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I'd always taken my voice and hearing for granted. Whenever I needed a pen or someone to hold a door, I merely asked. However, as my group began its interactive tour of the newly opened Invitation to Silence exhibit at the Israel Children's Museum in Holon, I suddenly lost this luxury. Handing us headsets that would muffle all noise, the staff organizer explained that for the next 90 minutes we we'd be forbidden to speak - an intimidating thought. As our group of 12 journalists, some of whom had brought their children, was escorted into the introductory room, a loud clatter of screaming voices was our send-off into the world of silence. Our deaf guide, Alon Zino, then led us into the next room through a series of friendly hand gestures.
Invitation opened on June 29 and will continue for at least a year. The idea came as a result of the overwhelming success of Dialogue in the Dark - a completely blacked-out interactive tour that provides visitors with a taste of what it's like to be blind. Dialogue originated in Germany and has spread to 16 countries. First opened to the public three years ago, it was so well liked in Israel that the museum extended its run from six months to over three years, making Dialogue's Israel exhibit the most popular in the world. The tour is still active, with over 250,000 visitors so far.
"Dialogue in the Dark had the power to change and really influence people," says Gil Omer, general manager of the Holon museum. Building on that success, Omer wants to provide Israelis with an understanding of being deaf as well, as has has already been done around Europe. "The new project has created a direct encounter between the deaf and the hearing, thereby breaking stereotypes."
Back to the silence, our group was huddled around a table in the "dancing fingers" room while our guide, Alon, was trying to tell us something. At first I couldn't understand, but I eventually realized he wanted us to "count off" to 12, a seemingly simple task. Slowly the group members began to count with their fingers, but one woman was supposed to gesture seven with her hands, except she didn't understand what Alon was asking of her. Clumsily moving her fingers, she was utterly confused. With the group stalled, I had the sudden urge to yell "seven," but remembered that this was forbidden. After a few more hand gestures by our guide, the lady understood, and we finished the counting.
These were the first of many instances throughout the 90-minute tour in which feelings of frustration and satisfaction alternated.
Following the "dancing fingers" room, we entered a bar, and it was now my turn to be confused. The bartender, another deaf guide, asked me my name. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't think of a way to say "Aaron" with my hands. While everyone else successfully conveyed his name, I was stuck feeling embarrassed; a simple routine had turned into a nearly impossible task.
Despite feeling disconcerted, we really enjoyed ourselves. While playing drama games and ordering candy at the silent bar, the lighter side of being deaf became apparent. As the group moved from room to room playing trivia and mimicking faces, everyone was getting more accustomed to talking with their hands. Indeed, at the end of the tour, there was little rush to remove the headphones, as everyone had become comfortable in the silence.
Afterwards, the group had an opportunity to share experiences with the guide through a sign-language translator. Noam, 10, had had a great time, but he admitted that it was difficult to be deaf.
Alon recalls that when he first heard of the project, he was astonished at the idea. But a few moments reflection convinced him that he wanted to be part of it. He enjoys giving this tour, which "provides hearing people with a taste of my world."
Seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. as well. Tours are offered every 15 minutes; NIS 45; ages nine and up; 1-599-585-858.
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