‘Humans of Tel Aviv’ demystifies a misunderstood people

Nalaga’at, which means “please touch,” was initially the world’s only theater company exclusively for deaf-blind actors born primarily with Usher’s Syndrome.

Limor Markus, a deaf producer at Jaffa’s Nalaga’at Center. (photo credit: EREZ KAGANOVITZ)
Limor Markus, a deaf producer at Jaffa’s Nalaga’at Center.
(photo credit: EREZ KAGANOVITZ)
Ten years ago, while Erez Kaganovitz was backpacking around the world following his IDF military service, he was disheartened by the reactions from people when they discovered he was Israeli.
“Most of the people I met didn’t realize I was Israeli because of my accent, and after five minutes of conversation, they would ask the million-dollar question: ‘Where are you from?’” Kaganovitz said on Sunday.
“And when I told them I was from Israel, you could see how their facial expressions would change,” he said. “Then they would say, ‘Isn’t that the place where people are being blown up all the time and you are at perpetual war with your neighbors?’”
“There were a lot of misconceptions about Israel, and I was really frustrated and annoyed,” Kaganovitz said. “And I remember thinking I wish I could take them there to show them what it’s really like to change those misconceptions.”
Inspired by the wildly popular photoblog and book series Humans of New York that features street portraits and interviews with random New Yorkers, Kaganovitz, 36, who is a photojournalist, said he had a “eureka moment,” and sought to do the same for Tel Aviv.
Five years later, he founded Humans of Tel Aviv, which documents the lives of a cross-section of Tel Aviv residents he regularly encounters on the street.
“I take their picture, conduct a short interview and post their story on social media,” he said. “My goal is to give people around the world an inside look into the rich and remarkably diverse lives of Tel Avivians and showcase Israeli multiculturalism and vibrant civil society.”
Humans of Tel Aviv has grown exponentially since then, reaching some 500,000 people a month on social media, including tens of thousands from the Arab world, according to Kaganovitz.
“What I love most about this project is that I can reach people in a way that I’m not forcing my ideas upon others, but rather simply taking a photo, telling a story and letting it speak for itself,” he said.
Encouraged by the international response to demystifying a misunderstood people, Kaganovitz said he decided to collaborate with Jaffa’s Nalaga’at Center, Israel’s only cultural center that employs blind, deaf and blind-deaf people and which is now celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Nalaga’at, which means “please touch,” was initially the world’s only theater company exclusively for deaf-blind actors born primarily with Usher’s Syndrome, a debilitating disorder that results in deafness at birth and total blindness by mid-adolescence.
Nalaga’at has since grown into a thriving cultural center that features regular theater performances and workshops designed to create dialogue with the general public. It is also home to the popular Blackout Restaurant, where diners are served in complete darkness by a deaf and blind wait staff.
“The goal was to take art, culture and education as a platform for dialogue with people with disabilities – many of whom don’t have enough opportunities for dialogue with the general public,” said Roey Yamin, head of the center’s development and international relations. “Usually they live in their own communities, which are unfortunately separated from the general public,” he said. “So we took art, theater and workshops and the restaurant as a way to create a platform for dialogue between the artists’ and the audience.
“The idea was to use the power of art to create awareness by allowing people with disabilities to share their life experiences and how they see the world. And today we are very, very proud that we have reached our 10th year, with shows now all over the world.”
Sixty-five of the center’s 100 employees are blind, deaf, or deaf-blind men and women who have entertained, served and participated in dialogue workshops with more than 800,000 visitors.
Limor Markus, a deaf producer, said while she has no difficulties communicating in the online world via email and WhatsApp, she has to utilize her “sixth sense” as a lip reader in the “offline world,” which in Israel, she explained, can be challenging.
“In Israel, it’s more complicated to decipher what people are saying, because Israelis usually speak very fast and they tend to speak with their hands all over the place,” she said. “So sometimes they are covering their mouth and then you find yourself thinking: ‘What the hell are they trying to say?’”
Markus, who has worked in multiple productions and inter-dialogue workshops, offered tips for communicating with deaf people. “When you are speaking to a hearing-impaired person, please talk slowly, be patient and remember that by doing so you help us understand what you’re saying,” she said.
“Please help us keep our communications channels open,” Markus added. “It will make us feel that we are part of society and not just a burden.”
Amjad Ibrahim, a deaf usher and actor who is rapidly losing his sight due to Usher’s Syndrome, said a common misconception about people with disabilities is that they should only date one another.
“The fact that two people share a disability doesn’t make them a perfect match. And in a relationship, you need more than that,” he said, noting his girlfriend, Nadia, has full hearing. “Nadia, the love of my life, is living proof of that. She can hear perfectly, and for the past 15 years we have been together.”
“In the beginning, I didn’t even think that we could be together, but... after a while, she asked me: ‘How do you say I love you?’ It didn’t cross my mind that she’s asking to know that because she loves me. But a few seconds later she told me that in sign language,” Ibrahim said.
To celebrate the Nalaga’at Center’s 10th anniversary, Kaganovitz has published five interviews on Humans of Tel Aviv’s Facebook page that feature disabled employees, including Markus and Ibrahim, to educate the public about an often marginalized population.
“Just like people didn’t understand Israelis, they don’t understand people with disabilities,” he said. “I hope this will help create a dialogue.”