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Rabbi says deaf 'ineligible for conversion'

Those who cannot hear, cannot fulfill mitzvoth and therefore, believes rabbinical court in 2008, cannot convert to Judaism
Rivkah Luvitch, Jewish World/ynet news.com

Anyone inflicted with a severe hearing and speech impediment cannot undergo Jewish conversion. This harsh statement was recently made by Rabbi Avraham Sherman of the Chief Rabbinical Court, in a ruling now made public.

And so the story goes: Many years ago a deaf woman appeared before the Conversions Court and declared her desire to become a Jew so she could marry her Jewish love. The court ruled in the majority that there was no point in converting her, since the Halacha exempts the deaf from performing mitzvahs; and since the conversion would be rendered insignificant, there was no way to perform it.

The court's reasoning was that since the Halacha says that "one who is deaf, one who is young and one who is a simpleton shall be exempt form ordinance," the woman in deemed incapable of observing mitzvahs, thus incapable of accepting the burden of ordinance, which is the cornerstone of conversion.

Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky, in the minority opinion, looked at the core issue of "accepting the burden of faith," and whether it should be considered a prerequisite for conversion or its essence. Dichovsky believes that the deaf can be converted. The woman's entitlement, he said, will not rest on the spiritual-practical plane of observing mitzvahs alone, but on the overall plane of being a part of the Jewish people.

"The appellant has every right to seek conversion since she resides and works among Jewish people," he wrote. "Conversion should be hers if she so wants it."

Rabbi Sherman, however, remained adamant: "Any conversion preformed on the deaf will have no spiritual bearing. Observing mitzvahs has nothing to do with the act of conversion, not should anyone refer to it as such. It is the impartation of being Jewish without the essence of Jewishness."

I was upset by his words. The thought that parts of Jewish law categorically prevent admission of the deaf into the flock sent shivers down my spine. What happens if a family wants to adopt a deaf child? The Rabbinical Court would not agree to convert the child. And what if a family wishes to convert and one of its sons is hearing impaired? Will the court convert all but one?

The thought that there are some among the nations who will not be able to become Jews because a physical impairment apparently renders them devoid of the spiritual capability to embrace Judaism's ordinance, shakes my Jewish world to its core.

This is not my Judaism.


Silent Chanukah Song

By Jamie Berke, About.com
Updated: December 6, 2007

The holidays can be difficult for people with hearing loss when they are around hearing family members. Here are some examples of how deaf people cope with family holidays from both personal and others' experiences:

* Hire an interpreter and bring the interpreter along
* Go off quietly and read a book
* Limit themselves to one-on-one conversations if they can manage those
* Limit themselves to writing back and forth in one-on-one conversations
* Avoid going to family gatherings
* Work on cooperative activities with hearing family members that may not require much talking, such as cooking
* Focus on physical activities that may not require talking, such as playing video games
* Join the family in doing holiday related activities that may not require talking (going out to look at a Christmas tree or holiday displays, for example)

A Chanukah Story
In this fictional story by Marc L. Brown, an About.com user, a deaf 12-year-old named Mara has recently lost her mother, and both she and her father are struggling to cope. Mara is faced with the challenge of helping her father overcome his grief and enjoy the holiday, without any words spoken.

This is just one of several stories, poems, and autobiographies in the Literary Corner at About.com Deafness. The Literary Corner was set up to encourage deaf and hard of hearing people, including deaf students, to write creatively. In addition to the Literary Corner, I have written about my own experiences with family holidays while growing up.
Mara’s father bore the look of a man who had suffered more than he could endure. Since her mother had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, declined rapidly, and died weeks later, the whole saga could be monitored in his shrinking presence.

He had been a hardy man, treating Mara’s deafness as an alternate way of looking at the world. Both of her parents had helped to nurture her other skills and senses to enrich her life. She had developed a keen understanding of everything she observed. At age 12 she was accustomed to the lack of sound but not the utter silence of the past few months. She had lost her mother, and her father was slipping away.

Last year at Chanukah, decorations made the house look festive and the smells of good things to eat scented the air. Dreidel-shaped cookies and potato latkes with homemade applesauce were among the special holiday treats that Mom seemed to effortlessly materialize.

