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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

Marjorie Ingall
April 23, 2013

Yael Korc, age 10 and a half, has been blind since birth. Retinopathy of prematurity robbed her of sight, but her parents, Rebecca and Marcelo Korc of El Paso, Texas, are determined not to let this slow her down. Yael studies karate and loves to swim. And, thanks to Braille, she is also a voracious reader—her favorite books include the Nancy Drew and Boxcar Children mysteries and the Ramona stories by Beverly Cleary.

“She adores reading,” Rebecca said. “Anything in Braille, even if it’s just an elevator sign, helps her feel included.”

The same holds true for Jewish texts, as Yael attends Hebrew school and starts to prepare for her bat mitzvah. Here, too, Braille helps her feel included. “Her Sunday school materials help her feel like any other member of her class,” said Rebecca. “She reads books in English and Jewish texts in Hebrew, and because Marcelo works for the World Health Organization and we used to be stationed in Bogota, she can read Braille in Spanish, too.”

Many of Yael’s books come from JBI International (established in 1931 as the Jewish Braille Institute), which has provided her with books in all three languages. “She flew through the entire beginning Hebrew primer,” her mom said proudly. “It took all of eight weeks. Now she keeps up with her class; she just learned Ein Keloheinu—she’s unstoppable!”

If Yael wished to study Jewish subjects in Russian, Yiddish, Hungarian, or Romanian, she could do that through JBI, too. The organization serves over 35,000 blind or vision-impaired clients around the globe; it has translated prayer books for all Jewish denominations into Braille, distributed free large-print Haggadot at Passover, and recorded over 13,000 audiobooks of Jewish interest. Thirty-five years ago, it established a vision clinic in Tel Aviv that now serves 6,000 people a year, from blinded Israeli soldiers to Arab infants to homeless folks in shelters to seniors in assisted-living facilities.

How does the organization decide which books to record or to translate into Braille? “It’s hard to learn Braille after childhood, so most of our Braille materials are songbooks for camps, specific requests for children going to Hebrew school, and liturgical and scholarly materials,” said Ellen Isler, CEO of JBI. “As for audiobooks, I read Publishers Weekly, The [London] Times Literary Supplement, and the Jewish Review of Books to help identify books that will be of interest to our clientele. Then we check to see if they’ve already been recorded by the Library of Congress or by a commercial audiobook publisher like, in which case we won’t do them. We have a reciprocal relationship with the Royal Institute for the Blind in London; The Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped in Israel; and the CNIB Library in Canada—we’ll share materials.”

JBI is part of a program called the National Library Service for the Blind and Visually Handicapped, which the Library of Congress established in 1931. Then in 1996, Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee sponsored legislation that exempted materials for the blind from copyright strictures, which let authorized entities like JBI record and distribute audiobooks free of charge. Back in prehistoric times, those books were on phonograph records the National Library Service sent to its clients. Eventually records gave way to cassette recorders, and then cassette recorders begat the Digital Talking Book Machine (DTBM), an easy-to-use little gadget that even the most technophobic can operate. Audiobooks are stored on flash drives (with a thumb-shaped indentation on top so they can’t be inserted upside down or backward), and the drives and machines are provided free to anyone with visual impairments. Mailing the drives back and forth to the library is also free—there are no postage costs to the library or the book-lover. (That’s especially nice for the seniors enrolled in one of JBI’s hundreds of Talking Book Clubs in South Florida, held at JCCs, senior centers, and communities like Century Village. Book Club members get three months of digitized books at a time, as well as a socializing opportunity, a chance to share the pleasures of reading with others, and the incentive to get out of their rooms.)

I asked Isler which books are popular with JBI clients. “Anecdotally, they love biographies and mysteries,” she said. Some specific titles currently in heavy circulation are A Tale of Love and Darkness, by Amos Oz; The Fortune Teller’s Kiss, by Brenda Serotte; The Conversion, by Aharon Appelfeld; and Daughter’s Keeper, by Ayelet Waldman. “And, of course, people always request classics such as those by Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer,” said Beth Rudich, the organization’s director of development.

One of JBI’s most ambitious projects was a collaborative effort with the Jewish Publication Society: recording the entire Hebrew Bible. Completed in 2010, it took 13 readers—including actors Theodore Bikel and Tovah Feldshuh—12 months to do.

I’d originally heard about JBI from one of my friends inside the computer, Elizabeth Burns, who consults for an NLS library and wrote a fine article about talking-book machines in The Horn Book, a journal of children’s literature. I called JBI hoping to audition as a reader myself. Hey, I read to my kids every night! I acted in college plays!

But after seeing JBI’s recording studio, I felt out of my league. The studio is totally slick, with six soundproof booths and a schmancy audio system. I’d expected a homey little operation; indeed, back in the day, the earliest recordings were done at home by Sisterhood members of various temples, as a mitzvah. “In the summer you could hear the traffic of Queens Boulevard through the open windows, and you could just imagine these lovely women sitting at a boomerang table in someone’s kitchen,” reminisced Jane Blecher, the manager of audio production. But today, prospective readers have to audition, and many are working New York City actors. (Authors whose works are selected by JBI are also welcome to come in and read their own works. Leonard Cohen, Blake Eskin, Francine Klagsbrun, Cynthia Ozick, Oliver Sacks, Anne Roiphe, and Hilma Wolitzer have all availed themselves of the opportunity.)

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.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.