Opening up my Facebook profile this morning, I was met with a long stream of
posts from upset, offended and outraged friends.
They all were about the
imposter of an interpreter that appeared on the television screen at the Nelson
Mandela memorial service in South Africa yesterday, who pretended to translate
the weighty words of world leaders into sign language. The problem was that
nobody had a clue what form of sign language he professed to be fluent
As a deaf person myself, I was also taken aback at the fact that at
one of the most significant world events in recent times, a phony interpreter
was chosen to represent the deaf community. It is not just that deaf people were
left to decipher a mumble- jumble of random signs; it also serves as a message
to the deaf community that the world still does not understand us. For if the
people responsible for hiring that interpreter would have had a better
understanding of sign language and deaf culture, they probably would have seen
through his fraud. As it was, almost nobody noticed anything till the South
African deaf community expressed its anger.
IMAGINE IF a person who
didn’t speak French were to pretend to translate a speech into French. How long
do you think it would take before someone – even a person with no knowledge of
French – caught on? Perhaps a minute or two. Yet this interpreter was allowed to
stand on stage for hours. We did not understand him, because we have yet to be
But I wish you understood us. I wish you would be able to
differentiate between an obviously incompetent interpreter and a fluent
communicator of sign language. It should not take an angry cry of protest from
the deaf community to call your attention to this “clown of an
The sign languages of the deaf community (yes, there is
more than one sign language!) are our most precious treasures. It is through the
silent voices of our hands that we are heard loud and clear. Thoughts that find
awkward expression with our mouths are beautifully expressed with our
It is difficult for me to describe the beauty of sign language
to someone who has yet to appreciate it; it is equal to the challenge of
describing the taste of chocolate. Let me suffice with the words of the
legendary deaf leader of the early 20th century, George Veditz: “[O]ur beautiful
sign language [is] the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.”
been part of the deaf community for decades now, and when I take a look at our
leaders, I am proud. They are the people who have expanded the horizons of the
deaf community into farther realms. Their hard work and progress has made all
the difference for the deaf community.
Every step forward they make
proves to the rest of us that it too is possible for us.
Jewish deaf community, I have also seen the amount of work invested in building
a home for Jewish deaf souls. Since the mainstream Jewish community doesn’t
provide that home, we have to create it ourselves. And create we have. A
national Jewish deaf organization was founded, in addition to many other
organizations, programs and initiatives, all of which have worked in tandem to
provide Jewish experiences for deaf individuals for years now.
a rabbi, I am humbled to be able to contribute to this effort.
BUT IF you
don’t know anything about deaf people, you have been missing out on all this.
You have been clueless to the beauty of our community and language. Our admired
leaders and their successes are unknown to you. Our rich history and culture are
all Greek to you. I’m so honored to be a proud member of this community, but I
also feel bad for you.
That’s why I think the greatest tragedy of
yesterday’s interpreting fiasco was not that deaf people got a lousy
interpreter. It’s that the world still does not understand us. It is more your
tragedy than ours.
Luckily, it’s easily rectifiable. Just start learning
today. Discover the hidden gems of the deaf world, and become knowledgeable
about what it is that makes us special. Learn what sign language really is all
about. Be sensitive to the deaf experience.
In other words, understand
The author is a deaf rabbi in New York City, and has worked with the
Jewish deaf community for years. I run a website for the Jewish deaf community
called Jewish deaf multimedia (http://www.jewishdeafmm.org).