Archive for Deaf experience

Those Rude, Rude, Deaf People

I gotta say, this week’s ISL class was exceptionally dull, except for that bit when we’ve gone through the signs for the world’s countries (it appears that the ISL sign for Zimbabwe kinda looks like that thing they do on “Walk Like an Egyptian”.) Also, I found myself surprising the missus that there’s actually a sign for “Macedonia” in sign language. A few months ago, I couldn’t even sign “Greece”.

Usually, I find 3 out of 5 classes particularly indulgent: Ethics, Sign Language, and Deaf Culture. Like I said, SL rocked, but Ethics was rather a snore and Deaf Culture, for the first time, was also kinda dull. Maybe I was just tired, but I just couldn’t relate to the “theme” Gal, the teacher, had in mind. We were supposed to be two opposing (and apposing, now that I think of it) juries in a trial where the defendant is the Deaf Culture. Cool concept, but unfortunately, at the onset, Gal simply abandoned it and simply turned the trial into a class discussion. We’ve basically reached some very old conclusions that didn’t enhance our knowledge at all: the Israeli Deaf are aggressive, callous, crude, direct and frankly, a bit rude and often insolent.

These are facts that both the Deaf Community and the Friendly Hearing (and I think CODAs fit into that category like a glove) conceded a long time ago and normally don’t give it much thought (nor is it a knot in anyone’s knickers. There, I finally found use for that phrase!). Since Gal is the one who brought it up, nobody can say that we were assaulting the deaf “unprovoked”. I always thought that the Deaf are somewhat ruder and more impertinent than the Hearing simply because they tend to be intellectually isolated from the Hearing population, and that leads them to a sort of collective social retardation, easily alleviated by education, exposure and inoculation of the right social skills. This is probably still true, but Gal gave another explanation which I find simply fascinating and elegant:

Deaf people, like all people, are in a constant state of ignorance. To mitigate that ignornace, we ask questions, imitate, go to school, read books or even find out for ourselves the things we don’t know. Even though research and books and even schools are excellent tools for getting smarter and better, there is little subsitute to social immersion, and that, unfortunately, is the great bane of the Deaf experience. As Helen Keller succinctly put it: “Blindness distances you from scenes, Deafness distances you from people” (I paraphrased it a bit, since I couldn’t find a citation I can trust).

The problem for the Deaf, Gal explained, is that for the most part of their lives, they’re disconnected from the most important means for alleviating their horrible affliction: they’re lonely island of silence. Because of that, once they’re finally grouped together, capable of injecting in a hordes a cornucopia of (often trivial) details, they grant no quarter when they’re finally allowed a lively exchange of information and ideas. Sure, the internet allows the Deaf to communicate, sure, signed TV exposes the world to the Deaf, but there’s nothing that can replace the raw trade of ideas, feelings and interactions that exists in one-on-one communication (by the way, this is passionately animated by the new Israeli Deaf trend of using Webcams for conversations.)

So the explanation elegantly explains the cultural “vices” of the Deaf: you insert this kind of psychological pressure, that horrible affliction of social isolation, on members of a society, and you will not find yourself surprised if they skip the formalities and just fire away whatever it is that they want to ask or know. There’s no time for trying to figure stuff out behind people’s back (thought that obviously happens, too), you can’t call the other guy to affirm what was just said, you’re very much confined to the social event, which usually takes place about once a week, and you have the make the most of it at the minimum of time.

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Another Reason to Hate Judaism

I just remembered that last night, a woman from the Deaf club near campus (I had a small typing gig there after class) intervened during a legal lecture and said that the local Rabbinate refused to acknowledge her as witness for the writing of a will by one of her own family members.

The reason for said refusal: “You’re deaf, you cannot be a witness”.


Silent Classroom


This is the first post I will write about my college experience, and not only because it’s about the first courses I attended.