This year, Mara needed a Chanukah miracle and she did not know from where it might come. The dark days of December were swallowing her family in gloom and the Festival of Lights could not come soon enough.

She found the Chanukah Box in her mother’s closet, opening it with the special reverence of something last touched by a departed loved one. Mara became less tentative. Realizing it would do no good as a memorial, she tore into the box to see what was there. On top, she discovered the silver Menorah and the box of blue and white twisted candles Aunt Elena had brought back from Israel. Mom had been saving those candles for a special occasion, and Mara was hoping this would be it.

She set out the menorah and placed a candle in the top candle holder above the Jewish star to be the Shamos, which is used to light the other candles, and placed another for the first of the 8 nights.

When her father returned from work, he saw the menorah and his eyes filled with tears. He fled to his room without a backward glance, and did not emerge.

As the sun set, Mara lit the candles and stared into their flickering light. Mesmerized, she saw her mother in the flames, decorating the house for the holiday. Intent on learning everything she could, Mara saw exactly how each decoration was to come from its place in the Chanukah box to be unwrapped and displayed.

The next day, she followed every move she had seen unfold in the candle flame, giving special attention to the paper chains she and Mom had made together when she was in kindergarten. Next, she unfurled the banners that proclaimed "Happy Chanukah," and placed a fierce and heroic Judah Macabee poster over the hearth. She stopped to survey the results, and the house looked exactly as the vision in the flame and also felt very familiar. She placed the candles in the menorah for the second night.

Her father came home and looked around. Overwhelmed, he escaped to his room once again. Mara waited for a bit hoping Dad might reappear and then lit the candles for the second night. The tiny flames drew her in and soon she saw Mom playing dreidel with her.

They played for chocolate filled coins, and she saw Mom distinctly point out the Hebrew letters on each of the 4 sides of the dreidel. Nes Gadol Haya Sham, meaning a great miracle happened there. The dreidel spun like a top, but had square sides and depending on which side was facing up, coins were won or lost. Then, as the candle flames began to die, Mom showed Mara her favorite trick, how to spin the dreidel upside down on its handle with a flick of the wrist and a snap of the fingers.

The next day, Mara found the dreidel in the Chanukah box. On her way home from school, she stopped at the temple gift shop. She purchased a little bag of Chanukah gelt, the gold foil covered chocolate coins, and hurried home.

She placed the candles in the menorah for the third night. This time when her father came in, she ran to him and took his coat. Pulling him by the hand to where the menorah sat on the kitchen table, Mara lit the Shamos and stuck it in his hand to light the other three candles. He shook a little, but managed to get them lit. She could see his lips move a little as he reflexively chanted the prayers for the lighting of the candles. As soon as he replaced the Shamos in the menorah, she sat him down at the table and poured out the bag with the chocolate gelt.

It spilled out like glittering pirate treasure. She quickly divided the gelt and gave him the dreidel to spin. He took it and spun it and landed on Shin, so he had to put a coin in the pot. Anxious to show off the trick she had been practicing, with a flick of her wrist and a snap of her fingers, Mara spun the dreidel upside down. Delighted at how well she had performed the trick, she looked to her Dad and he looked like he had been shot.

Looking very pale, he went to his room and did not return. Mara looked dejectedly at the candles, but what she saw there gave her renewed hope. It was her mother baking Chanukah cookies. The candles revealed the measuring and mixing of ingredients and the rolling of the dough. The special cookie cutters, which were of course stored in the Chanukah box, made the cookies in the shapes of dreidels and the Star of David and the Lion of Judah.

The next day, Mara gathered the ingredients she needed and set about the task of making Chanukah cookies. She loved the feel of the dough and the way the house began to smell as the cookies baked in the oven. When the cookies were done, she placed the candles in the menorah for the fourth night and awaited her father.

