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Without Words

As told to Leah Gebber

I could have cried with all my strength, but neither my mother nor my father would have heard. They were both deaf and mute

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

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FILL THE SILENCE If there was one thing I learned from my childhood, it was that I wanted my own home to be filled with noise and news. I wanted my children to come home and tell me about everything — friends and Chumash parties and divrei Torah

I grew up in a silent house.

When I was born, my parents installed an alarm system for when I cried — a light would flash beside my mother’s bed, waking her up. I could have cried with all my strength, but neither my mother nor my father would have been able to hear. They were both deaf and mute.

My mother would make some noises, but she could not sing me lullabies. She could not encourage me to make my first sounds: the only indication she had that I was babbling was that I was moving my mouth.

When I was four, I was sent to a special preschool where I learned how to sign. I know this, but I don’t remember it. My memories of young childhood are patchy. Everything had another gesture: there was a movement for chocolate and cake, for example, but there were times I didn’t know the correct movement for that word, and then I would spell out the word, using sign ABCs. I’d also read my parents’ facial expressions. The meaning of their words was affected by the place and direction of their signing, so I had to pay attention to that, too.

When my brother was born, he joined our little signing community, but I finally had a playmate with whom I could share words.

We were the only Jews in our neighborhood; we had applied for housing within the community, but it took years until our application was accepted. We were an easy target for the neighborhood children. As we passed through the streets, they’d shout at us, and goad my mother into losing her temper. When that happened, she would yell at them, unintelligibly. All they heard was strange sounds, and a mixture of fear and fascination and cruelty made them taunt us all the more. I would put my head down and rush into the house.

When it’s your life that you’re living, you accept it and carry on, you don’t really imagine anything different. But I do remember wishing that my parents could hear and speak. Outside the little world that was our home and extended family, interactions were cumbersome at best, agonizing at worst.

My mother was 38 when she was introduced to my father. My uncle’s brother-in-law was the rav of a shul where my father davened, and he introduced my parents to each other. They were so lucky to have found each other — my mother thought she’d never get married. They came from very different backgrounds, and their respective families had very different attitudes to their disabilities. My mother was from a large family. Her mother contracted chicken pox during the pregnancy and my mother was born with no hearing at all. Although her family learned basic sign language, she often felt locked into a lonely world. I think that had a profound effect — while my father was mellow and accepting, my mother was more high-strung.

Although my father was also born with no hearing, he was the only boy in a family of three and his mother showered him with love and affection. He was drawn into conversations, and made to feel that his thoughts and feelings were important — however they were expressed. His temperament was also gentler and more easygoing than that of my mother, and I always felt closest to him. Daddy’s girl.

Although signing was the normal way of communicating with my parents, our conversations were quite limited. There was no chatting about my day, no small talk. My parents had been cut off from the world so deeply that they found it hard to connect with us on a normal day-to-day level.

Some situations were quite comical. Every Sunday, my father drove us to visit family. He drove extremely slowly — around 20 miles per hour. All around, cars would honk and irate drivers yelled. But my father couldn’t hear any of it, so he continued the journey, oblivious. I never said anything to him, just let it go.


When my mother went to the grocery store, she would hand the grocer a list of the items she needed. If there were any adjustments, she would take out a pen and hand it to the grocer. They communicated via the written word. Most errands she ran with my father by her side. She had not a clue about money or banking — my father had to take care of all of that. The world must have been a threatening place for her.

I also helped. I still remember, as a teenager, answering a phone call from the municipality. They were happy to inform me that a house had become available in the area we had requested. It was the most exciting phone call I’d received. Most of the calls were technical: government offices or utilities or even the tax office. I was so young, yet I navigated my way through red tape and bureaucracy. There was no choice. I may have been young, but I had a voice.

There are times, though, when a child needs her mother. I must have been eight or nine when I was bullied in school. I told my mother that I didn’t want to go to school the next day, and she probed enough that I told her how I had been picked on. The next day, my mother took me to school. She walked up to the teacher — the wrong teacher, not my teacher at all — and started to shout. She made a lot of noise, but there were no words. They had to turn to me: “Why is your mother angry?”

I explained: “I’m being bullied.”

She tried to defend me, but she didn’t have the words.

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