In 3 days, I’ve trekked (boy, I did) to 3 faculties: Classical Studies (looks like the place where Kent Hovind got (read bought) his Ph.D in), Languages (a branch of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities here at BIU, in a building that kind of reminds me of Prague) and Life Sciences (for my Biology B.Sc.

The first thing that popped into my head when I entered the classroom this Sunday was: “Hell, each and every one of these people is just like me, a hearing person with access and affiliation to the deaf world”.

I remember thinking that I find it much easier to feel special and my signing to be a sign (ha) of my exotic background while interacting with the hearing, but I felt helplessly inferior with this population. With these guys, I’m just another peer. In fact, it’s the first time in my life I was really in a place filled with my peers, since I belong to a very unusual minority, this is quite an extraordinary occasion. Sometimes, the classmates had to sign to each other. It was the first time in my entire life I have ever used sign to communicate with the hearing.

There’s much to tell about my experiences (it was 10 hours straight, sheesh), but frankly, I’m not interested in writing a journal entry and document the whole thing. I am, however, interested in recording just one amazing aspect of studying Sign in an academic institute.

Firstly, we have 2 teachers who are 100% deaf. Moreover, one of our hearing teachers is a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) who’s married to a deaf person, and also someone I’ve known in person ever since I was a pup.

Thirdly, and this is the big whopper for me:

Two classes out of five were conducted in a foreign language. It is the first time in my life I ever sat in a class that was taught in a language other than Hebrew (or English and Hebrew, in cases where the subject was “English”).

In fact, the most amazing part about studying sign language interpreting is the fact that the classes themselves are in sign language. It’s an extremely exhilirating experience, and more so, an incredible phenomenon:

20 students sitting in a class, for hours on end, that is completely silent. Not a squeak, not a peep, but throughout the entire session, people were livid, burning with passion, teasing and gossipping, voicing (hur, hur) their opinions, and generally: behaving like your garden variety young and enthusiastic students, except everything was in brain-dead silence. It almost brought me to tears.

There’s nothing more amazing to me than a silent classroom.

Silent conversations – English/Hebrew

There is one distinct memory that I have of my childhood as a CODA (child of deaf adults) which will probably never leave me. In a way, it’s a haunting memory. A sort of an ever-looming nightmare that engulfs my mind whenever I contemplate this weird mentality I “inherited” from my parents.

As a child, I remember vividly a particular type of “deaf events” which my parents usually titled as “inviting guests”, but I always thought of it as “deaf parties”. A “deaf party” would be a rather depressing term if it were seen in light of the kind of parties that hearing people are used to. Obviously, there’s no music, dancing, or, at least as far as I recall from those times, much drinking. In fact, most if not all of the “oldschool deaf” people in my “deaf congregation” were alcohol celibates..

Anyway, in those “parties”, the most vivid, and as I’ve mentioned earlier, the most horrifying and haunting memory is the conversations that the deaf participants held. Perhaps to any outsider, it would just seem like a bunch of people, either standing or sitting down and flapping their hands at enormous speed. I remember I always found it terrifying that what seemed to be like a bunch of old, wizened, wrinkled old men and women could move their hands so fast that it looked like they were all part of some black magic ritual.

I was usually spending my time at some safe distance, either in my room or in my sister’s room. Trying to ignore the intricate little sounds those ISL conversations made. The most frightening thing about those convsersations is that as a “Deaf person” (albeit one who can hear), I knew that the noises coming from the living room and kitchen had a meaning. The noises themselves weren’t the meaning that the people making them were conveying, but they meant that very lively communication was happening, and as someone who wasn’t in the room, I had no part in it, and could never know or understand any of what these people were saying.

In many occasions, I stumbled upon these parties and just stared at proceedings. About 30-40 hands and faces buzzing like electrons. The occasional roaring laughter from someone who clearly isn’t aware of the earthquake he had just produced, a lot of lips slapping upon each other, nasal and thoracic groans, violent clapping and thunderous stomps.

