Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Silent Minority

How Jewish tradition marginalized the deaf

Print Email
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.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

The fact that the Talmud groups deafs along with the mentally retarded in the group of those exempt from the commandments indicates neither a) that they were “not full Jews” nor b) that they were marginalized. In the Talmudc era, the lack of sign language that Portnoy alludes to meant that the deaf could not communicate which made it impossible to learn the laws, as the law was taught orally. Similarly this ruling did not apply to those that were made deaf only later in life. As for Jewishness, since when was Jewishness dependent on the obligation to perform commandments? The Mishnah in kiddushin 66b only gives one criterion: being born to a Jewish mother. Portnoy should do a bit more research before trying to project prejudice upon the Jewish tradition.

The structure of this article reminds me of an odd joke I once heard:

A lazy zoology student had not prepared for his final oral exam. He had studied only about the characteristics of fleas one of the hundreds species of insects and animals required to know for the exam. The first question; he got lucky, the professor asked about fleas. He quickly and clearly presented his knowledge. For the second question, the professor asked him about canines. The student: ‘canines are dogs, furry animals which often have fleas. By the way, the fleas …” and he repeated his answer to the first question.

An introduction with a beautiful story about a wedding in Warsaw, somehow turned into “how the Jews marginalized the deaf.”

Beth says:

Did either of you actually read the article? It talks about acceptance and advocacy as well as marginalization. Defensiveness about Judaism at the expense of truth does not serve the cause of Judaism.

A sign of maturity in a person is the ability of that person to acknowledge their imperfections, and be comfortable with them. Needing to assume a “perfection” of our tribe in order to feel justified in being a member of same is a pretty juvenile posture. It’s okay that, in less enlightened times certain parameters were put around participation in Jewish ritual Writing an article about the treatment of the deaf within the larger Jewish community, which includes some less than savory “bullet points” obviously is threatening to you two.

Suggestion: instead of criticizing an interesting article, that based on the minutiae included was pretty well researched, write your own. We jews are supposedly known for our thick skin. Find that trait. its interesting, slightly humurous, slightly perjorative, but overall well investigated.

I’d bet dollars to donuts that you two are of the same ilk that condemn any zionist who dares critique ANY action of the Israeli government as “self-hating judaism”.

esthermiriam says:

If a Tree Falls, by Jennifer Rosner, is a recently published memoir/novel about dealing with deafness — memoir in a contemporary setting, intertwined novel set in the Old World. Worth checking out:

Adam and Beth: it is clear that of the three of us, it’s the two of you displaying knee-jerk reactions, in response to what you perceive as defensiveness. I recommend you read what I wrote and perhaps respond to what I said instead of condescendingly psycholozing my claim into irrelevance. I provided an alternative explanation of the halakhic evidence that makes more sense, and accords better with other discussions in the Talmud, than Portnoy’s (want more proof? R Yosef thought he was exempt from the mitzvot, and yet was still regarded as a great rabbi and leader. No one in the Talmud claimed he was less of a Jew.) Whats ironic is that I’m being accused of ignoring the truth, while Portnoy provides no justification for his bizarre interpretation of sparse evidence – and the two of you don’t even make any arguments!

you want to disagree, even though my position is actually born out by evidence whereas Portnoy’s requires silly leaps of logic? Fine. But ad hominems and guilt by association (how I got associated with the dreaded “zionists” is beyond me) are inappropriate, and belie your ignorance.

Children are also placed in the category of those exempt from the commandments. Did the Jewish tradition marginalize children or regard them as “not full Jews?” indeed they’re mentioned in the same beeath as the deaf and mentally retarded (do a cursory search of the phrase “heresh shoteh v’qatan” if you don’t believe me) it’s quite odd that portnoy didn’t mention it.