When he came in the door and sniffed, the trace of a smile crossed his face as he hung up his coat. Who could resist fresh baked cookies? Mara again handed him the Shamos to light the other candles and then offered him a perfect cookie. He took a bite and first smiled and then eyes filling with tears, walked away once more. Left with the candle flame once again she looked intently and saw her mother selecting a scarf. Noting the store and the color and the way Mom touched the fabric, she knew what she must do.

Mara went to the store and picked out a soft wool scarf in a blue plaid that would look just right with Dad’s overcoat. It looked just like the one in the candle vision and it just happened to be "on sale" so that she could afford to buy it with her own money. There was Chanukah wrapping paper in the Chanukah box, and Mara wrapped the gift and then placed candles in the menorah for the fifth night. She was pretty excited as she waited and ate a cookie or two to pass the time…

She had fallen asleep in the comfy chair and when she awoke the candles were burning down and her father had already escaped to his sanctuary. Mara looked into the waning flames to see a major task being performed. Mom was making potato latkes (pancakes) and applesauce. Mara absorbed all of the intricacies of the process that had been handed down mother-to-daughter for generations.

She could not be certain if the image in the candle flames had taught her the method for making these latkes or activated some deep genetic code that informed her mind and body of what to do. Some modern conveniences had been incorporated into the process but the family joke was that it took a little bit of grated finger to make it taste just right. Much effort and a big mess had gone into the platter of latkes and the bowl of fresh applesauce that sat on the table as Mara put the candles in the menorah for the sixth night.

Dad could not run from a platter of latkes. Eating latkes was as much in his blood as making them was in that of his daughter. He lit the candles and sat down at the table to eat. He tasted the potato pancakes and applesauce and almost slipped into the easy familiarity of the holiday and its signature dish. He almost smiled and almost put more food on his plate, but he slumped back into his mournful persona, briefly squeezed his daughter’s hand and slunk back to his room. Mara ate dejectedly and looked into the candles for more inspiration. The candles began to flicker and die until only one remained. In it she saw her mother go to the stereo and put on a special recording of Jewish music that remained in the Chanukah box.

The next night she was prepared when Dad came through the door. All she knew of the music was that sitting in her special spot the beat came through her skin in a throbbing vibration. Mama used to help her clap along and sometimes Papa bounced her on his knee but that was long ago. As soon as the candles had been lit for the seventh night, Mara put on the music and began to clap along. Her father clapped a bit and smiled with his lips, and cried with his eyes before running away to his room. Mara looked to the menorah for the help she so desperately needed and she gazed deeply into the flames, but all she saw was the bits of fire mocking her by moving with the music. Still she stared hopefully until the last candle flickered and went out. Exhausted and abandoned she went to bed filling the night with sobs she could not hear.

The morning brought new hope but no new ideas. Perhaps she thought there were no more ideas. Even her mother’s visiting spirit could not find anything else in the now completely empty Chanukah box to make a miracle.

Mara could not just give up. She had only one father and it was the eighth night of Chanukah. Nes Gadol Haya Sham, a great miracle happened there. The miracle was that a single jar of sanctified oil, only sufficient to keep the everlasting light burning for a single day lasted for eight days until new oil could be brought to the temple. So to have a miracle happen here might need all she had learned since the first night.

That night as Mara greeted her father at the door of their home, still festively decorated for Chanukah, wonderful smells assailed his senses. They began at the filled menorah lighting the Shamos and using it to ignite all eight candles. Her father chanted the traditional prayers. Wonderful latkes with homemade applesauce and Chanukah cookies in the shapes of dreidels and stars and the Lion of Judah filled the Table. The wrapped gift and a game of dreidel awaited in the living room and Mara looked so hopeful that her father could not escape the celebration without participating.

They ate and played dreidel and he opened his gift, and then Mara turned on the music and began to clap. He smiled a bit and clapped along but seemed ready to sink back into his malaise. Just then, Mara became aware of the shadows moving in the flickering flames to the rhythm of the music. It was not to mock her, but to tell her what else she must do. As her dad got up to leave she caught up his hands and engaged his eyes. He could not look away as the candlelight reflected in Mara’s eyes contained the image of his dear wife. Following the lead of the two women he loved he began to dance the horah. One and two and kick, one and two and kick… Mara turned him in a circle as they stepped and kicked to the rhythm of the music. Mom jumped into the middle turning faster and faster until she became part of the dancing flames and shadows. Papa began to laugh. Mara did not need to hear this laughter to know that it was the sound of breaking chains.