Looking at this tableau as a child was to me a bit like “manhood-ceremonies” are to African tribesmen. With all the fear and confusion that these occasions entailed, it also created a very distinct “cultural heritage” for me. Not exactly a Deaf heritage, definitely not a hearing one – but that of a very strange alien, literate in the language of the benign monsters in his house, but in very real terms, not one of them.


כשגדלים בבית “חירש”, אי אפשר להתעלם מסוג מאוד יוצא דופן של אירועים שנוטים לחזור על עצמם  – “המסיבה”. הזכרון של ה”מסיבות” שההורים שלי היו מנהלים (או בכלל, כאלו שהייתי נוכח בהן) הוא זכרון שרודף אותי, וכן, גם בהיבט שלילי – כמו טראומה מפכחת.

אבאמא בד”כ היו מגדירים את המסיבה בחירשית קלאסית: “באים אורחים”. ה”באים אורחים” תמיד הוגדר על-ידי כ”מסיבות חירשים”. רוב האנשים (כלומר, שומעים) חושבים על מסיבה בד”כ כאל אירוע שבו יש מוסיקה או ריקודים, או אפילו במופע הזקן של המילה – הרבה אנשים שנוכחים ביחד באותו מקום, ועושים המון רעש ומדברים בקול רם. זה יהיה די מדכא לחשוב על מסיבת חירשים באותו האופן שחושבים על “מסיבת שומעים”. מסיבת חירשים בד”כ כוללת את מה שהחירשים, לדעתי, הכי אוהבים לעשות – יותר מלאכול, לעשות סקס, לטייל, לנוח, או לעסוק בתחביבים שלהם : הם מדברים.

התקשורת הבין חירשית היא משהו קריטי עבור החירש. “הצד החירש” שבי תמיד חש את האימה שיש מבדידות פשוט כי תמיד הרגשתי את הפחד העצום שנמצא אצל כל חירש בגלל המחסום הלשוני שמגביל אותו. במובן מסוים, ירשתי את הפחד הזה פשוט כי חייתי במחיצתו כל חיי.

רוב מסיבות החרשים החלו כאשר הייתי בחדרי, ובד”כ העדפתי לשמור מרחק מהן כי, כפי שאמרתי, הם הפחידו אותי לאללה בתור ילד (וגם בתור מתבגר). השקט המוזר המלווה בכל מיני רעשים אקזוטיים והידיעה שאיפשהו, איכשהו, המון בני-אדם, באמצעים ויזואליים-בלבד – מעבירים אחד לשני תחושות ומסרים. העובדה הזו כל כך בלבלה והפחידה אותי, שתמיד הייתי מעדיף להתרחק ולקוות שהבלגן הזה ייגמר כבר.

לעיתים, כשהייתי מעז או שממש הייתי צריך לצאת מהחדר, הייתי מספיק להעיף מבט ואז לנעוץ את מבטי במה שמתרחש: שפתיים מצקצקות, מחיאות כף, רקיעות רגליים וקולות מעוותים, נמוכים מדי או גבוהים מדי, שלעיתים נמלטים באי-ידיעה מגרונו של אחד המסובים. אני תמיד חשתי הזדהות מסוימת עם כל אחד מה”אורחים שבאים” ותמיד באותה הצורה: קיבלתי את התחושה שאני, כמו אחד מהם, נמצא כאן ובמחיצתם של כל כך הרבה אנשים שהם חירשים כמוני – בגלל שאני לא יכול לעשות את מה שאני באמת רוצה לעשות – וזה לדבר מבלי להשתמש בידיים שלי. האימפוטנציה הזו תמיד הבעיתה אותי, ובמובן מסוים, אני חושב שהפוביה הכי גדולה שלי צמחה דווקא מההיכרות עם העולם הזה. בעולם הזה, כל חסרי-האונים פיתחו דרך עקיפה לשגשג, אבל בתור אחד שלא היה נזקק לידיים כדי לתקשר, תמיד מצאתי את החירשות כדבר מבעית, מפחיד, מרגש בצורה בלתי נשלטת. כראיה לכך – דמעות לפעמים היו זולגות מעיניי רק כאשר הייתי מסמן שיר מרגש שאני שומע. תחושת חוסר האונים תמיד מתעוררת כאשר אני עושה את הסוויצ’ במוח ל”חרש שבתוכי”. החרש הזה תמיד ירגיש אזלת-יד בגלל שהשומע שבתוכי יודע טוב מאוד מה הוא מפסיד. לכן, בדרך העגומה הזו, אני נושא את הצלב בשביל כל החרשים שלא מפחדים או עצובים או סובלים ממה שהם לעולם לא יכירו: מהצליל