This is a bizarre story, ending in 1932 as if nothing has happened since.
Had it gone as far as the 1960’s, it would have described the creation of “Our Way,” the Orthodox Union’s program for the deaf and hard of hearing, a program with chapters throughout the United States and Canada. The key concept for Our Way is inclusion – that is, the inclusion of the deaf into all aspects of Jewish life, starting with the synagogue and day schools/yeshivot and continuing into Jewish observances throughout the year. In February, Our Way sponsored its second annual NAIM – National Inclusion Month, in which hundreds of programs were conducted across North America which emphasized inclusion of the deaf into the Orthodox community. In addition, for the past five years, Our Way has provided a PowerPoint Purim presentation to synagogues, in which graphics illustrate when the hated Haman is to receive his comeuppance. Jewish tradition may have once marginalized the deaf, but as far as the Orthodox Union is concerned, those days are gone forever.

Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman
National Director, National Jewish Council for Disabilities
Rabbi Eliezer Lederfeind, Director, Our Way
Batya Jacob, Program Director, Our Way

Paula says:

Debate — it is this that makes a Jewish ideal/rule/guideline understood and reachable. To look at the richness of text 3,000 years old gives us strength to see the changes we hold in our hands. The nuances available in ASL allow users to be as FULLY Jewish as a hearing/verbal person. My hope is for this article to spread far and wide — allowing those who sign to feel FULL and others to look for ways to open their Jewish worlds to others.

Beth says:

The point of the article is NOT to prove that Talmud and halacha always considered the deaf as less than “full Jews”. Nor is it to give the entire history of deafness in Judaism.

The article touches on interesting highlights, most of them positive, in the history of deaf Jews, especially those taken from the Yiddish press in its heyday–well before 1962, and actually beginning to wane by 1932 in the USA.


Seconding what Dr. Lichtman wrote in his comment…

It’s not only the Orthodox community that’s stepping up to provide ASL interpretation of Services and events.

New York’s Town & Village Conservative Synagogue (, which offers traditional, egalitarian Services, looks forward to bringing in the best interpreters available on an approximately-monthly basis this year for what, this Fall, will be our sixth (6th) consecutive year in doing this.

In fact, we like to say that “it takes a Town and a Village” for these efforts to be as successful as they’ve been so far, and that may well be an understatement…

* We reach out to our Community for funding to maintain such an aggressive approach and they consistently come through.
* T&V’s Clergy also vocally promote the Equal Access provided by these interpreters in remarks made regularly, and extemporaneously, from the Bima.
* In addition, our Deaf congregants continue to return in large enough numbers that we usually can have a minyan just(!) from the members of the Deaf Community who attend when interpreters are provided.

T&V will also be having an ASL-interpreted Kol Nidre Service this Fall for the first time, one that will complement other High Holiday Services taking place nearby under the auspices of New York’s Hebrew Association of the Deaf.

We’d love to have you join us for one of these Services or events! Please contact me at for additional information. Thank you very much!

Bram Weiser, MS, CT
Coordinator of ASL-interpreted Services and Events
Town & Village Conservative Synagogue — New York City

Beth – I read what it says. I’m fully aware that the article’s goal is to provide highlights regarding the deaf in Jewish tradition. I merely disputed those points – namely, the ones regarding the Talmudic era, that I knew to be false. How about you read what I wrote and note that I never claimed anything about the piece as a whole? Or perhaps respond to my arguments?

And of course in the interest of further proving my point, I think I’ll pile on more sources:

-the deaf, along with children and the mentally ill, were exempt specifically because they had “da’at qelishta” – meaning inhibited cognitive capacities (which was almost definitely the case in an era without sign language) nothing to do with not being regarded “fully Jewish.” (hagigah 3b, yebamot 113a)

-the deaf that only turned deaf later in life were considered “pikhin gemurin” or fully capable.

-a deaf person that could read and write was also considered a pikeah gamur.

Where’s the marginalization? Where’s the “deficient Jewishness”? If Portnoy doesn’t know about the Talmudic era, he should have either opened a book or left it out.

By using the phrase “not considered full Jews,” the implication was that the deaf did not have the opportunity to participate fully in Jewish life. Jon should be well aware that, according to Jewish law, one is either Jewish or not, depending upon the circumstances of birth or conversion. I thought most people would understand the nuance of “not fully Jewish,” but, apparently, I was wrong.

