It all started with sink vomit. On Thursday night, our pipes threw up partially disintegrated coffee grounds, banana peels, and tofu chunks, leaving us barely any dining options.
I kind of love Marlee Matlin. A deaf redheaded Academy Award winning actress turned ballroom dancer who also happens to be a Jew—what’s not to love?
For months, I’ve wanted to attend the synagogue at which Marlee had her Bat Mitzvah yet the timing, eating, and traveling never quite matched up. However, when our sink refused to provide us with means to boil a good Shabbat rice pilaf or rinse potatoes for Mom’s delicious roasted fries, the choice seemed obvious: tonight, we would venture out to the deaf synagogue.
After calling each of my parents separately and arranging a 7:00 departure, I found myself riding in the backseat of our minivan, dressed in lovely synagogue attire, ignoring my parents chatter in the front seats while I wondered what a thirteen year old Marlee Matlin would have looked like.
Upon finding a parking space wide open on the street right in front of the Shul (this oddity should have been a predictor of the next hours…) we entered large double doors, on which hung a sign: Silence During Worship. I found this amusing.
We walked a few more feet and found a spot comfortably in the third row of the chapel; I sat comfortable sandwiched between my two parents, just like a child at the movies, and the protection felt reassuring.
The twelve or so congregants surrounding us all seemed engaged in chatter except for one middle aged woman and who appeared to be her mother who conversed in a sign language much too rapid for my comprehension. I felt a little confused: Wasn’t this a deaf shul? Who were all these hearing people?
A good while after the service was actually called to start, three choir members in white robes, a woman with fiery red hair, and a tan man with long curly blonde hair and dark classes proceed onto the Bimah. The man carried a red Coca Cola can and my father suggested he looked more like a surfer than a rabbi. But indeed, he welcomed the congregation to the Shabbat services and confirmed his role as a spiritual leader.
And a spiritual leader indeed he was. Throughout our two hour service, he paused many times to thank the Lord, clap his hands or throw his head up towards the clouds. He addressed each of the few congregants by name as he called each of them up to participate in the service. As prayers were recited, the choir would take turns signing out the translations, which was truly beautiful and honestly, more of what I expected in my Deaf Shul Adventure.
At one point, the microphone broke, toppled over and became useless. (Again, I find this ironic for a synagogue designed for the deaf.) A man standing in the back proceeded to the front with a cordless electric drill and re-installed the device. The shock of the act was almost intolerable—never had I seen such a blatant disruption, a breaking of Shabbat rules in order to better observe Shabbat! The oddity was too much to handle and I stifled my laughter in my, as the rabbi called it, Prayer Book/Siddur.
The evening was nothing short of arduous. I found myself puzzled more than a couple times at the customs and behaviors I witnessed. The Cantor would randomly shout out for people to sing louder: “I can’t hear you!” (By this point, all the hearing references lost their irony and seemed almost cruel.) The rabbi feverously read the Ten Commandments from the Torah while the only deaf woman used both of her hands to support the scrolls in the air. We prayed half an hour for each individual with an illness or ailment, envisioning their healing process, and thanking God for the future.
I do truly love sign language. The way your entire body is involved in expressing your thoughts seems so complete and beautiful. Signed prayers add a sense of spirituality, a boost of devotion, to the finger-spelling and symbols, which I think actually elevates some of the holiness of the service. Everything was current. Everything was happening. Everyone was involved, completely committed to the prayers in both mind and body, in a manner most of us hearing people never experience. While this Shabbat certainly had its quirks and mysteries, I found a new admiration for both signing and praying, for a person’s ability to discover credence in the unknown and commit to her faith.
By the time the service ended, exhaustion nearly consumed me. The peculiarity almost appeared normal as we exited into the dark night, wishing a “Shabbat Shalom” to the man holding the door open for us, and as we watched a fellow Shul-attendee standing outside smoking a cigarette to truly welcome in the Sabbath.