Child of Deaf Adults – Part 1


There was a beautiful woman called Jana Orbach who was deaf in one ear and almost deaf in the other. She was born completely deaf in her left ear and her hearing was slowly deteriorating (as is for all of us) in the other.

There is a very handsome and very tall man whose name is Menachem Orbach, who was born with two perfectly functioning ears, but, following a surgical procedure to cure his meningitis at 10 months old, his hearing was completely lost. Menachem is, in fact, as deaf as a deaf man could be. To illustrate his inability to hear, I could say that if you turn on your stereo and turn the volume as high as possible, he still won’t hear it.

Jana and Menachem are two people who made love sometimes in the late Autumn of 1984 and begat, doting and dazzled by their infant, the person who wrote these words, on the 28th of August, 1985.

Mom said it was an easy delivery.

I am Jana and Menachem’s second-born (to be followed by no other offspring), and my name is Shai Orbach. As a son of a deaf father and a hard-of-hearing mother, I proudly title myself as CODA, a child of deaf adults. Because my particular “CODA-ness” is a bit intricate (it’s not just “two deaf parents”, the hearing loss is not genetic, etc.) , I have chosen to begin this article in this fashion. From now on, I will focus mainly on what it was like to be an Israeli CODA, and what it is like, in general, to be a child of deaf adults.

As a short clarification of why it is that I chose to write of my parents in this manner, it is fit to mention that my mother passed away last April (April 1st, 2007), on the very same day I completed my 3 years-long IDF military service.


It is hard for me to recollect much of what it was like being a young (infant, toddler, and eventually, boy) CODA. As an infant, I know as I was told by my grandmother and other family members that I was a quiet infant, crying very little and all-in-all, giving my two parents a good deal of serenity as is possible for any parent with a very young child.

My parents, at first, did not sign to me much, and rather chose (I would bet, due to family pressure for being “normal”), to communicate with me using their voices. This was not a big problem for mother, who was hard-of-hearing, and if I yelled really hard (even that eventually stopped working), she noticed that I’m calling her name. I did, however, know sign-language enough for very simple conversation, so the reason my sign-language today is fluent (and is enough for me to use it for interpreting) is because I was exposed to ISL (Israeli Sign Language) from a very early age.

It is, unfortunately, also important to point out that the fact that mom and dad chose not to teach me ISL caused a major communicational barrier between them and myself until young teenage, in which I began teaching myself the “missing words” in my vocabulary.

Regardless of the daily communicational hurdles my folks and I had to overcome, we, that is, my sister Keren, myself, Shai, my father, Menachem, and my mother, Jana, were a rather happy, rather normal family.

The most “not normal” thing about my family, and notably the only thing outstanding in our family (in a country with a huge variety of sub-cultures and customs) is the fact that we were, in plain terms, Deaf.

I consider myself and my sister, with our perfectly functioning ears, to be Deaf. The capitalization of the word Deaf in this instance is not a bizarre typo. I distinguish between a person who cannot hear or interpret voices into meaningful units of speech (words) as “deaf“.(this is not my idea, but I can’t recollect to whom the credit for this usage belongs to)

This, of course, is opposed to a person who belongs to the subculture of the Deaf. One might be Deaf even if he/she is completely without any disability, or, for all intents and purposes, armless, legless, blind, and anosmic.