Helene says:

I read this article with interest but was greatly disappointed by Mr. Portnoy’s approach to research. He lumps law, interpretation and ritual under a single ruberik and seems to forget that women are also exempted from a great deal of religious obligation with little reflection on being “full Jews.” Such failure to adequately delve into the subject leaves him to erroneously suggest that Jewish tradition lacked tolerance. Such ignorance becomes most apparent with the use of terms like “Marrano” (which means “pig” and was used as slur for suspected “conversos” the correct term for hidden Jews of the Inquisition) and “normal” rather than “hearing counterparts”.

Looks like it’s time for a fact checker and better resources than wikipedia.

Mr. Portnoy: that’s not nuance, that’s an entirely different argument. If I wanted to say that children do not have access to the same opportunities as adults, I would not claim that they are not fully human – their humanity (or alleged lack thereof) is not the source of their inhibitions; rather their lack of intellectual or emtional development is. The same here.

Moreover your attempt at bypassing my criticsms is belied by the title of the piece and the following paragraph, which ends “Damning the deaf is forbidden in Leviticus, which is hardly a square deal considering the intolerance.” The implication is that the special (though as noted, not unique) status of the deaf was the result of a de jure policy of discrimination based on the Talmudic society’s “intolerance” for the deaf, rather than the de facto result of their limited intellectual capabilities, itself brought on by their inability to communicate.

cassia margolis says:

There are a couple of factual errors in the article, one of which really surprised me becasue it would have been easy to verify- and is a thing that s very well known among the Deaf in the United States. The first deaf school in the United States was not set up in 1819 in Philadelphia, as the article states. The first deaf school in the United States was set up in 1817 by Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc.

Jon: I appreciate your comments, but, again, they are based on your own misinterpretation of what I wrote. That said, I will only add that your subsequent comment that the deaf have “limited intellectual capabilities” is incorrect.

Cassia: that is not an error. That paragraph discusses specifically Jewish-related events in deaf history. Neither Gallaudet nor Clerc were Jews, so they are not mentioned there.

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

I bless the inventor of the cochlear implant. Having a granddaughter who was born profoundly deaf but was able to have this wonderfun adjunct for hearing..she plays the violin and is in the school orchestra, she loves gymnastics, music, takes dance of all kinds of classes, received National Medal of Honor in her middle school,speaks to us on the telephone and is a whizz on the computer, plus she let her hair grow long and then had it cut and donated it to the children who had cancer for wigs….an all around young Jewish girl who can do anything that one with hearing can do.

The most important part is that she is kind, caring, beautiful and we love her.

For another point of view, you read “My Father’s Hands” Myron Uhlberg’s memoir of growing up in Brooklyn as a child of hearing impaired parents. Mike is an award winning author of children’s literature as well. His first language was American Sign.
His descriptions of having to translate for his father provide insight into the cruelty of the prejudice against his very capable parents.

I did not misinterpret what you said at all – you used the wrong phrase. I interpreted that phrase correctly. And I never claimed that the deaf have inferior intellectual abilities, your attempts at skewing my comments notwithstanding.

If you didn’t do the research, either say so or just let it go, instead of erecting strawmen.

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Friends:

First, I enjoyed Eddy’s article and he did a good job on it. I think hearing folks, including myself, need to learn more about the Jewish deaf and their history.

Second, I think that Jon’s contention that deaf Jews weren’t discriminated against in Talmudic times because people who went deaf in later life were treated as Jewish adults, but not people born deaf, shows that Judaism did discriminate against deaf people.

The discrimination continues today, as many articles from Jewish deaf people attest. I appreciate the commenters who posted resources for the Jewish deaf, and am glad that the situation is slowly changing, but it hasn’t changed completely.

For example,if you Google “deaf Jews” you will turn up an article by an Orthodox Israeli rabbi who won’t accept deaf people for conversion.

Helene argues that the exemption of deaf people from religious duties doesn’t prove discrimination against the Jewish deaf, because women were exempted from religious duties in the Talmud. Well, that only proves Eddy’s point about discrimination against the Jewish deaf.

It is widely acknowledged by non-Orthodox Jews and many Modern Orthodox Jews that ‘exempting’ women from religious duties in Judaism led to second-class citizen status for women for most of Judaism’s history.