Nes Gadol Haya Sham, the Israelites threw off the chains of an oppressor, reclaimed their Temple and lit the Everlasting Light.

This night as they kicked and spun and laughed, Mara and her father freed themselves from grief and the burden of the past. As the candles burned low, he gathered her in his arms and she hugged him back. Father and daughter they made a wordless pledge: She to honor the memory of her mother by never giving up; and he to always be there to support and care for the daughter both he and his wife so dearly loved.

The next day, Mara and her dad took down the decorations and carefully packed the Chanukah box for next year and for all the years to come. And every year as the light grew brighter with the addition of each candle, they saw an extra shadow spinning joyfully in the middle as they danced the horah and laughed.

Marlee Matlin Still Listens to Her iPod

From the newsroom of the Switched (AOL), Monday, January 28, 2008
by Joshua Fruhlinger

Actress Marlee Matlin has been deaf since she was 18 months old. That doesn't mean she's not a gadget hound. In fact, just the opposite. This Academy Award-winning actress loves her BlackBerry and even gets to listen to Billy Joel on her iPod.

Matlin won the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her role in 'Children of a Lesser God'. She also has a solid list of Emmys for roles in 'Seinfeld', 'Picket Fences', 'The Practice', and 'Law and Order: SVU'. Most recently, she debuted her first novel, 'Deaf Child Crossing', which Booklist calls a "sensitive depiction of childhood friendship with its fragility, jealousies, and joys." She won't tell us if she wrote it on a Mac or a PC, though.

What gadgets do you always bring with you to the set (for down-time?)
I had gadgets before gadgets were chic. That's because the gadgets are indispensable for someone who is deaf like me. I cannot live without my BlackBerry. It's my email, cell phone, text messager, date book, address book and web browser. For someone on the go and for someone for whom the cell phone is not convenient, the BlackBerry meets all my needs and then some. I've got the fastest thumbs in town and I've even been guilty of texting while driving (at stoplights, mind you!).

What cell phone do you have right now and what do you love/hate about it?
The cell phone on my BlackBerry works great when I can use my speaker phone and my sign language interpreter. My interpreter signs what people are saying through the speaker phone and then I speak back. I've found it to be a great phone and haven't found any problems with it. I couldn't live without it particularly when it comes to talking with my husband and kids while I'm on the road.

Who's the last person you sent a text message to and what was it about?
My husband. "How are the kids doing?"

Where do you go (site or service) pretty much every time you get online?
AOL is my main portal. First I read emails, then I check my kids' progress at school via their school web sites. Then it's time for news. I read the main Hollywood news and gossip sites - TMZ.com, AccessHollywood.com. DeadlineHollywood.com.

What annoys you most about your iPod, cell phone, or laptop (or any other gadget)?
That when ever any of them crash, I can't figure out a) why b) how to get them back up and running. It seemed when we were kids that TV's never crashed. You just turned them off an on. Now it's all about "Ctrl-Alt-Delete" or something like that. My video phone often has poor reception and that's probably because my cable modem just doesn't move fast enough. It's all annoying but part of living in a gadget filled world, I guess.

Name one thing you wish your iPod/cellphone/laptop (any gadget) could do that it doesn't do now?
Provide closed captioning. With streaming media becoming the new way to view TV and films, it's amazing to me that there is NO closed captioning available for deaf and hard of hearing viewers. With 26 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the US, I think this is a TRAVESTY. Why isn't anything being done about it???!!??

Also, why don't our cell phones allow for live video calls like the cell phones in Europe have? I would love to be able to use my cell phone to make a video call to my husband, kids or friends but the cell phones here can't do that yet. But people in Europe can and have been doing it for years. What gives AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon??

