which made for an unusually quiet wedding. The many guests the article commented, “were greeted with hearty handshakes and dead silence.” The groom’s friends, seated around him at his tish, were described as “shuckling happily and speaking with their fingers.”

It was a traditional Jewish wedding, with a ketubah read and signed. The rabbi had the groom stammer the line, “With this ring you are betrothed to me according to the laws of Moses and Israel,” after which the newlywed smashed a glass. The Moment reporter noted the oddity of only hearing a few mumbled “mazel tovs,” but he wrote that, despite the silence, the wedding was a joyous one.

Jewish tradition was not especially tolerant of subgroups. Deaf Jews, for example, were grouped together in the Talmud with the mentally retarded as exempted from religious obligations. In other words, they were not considered full Jews.

According to Jewish law, the deaf could not be counted in a minyan nor could serve as ritual slaughterers. They weren’t allowed to purchase real estate nor could they testify in court. On the other hand, if a deaf man’s ox accidentally gored someone, he wasn’t responsible for the damages. And a hearing-impaired person would be less likely to be cursed: Damning the deaf is forbidden in Leviticus, which is hardly a square deal considering the intolerance.

Although halakhah traditionally prevented many deaf Jews from full participation in their religious communities, their position changed as far back at the Medieval period, according to Rabbi David Feldman, who notes in his 1986 essay “Deafness and Jewish Law,” that Maimonides argued that a deaf person who could speak could in fact participate in ritual matters, marry, and divorce. But the Rambam drew the line at business contracts, saying that a deaf person risked missing nuances in potentially complicated situations and could therefore be cheated. Other rabbis disagreed, saying that a deaf person who could speak was on solid ground for professional matters.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, deafness was often debated among rabbis, especially with the development of sign language. The founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, argued that the rules governing the treatment of the deaf should remain in force no matter how well a person can communicate. But later poskim, or legal scholars, such as Rabbi Simcha Bunim Sofer, recognized that improved communication among the deaf meant they could become fuller members of the Jewish community, in contradiction to the conventions established in the Talmud.

Education of the deaf improved in recent centuries in large part because of Jewish pioneers like Jacob Rodrigues Pereira, the son of Marranos who fled Portugal in 1741 to live openly as a Jew in France. He’s considered the first person to have taught a deaf-mute to speak and was an early sign-language developer. There was also David Seixas, son of Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas, who opened the first school for the deaf in Philadelphia in 1819. It was non-sectarian but funded by Jews. The first exclusively Jewish school for the deaf was founded by philanthropist Hirsch Kollisch in 1844 in Nikolsburg, Moravia. Eight years later, the school moved to Vienna to serve a larger population of deaf Jews.

There was even a deaf congregation, which was offered a place to gather in New York City’s Temple Emanu-El in 1907. Three years later, the New York Times reported that the synagogue offered simultaneous signing translation of its services. The signing was done by Samuel Cohen, a deaf congregant who had studied for the rabbinate. Emanu-El also had a deaf choir, made up of three girls, who wore white gowns and signed the hymns sung by the congregation. “Their skill demonstrated that there is music as well as poetry in motion,” wrote the Times reporter.

In addition to a number of Jewish-run schools for the deaf in the United States, there was also a monthly periodical, The Jewish Deaf, which chronicled issues in the community in the early 20th century. The publication reported on improvements and fallacies in deaf education, on job opportunities, holiday services, dances, picnics, and sporting events. Deaf Jewish institutions apparently had excellent basketball teams that competed in “normal” leagues. One story from 1915 indicates that a Jewish deaf team, the Lexington Avenue Midgets, crushed the Flushing Federals, 42-7.

In the early 20th century in Eastern Europe, there were similar strides in deaf education. The first Jewish school for the deaf in Poland was founded in Lodz in 1911 and used Yiddish as its language of instruction. But at a Jewish school for the deaf in allegedly Yiddish-centric Vilna, the language of instruction was Russian.

In spite of advances in deaf education, the press persisted in reporting on the deaf as a novelty and with condescension. In an article in the Warsaw daily Haynt, for example, reporter Meyer Barenholtz describes what he considers to be a very strange ball for the deaf in the spring of 1932. “Beautifully dressed women in ball gowns, and well-dressed men in tuxedos were in attendance,” wrote Barenholtz. “In spite of of the dead silence, faces were beaming and a good time was had by all. Like at any dance, there was much flirting, although here it was performed by nervously moving fingers and lips. … It was a strange, silent dance of tragically, permanently silent people.”

This clip, which shows a scene from a Jewish-themed play performed in sign language, has been mislabeled as a Yiddish theater performance in a number of documentaries and, according to UC Berkeley Theatre Professor Mel Gordon, was even once used in a BBC documentary on Lee Strasberg to demonstrate how over-the-top and unruly the Jewish actors and audiences were in New York City.
CREDIT: “Hebrew Actors Give Deaf-and-Dumb Play for Mute Audience,” Courtesy Mel Gordon.

Eddy Portnoy, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine, is the Academic Advisor and Exhibitions Curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He is also the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.

Eddy Portnoy is academic adviser and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as well as the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford University Press 2017).