It is not a coincidence that women rabbis and a program for training rabbis pastoring the Jewish deaf have both appeared within the last 50 years. Women and the deaf have refused to be ‘exempted’ any longer.

I wish to point out a trend I have notice in criticism of Eddy Portnoy’s articles. He likes to write about the Jewish past, which inevitably involves commenting on positive and negative aspects of Orthodox communities of the past, as most Jews were Orthodox prior to 1800.

He is then attacked by Orthodox posters for not knowing the Talmud, being inaccurate on tiny historical details, etc. — when the real beef seems to be that he demythologizes the ‘perfect’ Jewish Orthodox past.


First: You said “erecting”. Sweet.

Second. I’ll be the first to admit my basketfulls of ignorance. I got barrels of it. But I still know how to read. (except some of the big words – like “moreover” or “de jure” — you sure have a pretty mouth)

So when I read: >>>>Portnoy should do a bit more research before trying to project prejudice upon the Jewish tradition.

I pretty much took you to mean what you said. Which I took to mean that the result of the article — either by intent or error — was to disparage judaism.

Whether you agree with the interpretation of halachah as reported in his article, I failed to see how assembling a compendium of information about the treatment of deaf jews “projected prejudice”.

That seems like more of a inference by an overprotective gatekeeper to the faith than an implication or intent on the part of the writer. That was the only part of your screed that I took umbrage with.

And since the evaluation of whether or not an article had a “prejudicial” tone is going to boil down to opinion and not fact, I’ll leave you to your self-satisfied and unassailable opinion. They are like a-holes you know — we all get one!

Jon, a dead horse is clearly being flogged here, so I’ll only comment for the last time that the phrase I used was meant as a matter of social status, not a legal definition. My intention was not to “project prejudice upon the Jewish tradition,” as you wrote, but simply to present a broader picture. That you decided to expend so much energy on one phrase within a larger article makes me think it’s you that needs to let it go.

Hartmut Teuber says:

The article contains two historical inaccuracies and an omission of an important mention of deafness in Exodus:

Pereira was neither a developer of sign language, nor is one of them. In fact, he is deadly against sign language. He only used a sort of manual alphabet in common use by the Spanish monks and some gestures to designate speech sounds. His son and grandsons were active in combating sign language in schools for the deaf by founding a society for this purpose similarly to the Alexander Graham Bell Association of the Deaf in the USA and was influential in the infamous resolution at the Milan Conference 1880 that forbade the use of sign language in education of deaf children. Pereira was not even the first person who taught deaf children to speak. His contemporaries in Germany, Scotland/England, and 100 years before that in Spain taught deaf individuals to speak, He in fact learned how to do it by studying books on this subject from Spain.

The omission relates to the part in Exodus, beginning with 4:10, that God declared to Moses in the desert that he created deaf, blind, and lame persons as part of the overall creation of mankind purpose. Upon rejoinder by Moses that he could not speak, God designated his brother Aaron as his interpreter. A description of the interpreting process is detailed there: Moses making signs and Aaron speaks what he signed. Interesting is that Moses was able to function as the leader of Jewish people through an interpreter.

However, the overall point in Portnoy’s article about deaf people being marginalized is correct, naturally not in Judaism, but in the Jewish society. There were conflicting laws: on the one hand, deaf persons were permitted to marry and transact business, if conducted in sign language, and on the other hand not counted in minyah or granted other rights elsewhere. A deaf person has more rights if able to speak, if not “too bad”!

More to follow next.

Hartmut Teuber says:

Such marginalization is not surprising. It is prevalent in societies that thinks, to be able to speak is what matters. Using sign language are only exception, and becomes a recognized alternative to speech communication, wherever a sizable number of deaf persons reside in a community, like those at the court of the Hittites royalty. Alas, there are mention of sign language in the early Jewish scriptures, but no mention of a signing community, as mentioned by Plato and later by St. Augustine.