What upcoming gadget can you not wait to get your hands on?
A cell phone that will pick up my kids from school when I'm running late, put them in their car seats and deliver them home safely. LOL. Actually, I wouldn't mind a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones. I've tried my business partner's headphones and with my hearing aids on, I can hear a great deal of music that I couldn't hear with conventional headphones. Maybe Santa will bring me some.

I also wouldn't mind a BlackBerry Curve. I'm dying for a BlackBerry with a camera so I can take pictures of the kids. And can I get a video phone that is portable and not tethered to the cable modem? It would be great to talk and SEE my kids while on the road and I'm amazed that cell phones that do this have been around for years in Europe but not in the US.

You're stranded on a desert island: What gadget do you bring? (Give reason why.)
Are you kidding? The BlackBerry. But first I'd make sure there was coverage! Ha!

What's the most-played song or artist on your iPod?
Yeah, I know you think I'm deaf and can't hear anything but actually I do hear some and the artist I hear very well is Billy Joel. I LOVE him and have even performed with him on Sesame Street and at the Super Bowl. I listen to "My Life" and "Movin' Out" incessantly.

Blackberry, Sidekick, or Treo?
BlackBerry. I started with the Sidekick but didn't find it served my email needs well enough. My business partner used the Treo for years but finally got so frustrated with it constantly freezing and it's inability to hold a charge for longer than a day that he switched over to BlackBerry. Now we BlackBerry chat all day and it's great. It's a perfect "cell phone" for deaf people and something I couldn't live without.

Are you getting an iPhone-if so, why?
From what I've heard, the Instant Message chat doesn't work well on an iPhone. Plus I need a hard keyboard and not the screen version that's on the iPhone. I need to feel the click of pressing on a key board.

What's the longest time you've ever spent playing a video game in one sitting and what game was it?
Ms. Pac Man at Sammy Davis Jr's house back in 1988. It was me, my business partner and Lucille Ball. Isn't that wild? Since then I've fallen way behind in video games. But I'm not really a fan of them. I said to people that my husband and I don't really want our kids to have them either because we've observed that video games don't allow kids to interact with life in realistic fashion. Books and DVD's do the same, but something about a video game seems to numb kids to reality. But that's Marlee the Mom speaking, so don't take me as the final word on that. Just know if you ever come to my house, you won't find any video games!

Do you use/have a Mac or PC? Why?
I have both! I want all my bases covered. PC for word processing and most major computer applications and Mac for photo storage and film editing and other media.

© 2008 AOL, LLC. All Rights Reserved

In writing and in life, she finds balance Leah Hager Cohen's output has been equal parts nonfiction and novels

From the newsroom of The Boston Globe, Boston, Massachusetts, Tuesday, August 28, 2007
By David Mehegan, Globe Staff

BELMONT -- Few recent writers have so evenly straddled the fiction/nonfiction border as Leah Hager Cohen. The Belmont writer has published four nonfiction books and three novels, including her new one, "House Lights." With her next novel, now being written, she will be even at four a piece. Seven books in 14 years is an impressive output by normal standards. Over the same period, however, Cohen got married, had three children, divorced, found a new partner, and started a blog. At age 39, she has found enough tranquillity to work steadily at that which keeps her centered -- her writing.

"I get up in the morning, and I'm happy to get to writing," she said, "and greedy for more hours to write."

If you had read only her new novel, some of its predecessors might be a surprise. In "House Lights," set mostly in Boston and Cambridge, 20-year-old Beatrice Fisher-Hart wants to be an actress like her famous grandmother, who is estranged from her daughter, Beatrice's mother. As she moves closer to her grandmother, Beatrice falls in love with a much older man of the theater. The story is rich with closely observed states of feeling about loved ones and ambiguous implications about the past.

Cohen's soft voice and manner give an impression of delicacy, but her output, and the books themselves, suggest toughness and drive. Her first, published when she was 26, is probably still her best known. "Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World," explores the experiences of the deaf, and Cohen's own childhood, in a New York school for the deaf, where her father was superintendent.

