A group of young Israelis sat in a bar and chatted excitedly with each other as they waited for the performer to take the stage, but not a sound was heard. This was the kickoff event for SignTalkers, a new social networking website for deaf people to interact online created by the US-based SignTalk Foundation.
The headliner was Douglas Ridloff, a deaf performer from the New York who was in Israel to promote the project and meet with others in the signing community. The event was co-sponsored by the International Young Israel Movement, which hosts a series of programs for the deaf and hearing-impaired.
Poetry slams and performance pieces can sometimes be noisy affairs, but although silence pervaded the Nocturno Cafe in downtown Jerusalem, the man on stage was as expressive as any other artist. With facial expressions and hand gestures, Ridloff recited poetry and told his personal story of struggle. The packed crowd, a mix of hearing and non-hearing people, enthusiastically applauded him by waving their hands back and forth in an upright movement.
Portions of his performance were interpreted by a member of the SignTalk team with a microphone from the back. but Ridloff requested that much of the show be without a voice-over. One didn’t need to know sign language to laugh at the jokes, as he described what it was like to arrive in Israel, visit the Western Wall and meet other deaf people.
One also didn’t need to know American Sign Language in particular to appreciate the performance, as Ridloff frequently interacted with his new deaf Israeli friends in the audience. He asked them to teach him the sign for certain Hebrew words in Israeli Sign Language, which differs from other dialects and invited volunteers to join him on stage. The young deaf Israelis were equally as entertaining as they expressed themselves as prompted by Ridloff in a series of fun interactive skits.
Fighting zombies in sign language
Ridloff has toured America, Norway, Sweden, Jamaica and now Israel with his message. The father of two is married to Lauren Ridloff, who is currently in the popular series The Walking Dead. When not fighting zombies on TV, Ridloff advocates for the deaf community.
She got her start doing webinars for the SignTalk Foundation. Ridloff later went on to star in Children of a Lesser God, a Broadway play about a romantic relationship between a hearing and deaf woman. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance and is scheduled to participate in a Disney project in the future.
Ridloff introduced her husband via video for the Jerusalem performance.
Bar mitzvah blues
Ridloff spoke to In Jerusalem before the performance about his experiences.
“Deaf people connect to each other immediately, through facial expressions and body movement, so it’s easier for us to connect,” he said in sign language as an interpreter stood by. He explained that he uses both American Sign Language and International Sign Language, which includes elements of European Sign Language.
He also participated in a bar and bat mitzvah experience for deaf Israelis. He reminisced about his own bar mitzvah, which he described as an “immense struggle.”
He described meeting a rabbi together with his brother, who is not hearing impaired.
“I sat there and they were using Hebrew, while I didn’t understand anything,” Ridloff said. “My mother found a hearing rabbi who knew some sign language but he was not skilled,” he related. “I was able to somewhat communicate and learn a little bit of Hebrew, but it was just memorization,” he said.
“We’ve all had these similar experiences and obstacles,” Ridloff explained, and that’s what makes him able to connect to others experiencing language barriers.
Inspiring ceremony at Western Wall
Despite his own bar mitzvah struggles in the past, he joined over 100 deaf and hearing-impaired children for a bar and bat mitzvah celebration at the Western Wall earlier in the day. While there, a stranger tied a red string on Ridloff’s arm, a common occurrence at the Jerusalem holy site, which he kept during his performance.
The traditional coming-of-age ceremony, which takes place for boys at the age of 13 and girls at the age of 12, was sponsored by IYIM’s Judaism Heritage Program for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired.
IYIM executive director Daniel Meyer was present at both the Western Wall celebration and Ridloff’s performance that evening. He stated, “The message of this ceremony is that every child in Israel deserves to be counted and to celebrate in a way that respects their specific needs and interests.”
Also in attendance at the Wall was Jewish Agency chairman Issac Herzog who called the ceremony “a deeply emotional one for all of us.” He added it was important for people with disabilities to also partake in tradition.
Origins of signtalk
The struggle for maintaining a connection to community despite disability was not lost on Dr. Joseph Geliebter, founder and executive director of SignTalk Foundation. He spoke with The Jerusalem Post just before Ridloff took the stage.
“It’s like the invention of the telegram bridged the east and west of the United States,” Geliebter said as deaf patrons chatted in sign behind him in the cafe. “We are trying to connect, intercontinentally and we chose Israel as the first country to connect these communities.”
Started 22 years ago in New York, SignTalk has high hopes for their new SignTalkers social network. “This could transcend languages, and hopefully unite different cultures,” Geliebter explained. “The site has difference ‘lounges’ where you can share your interests with others,” he said.
He praised Ridloff’s stage presence as “going beyond sign language, it’s expressive, artistic, it’s poetry of the hands.”
He is also proud of Ridloff’s actress wife Lauren who did SignTalk’s first webinars. An unknown school teacher at the time, Geliebter was excited for her recent success. He related when SignTalk gave her a special award last year, “it was one of the most enriching experiences I ever had.” He said afterward, Ridloff sent him a card that read, “Thank you for everything you do on behalf of the signing community.” Geliebter noted, “She didn’t say deaf community,” indicating that it transcended whether or not one could hear.
Greater acceptance for disabled community
In previous generations, those with a disability has scant opportunities for education let alone a bar or bat mitzvah.
“We’ve come a long way,” stated Geliebter. “There are so many more sign language services at synagogues. There is a yeshiva in Toronto that uses sign,” he said referring to the Yeshiva Nefesh Dovid – Jewish Deaf Community Center. “It’s a different world, but there still can be more.”
He added, “Israel is head and shoulders above any other country in the region.”
Ridloff perhaps sums it up best when trying to inspire the next generation.
“I teach the kids that they can grow and that signing is cool. You, too, can express yourself.”
He added, “I feel like I am throwing out seeds and scattering them all over, and now I am watering them. Some will grow and blossom with beautiful flowers,” he stated, as he lifted his arm and spread his fingers. “Others will grow and then wilt, and some will never grow.”
But what’s important, he explained, is, “I am still trying and throwing out those seeds, and will keep on watering them.”
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