There are also no records of instruction in any early Jewish literature of deaf persons being taught. Even when a rabbi had deaf children (See “Deafness” in the Encyclopedia of medicine in the Bible and the Talmud). This is in contrast to numerous historical records of Catholic and Lutheran clerics teaching individual deaf children in the 11th through 18th centuries. Only the latter half of the 18th century saw the first Jewish guy, namely Pereira, attempting a contrarian method (speaking, no signing) of education of the deaf with a deaf girl. Pereira would have never started this, if not for Abbee de l’Epee with his first public school for the deaf in Paris using sign language. He thought he could do better than the Abbee.

Paula says:

It doesn’t look like anyone who is Deaf has added comments. For those of you who are not familiar with Deaf culture — people are not hearing impaired (as mentioned above about the author of Hands of My Father) they are D/deaf or hard of hearing or hearing. To the grandmother thankful for the implant — I am thankful the child survived the surgery — for some do not. The child could have been anything she wanted to be without the implant. You don’t mention that she signs. I’m hoping that was just left out and she hasn’t been left without the benefit of sign.

David Fried says:

Could I actually ask some factual questions? What sort of sign language were the Warsaw Jews using at the 1936 wedding? How and where did they learn it? When they finger-spelled, were they finger-spelling Yiddish, using a Hebrew manual alphabet?

What about the actors in the film clip? Where was it filmed? What sort of sign language are they using? Were the actors deaf?

This is a poor article because the author never thought to ask such questions, not because it denigrates pre-modern Jewish culture and attitudes. I’m not sure the author knows that there is more than one sign language.

Karen Beth Staller says:

While I definitely don’t begrudge anyone making the decision to have access to more sound if THEY want, I (and many people in the deaf community) have a problem with sentences that start with “cochlear implant” and end with ” can do anything that one with hearing can do”, so I ask your indulgence while I adapt a post above. Bear in mind that my problem is NOT that people HAVE cochlear implants, it’s that they and those around them make it sound like they are who they are BECAUSE they decided not to sign . . .

“Having a dear friend who was born profoundly deaf, her parents decided to let her be herself and not try to make her pass for hearing. In middle school and high school, she was on the school volleyball team. She loves sports and while she was not interested in dance, her best friend – who was also allowed to develop her likes and dislikes at her own pace took dance classes of all kinds. My friend is currently in graduate school, can call anyone she pleases on the videophone and is a whizz on the computer. She became bat mitzvah at the appropriate age of 13, conducting the service herself in spoken Hebrew, spoken Hebrew with sign language, spoken English and spoken English with sign language. She has traveled to Europe and studied there and plans to teach other deaf children ….an all around young Jewish girl who can do anything that one with hearing can do.

The most important part is that she is kind, caring, beautiful and we love her.”

It does not take hearing or speaking to be a wonderful person.

Karen Beth Staller says:

It has been brought to my attention that my post above may not be clear to some people (thanks, BW!) Let me clarify . . .

this is a description of a friend of mine. She does not have a cochlear implant and her primary mode of communication is American Sign Language. My point in adapting Dorothy Wachsstok’s post into a description of my friend was to point out that Dorothy’s granddaughter is not necessarily able to do these things BECAUSE she has a cochlear implant. It is possible to develop into someone just as well-rounded and well-educated and popular and diverse as “any hearing person” even with an uncorrectable/uncorrected hearing loss.

I loved this piece. It’s a fascinating snippet of history — it’s not talking about Deaf Jewish participation in Jewish life today. I was especially fascinated by the film clip, wrongly used to illustrate how unruly Jewish actors and audiences were! Great job, fun writing.

A book that isn’t specifically Jewish but talks about the history of Deaf education in America is the gorgeously written Train Go Sorry by Leah Hager Cohen. She’s a hearie but she essentially grew up at the Lexington School for the Deaf in NYC, where her dad was the principal. It’ll also give some perspective on current Deaf culture and the cochlear implant controversy.

Dan Parvaz says:

An interesting piece. I do have a couple of notes:

1. The language use in the video clip, as far as I can ascertain, is American Sign Language. This is based on the small clip where I can actually see what is being signed by the gentleman in the tallit.

2. Sign languages weren’t “developed” in the 18th, 19th, or any other century, any more than English was “developed”. Whenever there have been a sufficient number of deaf people in a community, there have been fully-formed signed languages. Even where there are Deaf people in isolation, some formed of signed communication exists. There is historical evidence of this extending back to classical antiquity, as well as scientific evidence from the study of deaf infants (manually babblingin the crib, for instance). In fact, external attempts to correct (or “develop”) signing has resulted in more harm than good.