For "Glass, Paper, Beans: Revelations on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things," she reported from a New Brunswick logging operation, an Ohio glass factory, and a bean farm in Oaxaca, Mexico. Researching "The Stuff of Dreams: Behind the Curtain of an American Community Theater," she immersed herself in Arlington Friends of the Drama. And reporting for "Without Apology: Girls, Women, and the Desire to Fight," she revealed the lives of four Somerville girls in a boxing school, even putting on gloves to spar with them in the ring.

None of this was expected. "As a reader, I was never interested in nonfiction," she said in an interview at her kitchen table. "I loved novels and short stories and poetry. I started when I was very little. I named my fingers, and they had personalities and dialogue and character. The elements of theater and narrative took hold of my imagination before I could write."

She spent her first seven years, along with her family, living at the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, where her father worked. She was exposed to American Sign Language there, and became fluent in adulthood. When she was 10, her family moved to Nyack, N.Y. She finished high school early, at 16, went to New York University intending to study drama, then transferred to Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where she concentrated in writing and literature. After graduating in 1988, she worked for two years in New York as a sign language interpreter, and enrolled in the Columbia School of Journalism, earning a master's degree in 1991.

"I had a sense that if I were going to use writing to take on some social responsibility, journalism would be the logical way," she said. She knew how to write but not how to research, report, and do interviews -- "I had soft skills but not hard skills, so it was like boot camp." However, she quickly realized she had no interest in being a reporter. "I thought, I will have a day job as a waitress or a sign language interpreter and write in the kitchen at night," she said. But then a professor offered to show her writing to his agent, New York-based Barney Karpfinger. "He told me kindly and bluntly that he could work with me on a nonfiction project," she said, "but didn't see anything in my short stories that he could work with."

Though she felt crushed at first, she decided he was right. "I was pretty good at executing sentences on the page," she said, "but what was missing was a story worth telling." She agreed to set aside fiction and try a book on the culture of the deaf, which became "Train Go Sorry," a New York Times notable book for 1994. It's still in print, and she still gets mail about it from readers.

"To my surprise," she said, "I loved working on the nonfiction books. I don't want to say I'm a shy person, but it's an effort to go into a community where you're a stranger, someone who is, culturally, nothing like the people whom you're bugging. I had to push myself into these worlds where I wouldn't have gone otherwise. It's been good for me."

She moved to Somerville in the early 1990s, as she was starting "Train Go Sorry," thinking Boston would be a good place for one interested in writing and the arts. When she was 27, she married a local man, and they had three children, now 11, 9, and 7. The marriage ended when the youngest child was about a year old. The children live with her and her boyfriend. "We're a family of five," she said. "I no longer think of myself as a single mother."

In time, Karpfinger did agree to represent Cohen's fiction, and her first novel, "Heat Lightning," was published in 1997. The second, in 2003, was "Heart, You Bully, You Punk." He has remained her agent, and while open to new nonfiction projects, now says, "I am encouraging her to stay with her fiction." Cohen says that his encouragement was essential as she worked on "House Lights": "I kept handing it in [to Karpfinger] and saying, 'I think I'm close to the end,' and he kept saying, 'Don't be afraid to be more ambitious.' "

Demonstrating that agents sometimes function almost as editors, Karpfinger said in a telephone interview: "I encouraged her to be ambitious for herself, her characters, and her novel. Sometimes with a writer as talented and capable as Leah, you have to say, 'Don't you think you could do a bit more?' "

Cohen says that all of her writing has a common theme: "that there are more substantial connections among us -- acquaintances, strangers, close friends -- than we are in the habit of noticing. With 'Glass, Paper, Beans,' I wanted to prove that the very glass I'm drinking out of links me to someone whose history is so full of experience common with mine."

She has never made a lot of money, and says she might soon have to teach to help make ends meet. But she is not resentful at the writer's lot. She spread her seven books out on her table and looked at them fondly, as if they were her children, too. "It's such a great experience to make something, and these are about making something," she said. "I feel so grateful as I get older. When I was younger, I had this sense of longing, a low-grade ache. In the past decade, I've come to understand that all that I longed for, I have. That almost simple-minded realization quietly changes all the colors in the room."

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.


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Published on Jul 7, 2017Emily Frances of i24 News "Trending"- in depth interview with deaf Oscar winner Marlee...

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