I was Deaf ever since I was born. I was climbing chairs as a little ankle-biter during deaf-parties, utterly silent excepting a roar of laughter or a sharp intake of breath, and, of course, the “tsk-tsk” noises often made by signers who use their lips simultaneously (as far as I know, the most common of all deaf people).

Due to the fact that I signed very little, and hence spoke very little to my parents, I was a very, almost pathologically quiet young boy. At one instance, I was examined by a psychiatrist who merely stated that I’m “gifted”, an ego-booster that members of my family mention quite often. At this point, I wish to say that if I am gifted in any way, I would like someone to ruthlessly pinpoint what that gift is, as I’ve been wondering all my life whether there really is a gift I possess. (Off-topic, the meaning of the name Shai in Hebrew is “gift”. Usually a small, unremarkable gift, but a gift, nevertheless J )

Being a CODA is a huge, tiring, heart-tearing, emotionally-exhausting responsibility. A deaf parent should have a right, as any, to bear children and care for them, and, this I say of personal experience, have them well-bred as any other parent (and perhaps even better so).

But deaf parents must also be aware that their CODA offspring will endure the yoke of CODA at all time. This yoke is the ever-renewing “CODA task” that must be fulfilled. As young children, Keren and I learnt very quickly how to deal with bankers, technicians, correspondents, mailmen, neighbors, plumbers, etc. Needless to say, as two children who could barely sign, it was a bit short of a nightmare. But somehow, we fared through it. Keren managed most of the CODA work (but not all of it!) until I became a bit older. Then, at a critical point in every Israeli person’s life, Keren joined the IDF, which leads me to the next chapter of my CODA experience: Teenage.

C. Teenage

By my teens, doing CODA-work was something that Keren and I did somewhat alternately (with, I must admit, a bias towards Keren, older and more experienced).

When I was about 15 years old, Keren joined the IDF. I’m not exactly sure of the exact time when this actually happened, but at this point, it basically meant that at a time where “CODA-work” was plentiful, I was all-alone with two deaf parents. At this time, I decided it would be impossible to be their advocate without exquisite fluency in sign-language, and so, in about 3 months, I turned from an illiterate, mostly “lipping” CODA to a full-fledged ISL interpreter for both my mother and father, who, now older and more prone to medical care, daily required my help.

To explain what this period was like, I wish to introduce a term that I’m not sure exists in ASL (or in any other sign language that readers of this post might be using). In ISL, there is a word for “dad”, and a word for “mom”. The word for “parents” is, actually, a compound of these two words. Of this came the word between Keren and me, who, instead of calling them “the parents” (that’s the “Hebrew way of saying it”) –”momdad” (aba-ima in Hebrew).

So, as a lone CODA with a fresh (and ever sharpening) sign language, I became the mediator between my dad and the salesperson. I became the words in the mouth of the man on the phone, and my hands became the conduit for my mother’s part in the conversation.

I received, then, what I viewed and still view as the most noble of professions:

I became an interpreter.

To father, this was mainly dealing with the hurly-burly of his daily life. He dragged me down to all sorts of places.

To mother, to the very (painful) end, I became the man between her and the doctor. I signed words like “feces” and “menstrual blood” (at times in which I wasn’t exactly sure what these things were, but still knew how to sign). I took her to a myriad of clinics and hospitals to be examined and treated by a myriad of doctors, and have prescribed a myriad of medicine.

My mother, blessed forever be her indulgent name, was an ill woman. She became ill sometime during my early teens, I’m not sure which came first, the liver cirrhosis or the diabetes, but these two sufficed to create another (huge) responsibility for Keren and I: caretakers. We monitored her sugar-blood levels, and quite often accompanied her for the most meager of undertakings, and not, as it were, for “interpretation jobs”