3. I heartily endorse comments by Hartmut Teuber, Bram Weiser, and Karen Beth Staller.

Milan 1880. No other event in the history of deaf education had a greater impact on the lives and education of deaf people. This single event almost destroyed sign language.

What Happened in 1880?

In 1880, there was an international conference of deaf educators, the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf. At this conference, held September 6-11, 1880, a declaration was made that oral education was better than manual (sign) education. A resolution was passed banning sign language. The only countries opposed to the ban were the United States (represented by Edward Miner Gallaudet, Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, Issac Peet, James Denison, and Charles Stoddard) and Britain. The sign supporters tried, but failed, to get their voices heard. Here are the first of 8 resolutions passed by the convention:

1. The Convention, considering the incontestable superiority of articulation over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society and giving him a fullerknowledge of language, declares that the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in the education and instruction of deaf-mutes.

2. The Convention, considering that the simultaneous use of articulation and signs has the disadvantage of injuring articulation and lip-reading and the precision of ideas, declares that the pure oral method should be preferred

The other resolutions dealt with instruction of impoverished deaf students, how to instruct deaf students orally, the need for instructional books for deaf oral teachers, the long-term benefits of oral instruction, the optimal ages for oral instruction and length of instruction, and phasing out of manually instructed students. A photocopy of the Milan resolutions is in the book Deaf Heritage.

How Could This Happen?

It was a foregone conclusion. The outcome was basically “fixed” because the conference was planned and organized by a committee that was against sign language. This committee selected the attending representatives — more than half were known oralists from France and Italy. Although other topics were supposed to be discussed, the conference focused on the methods of instruction, and representatives talked about the method of instruction used in their schools – either speech or combined speech and sign. Immediately after these presentations, the resolutions were made.

What Was the Immediate Effect?

The repurcussions to Milan were immediate:

* Deaf teachers lost their jobs
* The fledgling National Association of the Deaf attracted more supporters as deaf people fought to save their language and culture
* The president of Gallaudet College (now University) decided to retain sign language on the Gallaudet campus. This monumental decision may have been largely responsible for sign language’s survival.

What Was the Long-Term Impact?

Milan 1880 is of such significance in deaf history that it has been commemorated in artworks, such as the artwork of artist Mary Thornley, who has done a painting showing hearing “hunters” seeking to shoot down ASL.

In October 1993, Gallaudet University held a conference, “Post Milan ASL and English literacy.” The conference proceedings included an esay, “Reflections upon Milan with an eye to the future,” by Katherine Jankowski.

In retrospect, one could say that in the years since, sign language and oralism have learned to co-exist peacefully. There will never be another Milan 1880.

(International Conference Education for the Deaf, “ICED” are a biggest terrible miskenly for illegitimate to deaf children.)

We all know Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone.

That makes him a good guy, right? Creating a way for man to effectively communicate across long distances? Not so much.

Bell was an innovator and educator. However, he was also an oppressor, and this side of him isn’t discussed much.

His Friend Side

Alexander Graham Bell’s “friend side” is what is usually written in his biographies.

He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847. Ever since he was young, he always had an interest in hearing and speech.

Alexander Melville Bell, his father, was the creator of a series of symbols that that showed speech-the position and movement of the lips, throat, and tongue when making sounds. This was called “Visible Speech” and was used to teach deaf people how to speak.
Alexander Graham Bell

Bell helped his father with public demonstrations of Visible Speech in 1862 until 1869 when he became his father’s partner.

Alexander Graham Bell had been experimenting with acoustics and wanted to find a way to improve the telegraph so that it can transmit sounds. Many inventors before Bell had unsuccessfully attempted this.

In 1870, Bell’s brothers died of tuberculosis, and his family moved to Brantford, Ontario, Canada. In Boston, he opened a school for teachers of the deaf in 1872. During his work there, he became friends with attorney Gardiner Green Hubbard. Hubbard’s daughter, Mabel, had been struck with scarlet fever as a child and became deaf.

Bell began to write specifications to patent a device that could carry speech by wire. This was the telephone. He was issued the patent for the telephone on March 7, 1876. He transmitted speech successfully for the first time only three days later. He married Mabel Hubbard in that same year.

Alexander Graham Bell founded the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf in 1890. This is now known as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf.

His Foe Side

Alexander Graham Bell’s “foe side” is very surprising, but is not usually discussed.

Bell believed that deafness was a horrible curse to the person who suffered from it.

That is a pretty awful thing to think, and for someone with so much influence, a terrible thought to spread.

I guess there are several reasons why Bell would have this thought about deafness. One is that he grew up with a value for speech, and as an educator of the deaf, he saw how difficult it is for a deaf child to acquire knowledge through spoken and written language. He also did not come in contact with those Deaf people who were part of the Deaf community and who had successfully found happiness within it. So, therefore, without this exposure, I can understand how Bell would have seen deafness as only a handicap.

However, Bell also saw deafness as a threat to the social order. He thought that deaf people weakened society. In the 1880s, when Bell was rather wealthy and had a lot of time on his hands, he became worried about the numbers of deaf people in America and how they were increasing. He thought this was weakening the country and was determined to find a way to stop it.

Because deafness seemed as though it were incurable, Bell wanted to find a way to prevent the birth of deaf children. He examined data from many American schools for the deaf and wrote a paper entitled Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race.

1. The tendency of deaf people to marry other deaf people
2. The numbers of deaf people marrying other deaf people increased during the nineteenth century
3. This increase would continue into the future unless drastic steps are taken to stop it

Bell stated that this tendency of deaf people marrying deaf people would eventually lead to a creation of a deaf race and “would be a great calamity to the world.”

His reasons for the tendency of deaf people marrying other deaf people were as follows:

1. Residential schools for the deaf
2. deaf associations and organizations
3. deaf newspapers
4. education in sign language
5. writing in sign language
6. erroneous ideas about deaf people
7. deaf people’s desire to create a deaf state

Numbers 5-7 were of no importance and made no sense. Sign language writing doesn’t really exist, his erroneous ideas were that deaf people could not be taught to speak well enough to carry a conversation, and a deaf state would never be established because of lack of support for the deaf community.

His first four reasons, though, were very valid and true. If he successfully eliminated these things, the American deaf community would be non-existent. And that is what he wanted to do. Without the cultural links and socializations of deaf people, they would be isolated and more integrated into the hearing society.

Bell had two ideas for keeping deaf people from marrying. One was to enact laws that would forbid the congenitally deaf people from intermarrying. This, however, Bell though, would lead to immoral actions and illegitimate children. It is also difficult to tell when a deaf person became deaf.

His second idea was to eliminate residential schools, prohibit sign language use in deaf education, and forbid deaf teachers from teaching deaf students. Bell thought these measures would encourage deaf people to use their oral skills and become more integrated into the hearing society. These measures could be “hidden” and seen as education reforms.

Alexander Graham Bell’s thoughts and findings did not lead to the end of deaf marriage, but it did instill fear and anger in many deaf people and spark debates.

To gain support, Bell printed his Memoir and sent it to members of Congress, the principals of schools for the deaf, and other people involved in deaf education. They were not impressed. The truth came out. Those involved in deaf education knew that most of their students had hearing parents. Deaf children are rarely born to deaf parents.

Bell wanted to take away everything Deaf people had-their schools, their organizations, their newspapers, and even their language. Thankfully, he was unsuccessful. Deaf people are still people. There is nothing wrong with them, and they most definitely do not pose a threat to the human race.

I know this information may come as a shock to you, and it should. There are two sides to every story, and this is one side that most people do not know about-Bell and his fight for eugenics against the deaf.

Is Alexander Graham Bell a friend or foe? Or both?

…the world may never know…

It was come from Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AGBELL) in Washington, D. C.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Silent Minority

How Jewish tradition marginalized the deaf

More on Tablet:

Obama: Denying Israel’s Right to Exist as a Jewish Homeland is Anti-Semitic

By Yair Rosenberg — The president draws a line in the sand in his latest interview